For months the Department for Work and Pensions were insistent that the critics of the Work Capability Assessment – and ATOS in particular –were wrong; the Department instead said the system was gradually improving.
Now, one working day into the Westminster recess, the Department allows a major about turn to slip out. After years of condemnation from campaigners, charities and MPs, the DWP has finally admitted that the quality of some of the ATOS work is so poor that staff are going to have to be retrained and monitored more thoroughly. And, because the problem is endemic ATOS will be losing its monopoly of carrying out these assessments, with other providers picking up the slack.
Had this come out last week my colleagues and I would have been demanding that Iain Duncan Smith come to answer an Urgent Question on the matter in the Commons. But because MPs are on recess back in their constituencies, that hasn’t happened.
It turns out that while IDS and his employment minister Mark Hoban were telling MPs that all was well, they had in fact commissioned an urgent audit of ATOS in May because of concerns that an earlier smaller audit had thrown up.
We are now asked to believe that that the problem is only one part the process, not substance.
Minister Hoban now tells us that this doesn’t mean that the decisions have been wrong, rather ATOS don’t write very good reports on the individuals they are assessing. While the assessment is only part of the process of assessment, it is the DWP’s Decision Makers who wield much greater power.
But these reports establish whether or not a claim is allowed or refused. Decision Makers make their determination based on the Report they get from ATOS, and as we know, very few of ATOS’ recommendations are changed or overturned. If far too many ATOS reports are poorly written and presented, why should we have much faith in the quality of the recommendations?
ATOS will remain the sole assessor until summer 2014, and, crucially there is no word from the DWP of any financial penalty for this slapdash work. The Government has rejected suggestions that the contractor should be penalised for poor performance, all the while of course saying performance was improving making this unnecessary. Instead it appears the Government will take on more costs as PriceWaterhouseCooper will be commissioned to develop better performance management systems. Who is paying what for this? Seemingly ATOS is also bringing in a third party. Are they getting more money from the Government?
The main reason given for bringing in more providers is a ‘capacity problem’. I think this has been an issue for some time. Disability Campaigner Sue Marsh, in an excellent article in the Guardian Comment is Free, points to the huge increase in numbers being dealt with by ATOS since the migration from Incapacity Benefit started, not to forget the DWP insistence on very frequent reassessments. As Sue points out it is perhaps not surprising that quality suffers.
In the last few months I have noticed, for example, that many more decisions are being made from a paper assessment rather than a face to face interview, especially in cases where people are being migrated from Incapacity Benefit. Now given the level of stress involved and all the criticism of the face to face interviews it may seem perverse to be critical when there are fewer.
One example I had very recently was a constituent sent a form to start the reassessment. She returned this in February. She heard nothing for several months and remained anxious. When she eventually got an answer to her enquiries in June it was to be told that she had in fact been reassessed on paper and was staying in the Work Related Activity Group. No change, but months of worry. Another constituent being migrated from IB got placed in the WRAG without a face to face. She appealed and got put into the Support Group. Others are just so relieved not to lose benefit altogether, and thankful to miss out on a face to face, that they do not appeal. But it can matter. A third constituent was in this position and it was only when told that he would lose benefit altogether after 12 months (because his contributory benefit ran out, and his wife had a part time job, he would not get any ESA). He was then out of time for an appeal.
There is now a considerable detriment to being in the WRAG instead of the Support Group – a lower level of payments and the time limit on the contributory benefit. So there can be a real disadvantage if the decision is made on a cursory look at the paper application, often without seeking out any additional medical n formation. Lack of capacity leads directly into poor quality recommendations
Would ATOS have won half the contract for Personal Independence Payment assessments had all of this come to light sooner? PIP roll out to new applicants began in June so it is early days yet. Yet in some parts of the country there already appears to be capacity issues. In bidding for the contract ATOS claimed to have 22 subcontractors lined up through which they would have 750 assessment centres. Recently it emerged they had only 8 subcontractors and many fewer centres, meaning people would have to travel further.
ATOS is only a small part of what needs to be changed with the ESA system. Claimants and government need improvements in the tests through higher quality, longer assessments; a reduction in the merry-go-round of repeated testing; and a long, hard think about what real support can be provided to help those who start making a journey back towards work. The return to work should be positive experience, not the punitive test it is now.