DWP quietly confirms ATOS isn’t working after all

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.
People with disabilities

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.

 

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Press Release from Sheila Gilmore: Edinburgh Labour MPs visit Waverley in campaign against East Coast privatisation

19 July 2013 – for immediate use

  • Sheila Gilmore, Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray speak to passengers and staff
  • MPs joined by members of the public, trade unionists and Councillors

20130719_115423

Edinburgh Labour MPs Sheila Gilmore, Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray today continued their campaign against the privatisation of East Coast with a visit to Waverley Station.

While handing out leaflets and speaking to passengers outside the station, the group were joined by members of the public, trade unionists and Councillors, including newly elected Liberton/Gilmerton Councillor Keith Robson. Afterwards the MPs were shown East Coast’s operation at Waverley, where they got the opportunity to speak to East Coast staff about the improvements that have been delivered in recent years.

Speaking afterwards Sheila Gilmore said:

It was good to talk to East Coast staff about the improvements to services that East Coast have made under public ownership over the last four years. When speaking to passengers I also emphasised that at present all profits are retained for public benefit, rather than lost to shareholders.

The decision to privatise East Coast puts this at risk and shows that David Cameron and his Ministers put ideology before the needs of passengers and taxpayers.

Mark Lazarowicz said:

East Coast has achieved success under public operation, receiving less subsidy than any of the other 18 private franchises and paying back more to the taxpayer than all but one.

It has done that with no certainty about how long it would continue to remain in public hands. Ministers should now drop their plans for privatisation to give East Coast stability so it can plan for for the future.

Ian Murray said:

The East Coast line has performed much better in the public sector than being privately operated. It has returned resources to the public purse and that progress is best continued in public ownership. Travellers and the tax payer deserve nothing less.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • After privatisation intercity services on the East Coast Main Line were run by GNER from 1996 to 2007, and then by National Express until they broke their contract in 2009.
  • Since then services have been run by East Coast, a subsidiary of Directly Operated Railways (DOR), a train operating company wholly owned by the Department for Transport.
  • As with operators of other profitable franchises, East Coast is expected to make premium payments to the Treasury, and it has returned over £640 million over the last four years.
  • In addition all profits – totalling over £40 million over four years – are reinvested in the service rather than paid out in dividends to shareholders.
  • In 2011 East Coast introduced a new timetable involving:
  • 19 additional services each day, some to new destinations including Lincoln and Harrogate, equating to an extra 3 million more seats per year;
  • Faster journeys, with a daily 4 hour service between Edinburgh and London.
  • A revamped First Class service;
  • In late 2012 East Coast achieved the best punctuality on the line since records began in 1999 with 93.3% of trains arriving within 10 minutes of their scheduled arrival time.
  • Please see additional photos from today’s visit here and here.
  • For more information please contact David Raine, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 0131 661 7522 or david.raine@parliament.uk.
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Evening News article: Cheap promises won’t help housing

Yesterday I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News following the SNP’s announcement on the Right to Buy. I have reproduced it in full below.

As the SNP reveals an end to right to buy, Sheila Gilmore says investment is needed now across Scotland

THE announcement from the Scottish Government that the right to buy council and housing association homes will end has been greeted as another sign that policy is diverging between Scotland and England, and of how much more radical the SNP claims to be.

But it’s a cheap promise, and will do little to help Scotland’s immediate housing crisis. As is often the case with the Scottish Government, what sounds attractive on the surface isn’t quite what it seems.

Changes in right to buy started in 2002 under the Labour/Lib Dem administration when discounts for new tenants – including existing tenants moving home – were substantially reduced. In the 2010 Housing Act, right to buy was ended for all new tenants.

Right to buy sales have fallen steadily since 2002-3 when 18,975 council and housing association homes were sold. In 2011-12, only 1520 homes were sold in the whole of Scotland. In Edinburgh, only 87 council homes were sold in 2010-11.

If none of those 1520 homes had been sold that doesn’t translate into homes available for rent to the many people seeking council or hosing association homes. Most people buy because they like and want to stay in their home. If unable to buy that home, very few will buy elsewhere and move on, not least because it is the discounts – especially the un-modernised pre-2002 discounts) – which, for most, make buying possible at all.

Now doubtless Scottish ministers will say that stemming the loss of properties has to start somewhere and that eventually stock will be retained in this way. But it won’t do much for those currently living in expensive private rented homes, with friends and family, or in temporary accommodation. And given it is supposed to be about helping those unable to get a council or housing association home, why the delay until 2017?

The vision of the Tories in the 1980s was that right to buy would create a “home-owning democracy”, which would be conservative too in its politics. The latter didn’t happen, at least it didn’t in Scotland nor in the north of England, but some of the initial effects of right to buy were quite positive for individuals, many of whom acquired a financial asset for the first time, and for communities. Most of those who bought wanted to stay, and took steps to improve their properties, and felt they had a strong stake in their 
communities.

However, the wheel has turned again, and although when ex-right to buy homes eventually come on the market they are sometimes bought by a new generation of first-time buyers, in the last ten years in particular there has been a rapid growth of private letting in these areas. In some ex-council estates there are individuals who have built up a considerable portfolio of 40 to 50 properties.

This is changing communities in a way people often feel is for the worse. Private tenancies are usually short term so people have less stake in the community. People feel they no longer know their neighbours. For would-be tenants it doesn’t come cheap. In Edinburgh, private lets were 22 per cent of all homes in 2009 compared with 11 per cent in 1991, and have grown even more in the last four years. This compares with 15 per cent being council or housing association homes in 2009.

The increasing size of the private rented sector has been an important factor in driving up the total size of the housing benefit budget because, for many people in low paid jobs or who are not in work, private lets would not be possible without the existence of housing benefit. If the SNP really wants to tackle the issue of housing shortage real investment is needed in new build and in buying ex-council stock to help find people affordable homes now – not in five to ten years’ time.

Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East and a former housing convener on the city council.

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Stop the East Coast privatisation: Leafleting at Waverley Steps at 10.30 on Friday 19 July

Stop the East Coast Privatisation smallAlong with trade unionists, councillors and my fellow Edinburgh MPs Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray, I’m going to be leafleting and speaking to passengers at the Waverley Steps, Princess Street, Edinburgh at 10.30am on Friday 19 July. I hope also to visit East Coast’s office at Waverley and meet staff to talk about the Government’s plans. If you’d like to join us for the leafleting session then please send me an email at sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk. If you do come along its important to note that we won’t be allowed to leaflet or speak to passengers in the station itself or its entrances.

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Bedroom Tax: SNP should stop blaming Westminster and come up with solutions

Today I’ve written for LabourHame on what the SNP Scottish Government could do to alleviate the worst excesses of the Bedroom Tax. I’ve reproduced the piece in full below.

Earlier today I did an interview on the Bedroom Tax on Good Morning Scotland. I explained that the policy is both unfair, but also unworkable, because of the lack of alternative smaller housing for those affected.

In the week beginning the 17th of June there were 23 one bedroom homes available for let in Edinburgh. The lowest number applications for any one property was 45. Several properties attracted between 100 and 200 applications, and four over 200. Even if all those affected by the Bedroom Tax got priority (which they don’t) that would prevent the many single applicants with no house from securing any accommodation at all. Many in this group live in more expensive temporary accommodation or in the private rented sector and, if eligible for Housing Benefit, will be costing the Government more than is saved if those who are allegedly ‘under-occupying’ are moved!

One way the SNP Scottish Government could help is to put more money into new-build housing. But the reality is that starts of council and housing association housing are DOWN by half over the last four years. Completions obviously lag behind starts, so Scottish Government figures below paint a bleak picture for the next couple of years:

Social Housing starts and completions

New-build has the additional advantage of creating jobs in construction. But as both the public and private housing markets still slow, we can expect continuing high unemployment among building workers in the next couple of years.

Another option for resolving some of the most acute problems would be for councils like Edinburgh to buy properties on the market where costs are no higher than new build. In many parts of the city such properties are being sold into the private rented sector and often being occupied by people who need and want the security of a low rent council or housing association property. For many, including many in low paid work, this means higher Housing Benefit payments going out.

It is not enough just to blame Westminster. It is time for the Scottish Government to come up with solutions.

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