The Government’s response has generally been to defend the process and highlight the independent review process and the recommendations that they claim to have implemented. They also point to an increase in the proportion of ESA claimants being placed in the Support Group.
However since summer 2013 the narrative has changed so that Ministers now increasingly acknowledge the ESA assessment process as an issue and blame Atos. I highlighted this change of position in a debate on the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions on 30 June 2014, saying:
Ministers want to blame anybody but themselves for this situation. Suddenly Atos is the bad guy, after years of being defended whenever Opposition Members dared to criticise it.
They also blame the previous Government, who awarded the contract to Atos in the first place. This point is particularly dubious given that the current Government renewed Atos’ contract in 2011 and awarded them the contract for Personal Independence Payment assessments in 2012, something which Minister Mike Penning tacitly acknowledged in a debate on Welfare Reform on 27 February 2014:
I am not going to say all the problems were caused by the previous Administration because, frankly, the problems with Atos and the WCA have been there for everybody to see since the general election as well.
In evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee on 10 June 2014 Mike Penning, the Minister currently responsible for ESA, admitted that 700,000 people were currently waiting for a WCA. However he since argued that this was just as much of an issue while Labour were in power – most notably at DWP Questions on 23 June 2014. I’ve examined this claim and in reality, the backlog was a mere 28,300 people in May 2010. I’ve highlighted this in a letter to Mike Penning on 3 July 2014, with which I enclosed two spreadsheets of data.
It’s also worth highlighting a Work and Pensions Select Committee session from 19 March 2012 with the Minister formerly responsible for this issue, Chris Grayling. He said:
To update you on where we are now, essentially the Incapacity Benefit reassessment is on time in terms of numbers of people assessed. I cannot remember whether it is slightly above or below but it is very close to the expected total at this stage. We have built up a backlog on new claims for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). That is, as far as we can see, due to two factors. Firstly, there has been an increase in the number of ESA claims in the last few months. Secondly, alongside that, the introduction of one part of the Harrington reforms had an unexpected impact on the amount of time it took to carry out assessments. That is the introduction of the short statement that was to be prepared by each health care practitioner to explain why they had reached the individual decisions.
For the first couple of months, this caused health care practitioners to disappear into a side room and spend about half an hour doing it, and that delayed the process. We now have that back on track. The amount of time they are taking to do the full assessment, including that paragraph, is back to what it should have been, and we are in the process of working with Atos to catch up. We are on track to catch up by the summer. So, it was an unexpected glitch that caused a backlog in new claims, but we are working very hard to sort that out. The reason for it was the personalised statement.
Essentially he said that there was a small backlog of new claims in March 2012 and that this would be cleared by the summer of the same year. Clearly this is not compatible with Mike Penning’s suggestion that the current backlog of 700,000 assessments is a continuation of a backlog that existed under Labour. And as I argued in a debate on the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions on 30 June 2014, if hypothetically there was a significant backlog from when Labour were in power, then surely Ministers should have delayed the start of Incapacity Benefit reassessments in 2011.
I’m also concerned that progress has been slow in implementing the recommendations from the independent reviews because the number of staff dealing with ESA policy in DWP has been reduced – in this PQ answer from 26 June the Minister admits that there are currently only seven members of staff dealing with ESA policy at DWP HQ, but in this answer from 3 July he refuses to reveal what this number was in the past.