A benefits assessor who was caught on film mocking disabled claimants of personal independence payments and suggesting they were liars has been found guilty of misconduct by a professional standards tribunal.
Alan Barham, a paramedic who carried out PIP assessments for Capita in Northampton, brought his profession into disrepute and undermined public confidence in the integrity of the PIP assessment process, a health and care professions disciplinary panel found.
It issued a five-year caution order, meaning any prospective employer will have access to details of the case on an online professional register for that period.
Barham was covertly filmed by a Channel 4 undercover journalist. Footage showed him boasting that he would largely complete assessment forms before meeting the claimant, and afterwards would often disregard the evidence they gave during their assessment.
He told the reporter he would “completely dismiss” claimants’ explanations for why they needed disability benefit, and rely instead on his own “informal observations” to “catch them out”.
The disciplinary panel said his comments about catching out claimants “portrayed him as holding the view that many claimants were liars, which was totally at odds with an independent assessment process into whether a claim was valid or not”.
Barham also mocked a disabled claimant, telling the undercover reporter that her disability was “being fat”.
“She asks for help to wipe her arse because she’s too f****** fat to do it herself,” he said.
The Health and Care Professions Council summoned Barham to the tribunal after several members of the public filed complaints about his conduct following the broadcast of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme in April 2016.
PIP assessments, which determine a claimant’s eligibility for financial help, have proved controversial. Critics argue that the process is crude and inaccurate, and many assessors are not properly qualified. About 65% of appeals against a PIP assessment decision are successful.
Formerly known as disability living allowance, PIP is awarded to help people with the extra costs of living with a disability or chronic ill health. It is worth between £22 and £141.10 a week, depending on the severity of the condition.
In coming to a verdict of misconduct, the disciplinary panel said: “The impact of [Barham’s] portrayal in the programme was that the public saw a disability assessor who lacked empathy and respect for the vulnerable claimants he was assessing, and who did not act in their best interests.
“In the panel’s view, it is paramount that the public is able to trust the integrity of the PIP assessment process. Individual claimants as well as the general public need to have confidence that the disability assessors carry out the PIP assessments in a fair and sensitive manner, respecting the dignity of the claimants and having regard to the sensitive nature of the personal and medical information provided.”
Barham told the panel that at the time he was filmed by Dispatches, he had become arrogant and big-headed. He had been lauded by Capita for the high percentage of excellent reports he produced and was well paid. He had allowed all this to “go to his head”.
He joined Capita in 2014 after 11 years in the ambulance service as an emergency medical technician and paramedic. He was dismissed by Capita after the programme aired.
The panel said that although Barham’s behaviour was not sufficient to warrant being struck off the professional register, and this was an isolated incident for which he had shown remorse, taking no action would have sent out the wrong message to the public.
Although the caution order will not prevent Barham from practising as a paramedic, the panel said it did not regard it as a lenient sanction, because it would negatively affect his employability and reputation.
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