Disability benefits assessments are still failing disabled people with “too many assessments” failing to meet acceptable performance standards, according to a damning new report (pdf) from the Public Accounts Committee.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) welcomed reductions in backlogs and delays for claimants, but expressed “particular concerns” about the quality of assessments carried out by private contractors, most notably in regard to the assessment of people with fluctuating and mental health conditions.
MPs from the cross-party committee heard evidence from charities and campaigners, including the Disability Benefits Consortium and MIND, as well as the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
Assessments for Employment and Support Allowance are carried by the private firm Maximus, after the private firm Atos pulled out of a £500 million contract in 2014. Atos and Capita are responsible for Personal Independence Payment assessments.
The committee’s report found “serious failings” and unacceptable local and regional variations in contractor performance, with poor transparency meaning claimants “do not have a clear expectation of the service they can expect”.
Concerns were raised over whether the assessments offered value for money as costs rise, finding “there has been no noticeable benefit for claimants or taxpayers”.
According to the report, the DWP “have repeatedly misjudged what contractors can deliver and the uncertainties underlying what can be achieved”, whilst adding that the poor quality of assessments could present a further risk to value for money if other potential providers are put off from bidding for contracts.
The committee called on the DWP to makes significant progress in making the assessment process “easier for claimants and ensure it has well-trained, knowledgeable assessors who are sensitive to the complex issues that claimants are dealing with”.
PAC also called for “a more complete and effective regime for monitoring and improving the quality of assessments”, to better ensure that contractors meet required standards in benefit assessment reports sent to the DWP.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said: “The troubled history of this programme hammers home the importance of getting contracts right—and the importance of then holding contractors properly to account.
“In this case, poor performance has had a tangible human impact. We have seen some improvements but there is a long way to go before people being assessed can be confident of getting the service they deserve.
“Our Committee heard evidence of the assessment process continuing to create anxiety for claimants; of double-booked appointments and arduous journey times.
“Some assessors simply do not understand particular medical conditions.
“Up to one in five reports sampled by contractors were below the required standard and there is also evidence that attempts to reduce delays have undermined the quality of assessments, many of which are subsequently overturned on appeal.
“These are serious failings that must be dealt with rigorously.
“We will expect to see evidence of a more enlightened approach to the needs of claimants, greater transparency over contractor performance and a renewed focus on improving the quality of assessments.”
Owen Smith MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “The evidence is now increasingly overwhelming that the Tories are badly letting down disabled people.
“This report yet again highlights very serious concerns about the way assessments are carried out and the value they provide to taxpayers, which is why Labour continues to call for a complete overhaul of the process, with disabled people put at the centre of both the redesign and monitoring of a new system. Yet the Tories have stubbornly opposed these proposals time and again.
“Stephen Crabb has an opportunity to start turning the page on the Tories’ terrible record on policies impacting on disabled people.
“He urgently needs to grasp it and should start by listening to Labour and overhauling the assessments system and cancelling the damaging cuts to ESA that will take over £1,500 a year from nearly half a million disabled people.
“If he fails to do so we can conclude that a change of management at the DWP will do nothing to alter the callous way of operating.”
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Failures by companies delivering health and disability benefit assessments are stopping people from getting the support they need.
“Poor performance by companies carrying out medical assessments means many sick and disabled people are facing issues such as delays, difficulties getting to test centres and assessment outcomes which do not reflect the day to day challenges they face as a result of their health condition.
“For many people who are disabled or living with a long term health condition, benefits such as Personal Independence Payments and the Employment and Support Allowance are essential for everyday living costs as well as the extra expenses they can face.
“Problems with assessments not only cause unnecessary stress but can also undermine people’s financial security and jeopardise their ability to stay in or return to work.
“Citizens Advice evidence shows there is a particular problem around assessments for people with fluctuating conditions, such as mental health problems or multiple sclerosis.
“Companies responsible for health and disability benefit assessments need to make sure their staff have the right levels of training to understand these conditions, in order to reduce numbers of inaccurate assessments.
“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must also ensure that pressure on volumes of cases does not impact on quality. While it’s good that this has lead to fewer delays we are concerned it has come at the expense of the quality of assessments and the treatment of claimants.
“The DWP needs to work closely with assessment providers to ensure a swift yet accurate assessment process which primarily delivers for people ”
A DWP spokesperson said: “As highlighted in this report, we have made good progress to improve health and disability assessments; greatly reducing the backlog and cutting waiting times.
“But we know there is more to do and remain committed to working with our providers to ensure claimants get the best possible level of service, and taxpayers the best value for money.”