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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

DWP takes to the West End stage

The farce that is the Department of Work and Pension took centre stage again yesterday when civil servants and Ministers took the decision to stop outsourcing company Atos from carrying out repeat assessments on people currently claiming work-related disability benefits without telling anybody.

An internal memorandum told the department’s staff to leave all current employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants on their benefit, without repeat medical checks, until another company can be found to do work capability assessments (WCAs). However,  'as this is an operational decision and not a policy decision, MPs and claimants do not need to be told'.

The Independent says that the Benefits and Work website reported that it obtained the memo via a Freedom of Information request:

According to their report the memo reads: “The number of cases currently with Atos Healthcare has grown. A decision has therefore been taken to control the referral of repeat work capability assessments. Therefore, with effect from 20 January 2014, further routine repeat assessments referrals to Atos will be deferred until further notice.

“Controlling the volume of repeat Work Capability Assessments should help us to reduce delays for new claimants and those that have already been referred.”

It goes on to explain that they are not stopping referrals due to “quality issues” but because of the backlog of cases. People who are receiving ESA will continue to receive it until another company can be found to carry out the work. Claimants who experience a change in condition, for example a worsening illness, should still be referred for reassessment. New claimants being moved onto ESA will still be reassessed. The memo notes that because this is an “operational decision” and not a “policy change” MPs and claimants do not need to be told.

What is particularly interesting about this episode is that Disability Minister Mike Penning has at last, acknowledged that the contract with Atos is a “mess”.  The paper says that the DWP itself has had to disagree with 158,300 decisions made by Atos that people were ‘fit for work’ when the department ascertained they were not .

A further 600,000 people have appealed against decisions made by the government to cut their benefits. Of that number nearly 60% have been successful. Atos itself is now saying that it wants to pull out of the contract early because of the death threats being made against its staff.

The question arises as to why a Government department is employing a company to make expert medical assessments and then disagreeing with their decision. In my experience many of the successful appeals have come about because of the DWP overruling Atos rather than because of Atos itself.

The existing contract was set up by the previous Labour Government and continued by Ministers in the present government. It has never been fit for purpose.

Now, we have a chance to get it right, provided that those setting the terms of any new agreement can look beyond the goal of just saving money and instead aim to bring some fairness to the system.
'The Farce that is the DWP' ..no truer words spoken and God help the poor souls who have to come before them
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