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Disabled people are trapped in assessment 'nightmare' by benefits regime, says Dr Stephen Duckworth

The head of the testing scheme at outsourcers Capita  – who is disabled himself – reveals his worries about the ‘dire consequences’ of the current system

Disabled people are being trapped in an “assessment nightmare” by routinely undergoing a barrage of evaluations under the current benefits regime, with dangerous impacts on their health and personal lives, the chief of a major welfare testing scheme has warned.

Dr Stephen Duckworth, head of the assessments scheme run by contracting firm Capita, which tests people applying for Personal Independence Payments in many parts of the country, told The Independent: “Sadly disabled people’s lives have become filled with assessments and I think the consequences of this are pretty dire.”

The PIP scheme is being phased in to replace Disability Living Allowance, a non-means tested benefit designed to help with the extra costs of living with a long-term health condition.

It has proved deeply controversial, however, taking some people more than six months to find out if they are eligible for the payments – causing “severe stress and uncertainty”, according to an official report by MPs last month.

Dr Duckworth, who is himself disabled, serves as chief executive of Capita PIP, which is overseeing the roll-out of the benefits system in the Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland. He said the evaluation process was adding to a wider culture of prejudice, particularly in the workplace.

“When it comes to recruitment, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is discrimination taking place,” he said in an interview. “In the corporate setting, women sometimes argue there’s a glass ceiling that means they can’t get through into the boardroom – but for disabled people lucky enough to be in employment, they often remain on the ‘sticky floor’.

“There’s often little career advancement, they enter a job and stay in that job and can’t go any further.” Dr Duckworth, who has been confined to a wheelchair for over three decades after fracturing his spine during rugby training when he was 21, has faced some vitriolic criticism from sections of the disabled community for his involvement with PIP – with opponents to the scheme claiming that up to 600,000 people will lose out on vital support, partly through alterations in eligibility criteria.

Under PIP, only those unable to walk a distance of 20 metres will qualify for the Higher Rate Mobility component. This shift away from the former standard benchmark in assessing severely limited mobility of 50 metres means that in future many highly compromised individuals will no longer receive support they have previously relied on.

PIP has also added to wider concerns about disability benefits, with the Government saying last month that it would be seeking a new contractor to replace Atos in carrying out the separate Work Capability Assessments, or “fit-to-work” tests, after the firm became widely reviled within the community for lengthy waiting times and wrongly saying people are ready for employment. Dr Duckworth has faced abuse for working on PIP, with one web forum member calling him “Judas”, while he was dubbed “Capita’s flagship supercrip” on Twitter.

However, Dr Duckworth said he was well aware of the worrying impact benefits assessments can have – and said his firm is committed to disabled people filling half its management team to ensure they fully understand the pressures involved. “Assessments can be a stressful and difficult experience for claimants. We know that prior to an assessment there’s a tendency to worry and focus on health problems, which makes them seem bigger, that’s just human nature,” he said.

“PIP assessments may be followed by a Social Care Assessment, Work Capability Assessment and perhaps one for a blue badge. It becomes one assessment after another and people end up getting stuck at home with nothing to do other than focus on their problems.”

Dr Duckworth said the Government should make an effort to reduce the burden placed on the disabled by repeated assessments.

“There are decisions that politicians can take to change things,” he said. “We could, for example, have one assessment in which 80 per cent of the information across Social Care, PIP and the Work Capability Assessment, which is ultimately mostly the same information, could be captured. At the present moment, a disabled person has to share this three times with three different people.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “We will continue to work with disabled people... to assess what improvements we could consider to refine our processes. We have committed to at least two independent reviews of the PIP assessment.”