Stop disability benefits ‘fiasco’, ministers told

Thousands forced to rely on loans and charity, finds damning report

Thousands of vulnerable people have suffered pain, distress and penury because of blunders made by the Government during the launch of a key disability reform, a devastating report warns today. MPs denounced the introduction of the personal independence payment (PIP) as a “fiasco” which had resulted in a huge backlog of claims and lengthy delays over decisions.

Many people have had to wait six months for a decision on their claim, the MPs said, with even the terminally ill facing an average four-week delay. Some claimants were forced to turn to food banks, apply for loans or rely on charity handouts to survive, the committee said.

They pinned the blame for the chaos on Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), accusing it of making basic mistakes ahead of last year’s launch. Eligibility to qualify for the payments, which have replaced disability living allowance (DLA), is assessed by medics employed by private companies. The benefit is intended to help the disabled to live independently and, in some cases, go to work. The Commons Public Accounts Committee said the DWP had failed to pilot the scheme adequately, with disastrous results when it was rolled out nationwide.

They reported “shocking personal stories”, including one person hospitalised with the stress caused by the wait for a decision and another who could not afford a special diet for gastric and diabetes problems until the cash arrived.

Margaret Hodge, the committee’s chair, said: “The implementation of PIPs has been nothing short of a fiasco. The DWP has let down some of the most vulnerable in our society.”

Condemning the standard of service from the department and its contractors, the MPs said assessors had failed to turn up after claimants had travelled to assessment centres, or had cancelled home visits at the last moment.

Payments were due to begin in parts of the North of England from April 2013, but only 360 assessments had been completed when the programme was launched nationally two months later. In October the department began the process of reassessing the 1.7 million DLA claimants. At that point the DWP had reached only one-sixth of the decisions it had expected to have made.

The MPs said a pilot programme “could have avoided the distress and lack of support brought about by the delays”.

The committee also accused Atos, one of the companies carrying out the assessments, of supplying “incorrect and potentially misleading” information when bidding for the work. In a tender document in 2012 it stated it had “contractual agreements” with 56 NHS hospitals, 25 private hospitals and more than 650 physiotherapy centres – a claim which turned out “not to be true”, the committee said.

Steve Ford, chief executive of Parkinson’s UK, said the move to PIP had been “utterly shambolic”. He said: “To leave so many with the uncertainty of whether they will be able to meet the mounting costs of their disability is nothing short of a disgrace.

“These delays are leaving many people with Parkinson’s struggling to heat their homes and pay their bills and the stress of waiting for a decision only serves to make their condition worse.”

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said PIP was the “financial lifeline that disabled people rely on” and the long delays had “brought into sharp focus how tough it is to make ends meet if you are disabled”.

Mike Penning, the minister for disabled people, said: “The old DLA system was extremely outdated, with the majority of claimants getting the benefit for life without systematic checks on their condition.

“New PIPs include a face-to-face assessment and regular reviews to ensure support goes to those who need it most.

“The PAC report is based on old statistics. I have introduced a faster process for people with terminal illnesses, with clearance times reducing to our target of 10 days. And a higher proportion of people are getting the highest rate of financial support for daily living under PIP than DLA.”

Kate Green, the shadow disability minister, said: “This scathing criticism of the Government’s chaotic handling of PIP leaves serious questions about competence at the DWP.” She said the current backlog could take up to 42 years to clear if work continued at its present rate.

An Atos Healthcare spokesperson said: “The Department made clear that they were not misinformed during the tender process, that at the point of go live they knew our capacity, our partners and the number of centres we would be using. We completely refute any allegation of misinformation during the procurement process for Personal Independence Payment. Not only have we written to the Committee to clarify our position but we invited the National Audit Office in to scrutinise our documentation.
 
“That we could not have binding contracts in place before we signed a contract with the DWP is simply common sense and in no way misleading. What we did have were detailed written proposals from the suppliers.”

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