The Government has been warned that replacing Atos, the company which assesses whether the sick and disabled are fit for work, will not solve “fundamental flaws” in their treatment by the benefits system.
In a scathing report published today, MPs said that merely "rebranding" the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and appointing a new contractor would not help the many claimants who have been badly treated.
Atos is to pull out of its contract early after its staff were “vilified” over the work capability assessments the company carries out for the Government. But the cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee said Atos had become "a lightning rod" for negativity about ESA itself. It urged ministers to take the opportunity of Atos’s withdrawal to "fundamental redesign" ESA.
Dame Anne Begg, the committee’s Labour chairman, said: “It is the Department of Work and Pensions that makes the decision about a claimant’s eligibility for ESA – the face-to-face assessment is only one part of the process. Just putting a new private provider in place will not address the problems with ESA and the work capability assessment on its own. The current system is clearly causing claimants considerable distress and anxiety.”
She said the new contractor could be paid more for providing a better service and should face immediate penalties if standards are not met. “Unnecessary and too frequent reassessments should also be avoided,” she said.
People found “fit for work” are ineligible for ESA. Claimants found to be unable to undertake any work-related activity are placed in a “support group”, where they do not have to prepare for work in return for their benefit. But the committee said this regime leaves a large and disparate middle group of claimants who are not yet fit for work, and may even have a deteriorating condition, but who are still required to undertake activity to help them find work in the longer term.
The MPs called for support to be tailored more closely to individual circumstances. They said ESA is not properly joined up with employment support because an health-related barriers to working are not properly assessed.
Rosanna Singler, co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, said the “fit for work” test had had a devastating impact on the lives of the disabled since its introduction six years ago. “Some people have have ended up with very little money to live on because the test hasn’t recognised they cannot work. Others have ended up in pain and under severe stress during the test process. It is heartening to hear the committee say that it isn’t just that Atos is doing the tests badly – it is the test itself. Fundamentally, it is unfit for purpose,” she said.
Mark Harper, the Minister for Disabled People, said: "We are bringing in a new provider and a new contract for work capability assessments to deliver the best possible service for claimants, increase the number of assessments and reduce waiting times. More than 700,000 people who were on Incapacity Benefit are now looking for, or making steps to return to work after a work capability assessment - it is crucial that we continue this important process to ensure that people are not written off and we get a fair deal for the taxpayer."