Government spending on private firms carrying out 'brutal' disability benefit assessments soared by £40m in a year

Exclusive: Campaigners say amount paid to Independent Assessment Services and Capita for ‘fear-provoking and destabilising’ assessments is ‘damning’

Samuel Osborne
Monday 05 February 2018 00:31 GMT
Record millions spent on private firms carrying out PIP assessments

Private firms carrying out controversial disability assessments have received a £40m increase in funding despite widespread concerns with the system, it can be revealed.

A freedom of information request by The Independent found the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) paid Independent Assessment Services (formerly known as Atos) and Capita nearly £255m last year to perform personal independence payment (PIP) assessments – the highest amount spent on the scheme since its launch in 2013.

A senior Labour politician said the figures were “damning” and showed the Government was “rewarding failure”, while others branded PIP assessments “brutal, fear-provoking and destabilising”.

It comes after the High Court ruled the system was “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions, prompting the Government to announce it will review 1.6 million disability benefit claims. It could see up to 220,000 claimants receive higher payments.

Spending increased by 19 per cent in a year, from £214.7m in 2015-16 to £254.7m in 2016-17, figures showed. The latest available data from April-October 2017 revealed a further £145.9m spent. In total, the firms have been given £824m in government funding.

The DWP said the reason for the year-on-year increase was due to a rise in the number of assessments.

PIP was intended to replace the disability living allowance (DLA) to help pay for the extra costs of those living with a long-term health condition or disability. But the scheme has been dogged by controversy since its inception.

Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, told The Independent the Government was “rewarding failure” by increasing funding for assessments which leave “lives in tatters”.

Disability cuts: People with mental health problems left behind as benefit changes take effect

“It is damning that the Government are spending more public money on private, profit-making contractors at a time when a record 68 per cent of PIP decisions taken to tribunal are being overturned by judges.

“They are rewarding failure at a time when the assessment process is getting worse, not better.”

She said a Labour government would end the privatisation of assessments and scrap PIP and the work capability assessment.

A previous report by more than 80 organisations found 79 per cent of respondents said their assessments for PIP had made their health worse due to stress or anxiety.

It also found more than a third of those who had their funding cut said they were struggling to pay for food, rent and bills.

A small number also said the assessment process was so stressful it had caused them to have suicidal thoughts.

“Atos and Capita are profiting, quite literally, from the suffering of claimants,” Dr Jay Watts, from the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, told The Independent.

“It is difficult to communicate quite how brutal, fear-provoking and destabilising the process of constant assessment is,” the consultant clinical psychologist said. “Many claimants report feeling more traumatised by the process than anything else that has happened to them.”

Campaigners have called on the Government to look at a new approach to assessments.

Ken Butler, welfare benefits adviser at Disability Rights UK, told The Independent: “PIP is failing in a number of ways, including those who qualify for the benefit but are turned down because of poor assessments. It’s no wonder around seven out of 10 appeals are successful.

“Atos and Capita rely on healthcare professionals who are cheaper than doctors or specialists because they are commercially driven contractors. Their priority is profit, rather than what helps disabled people get the support they qualify for. It’s no surprise that occupational therapists or paramedics, for example, are wrongly assessing people with mental health conditions.

“The Government should be looking seriously at a new assessment approach, such as partnerships between qualified medical professionals and disabled people’s organisations. Until a robust assessment process is in place, PIP will remain a broken benefit, in a broken system, which fails disabled people.”

Without an “urgent overhaul” of the assessment process, “the system will continue to work against disabled people, instead of for them”, James Taylor, head of policy at disability charity Scope, said.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We’re absolutely committed to ensuring that disabled people and people with mental health conditions get the support that they need.

“PIP is a modern, dynamic and fairer benefit than the former DLA and focuses the most support on those experiencing the greatest barriers to living independently. Approximately 66 per cent of PIP recipients with mental health conditions receive the higher rate of the benefit, compared to just 22 per cent under DLA.”

Following the High Court’s judgment, the DWP said it would “write to those who may be entitled to a higher rate of PIP, and any payments will be backdated to the effective date in each individual claim”. It added: “Supporting people with mental health conditions remains a top priority, which is why we commissioned two expert-led reviews and have invested a record £11.6bn into mental health services.”

Both Independent Assessment Services and Capita were contacted by The Independent but they declined to comment.

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