The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) just revealed how much it’s going to spend on its contentious health and disability assessments. The figure is eye-watering. Moreover, it also let slip that these new deals will be lasting nearly six years.
But as quickly as the DWP released it, it had to withdraw the information. Because The Canary spotted a mistake in the figures. And now, the DWP has also refused to give comment to us on a policy pledge it made nearly two years ago. It was about assessments, and it still hasn’t happened.
The DWP: never learning lessons
When people apply for support from the DWP, it often checks how their illnesses or impairments affect them. To do this, it sends claimants to a private company. It then looks at the person’s health to decide if they can get social security. There are two types of assessments.
- The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is for Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
- Health assessments are for Personal Independence Payments.
The assessments are contentious. For example, Independent Assessment Services (IAS), formally ATOS, does Personal Independence Payment (PIP) health assessments for the DWP. But the company has been dogged by controversy. From probes into “dishonest” assessments to high rates of appeal wins, IAS has often been under fire. Also, as The Canary reported, complaints to the DWP about IAS have shot up by more than 1,400% since 2013.
Most recently, a judge said that some of the letters the DWP sends to claimants may be unlawful. But one of the biggest issues has always been how much the DWP pays companies.
£3,150,000,000. Yes, £3.15bn.
As the Mirror reported, the DWP pays private companies hundreds of millions of pounds to do assessments. And we now know how much the department is going to pay out in the future.
From 1 September 2020 to 31 July 2026, the DWP has budgeted to spend £3.15bn on assessments. That’s over £44m a month it will be paying these private contractors. Or, to put it another way, around £532m a year. All this is despite some of these companies’ track records being poor. In 2019, as Disability News Service (DNS) reported, the DWP had to admit that 36% of IAS’s PIP assessments were “substandard”.
Despite the problems with these companies, the DWP seems to be carrying on regardless. Because these latest contracts are set to last just under six years. But there’s another issue to factor into this story. And it surrounds a policy decision from several years ago.
More private contracts. And some dodgy documents.
As The Canary previously reported, in 2018, then minister Sarah Newton announced that the DWP was working on its own IT system. This was, she said, to “enable more providers to deliver PIP”. In other words, to have more private contractors doing assessments. As DNS noted, disabled people’s groups criticised the plans. Disability Rights UK said:
Rather than developing a DWP IT system as a means of bringing PIP assessments in-house, the aim seems to be to give money-making opportunities to private companies.
So far, the DWP has not said anything else on this IT system.
Back to the main document, and it showed that there was an overlap with the private companies’ contracts. It originally stated that the new deals would start on 1 September 2020. But it also said that the existing contracts were due to run until 31 July 2021:
If this was the case, it would mean an additional spend of over £400m. So, what does the DWP have to say about this latest saga?
The DWP says…
The Canary asked the DWP for comment. We wanted to know:
- Why will the new contracts be starting in 2020? Because the document states the current ones run until 2021.
- What progress had been made on the in-house IT system for PIP?
The DWP would not comment on the in-house IT system. Nor would it comment on its huge spending on private companies. But it admitted that the overlap in contracts was a mistake. It told The Canary that it has had to retract the document. The DWP will now have to redo the whole thing. At the time of publication it had not updated the document.
Money for old rope?
It seems perverse that the DWP will still give failing private companies the chance to work for it. Also, it’s of concern that it took The Canary spotting an error in the document for the department to withdraw it. But the deeper issue here is that the DWP is assessing sick and disabled people at all.
Gone are the days when a claimant’s own medical professional’s opinion was enough. Now, the DWP just ignores what doctors say. Got cancer? You’re still ‘fit-for-work’. Sick and disabled people now feel routinely disbelieved. That’s thanks to government pushing a ‘scrounger’ and ‘benefit cheat’ narrative for years. Also, the whole assessment process has been marred by the deaths of countless claimants. So private companies continuing to assess claimants is the thin end of the wedge.
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