The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is going to change the way it does its contentious assessments. But far from being a good move, it could signal the process getting even worse.
The DWP: doubling-down on disaster
As The Canary has repeatedly reported, DWP health and Work Capability Assessments (WCA) are contentious. 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 come under fire. As The Canary also 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.
Privately-run disability benefit assessments will temporarily stop as part of a new trial of a ‘combined’ testing system. …
Currently PIP and ESA [Employment and Support Allowance] involve two completely different testing systems run by private firms Maximus, Atos and Capita – despite an overlap between the two benefits. …
As part of the experiment, which begins in Autumn 2021, the assessments will be taken back in-house and effectively run by the state, not private firms…
That is likely to anger critics of the government who say all benefit assessments should be taken back in-house, not just those that are part of the trial.
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What’s more, ministers have signalled the private firms are likely to regain a role in running the new combined system once it is up and running.
This idea is not new. And moreover, the Mirror‘s reporting failed to address any of the potential problems with the DWP’s plan.
Back to 2019…
The DWP first announced this policy shift almost a year ago. The then work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd said the DWP:
will test the feasibility of using a single assessment to determine eligibility for PIP, and ESA-Universal Credit.
we want to simplify claimants’ participation in these processes even further.
Rudd also claimed the DWP has:
listened to the concerns of those who feel they are being asked for the same information at face-to-face assessments for different benefits. We will therefore explore how a single assessment could improve the experience of those who apply for PIP and ESA-Universal Credit at the same time.
But then, in April 2019, DWP minister Justin Tomlinson seemed to row back on the idea. He said about this “integrated service”:
There is a bit of confusion in terms of what people thought that this would be. The view was that it ultimately would be a panacea whereby people would go for one single assessment for PIP and for the work capability assessment. The reality is that very few people apply for both benefits at a similar point in time. However, for the very few people who do, it might make sense for them to have, if they wish, both of the assessments on the same day instead of having to come in on the Monday and then again on the Wednesday. That may be what people want to do, but we are talking about very small numbers.
So, it seemed that the DWP was not combining both assessments. But fast-forward to May 2019, and as Disability News Service (DNS) reported, the DWP changed course again. Baroness Buscombe said that the DWP would be ‘introducing’ an “integrated” “single assessment”. She noted that the department would be “testing the feasibility” of this. So now this testing will begin.
“Best possible support”?
Tomlinson said on 2 March:
We are committed to providing the best possible support for people with a disability…
It’s important we get this right, which is why we’ll trial the new service on a regional scale before rolling it out nationally.
As The Canary previously reported, the change also includes a new in-house IT system. In February, the DWP refused to comment on it. Moreover, the plans signal yet another change with Universal Credit.
The Mirror noted:
critics have questioned if a combined system can really be made to work.
But what it failed to question was if a single assessment is even a good idea in the first place.
Problem after problem
The first problem with a single assessment is, contrary to what the DWP claims, people are not asked the same things twice. The WCA and PIP criteria are completely different, as are the benefits. The DWP may be asking people for the same information about their illnesses or impairments. But the context is completely different. The WCA looks at what sick and disabled people can do regarding work. The PIP health assessment looks at what support people need. To combine both these assessments is simplifying people’s health. But more often than not, people’s health is not simple at all.
This then leads to the possibility that the DWP could deny people their entire entitlements. Tomlinson may say that “very few people” apply for both ESA/Universal Credit and PIP at the same time. But the reality is that as of August 2019, 1,364,815 people were on both ESA and PIP. Countless numbers of these people will be reassessed at some point. And so far, the DWP is not saying whether reassessments will be rolled into one.
Also, the idea that the DWP doing assessments itself is better is untrue. The private contractors are dire. But it’s the DWP which often causes more problems. For example, the sky-high rates of appeal wins are linked to Mandatory Reconsiderations, which the DWP does. It sometimes alters the reports, too, regardless of what the private company says. And moreover, when the DWP refuses people benefits based on their assessments, it’s not always the private companies’ fault. Because in some cases, DWP criteria simply do not fit people’s illnesses or impairments.
The thin end of the wedge
But ultimately, all of this is the thin end of the wedge when it comes to the DWP.
Campaigner and disability rights activist Paula Peters told The Canary:
This feels like a cost cutting initiative from the DWP. Not least because it’s having problems recruiting assessors to carry out assessments.
It looks as though it will be [a] single IT platform where all the outcomes of assessments and medical evidence are uploaded into one central place. We know with Universal Credit how expensive the IT system was. It was fraught with problems from the get go, leading to delays and problems for claimants.
Many disabled people are also encountering huge problems getting further medical evidence (FME) to support their claims. This is harder if they’re only under the care of a GP, and not having specialist care input – which is the case for many in mental distress. If you haven’t the FME, this will have devastating consequences where disabled people could lose their entire support in one fell swoop; causing tremendous hardship and distress.
The ‘scrounger’ narrative continues
Of course, none of this addresses the whole notion of assessments either. After years of the DWP, government, and media pumping out the ‘scrounger’ narrative, sick and disabled people increasingly feel disbelieved about their illnesses and impairments. This is most true of the DWP itself. Because, for example, it routinely ignores claimants’ own GPs. By combining both assessments, the DWP is doing nothing to address the fact that it should not be routinely putting sick and disabled people through them in the first place. So, we’re left with just another money saving exercise, which will probably end in disaster for hundreds of thousands of people.
Featured image via The Canary / Wikimedia – UK Government
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