MP raises concerns over awarding of healthcare contract


By a Newsnet reporter

An SNP MP has written to the UK Work and Pensions Secretary expressing concern at the decision to award ATOS Healthcare a new five year contract to run assessments for ‘personal independence payments’, the replacement for disability living allowance (DLA).

The Personal Independence Payment (PIP) replaces the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for eligible working age people aged 16 to 64.  SNP Work and Pensions spokesperson Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP has attacked what she called “inadequate tick-box tests” that can result in claimants losing benefits.

ATOS already have a £100 million a year contract to run the widely-criticised computer-based work capability assessments (WCAs) for Employment Support Allowance claims, which removed lifeline benefits from thousands of sick and disabled people deemed ‘fit to work’.

Problems with WCAs were widely acknowledged and highlighted both by disability organisations and by medical professionals including the BMA.  Forty per cent of appeals of decisions are successful, rising significantly when legal representation is sought.

A third independent review of the Work Capability Assessments (WCA) is still underway, led by Professor Malcolm Harrington.

Dr Whiteford said:

“It is astonishing that the UK Government have awarded ATOS Healthcare these contracts given the widespread concerns around the operation of the work capability assessments and before the independent review has even been completed.”

The SNP MP highlighted the recent Olympic security shambles, and the pledge of a moratorium over the role of private security firm G4S, as proof that all multi-million pound contracts should be subject to the same robust scrutiny.

Commenting on the checks that sick and disabled claimants have to go through in order to keep their benefits, Dr Whiteford added:

“These inadequate tick-box tests removed lifeline support from thousands of sick and disabled people.  The UK Government have questions to answer over this decision – which has been taken before the review looking at the problems with the WCA has even been completed.

“By awarding ATOS with this new contract, it suggests the Tories are either not listening to the harrowing experiences people have faced, or they simply don’t care.

Dr Whiteford pointed to other organisations which have had to deal with the impact of the failure.  Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) have seen a huge increase in numbers of people turning to them for help with Employment Support Allowance.  The organisation is now dealing with an average 100 new ESA cases every working day as a result.

Dr Whiteford continued:

“CAB also help with WCA appeals and win nearly 70% of them, showing the inherent flaws in the original system.  We do not want to see this replicated for thousands of disabled people who currently rely on DLA to help them with increased costs of being disabled.

“It is deeply concerning that the same company have been awarded the new contract – and does not bode well for the welfare reforms the UK Government are putting in place.

“The UK Government must give clarity over what measures are being put in place to ensure the new assessments are safe and rigorous, protecting sick and disabled people instead of putting them at risk of harm.

“With decisions like these, it’s no wonder the Tories are known as the nasty party of UK politics.”

The Department for Work and Pensions has awarded two contracts to Atos Healthcare (covering Scotland, North East England, North West England, London and Southern England) to run assessments for ‘Personal Independence Payments’, the replacement for Disability Living Allowance which comes into effect from April 2013.

A call for evidence for the third independent review of Work Capability Assessments was announced in July: