The Secret Cuts, Part Four: Personal Independence Payments

Continuing their series on the Coalition's secret cuts, Kate Belgrave and Alan White investigate the problems arising from outsourced face-to-face assessments. Does the DWP even know what its policy on recording PIP face-to-face assessments is? And why ca

For a long time now, employment and support allowance claimants have demanded the right to record their face-to-face assessments with outsourcing firm Atos. As well they might. With a recording, people are able to demonstrate beyond doubt what was said at assessment – an important facility, in light of Atos' much-discussed form in returning fit-for-work decisions and reports that ignore a claimant's true circumstances and shared details. No wonder the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recently turned down a FOI request to find out how many people have died while going through the assessment process.

The number of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) appeals (which continues to skyrocket) has long proved concerns about Atos' inability to accurately assess fitness for work. Recently, judges in the Upper Tribunal held that the Work Capability Assessment process disadvantages people with mental health problems because they can have greater difficulty than others in explaining to the Atos assessor how their condition affects their fitness to work. The DWP could seek further evidence from claimants’ doctors, but has refused to take this step (and is even appealing the decision. Charming). It’s issues like these that mean recording matters.

It’s a pity people have to fight so hard to get the DWP and Atos to agree. At the end of last year, disabled man Patrick Lynch and Public Interest Lawyers took the government to court over its failure to offer a recording of his ESA face-to-face assessment. He'd been found fit for work in a decision which was later overturned.

“When I went for my first Work Capability Assessment in 2010, the doctor carrying out the assessment said things on his report that was not true to my condition and I was refused ESA on his word,” Patrick told us. “If there was a recording, I would have had proof of what was said. It’s important to get this right in the first place.”

Campaigners have won some concessions. At some point, apparently, there will be a note on paperwork sent to claimants to advise them that they can ask to have their assessment recorded. We’d be interested to know if people notice this happening. There was also a commitment from the DWP to offer an ESA assessment recording to anyone who asked for one (if there are recorders available - apparently, there are still only about 50 nationwide, as Mark Hoban revealed to Sheila Gilmore MP in the House of Commons).

Recordings have to be carried out on “official” dual-CD recording equipment – people still can’t bring their own recording equipment unless it can dual-produce a CD or cassette: “If you wish to use your own equipment, you must be able to provide a complete and identical copy of the recording to the healthcare professional at the end of the assessment. It should be in CD or audio cassette format only. Mobile phones are not suitable for this purpose,” says Atos’ advice. Atos changed its advice when the court action was lodged in December 2012. Before the action, Atos would not postpone appointments if recorders weren’t available, as this screenshot shows. Now, it will defer an appointment for four weeks.

The DWP refused to offer universal recording for ESA assessments on the grounds that there wasn't enough demand. A 2012 Disabled People Against Cuts survey would appear to contradict this, to say the least – it showed that the overwhelming majority of people wanted ESA face-to-face assessments recorded. It also showed that the majority of respondents weren’t aware that they could ask for a recording - which, as DPAC points out, could affect demand. Campaigners like Jayne Linney fought for the right for a recording for many months. Kate's experience collecting information about recordings last year would suggest the idea was popular as well. The DWP is apparently “evaluating” demand at the moment.

Campaigners continue to fight for people's right to record their assessments on their own recording equipment (like phones and dictaphones) and for those recordings to be admissible when people challenge fit-for-work decisions.

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And now there’s a bizarre situation regarding the recording of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) face-to-face assessments. PIP is replacing the Disability Living Allowance. (“Replace” is a polite way of putting it - “a means of cutting” is more accurate: the government plans to cut expenditure for this essential benefit by at least 20 per cent as it removes DLA). There have already been a number of concerns about the new criteria on movement, with a consultation launched by the DWP after it faced a judicial review.

Atos and Capita have contracts worth about £540m to carry out PIP assessments. Atos won the contract despite failing to deliver the number of assessment centres required, meaning claimants will face longer journeys on public transport. Atos told the Government that it had an “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where assessments would take place. Since it won the contract, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private healthcare providers dropped out, which has sparked outrage. The contract will now be referred to the National Audit Office.

Prior to this, Esther McVey angered campaigners when she said that audio recordings of PIP assessments would not be offered by Atos or Capita (see this 18 April 2013 transcript), even though Capita seemed willing to offer them and in spite of this 4 April response document.

And the advice also appeared to directly contradict a response that the DWP emailed to Kate three days earlier on April 15 2013, as part of a correspondence that sought to confirm whether people with hearing impairments could request a video recording.

The statement in that email from the DWP regarding audio recordings was: “the situation is the same for PIP as it is for ESA. A DWP spokesperson said: "All customers are entitled to an audio recording of their assessment.” Video recording is not permitted. This is to ensure the safety and privacy of staff and other customers."

Surprised to hear this, given the information in the response document, Kate asked for more information:

“To clarify - official video recordings are not offered to people with hearing impairments (even if Atos carries them out themselves on official equipment) but audio recordings are offered for ESA and will be offered for PIP?”

The DWP's response was:

The situation for audio recording for ESA remains the same, as detailed in all previous correspondence. Arrangements for PIP are the same. Video recordings are not permitted.

Confusing, to say the least. We’d be interested in hearing your latest, or other updates. And why can’t people request video recordings if they need them?

This recent freedom of information request suggests that people won't be able to ask for a recording of their PIP assessment in the way they supposedly can for ESA WCAs. According to that document, though, claimants can make a recording of their assessments themselves – if they can “provide a complete and accurate copy of the recording to the HP at the end of the consultation. Acceptable formats for such recordings are restricted to CD and audio cassette only. Mobile phones and laptops are not suitable mediums for recording consultations.”

In other words – you can make a recording if you have special equipment which allows for dual CD production. Which nobody does, of course. That equipment is expensive for anyone and particularly if you're on a benefit.

Tessa Gregory, Solicitor at Public Interest Lawyers, says that there could be legal challenges in this:

The DWP have committed to offering audio recordings to all individuals undergoing a WCA assessment so their refusal to offer the same to those undergoing PIP assessments just doesn’t make sense and will certainly be open to challenge. Given the huge impact these assessments have on peoples’ lives, it is imperative that recordings are offered. As Capita stated in their bid, audio recordings “provide reassurance, transparency and an audit trail” – all of which surely the DWP will welcome.

Campaigners remain at loggerheads with the department over the issue of recording both employment and support face-to-face assessments and PIP face-to-face assessments. Campaigners say all PIP claimants must have the right to have their face-to-face assessment recorded – a key safeguard against people’s health conditions being misreported or ignored altogether in an assessment process widely criticised for inaccuracy.

Disabled People Against Cuts says:

The DWP continues to defy logic.” Never was a truer word spoken. “If recordings were freely available, surely the cost of the increasing number of ESA appeals and potential PIP appeals would be less to the public purse, as well as lessening some of the fear and misery of those undergoing these unfair and degrading tests - we can only conclude the DWP has a great deal it wishes to hide.

You can read more articles from Alan White and Kate Belgrave's Secret Cuts series here

We would like to hear from people who have been affected by any of the issues raised in this series. Please email thesecretcuts@gmail.com

A protester wears an "Atos Out" sign during a demonstration at the Department of Work and Pensions. Photograph: Getty Images during a demonstration at the Department of Work and Pensions. Photograph: Getty Images
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.