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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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.