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.

*

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
Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.