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

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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Be a glitch in our benefits system, and the punishment is to starve

Faceless bureaucrats are tipping claimants into hunger. 

So it’s official. If anyone still doubted that benefit sanctions are linked to food bank usage, a study by the University of Oxford and the Trussell Trust has found “a strong, dynamic relationship exists” between the number of sanctions in local authorities, and the number of adults receiving emergency food parcels.

The research examined the impact of tougher sanctions imposed by the Coalition government in 2012. For every extra 10 sanctions per 100,000 claimants, there were five more adults needing food. By contrast, when sanctions declined by 10, there were roughly 2 fewer instances of adults needing food. 

The study questioned whether a system that creates food poverty is “a fair penalty” for those who intentionally or inadvertently break the rules surrounding benefits payments.

Indeed, benefits sanctions can often, on appeal, seem brutal. Take the man who missed his Jobcentre appointment because he was in hospital after being hit by a car, or the woman who received her letter a day after the proposed meeting was scheduled. 

But what the study doesn’t chart is the number of people plunged into food poverty simply because of a bureaucratic mistake. A 2014 report by MPs, Feeding Britain, noted benefit-related “problems” was the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals. 

It found that many of these problems were avoidable: 

“We heard that one such problem arose as a result of Jobcentre Plus staff having to rely on two different computer systems, each on different screens, in order to calculate and process a claim, if more than one benefit was involved. This was likely to delay the processing of a benefit claim.”

In other words, the system we pay for with our taxes is failing us when we need it.

Claimants often find themselves at the bottom of an unaccountable power structure. Gill McCormack, who is the manager at the Glasgow North West food bank, has a son with Down’s Syndrome and brain damage, and lost her husband at just 21.

As an unusually young widow, she repeatedly has had to show benefits officials her husband’s death certificate, and fight for her son’s Disability Living Allowance. At one point, her benefits were stopped, and she lived on bags of frozen peas.

She told a fringe event at the SNP conference: “The amount of times I have been back and forth with this system – the only way I can describe it is as a ping pong table.”

If administration errors can leave people this hungry – and when I was a journalist at The Mirror I heard from readers about dozens of similar cases – we are heading for a world where large gaps in support are institutionalised.

Universal Credit, the new benefits system being rolled out across the country, only kicks in after six weeks. Claimants can apply for an advance. But if this is not properly communicated, six weeks is long enough to starve. 

As the study acknowledges, modern food poverty does not just exist in food banks, which are a very specific type of lifeline. The Facebook group Feed Yourself For £1 a Day has nearly 70,000 members. Some are simply frugal mums or house proud retirees. But many of those who post are desperate.

One reason is illness. A single mum, recently wrote that the group was a “lifeline” when she was coping with breast cancer: “I have never been so poor.” Another wrote back that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she lost her home and her job, and was forced to spend 10 days living in her car.

Others are simply women going back to work, who lose their benefits and have to wait for wages. A mother in five wrote in asking for cheap meal ideas as “I’ve got £50 a week to live off as starting work”. 

So what is the answer to this kind of hidden hunger? The government is still consulting on a “Help to Save” scheme, that will provide more incentives for low-paid workers to create a rainy day fund. Groups such as Feed Yourself for £1 a Day should be encouraged, because they are valued by their members and teach families how to eat healthily for less. But shifting responsibility to those on the breadline only works so far. After all, you cannot easily save if you are an unpaid carer. You cannot cook from scratch if your gas meter has run out. And you can't keep to a budget if food prices, as predicted, start to rise.

The latest research into food banks should reignite the debate about sanctions. But it should also raise wider questions about those who administrate and enforce our taxpayer-funded welfare state, and how, in the 21st century, faceless officials can tip unfortunate people into something close to famine. 

Not recently, many commentators found it hard to believe the plotline of Ken Loach’s latest film, in which a man is denied disability benefits because of a computer glitch. Perhaps they're not to blame - after all, since Jobcentres are removing the free phones that would allow claimants to kick up a fuss, many are effectively silenced. But so long as the food banks stay open, there is more listening to be done. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.