Fitness-for-work tests hit by technical chaos, The Guardian, 21 July 2012

July 21, 2012

From The Guardian, 21 July 2012 (story by Amelia Gentleman).

Private firm Atos found to have just 11 audio machines to record up to 11,000 tests for benefit eligibility each week

Employment minister Chris Grayling has been asked to provide an explanation for mounting chaos surrounding the fitness-for-work assessment, amid complaints over the transparency of the process.

New unhappiness with the system, run by the private firm Atos, has emerged over individuals' requests to record their assessment as a way of ensuring that their details are correctly registered.

Claimants were given the right to request a recording last year. But the Department for Work and Pensions only bought 11 recording machines – shared between 123 assessment centres – which test 11,000 people every week. Several are currently broken.

A number of reports by charities have highlighted inaccuracies in the testing process, which determines eligibility for the new incapacity benefit and Employment and Support Allowance. Many claimants are anxious to record their assessments to make sure the account of their health problems is correctly reflected. Large numbers of cases are currently going to tribunal because applicants believe they have been wrongly refused benefits; around 40% of cases are overturned in the claimant's favour at tribunal.

Despite a government promise that everyone is entitled to record their assessment, many people have been told there are no machines available, because they are being repaired, and that they must go ahead with the test anyway. Individuals have been told they are not able to record assessments with their own devices “in view of security and confidentiality considerations”.

In a statement on its website, Atos says: “We will make every effort to accommodate requests for this service and hope that we will be able to meet demand. However, under the terms of our contract with the department, we cannot postpone an assessment on the basis of audio-recording.” Atos's refusal to postpone tests is at odds with a statement made by Grayling in a response to a written question on the subject posted by the Labour MP Frank Field, this week when he promised: “Clients will be told in advance that their request cannot be accommodated and offered a later date.”

He added that: “Large scale purchase of machines in the absence of an evaluation of the process is not effective use of public money.”

The shadow employment minister, Stephen Timms, who has written to Grayling to highlight his concerns about the lack of recording equipment, said: “I find it hard to believe that a company with a multimillion pound government contract is incapable of obtaining and operating sufficient recording devices.”

A DWP spokeswoman said several machines had broken in transit and there had initially been a very small number of requests for recordings, which was why only 11 machines were bought. “It is simply not true that the recording machines are all broken, in fact we are in the process of buying more and fixing the few that have encountered problems.”

Shopping Basket