From The Guardian, 8 February 2013 (story by Rajeev Syal and agencies).
Public accounts committee lambasts 38% overturn rate on decisions, resulting in ‘considerable cost to taxpayer and claimant'
The government should accept much of the blame for distressing and expensive fitness-to-work tests that have caused “misery and hardship” to thousands of benefit claimants, according to a report by MPs released on Friday.
The public accounts committee said there had been much criticism of Atos, the firm contracted to conduct so-called work capability assessments (WCA), but it warned that most of the problems lay with the Department for Work and Pensions.
The tests on claimants were introduced in 2008 to assess entitlement to employment and support allowance. Atos was paid £112.4m to carry out 738,000 assessments in 2011-12.
The MPs' report said: “The Work Capability Assessment process is designed to support a fair and objective decision by the department about whether a claimant is fit for work, but in far too many cases the department is getting these decisions wrong at considerable cost to both the taxpayer and the claimant.
“The department's decisions were overturned in 38% of appeals, casting doubt on the accuracy of its decision-making.
“Poor decision-making causes claimants considerable distress, and the position appears to be getting worse, with Citizens Advice reporting an 83% increase in the number of people asking for support on appeals in the last year alone.
“We found the department to be unduly complacent about the number of decisions upheld by the tribunal and believe that the department should ensure that its processes are delivering accurate decision-making and minimising distress to claimants,” the report said.
Charities have expressed anger at the number of people with long-term, incurable conditions who are being forced on repeated occasions to prove that they are not able to work, despite supplying medical evidence that indicates that their condition is permanent and will not improve.
Margaret Hodge, who chairs the committee, said the DWP was getting “far too many” decisions wrong on claimants' ability to work.
“This poor decision-making is damaging public confidence and generating a lot of criticism of the department's contractor for medical assessments, Atos Healthcare – but most of the problems lie firmly within the DWP.
“The department is too often just accepting what Atos tells it. It seems reluctant to challenge the contractor,” she said.
“It has failed to withhold payment for poor performance and rarely checked that it is being correctly charged. The department also cannot explain how the profits being made by Atos reflect the limited risk that it bears.
“There needs to be a substantial shake-up in how the department manages this contract and in its processes for improving the quality of decision-making,” she added.
The committee said the DWP's evidence during its hearings was not always consistent with views of other witnesses, with different interpretations of statistics.
The MPs said they could not arrive at a clear conclusion about whether performance was improving and recommended that the National Audit Office should provide up-to-date data on the department.
Mark Hoban, the employment minister, dismissed the report as incomplete and failing to take into account the mess that was inherited from the last government.
“This report completely fails to recognise the considerable improvements we have made to the Work Capability Assessment since coming to power in 2010, having inherited a system from the last government that was not fit for purpose,” he said.
And here's how BBC Online is reporting the story.