A report published today by the work and pensions committee urges the government to end Atos Healthcare’​s benefits medical monopoly and heavily criticises many aspects of the way the multinational carries out its contract.

The report, "​The role of incapacity benefit assessment in helping claimants into employment"​, supports the government’​s aim of moving incapacity benefit claimants back into work. However it criticises the portrayal by the media of the reassessment as a process to weed out the ‘​workshy’​ and ‘​scrounge​rs’​ as inaccurate and unhelpful. The report also criticised the government for failure to “​take greater care in the language it uses when it engages with the media and in particular when it releases and comments on official statistics on the IB reassessm​ent.”​

However, the committee reserved its biggest criticisms for Atos Healthcare. In relation to the Atos call centre system for arranging medical assessments, the committee found that:

“​Evidence suggests that many people have experienced problems with the call-centre service. In one extreme case it took 135 telephone calls to get through to Atos.”​

There is also a heavy reliance on overbooking of appointments for medicals:

“​Atos routinely overbooks WCA appointments by 20% on the basis of the non-attendance rate for new ESA claims, which was 30%. However, the non-attendance rate in the IB reassessment trials was much lower, at around 9%, although it is too soon to say whether this low rate seen in the trials will continue in the national roll-out.”​

The result of this overbooking is that claimants are sometimes turned away without having their assessment and then subsequently have their benefit stopped because they are wrongly marked down as having failed to turn up.

The committee was also hugely unimpressed by the number of assessment centres which had poor or non-existent disabled access and at the apparent unwillingness on many occasions of Atos to provide reasonable adjustments.

“​It is unacceptable that disabled people should be called to attend an assessment at a centre which is inappropriately located, inaccessible to them or where reasonable adjustments cannot be made to accommodate special requirements arising from their health condition. We note DWP'​s assurance that Atos Healthcare is "​moving rapidly toward"​ a situation where this is no longer the case. We request that, in response to this Report, the Government sets out progress towards this aim.”​

MPs also expressed concern that the Atos contract has been extended from 2012 to 2015 and that the basis of this extension was that Atos would be "​delivering substantial savings against the current estimated cost of £​100 million per annum"​. That costs are going to be cut at a time when the service has already been found to be very poor in some regards and when the number of assessments has greatly increased can only be bad news for claimants.

The committee noted that decision makers reject Atos reports as being unacceptable in only 1 in 500 cases and considered that “​Such a low percentage would seem to indicate that this aspect of DWP quality control over Atos'​s service is not functioning as it should. It also reinforces Professor Harrington'​s point, discussed in Chapter 5, that decision-makers rarely question the advice provided by Atos.”​

The MPs have recommended that when the contract is put out to tender in 2015 that there are stringent penalties for failure to produce high standard reports that get things right first time.

The most dramatic recommendation, however, is that the government should, once the current incapacity benefit to ESA assessments have been completed, introduce a second supplier of medicals. The committee believes that the introduction of competition will drive up standards and wants the government to publish proposals on how this can be achieved before the end of 2012.

It is a recommendation that will cause real dismay amongst Atos executives, who have benefited from a lack of meaningful scrutiny of their company’​s performance ever since they won the original contract to carry out personal capability assessments. What effect it will have on claimants’​ experience of the assessment system remains to be seen.

You can read the report online here and a .pdf version is available from this link.


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