Watchdog finds 'weaknesses' in sickness benefit system

Women holds temples The assessments determine whether people qualify for benefits through sickness or are fit to work

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Auditors have found "weaknesses" in the contract between the government and Atos, the private firm paid to carry out fit-to-work medical assessments.

The contract underpins the Department for Work and Pensions's efforts to move people from sick benefits into work.

The National Audit Office said the DWP had failed to penalise Atos for "underperformance", and had not set "sufficiently challenging" targets.

Ministers said the terms of the contract were under "constant review".

French firm Atos was paid more than £112m in the last financial year to carry out about 738,000 face-to-face medical tests on benefit claimants.

Wrong decisions

The DWP used the test results, known as work capability assessments, to decide whether people were fit to work or eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

The assessments were first introduced on a pilot basis by Labour in 2008 and rolled out across the country by the coalition government.

Officials at the DWP have got many decisions wrong, with nearly four out of 10 appeals upheld at tribunals. The NAO said it was unclear whether the quality of the tests was to blame for the number of wrong decisions.

Start Quote

This is a contract that really needs a lot more scrutiny to understand how effective it has been”

End Quote Tom Greatrex Labour MP

In a letter to Tom Greatrex, MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the NAO's Comptroller, Amyas Morse, said it was hard to know whether changes to the tests were needed.

"It is difficult to assess, as the department does not routinely request feedback on the rationale for tribunal decisions," he said.

"Without such data it is not clear whether any changes in the medical process are needed."

The DWP had previously admitted that Atos had not carried out some fitness testing within the agreed time limits, and performance had been "below the standard" since mid-2011.

The NAO criticised the DWP for not seeking "financial redress" for these delays, saying just 10% of the penalties triggered by poor performance had been applied.

The spending watchdog added that the DWP's negotiating position has been undermined by "inaccurate forecasting" of the number of people likely to need a medical test.

'Paying twice'

Mr Greatrex said he had asked the NAO to review the contract after being told by ministers that the details, including information about financial penalties, were "commercially confidential".

"My underlying concern was the fact that the contract is worth £112m a year to Atos," he told Radio 4's Today programme.

"At the same time, through the Tribunals Service, the appeals are costing about £60m a year so effectively we are paying twice to try to correct the mistakes in the initial assessments or the process that leads to the assessments and decisions.

"That isn't good value for money and this is a contract that really needs a lot more scrutiny to understand how effective it has been."

Start Quote

It is a complicated area but we are committed to making it a success to ensure it is both fair and accurate for the user and value for money for the taxpayer”

End Quote Iain Duncan Smith Work and Pensions Secretary

Mr Greatrex urged ministers to reflect on the report and consider reforming the system.

Major changes to the tests were recommended in 2010 by independent adviser Professor Malcolm Harrington. Last month he told the BBC the system had improved but was still "patchy".

The DWP said the contract had "changed considerably" since it was signed by the Labour government in 2008 and ministers had twice - in 2009 and 2012 - demanded improvements.

Feedback from tribunals was now fully evaluated, it added, and in many cases new information was presented at appeal which was not available when the assessment was conducted.

"In 2010, the Work Capability Assessment was not working properly and since then we've substantially improved it," said Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

"It is a complicated area but we are committed to making it a success to ensure it is both fair and accurate for the user and value for money for the taxpayer."

'Challenging contract'

A spokesperson for Atos said it had worked very closely with the DWP on a "complex and challenging contract" to "fulfil all our contractual obligations".

"We have also been flexible within the contract, for example implementing changes and recommendations from the Harrington report.

"Where changes to the contract have resulted in slower processing times we have worked alongside the department to address this."

Regular complaints have been made about the medical tests since they were first introduced.

In May 2011, six charities - including the MS Society and Parkinson's UK - urged the government to make the tests fairer for patients whose symptoms varied in severity over time.

A month later, campaigners claimed in a letter to the Guardian newspaper that assessments were causing "huge" distress and had even resulted in suicides.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 855.

    The problem is that using GPs to certify a patients ability to work is not practicable as a GP will give an honest opinion based on thier lnowledge of the patient, whereas with ATOS finding a patient fit for work = a positive outcome = funding. Correct me if I'm wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 854.

    I know it's not easy to fool the system, but those that I have observed doing so have the stamina to go through the idiotic system to get what they want. That's the point I was trying to make, badly. Thanks for your concern, I think we'll be alright because we have the Royal British Legion fighting our corner which makes me feel a little more confident.

  • rate this

    Comment number 853.

    There is a Point to be made which rarely sees any light when discussing the Sick and whether they should be entitled to welfare

    It was the Doctor a very highly trained person whom we have as tax payers invested a lot of money to help them become respected Healers.

    MP's though seem to be under the illusion that they know far better than highly trained qualified doctors when it comes to the sick

  • rate this

    Comment number 852.

    I'm truely sorry for what you and your partner are going through. But why say it's easy to fool the system? You should know better than any that it's almost impossible. You don't know the medical conditions of other people. I hope everything works out for your partner and you, but please we are all fighting the same system, regardless of degrees of disability. Let's not turn on ourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 851.

    848. Napoleon
    Actually I DO have an ill partner, not that I need to justify myself to you. I'm not spouting propaganda & am offended that you link me with the tory HQ, nothing could be further from the truth. I have seen people get away with playing the system & am really angry that it is not working for a genuine case. In fact it's actually made an ill man more ill & I have to pick up the pieces

  • rate this

    Comment number 850.

    15 Minutes ago
    Why is everything you spout utter rubbish?..If you record an event that is to do with you personally then you are perfectly within your rights to publish it however you see fit you fool!.Also, d'you know that if you can prove beyond doubt that a false report has been made deliberately, you can also prosecute the offence both civil & criminally under the Fraud Act 2006!

  • rate this

    Comment number 849.

    The sting in this is a great many people currently being assessed by ATOS will have to go through it all again next year when they transfer DLA recipitants on to PIPs. It's a scary time to be a disabled/ill person, if the condition doesn't kill you the government are trying to do it through stress & uncertainty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 848.

    @834 said "It's easy for those trying it on to get past the system"

    No it is not. Why are you spinning this propaganda? I very much doubt you have an ill partner. More like you are from Tory spin-HQ. And I take it you have evidence that everyone is trying to pull a fast one. You are pathetic. The DWP's own statistics show 0.5% try to "get it on" and the other 99.5% are trying to gain justice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 847.

    The nurses who are employed by ATOS are not Occupational Health qualified, they are not allowed to use their professionl judgement, they just complete the touchscreen questions as instructed. If they are thought to give a positive outcome to too many claimants the nurses are put on performance review, hence there is a very high turn over of demoralised staff. This system does not work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 846.

    150 nutgone#There should be no disability allowance, short of being paraplegic you are always able to do something!#

    This comment demonstrates a lack of understanding which many possess.Following a period of recovery/rehabilitation someone with paraplegia may well work f/t & lead a full life.With serious fatiguable illness eg cancer, MS, Parkinsons, kidney disease, ME this may not be possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 845.

    Here is a copy of the Ministry of Justices own help video for people who want to appeal a decision given by ATOS/DWP.

    I recommend to anyone who is about to / in the process of appealing a decision to watch it.

    The video is constantly being taken down & constantly being put back up if not here search for esa appeal you will find it

  • rate this

    Comment number 844.

    What are you saying? Perhaps that you've been to an Atos medical and they found you sane? If so, then I agree that they're not doing a very good job!
    I suspect you will be only one extolling the virtues of Atos. My experience is that they blatantly lie (mod's please note - I have proof, freely available to the BBC). They are not the only villains, DC & DWP are flawed..

  • rate this

    Comment number 843.

    This assessment has been set up to get everyone off of sickness benefits. My very ill partner has been deemed fit for work due to lies & supposition by the assessing nurse who admitted never having come across one of his conditions. It's easy for those trying it on to get past the system, for those genuinely ill this process is literally killing them to prove they're ill enough to deserve help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 842.

    @837 Dave
    You can pre-book to have your WCA recorded, It is law. The problem arises when Atos say they cannot find any equipment or it is broken. Maybe in the one brain cell in your head you may fathom that Atos do not want the Atos assessments recorded. you are not doing any help here apart from trying to make yourself look clever, when you should be crawling back under that rock you came from.

  • rate this

    Comment number 841.

    837 dave
    yes they know how to do everything even play the fiddle

  • rate this

    Comment number 840.

    The trouble is all the top politicos, ids, grayling, may, cameron etc while being 'elected' are still counting on being unaccountable ... hence the shift to companies such as atos: who also count on being unaccountable ... government by chaos where the winners win big and the losers lose all ... in the end most though Brits won't stand for it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 839.

    GPs or other health care professionals should be responsible for declaring a person fit for work or not, as they actually have medical experience. Far too many people suffering with mental health or learning difficulties are branded as frauds by people who have no understanding of these conditions. There would also be more chance of catching fraudsters as medical professionals know the conditions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 838.

    You may have noticed that my local MP - Stephen Timms - has repeatedly asked the government to explain the iniquity of Atos - also to give precise facts,& not massaged statistics, concerning fraud rates, successful appeals etc: very little is forthcoming, because DC et al would have us believe the myth that everyone's on the fiddle and very few are really unfit. Shameful!

  • rate this

    Comment number 837.

    ha ha I have to laugh at some of the comments from you keyboard warriors,ha one says they can find anyone so funny,
    some say they know the benefits system inside out and will find those that upset them ha ha pure fantasy
    go ahead record your wca in fact why not pre book with atos to record it for you.oh and if you record it without permission and then post in in a public forum you may be liable

  • rate this

    Comment number 836.

    Not voting and you will only be counted as apathetic.

    Spoil your ballot paper. It gets counted.
    Get a majority and the system will get the message.
    Funny the media aren't interested in clarifying this to people (NOT!)


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