The Public Accounts Select Committee (PAC) has described the implementation of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) as ‘nothing short of a fiasco, which is pushing some of our societies poorest and most vulnerable citizens into the arms of high-cost lenders and food banks.
Personal Independence Payments are replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for disabled people and those with long-term medical conditions which affect their ability to live a full an independent life.
Today’s damning report accuses the Department for Work and Pensions, which is presided over by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith MP, of rushing through reforms to disability benefits without fully piloting the new scheme.
Disabled people have been left to wait more than six months for a decision on their claim and some terminally ill claimants were having to wait up to a month, despite promises from the DWP and Iain Duncan SMith that these people would be ‘fast-tracked’ through the claim system.
The committee also say that the DWP ‘misjudged the number of face-to-face that providers would need to carry out, and the time these assessments would take’.
Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge MP, said that the PAC were concerned Atos, one of the private companies handed a contract by the DWP to carry out face-to-face disability assessments, had “included incorrect and potentially misleading information in its bid for the contract”.
Atos recently announced that they would be pulling out of a contract to deliver Work Capability Assessments (WCA) for the sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) early. Atos has been heavily criticised for its poor performance and accuracy in delivering WCAs.
With this in mind the Public Accounts Committee say the DWP ‘ignored the bidders previous record in providing assessments for Employment Support Allowance, when deciding to whom to award contracts’.
Commenting on the release of the report, Margaret Hodge MP said:
“The implementation of Personal Independence Payment has been nothing short of a fiasco. The Department of Work and Pensions has let down some of the most vulnerable people in our society, many of whom have had to wait more than 6 months for their claims to be decided.
“The Department’s failure to pilot the scheme meant that the most basic assumptions, such as how long assessments would take and how many would require face-to-face consultations, had not been fully tested and proved to be wrong. This resulted in significant delays, a backlog of claims and unnecessary distress for claimants who have been unable to access the support they need to live, and in some cases work, independently.
“The personal stories we heard were shocking. We heard evidence of a claimant requiring hospital intervention as a result of the stress caused by the delays suffered, and another claimant who was unable to afford the specific diet required for diabetes and gastric problems while waiting for a decision.
“By October 2013, the Department had only made 16% of the decisions it had expected to have made by that time. What was particularly alarming was that terminally ill people were having to wait on average 28 days for a decision, 180% longer than expected.
“Some claimants have been forced to turn to food banks, loans and charitable donations to support the extra costs of living associated with their disability.
“The standard of service provided by the Department and its contractors has been unacceptable. Claimants have experienced difficulties in arranging appointments – and assessors have cancelled home visits at the last minute and have failed to turn up when claimants have travelled to assessment centres. Four in ten claimants in Atos areas have had to travel over an hour to be assessed, a far cry from its promise that between 75% and 90% of claimants would travel less than 30 minutes to an assessment centre.
“We are concerned that Atos appears to have included incorrect and potentially misleading information in its bid for the contract. Atos stated in its tender document that it had “contractual agreements” in place with a national network of 56 NHS hospitals, 25 private hospitals and over 650 physiotherapy practices to provide assessments. This turned out not to be true.
“The Department should challenge claims made in bids, so that it can demonstrate it has not relied on inaccurate or exaggerated information when awarding contracts.
“We would have expected the Department to have exercised particular caution in letting this contact, given the poor performance of Atos on Work Capability Assessments. The Department must take into account previous performance on similar work when running a procurement.
“The process has also proved to be inaccessible and cumbersome for claimants, increasing the risk of delays and incorrect decisions.
“The Department urgently needs to get this Scheme up to scratch and make sure some of our most vulnerable citizens are protected when going through this process. What we’ve witnessed is a rushed, wholly unacceptable job, and the Department should take a long hard look at what went wrong.”
Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Disability Minister, commenting on the PAC report on Personal Independence Payments, said:
“This scathing criticism of the government’s chaotic handling of PIP leaves serious questions about competence at Department for Work and Pensions. Thousands of disabled people are waiting months and months for essential help which means taxpayers are facing a huge bill to deal with the enormous backlog of Personal Independence Payment assessments. If they continue at the current rate, the backlog could take up to 42 years to clear.
“David Cameron must urgently get a grip of this chaotic department to avoid Personal Independence Payments going the same way as the crisis-hit Universal Credit programme.”
The Chief Executive of the Citizens Advice Bureau, Gillian Guy said that the Government’s disability benefits need “root and branch reform”, saying that the PIP fiasco comes off the back of confirmation that 700,000 sick and disabled benefit claimants are still waiting to be assessed for ESA after Atos announced they would be withdrawing from the contract.
Gillian Guy said: “The Government’s disability reforms are not fit for purpose. At Citizens Advice we’ve dealt with more than 100,000 problems with Personal Independence Payment since it was introduced last year. The problems with PIP are the tip of the iceberg, as Employment Support Allowance for sick and disabled people is now the single biggest issue which our clients need help with.
“No one knows when a major accident or illness could turn their life upside down. It’s vital that ministers sort out the flaws in the safety net there to protect people with health problems. Delays of six months or more, wrong assessments by Government contractors and charges for medical evidence to appeal against decisions are major obstacles to sick and disabled people getting the vital help that they need.
“More than 5,000 people have signed our petition to make ESA fit for work and with Atos withdrawing from its Government contract, ministers now have the chance to carry out root and branch reform and get the system sorted.”
The Government’s disability benefit reforms were also criticised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC). Commenting on the delays to Personal Independence Payments, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“The government’s disastrous shake-up of the welfare system continues apace.
“Today’s revelations about the Personal Independence Payment and the Employment Support Allowance smack not only of incompetence but of a systematic attempt to remove the safety net people depend upon when they fall on hard times.
“It is disgraceful that terminally ill and disabled people are being made to wait for months for vital benefits. Taking money away from the most vulnerable in our society is not the way to make work pay.
“The government’s welfare reforms are unravelling, with costs shooting through the roof and millions being made to suffer.”
An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said:
“We completely refute any allegation of misinformation during the procurement process for Personal Independence Payment.
“The Department [DWP] made clear that they were not misinformed during the tender process, that at the point of ‘go live’ they knew our capacity, our partners and the number of centres we would be using.”