Disability campaigners have welcomed reports in the media that the new Work and Pensions Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP, is considering sacking private-sector disability assessment contractors.
According to the Sunday Times, Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith after his shock resignation last month, wants to get government out of private-sector disability assessment contracts – a move which, if true, would signal a radical shift in the government’s approach to “welfare to work”.
John McArdle, co-founder of disability rights group Black Triangle, said he hoped the move would mean the end of private sector involvement in assessing sick and disabled for disability benefits.
Mr McArdle told The National: “We hope this is not just an attempt to replace one company with another, but we hope it’s an indication the government is moving away completely from using private-sector providers in assessing people.
“If so, this would vindicate our organisation’s position that businesses, whose prime aim is to make money, should have no role in assessing vulnerable people applying for benefits.”
A report from National Audit Office in January revealed that the cost of “fitness for work” assessments in March 2015 had spiraled to £579million.
And a damning report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last week warned of “serious failings” with disability benefits assessments, blasting contractors for failing to meet ‘acceptable performance standards’.
The cross-party committee of MPs raised concerns over whether disability benefit assessments offered value for money, finding “there has been no noticeable benefit for claimants or taxpayers”.
However, MPs also criticised the Department of Work and Pensions, who they said “have repeatedly misjudged what contractors can deliver and the uncertainties underlying what can be achieved”.
Assessments for Employment and Support Allowance are carried out by subsidiaries of the private firm Maximus, after Atos pulled out of a £500 million contract in 2014, while Atos and Capita are responsible for Personal Independence Payment assessments.
Commenting on the report, Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said: “The troubled history of this programme hammers home the importance of getting contracts right—and the importance of then holding contractors properly to account.
“In this case, poor performance has had a tangible human impact. We have seen some improvements but there is a long way to go before people being assessed can be confident of getting the service they deserve.
“Our Committee heard evidence of the assessment process continuing to create anxiety for claimants; of double-booked appointments and arduous journey times.
“Some assessors simply do not understand particular medical conditions.
“Up to one in five reports sampled by contractors were below the required standard and there is also evidence that attempts to reduce delays have undermined the quality of assessments, many of which are subsequently overturned on appeal.
“These are serious failings that must be dealt with rigorously.
“We will expect to see evidence of a more enlightened approach to the needs of claimants, greater transparency over contractor performance and a renewed focus on improving the quality of assessments.”
Commenting on the report, Owen Smith MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Stephen Crabb has an opportunity to start turning the page on the Tories’ terrible record on policies impacting on disabled people.”
He urged the Work and Pensions Secretary to begin a process of “overhauling the assessments system and cancelling the damaging cuts to ESA that will take over £1,500 a year from nearly half a million disabled people”.
Stephen Crabb is to set out his approach to social security on April 12.