“Unacceptable” failings by the government’s disability benefit assessment company have led to people being without benefits for months, MPs have said.
A report by the Work and Pensions select committee identified numerous failings by Atos Healthcare, which conducts assessments to inform Jobcentre Plus decisions on disabled people’s eligibility for employment and support allowance. These include:
● Appointments for assessments routinely overbooked by 20%, meaning some people could not be assessed despite turning up as arranged.
● Claimants having to make up to 135 calls to arrange appointments.
● Administrative failings on the part of the assessment company meant some people were not able to attend appointments.
● Some assessments centres are not accessible to disabled people.
Some claimants had benefits cancelled for not attending appointments when their non-attendance was the result of administrative errors on the part of the assessment company, the committee found.
The report said: “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.”
Anne Begg, chair of the committee, said: “There have been failings in the Atos Healthcare service, which has often fallen short of what claimants can rightly expect. This has contributed significantly to the mistrust which many claimants feel about the whole process.”
She said that some improvements had been made but the Department for Work and Pensions, which contracts Atos to conduct the assessments on its behalf, needed to do more to ensure claimants were treated properly.
A spokesperson for the DWP said that it was committed to improving the assessment process through the recommendations of a series of independent reviews.
Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, told the committee that where people had their benefits wrongly stopped there would be process changes to ensure this did not happen again.
The review also found that the government’s decision to limit benefits for some unemployed disabled people to twelve months has no evidence base.
Meanwhile, the government has set out plans in the Welfare Reform Bill to limit employment and support allowance to people on the basis of their national insurance contributions as opposed to those with a low household income, to one year.
The select committee review said that the government had made the decision to save money and bring employment and support allowance in line with jobseeker’s allowance. However, while there was evidence that most people on contributory jobseeker’s allowance were able to find work within a year, the differing profiles of the two groups of benefit claimant meant this was unlikely to be the case for disabled people.
“It does not appear that the government has the data available to make an evidence-based decision on the appropriate length of time for which contributory employment and support allowance should be payable in order to support its objective of moving claimants into employment,” the committee said.
It recommended the government conduct research on how long it took employment and support allowance claimants to return to work before limiting contributory employment and support allowance to one year.
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