Meet the disabled man charged with implementing feared disability benefits test

Capita's Stephen Duckworth tells Mathew Little that disabled people being assessed for the new personal independence payment will receive a "professional, empathetic and dignified service" from his company.

Stephen Duckworth, chief executive of Capita PIP

Stephen Duckworth is a man who inspires strong emotions. As chief executive of Capita PIP, a division of the outsourcing company, he will oversee many of the face-to-face assessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP) that started this month, replacing disability living allowance (DLA) for people of working-age.

There is palpable fear among disabled people because of striking similarities with the work capacity assessment (WCA) for employment and support allowance, which has produced both a conveyor belt of horror stories and a successful appeal rate of, at one stage, 40% of appealed cases. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity, Scope, describes the PIP assessments as “deeply flawed”, while Disabled People Against the Cuts predict a “disaster Mark 2 waiting to happen”.


From DLA to PIP

Under disability living allowance (DLA), claimants did not have to undergo a face-to-face assessment, unless they were appealing against a decision they were not eligible.


But under personal independence payment (PIP), about 75% of claimants will have to undergo a face-to-face assessment, either in their own home or an assessment centre. The remainder will not have to be so assessed because they have no mobility.


Everyone will have to fill in a 37-page application form. The vast majority of existing DLA claimants will be assessed after October 2015, with PIP rolled out to new claimants in the meantime.


The Capita face-to-face assessments will last about one hour and mainly involve questioning, though some “light-touch” physical examinations may occur.


Claimants will be asked questions about, for example, their ability to move around, prepare food, dress, communicate and engage with other people.


Capita envisages it will carry out between 800,000 and one million assessments by 2017 across central England, Wales and Northern Ireland.


Claimants will be assessed against a points system. PIP is divided into two components – daily living and mobility – each with a standard and enhanced rate.


Capita has asked the Department for Work and Pensions to offer audio recording of the face-to-face assessment, but has not received permission to do so.


Capita is not Atos

However, Capita is not Atos, the company that runs the WCA and has been awarded contracts to carry out PIP assessments in Scotland, the North and the South of England. Capita will deliver the assessments in central England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A report this month by the Disability Benefits Consortium reveals “stark differences” in the approach between Atos and Capita, with Capita consistently emerging as more understanding of disabled people’s needs.

Duckworth, a qualified medical doctor, is also disabled himself, having been paralysed from the neck following a rugby accident more than 30 years ago.

“There is an awful lot of learning to be taken, from the Harrington review [into the WCA] and the anxieties and concerns that disabled people’s organisations have expressed,” he says.

Involving disabled people

Three of Capita PIP’s six-strong senior management team are disabled. “If you start to, not infiltrate, but to create a culture that involves disabled people in the process, we believe that will have an impact,” adds Duckworth.

After consultation with disabled groups, Capita has decided to carry out 60% of the assessments in people’s homes and the remainder in an assessment centre, and to give claimants a choice about where they are seen. Influenced by the Harrington review, Capita will also establish “champions” for 15- to 18-year-olds and for people with specific conditions such as learning disabilities or mental health problems. They will have the power the change the way the assessment is conducted, Duckworth says.

Capita will also endeavour to ensure that each PIP applicant is seen by an assessor expert in their impairment. “We’ve got to develop an empathetic, professional and dignified service, to meet individual needs.”

The problem of government cost-cutting

But Duckworth still faces the underlying problem that, however empathetic the assessment becomes, the government still views PIP as way to save an awful lot of money by restricting the number that qualify. The government’s own predictions assume that, by 2018, 600,000 fewer people will qualify for PIP than would have got DLA had the change not been made.

Duckworth’s response is that nothing has been fixed. “The understanding I have is that the current political ambition is to have no increase in costs from now until October 2015. It’s not about a reduction, it’s about a reduction of the increase.” In August 2014, he says, there will be a review of the PIP assessments and their impact, similar to the Harrington review of the WCA. “So I don’t think any judgement can be made about financial implications.”

The crunch will come when the majority of existing DLA recipients are reassessed from October 2015, and it is an issue Capita cannot duck because its contract runs until at least 2017.

No targets to reduce eligibility

But Duckworth is insistent that Capita has no targets to reduce successful claims. “All the targets we’ve got are around quality, customer experience and timeliness,” he says. “We are not targeted at all on bringing benefit payments down.”

He also says PIP has suffered from misinformation. One instance is over the judicial review launched against the government over its failure to consult on an apparent reduction in the maximum distance claimants should be able to walk to qualify for the enhanced mobility award, from 50m to 20m.

“People think that its 20m or nothing, says Duckworth, “which is wrong.” Assessors will also take into account whether an individual can walk the distance safely, in good time, and repeatedly, he says. “It’s not a cut off at 20m.”

Smoke and mirrors

It is here that you encounter the smoke and mirrors of PIP regulations. In January the government did make a major concession when it changed the regulations to assess people on what they are able to do “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period”. Not taking those factors into account has been a major failing of the WCA.

But it’s also the case that draft PIP regulations, published in November 2011, stated that a person could qualify for the enhanced mobility rate if they could not move more than 50m without the use of a wheelchair; and the final regulations state that a person will qualify for the enhanced rate if they can move no more than 20m, either aided or unaided.

Fear of change

Duckworth attributes hostility to PIP as stemming from fear of change. “Change is difficult for anybody and that drives anxiety and concerns, which are sometimes well-founded and sometimes founded on misinformation,” he says. But he has no qualms about taking on delivery of the PIP assessments.

“Disabled people are involved as politicians and in making government policy so surely it makes logical sense that disabled people are involved in the delivery of the service, which has been agreed by the politicians and the policy makers?”

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