Atos has been shortlisted for the PIP contract, despite being criticised for its handling of work capability assessments. Photograph: Philip Kirk/Demotix/Corbis

Powered by article titled “How can it be right to profit from disability?” was written by Clare Allan, for The Guardian on Tuesday 1st May 2012 13.00 Europe/London

The Department for Work and Pensions has just announced the 10 private companies on the shortlist to deliver the personal independence payment (PIP) assessments, which everyone receiving disability living allowance will have to undergo from next year when DLA is replaced by PIPs. With 3.2 million captive customers, not to mention a monopoly on all new claimants, it’s not hard to see the appeal of the contract for profit-hungry companies untroubled by the ethics of slashing 20% from the money provided to disabled people to help them meet some of the basic expenses that living with a disability inevitably incurs.

DLA is far from excessive. There are different rates awarded depending on the amount of help an individual requires. The absolute maximum benefit for someone with the highest level of both “care” and “mobility” needs would be £131.50 a week. To qualify, a person would need frequent help day and night, and be unable or virtually unable to walk. In such circumstances, £131.50 is not going to go very far. The minimum level of benefit for those who apply successfully – and many are unsuccessful – is just over £20 a week for help with physical and/or mental health problems. The DLA I received when I was ill, before I sold my novel, far from keeping me in the system for ever, actually enabled me to leave it.

Many people use DLA to pay for equipment and mobility aids, travel costs and additional support to enable them to work. From a purely mercenary point of view, removing such assistance seems remarkably shortsighted. Many disabled people work and pay taxes far in excess of the help they receive to enable them to do so. And, as for the so-called benefit scroungers, don’t let the shamefully whipped-up hype deceive you. At around 0.5% (or one in 200 claimants), DLA has one of the lowest fraudulent claim rates of any benefit. Despite this, in replacing it with PIPs, the government’s own figures suggest that up to half a million people could see their payments withdrawn altogether.

So what about those companies, carefully selected to manage the change to PIPs, charged with the unenviable, if lucrative, task of assessing all 3.2 million claimants to decide where the axe should fall? Medical specialists, perhaps? Experts with a proven track record of accurate and respectful assessment? It would seem from some of the names on the list that an ability to brush off negative PR is regarded as the most important attribute.

Take Atos, for example, the French multinational, responsible for handling the deeply flawed work capability assessments. Despite huge levels of criticism from individuals and charities that the test is not “fit for purpose”, widespread inaccuracies in the assessment process (40% of appeals against Atos decisions are successful), and extensive anecdotal reports of farcical levels of incompetence on the part of the assessors, the DWP has shortlisted Atos for the contract to deliver PIP assessments in every available region.

And then there’s the outsourcing giant, Serco, excluded from the Norwegian government’s investment portfolio because of its involvement in nuclear arms. Serco is shortlisted by the British government to provide “independent” assessments of disabled people: This is a new avenue for Serco, which has thus far made money from, among other things, detention centres (Yarl’s Wood, for example, where there has been outrage over the treatment of children) and prisons.

We hear a lot about taxpayers’ money these days. The PIP contract is the first of a number of health assessment contracts with a total net value of up to £1bn over four years. That’s an awful lot of taxpayers’ money. Personally, I’d very much rather my contributions went towards supporting some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society than into the coffers of companies such as these.

• Clare Allan is an author and writer on mental health issues © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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