UP TO 20,000 medical assessments on benefit claimants by the private contractor Atos last year failed to meet basic standards, a highly critical report by the Government spending watchdog has disclosed.
By John Bingham, Social Affairs Editor
7:00AM BST 19 Oct 2012
The National Audit Office criticised the Department for Work and Pensions for failing to claw back more taxpayers’ money from the company for missing performance targets.
Atos has a £112 million-a-year contract to carry out back-to-work assessments on people claiming the new form of incapacity benefit.
Last year it saw 738,000 people to decide whether they were fit for work under mass reassessment programme amid the Work and pensions Secretary’s Iain Duncan-Smith’s drive to get people back to work.
It has sparked huge controversy amid claims sick and disabled people are being forced to work on the basis of substandard assessments.
The NAO found that some claimants were being sent home without being seen by doctors while other cases are taking too long to process.
Overall four out of 10 claimants declared fit for work appeal against the decision of whom 38 per cent succeeded last year.
It is estimated that the appeals themselves cost the taxpayer £60 million a year.
The report found that just under fur per cent of the assessments were judged to be below “professional standards” last year – the equivalent of 20,000 cases.
But the contract does not impose any penalty on the company unless the failure rate goes above five per cent, the equivalent of 37,000 assessments, something the report noted “does not appear especially challenging”.
But on other measures where targets had been missed, the department collected only 10 per cent of the financial penalties it might have done, according to the NAO.
Margaret Hodge chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “The department’s management of this contract has been unacceptably loose and permits loopholes that can all too easily be exploited by contractors.
“I am stunned to discover that the department does not check and challenge the key performance data that supports invoices.”
A spokesman for the DWP said: “Since Atos was awarded the contract under the previous Government, there has been a significant amount of change, including improvements to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) process following Professor Harrington’s reviews.
“In 2010, the Work Capability Assessment was not working properly and since then we’ve substantially improved it. It’s a complicated area but we’re committed to making it a success – so it’s fair and accurate for the user and value for money for the taxpayer.”