Bu John Pring Disability News Service 23rd February 2017
Healthcare professionals who carry out disability benefits assessments for the government complete as much as 60 per cent of their reports before they meet the disabled person they are supposed to be assessing, according to a disgraced former assessor.
Paramedic Alan Barham was sacked after being exposed last year by an undercover reporter working for Channel 4’s Dispatches.
But he has now contacted Disability News Service (DNS) to protest about the way he has been treated, claiming that he has been made a “scapegoat” by Capita, the outsourcing company he was working for, but which sacked him after the documentary was aired.
He also claims that personal independence payment (PIP) claimants are frequently “ripped off” by assessors who fail to complete their reports fairly, although he insists that he was not guilty of such practices himself.
And he claims that nearly everything he was caught saying by Dispatches – for which he now faces the possibility of being struck off by his regulatory body – was standard practice, and was therefore “driven by Capita”.
Barham is facing a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) disciplinary hearing over comments he was filmed making about the way he carried out PIP assessments.
HCPC has decided that separate allegations that he lied in a report he wrote after assessing a disabled woman’s eligibility for PIP will not be dealt with by a disciplinary hearing.
Barham claims he is innocent of most of the charges against him, insisting that he was only following instructions and guidelines laid down by Capita.
And he says he is set to sue Capita for making him “a scapegoat for their protocols”, and that the fallout from the documentary has led to the break-up of his marriage and the loss of his business.
He told DNS: “I hope they crash and burn, I really do. Capita is a monster. I’m not. They are.”
Barham’s claims are just the latest development in an ongoing DNS investigation into claims of widespread dishonesty by PIP assessors working for both Capita and Atos on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
One of the most disturbing claims made by Barham during the hour-long telephone interview was that assessors are instructed by Capita to “pre-populate” their written assessment reports before they have even carried out their face-to-face assessments.
This time-saving measure, he says, means that up to three-fifths of the 25-page reports are completed before an assessor has met the disabled person at the assessment.
In the documentary, he had claimed that, on one assessment, he had “literally finished [the] assessment before I’d even walked through the door”.
Now he says he was exaggerating, and that he had not completed all of the report before the assessment took place, but he insists that filling in large parts of it beforehand was, and is, standard procedure at Capita.
He says it is called “pre-population”, and allows assessors to fill in as much of the PA4 report [the assessment report that drives the DWP decision to accept or reject a PIP claim] as they can from the evidence they have already seen.
He said: “There’s lots and lots and lots of pre-population.”
Barham also defended his claim – also caught by undercover footage in last year’s Dispatches documentary – that an assessor can usually “completely dismiss” most of what he or she is told in an assessment by the claimant.
He said this was because assessors are told by Capita that they can use “informal observations” of claimants to draw conclusions about the accuracy of what they are saying.
He said: “I’ve had people saying I can’t wash my own hair but at the end of an assessment put a hat on their head, or have taken a hat off prior to the start of the assessment. And this is what we’re asked to look for.”
Asked if Capita tells its assessors to constantly set traps for their claimants and try to trick them into doing things they say they cannot do, he said: “Absolutely, yes, and this is why I rang you back.
“Because I’m berated for what I was perceived to be doing, but I stood in a training room for a week with Capita in Birmingham being told to do all this.”
In the documentary, he discussed how at one point, soon after the introduction of PIP, assessors like him who were paid as contractors were able to earn huge sums of money.
He repeated that claim to DNS, saying: “We used to earn £80 an assessment for the first eight [assessments a week].
“[Then they] doubled that to £160 an assessment for the first eight, then they went from eight to 14 at 200-and-something an assessment, and from 14 to 20 it was £300 an assessment, and 20 onwards it was £350 an assessment.”
Barham claims that he was considered one of the top 10 out of 600 PIP assessors in the country and that in two years he carried out 1,000 assessments for Capita, although he refused to say how much he earned in total during that time.
He said: “I’m not an animal. This is what’s really annoying me: Capita told me to do all this.
“I’ve done this, as per Capita, as per guidelines, as per my contract, as per my employer… and there’s rules when you’re employed, and you follow them rules and you will keep your job.”
Barham’s one admission of regret was about making an offensive comment about an unnamed PIP claimant, who he was heard describing as “so fat she can’t wipe her own arse” and who he said had a “disability known as being fat”.
He said this was just “a generic comment to a couple of colleagues in an office that happens every day around the country in lots of offices”, and that it was “not detrimental to her”.
He said: “It was just a personal opinion. We have all said things we shouldn’t say.
“I regret it 100 per cent, and like I said, I’m a human being, we all make derogatory remarks. Rightly or wrongly, we all do it. It’s something I shouldn’t have said.”
Barham said that he would provide DNS with 134 written documents that would prove that nearly all of the comments he made in the documentary represented standard Capita procedure.
But he changed his mind after the interview and said that handing over the documents to DNS would “jeopardise” his defence at the HCPC hearing.
Two weeks ago, DNS reported the concerns of David Nicholls, from Northampton, the husband of one of the PIP claimants who had been assessed by Barham.
DNS has seen Capita’s response to Nicholls’ complaint about the assessment report Barham wrote following an assessment of his wife, Jacqueline, in March last year, a month before the Dispatches documentary was screened.
As a result of the assessment, she was found ineligible for PIP.
It was only after the documentary was aired and DWP agreed to allow her to be reassessed that she was granted the enhanced rate for both the daily living and mobility components of PIP.
In its response to the Nicholls complaint about Barham, a Capita senior complaint handler wrote: “You stated that you disagree with the content of your assessment report and that you believe [Barham] had made inaccurate assumptions and had lied in his report…
“Based on the outcome of my investigation, I uphold this element of your complaint.”
In his report, Barham repeatedly stated that what he was told by Jacqueline Nicholls was not backed up by the tests he carried out during the assessment.
But David Nicholls has told DNS that Barham ignored the impact of his wife’s brain injury on both her physical and mental functioning, including her seizures, her confusion when asked too many questions, the lack of feeling in parts of her body, her memory problems, and her tendency to get lost when on her own.
Barham reported instead that she could plan and follow routes, understand complex written information without any help, and make her own budgeting decisions.
Nicholls said Barham had “misled people with the findings in his report in the worst possible way” and that his assessment had given “no consideration to brain injury at all”.
He said that the effect of dishonest assessors like Barham on disabled people was “devastating”.
Presented with the words of David Nicholls, the conclusion of Capita that he had lied in the assessment report, evidence from medical experts, and the results of the second assessment, which awarded Jacqueline Nicholls the enhanced rate of PIP for both mobility and daily living, Barham insisted to DNS that his assessment had been correct, according to Capita procedures.
He claimed that he had no choice but to take her answers as she gave them to him, even though her husband had told her that he needed to take account of her brain injury.
Barham said: “I stand by my judgement at the time because I did not receive any of what we call further medical evidence to back up what she was telling me.”
But David Nicholls says that Capita had been sent a letter from an epilepsy nurse outlining the impact of his wife’s condition, and that Barham had insisted at the start of the assessment that he had read this letter and that he had all the information he needed.
Nicholls said this week: “The system is not fit for purpose and he has exploited it.”
Barham also told DNS that many PIP claimants were being “ripped off” by their assessors, who were completing unfair assessment reports, although he said he had not done so himself.
He said this was because assessors were given only 45 minutes to carry out their assessments – and often have to carry out five a day – and then have just 24 hours to write all of those reports.
He said: “They are under pressure, their managers are on their back all the time.
“You [carry out] an assessment and you’re given 24 hours to turn that assessment around and present it to them.”
Barham insisted to DNS that he was “not a nasty person, I am a nice person.
“I have been a paramedic for years and I love my job. I have letters galore from patients, thanking me for what I have done for them.
“I feel like I’ve been absolutely smashed to bits and used as a scapegoat for Capita.
“All I have done is, yes, I made a derogatory comment, I wish I hadn’t, wishing is not going to make it go away.
“But I have done it, I have reflected on it and I’ve learned from it.
“Everything else is Capita-driven. Everything is Capita-driven. I’m sick to death of being a scapegoat.”
He added: “I have lost my business, my wife has split up [with me], my whole life has split apart since April.
“I have disabled friends. I have no problems with disability. This is the thing that’s driving me crazy.”
He said that he was now set to sue Capita for making him “a scapegoat for their protocols. I have done everything I was asked to do, apart from calling someone too fat.”
Capita failed to deny any of the claims made by Barham, but refused to respond in depth to his comments.
A Capita spokesman said: “Capita’s focus is on undertaking quality assessments in an efficient and professional manner.
“We expect all of our assessors to carry out assessments as outlined by the DWP.
“If individuals do not meet our expectations we will always take appropriate action.”
DWP also declined to comment on the claims made by Barham.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “This is a commercial matter for Capita. We expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments and work closely with them to continuously improve and ensure PIP is working in the best way possible.”