Sheffield MP raises concerns over fitness to work assessments

Sheffield Heeley MP, Louise Haigh
Sheffield Heeley MP, Louise Haigh

Sheffield MP Louise Haigh claims disability benefit claimants’ fitness to work assessments have been ‘falsified’ by the private companies contracted to carry them out.

The Labour MP, who represents Heeley, said several constituents told her that reports on their work capability assessments bore ‘absolutely no relation’ to the actual experience with contractors Maximus or Atos, which carried them out.

Ms Haigh claimed there was an ‘alarming trend’ of cases being rejected on ‘factual errors’ or ‘falsification’ and highlighted the latest figures showing that 54 per cent of appeals result in work capability assessment decisions being overturned.

She said an assessment of one of her constituents with learning difficulties contained ‘glaring factual errors’ but his employment and support allowance (ESA) was docked.

The constituent has now asked for mandatory reconsideration of the decision but in the meantime will be ineligible for ESA, facing months of waiting until his tribunal and ‘potentially an annual battle if assessors continue to lack understanding of his learning difficulty’.

Ms Haigh suggested that the ‘disconcerting patterns of behaviour’ in assessments could be down to the trade-off between the Department for Work and Pensions’ need to cut costs and contractors’ goal to maximise profits.

Leading a Westminster Hall debate on work capability assessments, Ms Haigh said: “Despite the fact that the Government have made it notably harder for people to appeal their decisions the latest figures show that 54 per cent of appeals result in decisions being overturned.

“As in the case of the first constituent I mentioned, there seems to be an alarming trend of cases being rejected based on factual errors or even - I hesitate to say this - falsification.

“I have had several cases of people telling me that their assessment report bears absolutely no relation to the assessment that they experienced with Maximus or Atos.

“I am sure that other honourable members have heard similar evidence.

“One or two cases could be dismissed as an honest mistake, but the situation appears to reveal a disconcerting pattern of behaviour that indicates that the trade-off between cost cutting and profit maximisation is being felt by very vulnerable people.”

Maximus took over work capability assessments last year after previous contractor Atos severed its contract amid heavy criticism in 2014.

Replying for the Government to claims of falsification, employment minister Priti Patel insisted the Government ‘robustly’ validates data from contractors.

Ms Patel also stressed that those carrying out work capability assessments are not on incentivised contracts.

Ms Patel said: “Let us be clear - the department is responsible for hundreds of billions of pounds of public money, taxpayers’ money.

“On our processes of procurement, renegotiation and accountability, we have a clear approach to the scrutiny of providers, and rightly so.

“That applies to all departments, and the same applies when it comes to failure.

“The contract has an open-book accounting approach and a robust validation of data.

“I think you mentioned falsification of data at one point.

“We have a clear process on the validation of data.

“You also went on to comment on how providers are incentivised, but our providers are not incentivised by benefits outcomes.”

An Atos Healthcare spokesman said: “Atos no longer run the work capability assessment contract and transferred this a year ago to another contractor. We refute any accusation of falsification during the period when we delivered these services.

“The department have always had a clear process on the validation of data to ensure that we provided factual and fully evidenced reports back to the Department of Work and Pensions.”