atoskillsThe government is to blame for “misery and hardship” imposed upon claimants being re-assessed for benefits eligibility, the Commons public accounts committee says. Chairwoman Margaret Hodge accused the Department for Work and Pensions of being “unduly complacent” and “getting far too many decisions wrong”. She said the medical assessments were hitting “vulnerable claimants hardest”. Employment Minister Mark Hoban accused the committee of “scaremongering”.

Unveiling her committee’s report on the medical assessments used to determine whether a claimant is entitled to benefits including employment and support allowance, Ms Hodge accused the government of “poor decision-making” over the ability of claimants to work. This was “damaging public confidence” in the system of assessments, the Labour MP said.

Although private firm Atos Healthcare has faced criticism for its role in the assessments process, “most of the problems lie firmly within the Department for Work and Pensions”, she said. Ms Hodge said that 40% of appeals against Atos’ decisions were successful, even though no new evidence had been presented in one-third of these cases. “The department’s view that appeals against decisions are an inherent part of the process is unduly complacent,” she said.

“The work capability assessment process hits the most vulnerable claimants hardest. The one-size-fits-all approach fails to account adequately for mental health conditions or those which are rare or fluctuating.”

Although the department had “started to improve”, she said, claimants “too often” found the assessment process so stressful that their health was deteriorating.” A key problem is that the department has been unable to create a competitive market for medical assessment providers, leaving Atos in the position of being a near monopoly supplier,” she said. “The department is too often just accepting what Atos tells it. It seems reluctant to challenge the contractor. It has failed to withhold payment for poor performance and rarely checked that it is being correctly charged.”

Mr Hoban said the committee’s report “completely fails to recognise the considerable improvements we have made to the work capability assessment since coming to power in 2010, having inherited a system from the last government that was not fit for purpose”.

In 2010, the government commissioned Professor Malcolm Harrington to review fitness-to-work benefit assessments. He subsequently called for an overhaul of the system to make it more “fair and humane”. Mr Hoban said: “We’re implementing all of Professor Harrington’s recommendations, and the percentage of people getting long-term, unconditional support has more than doubled in the last two years.

Source: BBC NEWS


8th February 2013


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