With the DWP permanent secretary appearing before MPs tomorrow, Labour MP Tom Greatrex sets out some of the questions he wants answered about Atos Healthcare's contract with the Government.
The DWP’s arrangements for Atos Healthcare to undertake fitness for work tests have been hugely controversial. Since the coalition accelerated the process of reassessing those who had received incapacity benefit, more and more harrowing cases have arisen where the decisions have turned out to be wrong. Hardly a week goes by without another case of poor decisions coming to light – by turn ridiculous, unfair and tragic.
The appearance of the DWP Permanent Secretary, summoned to the Public Accounts Committee by Margaret Hodge, tomorrow afternoon is an opportunity to get some answers about a process which is increasingly mired in chaos with sometimes tragic consequences.
Atos often get the flack – sometimes deservedly for the way in which people attending their assessment centres are treated – but as they readily point out, they don’t technically make the decisions. DWP do that. They say they are fulfilling their contract with the DWP, not deciding the policy.
When there are so many poor decisions, such a backlog for appeals to be heard and so many of those appeals are successful, then the operation, management and performance of the contract is important. Since beginning to ask about the contractual arrangements as a constituency MP nearly two years ago, my questions have frequently been blocked under cover of “commercial confidentiality”.
In February, to try to find out more, I asked the National Audit Office (NAO) to look at the contract and how well the DWP was managing the performance of Atos Healthcare given the poor experience of so many people. Their response, in August, highlighted a series of performance failures by Atos, and management shortcomings in the DWP.
Waiting times have increased by 85% in just two years. The fact that almost 40% of those who appeal DWP decisions are successful tells its own story, with the cost of the appeals process to the taxpayer trebling since 2009 to £60m last year alone – more than half the cost of the original contract again, with the taxpayer effectively paying twice. Once for the assessments, then again to correct the mistakes. Apart from the consequent anxiety and distress for many sick and disabled people, this raises serious questions over value for money.
DWP spokespeople’s usual response to any criticism is that it is due to the last government. While the last government introduced the Work Capability Assessment, in April 2011 the coalition extended the assessment to the millions of people on Incapacity Benefit despite pilot schemes in Aberdeen and Burnley the previous year highlighting fundamental flaws. It is no coincidence that it is from that period onwards that the NAO found significant performance failures. And it was the current Tory-Liberal Government which decided to extend and amend the contract with Atos Healthcare, which is currently valued at £112m a year.
One of the National Audit Office’s most damning conclusions the failure of the DWP to impose adequate financial penalties on Atos for the company’s underperformance. I have repeatedly asked DWP Ministers for full disclosure of performance indicators that Atos are measured against, financial and other penalties in the contract, what they have been applied for and when. For reasons of commercial confidentiality the questions are not answered. Quite how, and why, it is commercially confidential when there is one contractor being paid by the DWP for an entirely public sector function remains unanswered.
Yet the NAO report revealed that only in one in every ten occasions when it could do so did DWP Ministers chose to fine Atos. The conclusion that the department has “not sought adequate financial redress for contractor underperformance” is a polite way of saying Ministers have let Atos Healthcare off the hook.
One of the most prescient recommendations made by the NAO was for better procurement arrangements to ensure value for taxpayer money over future medical services contracts. In one of life’s great coincidences, on the same day the NAO reached this conclusion DWP Ministers announced the award of a £238m contract to Atos Healthcare for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment programme in Scotland and the North of England.
Last month, it was revealed that in Scotland most of this work has been subcontracted by Atos to the NHS. This begs the question – what is the point of the middle man? If the public sector outsources a medical services contract to a private company, only for that private company to outsource this back to the public sector, questions must be asked about what exactly Atos Healthcare is doing to earn the hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds it is receiving?
We need an assessment that helps people back into employment, but which doesn’t hound those who are too sick to work. The current system is failing – the contractor isn’t performing well enough, and the contracting body is not managing the process. It is for that which the DWP need to account to the PAC – and, by extension, to the thousands of people who have suffered as a result.
Tom Greatrex is the Labour & Co-operative Member of Parliament for Rutherglen and Hamilton West