Atos, the firm that runs the work capability assessment designed to encourage people to move off benefits and into employment, has won contracts worth more than £400m to test whether disabled people should continue receiving benefits or be coaxed into work.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced the award of three contracts in England and Wales, with Atos unexpectedly winning the lion’s share of the work. The smaller of the three contracts, covering Wales and parts of central England, was won by the outsourcing company Capita.
There has been much disquiet about Atos and the work capability assessment, with accusations of widespread inaccuracies in the medical reports used to help determine whether individuals are eligible for sickness benefits.
This week Prof Malcolm Harrington, who was appointed by the government to review the assessment, told BBC’s Panorama that the test was “patchy” and needed improvement.
The biggest corporate loser appears to be G4S, which had begun its own tests with disabled people two years ago and hoped to be awarded a number of contracts. The final stages of the award process came in early July, when details of the debacle over Olympic security began to emerge.
G4S is still in line for two smaller contracts – one in Northern Ireland and the other a national trial. These are worth about £200m in total, industry insiders estimate.
The government will replace the working-age disability living allowance (DLA) with a new personal independence payment (PIP), and cut spending by 20%. The new scheme is being introduced from next year.
DLA, which pays out a maximum of £74 a week, is a welfare payment designed to help people look after themselves and aimed at those who find it difficult to walk or get around. The government says that in eight years the number of people claiming DLA has risen by about 30%, from 2.5 million to 3.2 million, with the annual cost now £13bn. Ministers argue that there are no checks on who gets the benefit, hence the need for an assessment system.
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said the tests were deeply flawed. “Just this week the government and Atos, the contractor that carries out its fitness for work test, have come under a great deal of criticism about how this assessment is being delivered to disabled people. Yet in less than a year from now, disabled people could have to go through two deeply flawed assessments in the same month to get the essential financial support they need to live their lives.