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The Work medical assessment contract between DWP and private firm ATOS is not effective says financial watchdog

Date: (17 August 2012)    |    

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The reforms by Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) to move people from sick benefits into work has come to some criticism when the contract between the government and Atos, the private firm engaged to carry out fit-to-work medical assessments, has been found to be weak and underpinning the DWP.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said the DWP had failed to penalise Atos for non-performance and had also not set targets which were sufficiently challenging.
The DWP said it was committed to making the Atos agreement a success.
French firm Atos was paid more than £112m in the last financial year to carry out about 738,000 face-to-face medical tests on benefit claimants.
The test results known as work capability assessments were being used by the DWP to decide whether people were fit enough to work or eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
The assessments were first introduced on a pilot basis by Labour in 2008 and rolled out across the country by the coalition government. Most of the decisions have been found to be wrong as the officials at the DWP lost nearly four out of 10 appeals at tribunals.
The NAO said it was not clear if the quality of the tests were to be blamed for the number of wrong decisions. A letter to Tom Greatrex MP for Rutherglen, seen by the BBC, from NAO’s Comptroller, Amyas Morse, had stated that it was hard to know whether changes to the tests were needed.
It was difficult to assess with no routine feedback sought from the department on the rationale for tribunal decisions and without such data it was not clear whether any changes in the medical process were needed, Mr Morse had added.
The DWP had previously admitted that Atos had not carried out some fitness testing within the agreed time limits, and performance had been "below the standard" since mid-2011.
The NAO criticised the DWP for not seeking "financial redress" for these delays with only 10% of penalties applied for poor performance. The spending watchdog added that the DWP's negotiating position has been undermined by "inaccurate forecasting" of the number of people who were likely to undergo a medical test.
A DWP spokesperson said under constant review the contract had "changed considerably" when in 2010 it was observed that the Work Capability Assessment was not working properly and since then it had been improved substantially.
Complaints that the medical test causes distress have been made since they were first introduced. In May 2011, six charities - including the MS Society and Parkinson's UK - urged the government to make the tests fairer for patients whose symptoms vary in severity over time.
A month later, campaigners claimed in a letter to the Guardian newspaper, that assessments were causing "huge" distress, and had even resulted in suicides.