New figures raise fresh questions over Atos PIP assessments 

An Atos sign

The amount of time that nurses and physiotherapists spend carrying out face-to-face disability benefit assessments can vary hugely, depending on where the test takes place, according to analysis of new Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures.

Although the figures do not prove that disabled people in some parts of the country are receiving more careful and considered personal independence payment (PIP) assessments than claimants in other areas, they do raise concerns that this could be happening.

And they suggest that there could even be such contrasting experiences for claimants being assessed compared with those in neighbouring towns, cities and counties.

The figures only relate to face-to-face PIP assessments carried out by healthcare professionals working for outsourcing giant Atos, as data is not yet available for those parts of the country covered by DWP’s other PIP contractor, Capita. And Atos* insisted yesterday (Wednesday) that there was “no pressure on staff to complete assessments quickly” and that any variation shown in the figures was not “untoward”.

The figures show that the average time spent on face-to-face PIP assessments in one part of the south-east of England in August 2018 was just 43.5 minutes. In the same month, the average time spent on face-to-face assessments in another part of the south-east region was 62.6 minutes, more than 40 per cent higher.

In one part of the north-west of England, in June 2018, assessments were taking an average of 47.2 minutes, compared with 63.1 minutes in another part of the north-west.

In January 2018, average face-to-face assessment times in the north-west varied from 49.4 minutes in one area to 64.7 minutes in another. The figures are likely to be significant because each of them are averages based on hundreds – and sometimes more than 1,000 – assessments carried out in each area every month in 2018.

They are contained within data files secured from DWP under the Freedom of Information Act by campaigner John Slater. The files he obtained have previously shown that 37 per cent of disability assessment reports completed by Capita were found to be significantly flawed.

Data released through a parliamentary question later revealed that the proportion of assessment reports completed by Atos that were found to be significantly flawed reached more than 36 per cent last year. The new analysis of the data files will only add to these concerns about the performance of DWP’s two PIP contractors.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Fluctuations and variations are to be expected in PIP assessment times. “PIP assessments cover a mix of different types of cases such as new claims and award reviews as well as localised approaches to disability living allowance (DLA) to PIP transitions.”

But Slater said the figures suggested a “postcode lottery” in how “local parts of Atos carry out DLA to PIP transitions (probably the most stressful part of PIP for those on DLA). “I wonder how much the DWP centre knows about these localised approaches or does it just let them do whatever they want?”

The data files show figures for different areas within seven different regions: south-west England, south-east England, London, east England, north-east England, north-west England and Scotland.

The fluctuations appear to be less severe in London and the south-west and more striking in the south-east and north-west of England. An Atos spokesperson said: “With the focus rightly on quality there is no pressure on staff to complete assessments quickly.

“A significant factor in the variation of assessment duration is the proportion of home consultations carried out in an area and those carried out in assessment centres. “Home consultations often take considerably longer to complete than those in an assessment centre.

“The mix of home versus assessment centre consultations is not fixed across the country, with some areas more reliant on home consultations than others. “Individual claimant circumstances can also be a factor in causing variation at a local level.

“So taken as a whole, significant variation on assessment duration on a case-by-case basis is not uncommon or untoward.”

*Atos delivers its PIP assessment contracts through Independent Assessment Services, a trading name of Atos IT Services UK


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Universal Credit staff to strike next week


Universal Credit

The walkout by just over 200 workers in Stockport comes after similar strike action in Wolverhampton and Walsall earlier this year. Universal Credit call handlers will stage a two-day strike next week after “running out of patience” with what they say are cuts and overwork.

More than 200 workers are set to stage a walkout at a contact centre in Stockport, Greater Manchester, next Tuesday and Wednesday after approving the action in a strike ballot.

Some 227 Public Commercial Services union (PCS) members at the centre were balloted. 162 voted, of which 148 backed a strike. It comes after two walkouts at centres in Wolverhampton and Walsall earlier this year over similar issues.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The decision to take strike action has not been taken lightly by our members in Universal Credit. They do their best to help claimants get the support they need. “However, due to cuts, big increases in workloads and victimising reps, they have run out of patience with management.

“The DWP need to stop attacking trade unionists and properly negotiate a settlement which would be in the interests of staff and those claimants that our members help, day in, day out.”

The union is demanding another 100 staff are recruited in Stockport to deal with increasing workloads, and an end to staff cuts. More than 2million people are now on Universal Credit ahead of the final stage of moving existing claimants to the benefit, which begins next summer.

The union said staffing at the centre has been in decline since the flagship benefit was introduced three years ago. But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said it is confident that staffing levels are sufficient.

A DWP spokesman said: “We are disappointed that the PCS in Stockport has taken this course of action. As with previous strikes, our contingency plans will ensure our service is maintained throughout.

“We greatly value the work that our colleagues do and we are committed to supporting them in their roles, including by monitoring staff levels and making sure their caseloads are manageable.”

The DWP said it will monitor staffing and is holding regular meetings with the union locally to attempt to resolve the issues.


Universal credit forcing tenants into rent arrears

Universal credit is causing tenants to fall behind with their rent according to the latest research by the Residential Landlords Association (RLA). Over half (54%) of private landlords who have let to tenants on universal credit in the past 12 months have seen them fall into rent arrears.

Of these, 82% said that the arrears only began after a new claim for universal credit or after a tenant had been moved onto the credit from housing benefit.

Private rental prices up 1.3%
A further 68% of landlords argued that there was a shortfall between the cost of rent and the amount paid in universal credit.

The research also revealed that over a third (36%) of landlords said that they had buy-to-let mortgage conditions which prevent them from renting to benefit claimants.

The RLA is calling on the government to do more to prevent rent arrears occurring and lists recommendations including ending the five week waiting period to receive the first universal credit payment.

David Smith, policy director at the RLA, said: “Today’s research shows the stark challenges the government still has in ensuring universal credit works for tenants and landlords.

“The system only provides extra support once tenants are in rent arrears. Instead, more should be done to prevent tenants falling behind with their in the first place. “Only then will landlords have the confidence that they need that tenants being on universal credit does not pose a financial risk that they are unable to shoulder.

“Without such changes, benefit claimants will struggle to find the homes to rent they need.”

Private landlords renting to universal credit claimants can apply to have the housing element paid directly to themselves when a tenant has reached two months of rent arrears, known as an alternative payment arrangement (APA).

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson responded to RLA’s research: “Many people join universal credit with existing rent arrears, but this number falls by a third after four months, and the number of landlords reporting universal credit tenants experiencing rent arrears has fallen over the last year.

“The best way to help people pay their rent is to support them into work, and universal credit is helping people to get into work faster and stay in work longer than the old system.

“We continue to work closely with landlords and tenants to make improvements to universal credit where necessary, including 100% advances available from day one of a claim.”


How can the DWP justify reducing my benefits when I’m not going to get better?

‘I have a progressive muscle wasting disease – so how can the DWP justify reducing my benefits when I’m not going to get better?

Jason Skinn-Cotton has had his Personal Independence Payments reduced despite his condition deteriorating (Photo: Jason Skinn-Cotton)
Jason Skinn-Cotton says the way he’s been treated by the DWP has “mentally destroyed” him

Jason Skinn-Cotton was 23 when he was diagnosed with an inherited neurological disorder that affects the peripheral nerves. People with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 1A (CMT1A) experience weakness and wasting of the muscles of the lower legs beginning in adolescence, and later hand weakness and sensory loss.

It progresses – albeit slowly – and according to one study, patients have significant decline at a faster rate on average when they hit 50. Now 47, Jason’s condition has deteriorated so that he now needs calipers to walk and he is now fighting off needing a wheelchair.

Yet he’s had to take the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to tribunal to fight to keep his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and his Personal Independence Payments (PIP) has been reduced, leaving him £100 a month worse off.

“How can the DWP justify reducing my disability benefits when I’m not going to get better?” he told i. “I know I’m far from an isolated case and there are many others in a similar situation where they have progressive, or terminal illnesses, that are not going to get better, yet they are having their benefits taken off them or cut. It’s an abuse of our human rights.”

The 47-year-old needs braces, a stick and his wife supporting him to walk (Photo: Jason Skinn-Cotton)
The 47-year-old needs braces, a stick and his wife supporting him to walk

Jason, from Layton in Blackpool, worked as a computer operations manager until his early 20s when his employer dismissed him. Until four years ago, he was claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which was replaced with PIP, and was assessed at needing the highest rates for the mobility and care components.

“I suspect my poor health played a role in my employer letting me go,” he said. “They’d noticed I was making mistakes. “Over the last 10 years my health has really deteriorated further and I have gone from walking unaided to now needing calipers [braces], a walking stick and a glove to help me to hold the stick. I’m trying to fight off needing a wheelchair but I know the time will come soon. I can’t go anywhere alone and my wife needs to always stay on the left side of my to hold me up because of my poor balance.”

In 2011, Jason’s ESA of £578 a month was stopped. It took a year for him 11 months get the decision overturned. Now, he has had his PIP – a benefit that helps with the extra costs of a long-term health condition or disability – reduced, with assessors deciding he should be on low rate for mobility and low rate for care. It means he now gets £300 a month in PIP, £100 less than his DLA payment.

“I’m at a loss how the DWP can decide I have got better when I am a lot worse now and I’m taking more medication and stronger painkillers than I’ve ever needed, including Tramadol [an opioid]. “I shouldn’t be getting assessed every two to four years.”

‘Mentally destroyed’
Jason says the assessor’s report was “totally inaccurate and full of lies”. QUELLE SURPRISE “It said they’d asked me to do exercises they hadn’t asked me to do. It said there were no signs of anxiety or depression, when I’m on medication for my mental health.

“I used to be really outgoing but my health has caused me to feel very vulnerable going out and I get paranoid that people are staring at me. I’ve become agoraphobic. “Plus, the stress of how the DWP has treated me has mentally destroyed me. An assessor can’t necessarily see that in a 40 minute interview but it’s all in my medical records.”

Jason says that when he does go out, he now can no longer afford taxis. “I go to see my elderly mother. It’s only two miles away but by public transport it’s two buses there and two buses back. That’s a lot when you’re in pain and feel very uncomfortable around people.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We’re committed to ensuring that disabled people and those with health conditions get the support they’re entitled to and we are looking again at Mr Skinn-Cotton’s PIP claim.” COMMITED MY ****

Jason has started a petition to demand people who have health conditions that are not going to improve do not face ongoing benefits assessments. To sign it, click here.


DWP U-turns after telling Universal Credit claimants they can work as strippers

The DWP could send me for a job as a stripper, nonetheless, the clients would need a sick bucket, I’m 60, 4 stone overweight, scars, wrinkles and pole dancing is out due to arthritis in my knees from a bad accident years ago. All humour put aside, how low are the DWP going to stoop? With their record I can’t think of much more heinous things that they can do…they are guilty of

The web page is no longer available online after the Department for Work and Pensions admitted it was “inappropriate” – and said it was posted by mistake.  MISTAKE MY FOOT!!!

A government web page listed “dances in adult entertainment establishments” as one option for jobseekers. Universal Credit chiefs have made a humiliating U-turn after telling benefit claimants they could work as strippers.

A government web page listed “dances in adult entertainment establishments” as one option for jobseekers with “no formal academic” skills. The Department for Work and Pensions site – titled “work you could do” – suggested claimants could search the phrase “striptease artist” online to find vacancies.

The career was included as part of a list of “elementary services occupations” for people on Universal Credit. Other job suggestions on the same page included becoming a fortune-teller or loading a Bingo machine.

The Mirror was able to browse the page on Tuesday but it has since been taken offline, hours after concerns were raised on an online welfare forum.

A DWP spokesman admitted: “This is inappropriate and we will immediately review this to determine why it is mistakenly listed.

“This is not the type of employment our work coaches help people into, and since 2010 more than 75% of all new jobs created are high-skilled and full-time.” A Whitehall source suggested the information had been sourced from a list of professions on the Office for National Statistics.

Paul Morrison, a policy advisor to the Methodist Church who spotted the adverts, said: “Suggesting that people perform in strip clubs is clearly unacceptable.” He added it was part of a wider picture of Universal Credit “pushing people towards low paid, insecure jobs that exploit and trap families in poverty.”

The Daily Mirror is campaigning to stop the rollout of Universal Credit and replace it with a fairer system. We say it should either be redesigned to be fit for purpose, replaced by a brand new system, or axed in favour of the old system if it is unfixable.

A DWP spokesman admitted: “This is inappropriate and we will immediately review this to determine why it is mistakenly listed” Almost 2.2million people are on Universal Credit as of June 2019, more than double the total a year earlier.

The gaffe comes weeks after DWP ministers U-turned and indicated there could be a link between Universal Credit and ‘survival sex’.

In June ministers said there was “little reliable data” to suggest the six-in-one benefit was pushing people towards sex work. But after watching testimony by women who said they were, DWP minister Will Quince said the previous memo did not reflect his thinking and “we need to better understand this area”.

Mr Morrison said he accepted women have freedom of choice – and that stripping and sex work are different – but argued the DWP adverts were being aimed at vulnerable people.

He said: “People trapped in poverty with few qualifications and limited options should not be pushed towards sex work. It is shocking that the DWP needs to be told that. “The belief that any work is good work runs through Universal Credit. It has been designed to push and threaten people into the first job that comes along.”

A DWP spokesman added: “More than two million households are now in receipt of Universal Credit and it is working for the vast majority of people, replacing an outdated benefit system that trapped people on welfare.” WHAT’S THE NUMBERS IN WORK GOT TO DO WITH THE SUBJECT OF THIS ARTICLE?


Homeless children put up in shipping containers

A report says homeless children put up in shipping containers, Children’s commissioner for England condemns ‘scandal’ of family homelessness.


Thousands of homeless children are growing up in cheaply converted shipping containers and cramped rooms in former office blocks, putting their health and wellbeing at serious risk, according to the children’s commissioner for England.

Anne Longfield said it was scandal that at least 210,000 young people in homeless families in England were put up by councils in temporary housing and bed and breakfasts or forced to “sofa surf” with friends, often for long periods.

Such accommodation could be unsafe, disruptive and overcrowded, with no room for children to play or do homework. It was frequently in poor condition, far from family support networks and schools, and often in isolated locations dogged by crime or antisocial behaviour.

“Something has gone very wrong with our housing system when children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks,” said Longfield. “It is a scandal that a country as prosperous as ours is leaving tens of thousands of families in temporary accommodation for long periods of time, or to sofa surf.”

Launching a report on family homelessness, she said the main causes were a lack of affordable housing and financial instability created by welfare changes, cuts to universal credit and a four-year freeze on housing benefit.

The report cites the case of Lucy, a homeless woman in her early 20s, and her two-year-old son, who were placed in a converted office block an hour away from their local area in London. The room had no basic furniture. Supposedly an emergency placement, they ended up staying for 11 months.

“They put me in a small room in an office block which had been converted into flats. It was in an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. The cars and lorries would whizz round really fast. It was very noisy and it felt unsafe to walk to the shops,” Lucy said.

The NSPCC said such conditions were harmful to children. “These descriptions of pokey, dangerous conditions belong in a Dickensian novel, but instead they paint a picture of life in the 21st century for many families,” said the charity’s head of policy, Almudena Lara.

The report says one in 10 new homes created in England and Wales since 2016 are in former office blocks, rising to more than half in hotspots such as Harlow in Essex. A government rule change in 2013 means such developments no longer have to seek planning permission. Councils have called for the rule to be revoked.

Many of the conversions fail to meet official size standards for a one-bedroom home, which is 37 square metres. The report cites single-room flats of 18 sq metres converted from offices, and one of 13 sq metres – barely larger than a parking space.

Office-block conversions are often located on or near industrial estates, far from shops, schools and other amenities. Some children who live in them are reportedly stigmatised by peers as “office-block kids”.

Converted shipping containers are increasingly used by councils to provide temporary accommodation for homeless families. While some families prefer them to B&Bs because they have their own self-contained bathroom and kitchen, they are regarded as too hot in summer and too cold in winter.

The report says 124,000 homeless children were recorded as living in temporary accommodation in England at the end of 2018, an 80% increase since 2010. On top of this, it calculates there were 92,000 homeless young people in families who sofa surfed with friends or relatives.

These estimates do not include a further group of children who have been placed in temporary housing by social services, for which there is no publicly available official data. Of those young people in temporary homes in 2017, more than half had been there for longer than six months, and one in 20 for more than a year.

The report says an estimated further 375,000 children live in households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments, putting them at risk of becoming homeless.

The latest official statistics show 2,420 families were living in B&Bs in December 2018, a third of whom had been kept there for longer than six weeks, in breach of the law. These figures do not count at least 1,641 families in council-owned B&Bs, which are not included in official data.

The Local Government Association said a severe lack of social rented homes in which to house families meant councils had no choice but to place households into temporary accommodation including B&Bs.

A government spokesperson said: “No child should ever be without a roof over their head and we are working to ensure all families have a safe place to stay.”


Work until you die

Jeremy Corbyn slams Tory Iain Duncan Smith’s plan to hike pension age to 75