Atos is a French-based company that holds contracts with the UK government to carry out billions of pounds worth of services
But not without controversy.
The government announced in 2014 that a contract Atos had with the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) for ‘fitness to work’ assessments was being terminated early, after concerns over ‘significant quality failures’. However, the company still carries out assessments of people claiming the ‘PIP’ (Personal Independence Payment) disability benefit.
But again, not without controversy.
The bonus letter
A letter has emerged from Atos to its health staff and ‘site coordinators’ offering them an extension of what amounts to ‘bonuses for volume’ in completing PIP assessments:
Sent in May last year, the letter praises staff for the ‘whopping‘ number of ‘extra‘ claimants they have processed, makes clear that incentives to increase throughpout had already been in place when the letter was sent and extends the bonus scheme into two additional months.
The idea that staff are being incentivised for the volume of assessments they complete raises obvious concerns that staff wanting to increase their income might be tempted to compromise quality and accuracy in order to get them done faster.
In January, the Disability News Service claimed that a the assessment of a Dorset PIP claimant continued even while he suffered a series of ‘grand mal’ epileptic seizures:
DWP appeal-rejection targets
Those concerns increase in the light of House of Commons documents publishedlate last year showing that the DWP sets a target for how many first-line appeals – known as ‘mandatory reconsiderations’ against the removal or reduction of disability benefits must be rejected.
In other words, DWP staff have to ‘hit’ a set number of rejections, rather than assessing appeals on their merits. As the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee (WPSC) asked the DWP in a letter sent at the end of November:
In fact, the DWP does far ‘better’ than its target. A WPSC statistical report shows that, between April 2013 when they were introduced and March 2017, only four percent of PIP-related ‘mandatory reconsideration’ appeals were upheld.
The letter to the DWP also points out how DWP staff feel under pressure to ‘rubber stamp‘ decisions by IAS and other providers – and questions how the DWP’s own focus on speed can be balanced with “good quality decision-making“:
The DWP/Atos response
The SKWAWKBOX asked the DWP for its opinion of speed- or volume-based incentives of the type outlined in the Atos letter to its staff. The DWP declined to comment except to say to contact Atos, which had already been done.
A further request for the department’s own position has so far gone unanswered.
A press spokesperson for Independent Assessment Services (IAS), the recently-renamed Atos entity carrying out the assessments, told the SKWAWKBOX:
When we have more cases to assess and to help minimise the time it takes for claimants to receive their assessment we will ask our Health Professionals, who undertake the assessments, if they are able to work additional hours to help complete more cases and we compensate them for doing so. However, we are clear that quality cannot be compromised and that satisfying all assessment criteria fully in each and every assessment is the number one priority. Health Professional quality is monitored closely to ensure this is met.
Hide and seek
The government does not want to reveal the monthly self-assessment reports submitted to it by Atos and another company involved in the assessment of disability claimants.
On receiving a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents, it began a battle of over a year to avoid releasing them. The DWP’s tactics included a claim that releasing the reports would damage the ‘commercial interests’ of the companies.
In January, it was told to release them by the Information Commissioner – but four months later it still has not done so. A DWP spokesperson told the SKWAWKBOX:
We have received the ICO judgement and we are currently considering our position.
Four months and still ‘considering our position’ looks very much like another tactic to avoid or delay the release of the information is has been ordered to disclose.
This tends to support the opinion of campaigner John Sheridan, who submitted the FOI request and told the Disability News Service,
I suspect what they will show is not only that the contractors are struggling but also how bad DWP is at managing contracts.
The DWP appears to be concerned that the reports will reveal ‘Windrush‘-style targets it sets its assessors on how many claimants they should ‘fail’, as it told the Information Commissioner the information could be,
maliciously misinterpreted to feed the narrative that the Department imposes ‘targets’ for the outcomes of assessments.
Since the setting of targets by the for the rejection of appeals against negative decisions is now a matter of parliamentary record, it is questionable whether the data would require any ‘misinterpretation’ to reach that conclusion.
The whole disability assessment system appears to be set up to move disabled people off benefits regardless of need. The government has been accused of ‘tormenting’ disabled people through disability assessments and the companies it uses.
Against a background of admitted DWP targets for the rejection of appeals – and the continued attempts of the government to avoid revealing whether it sets targets for ‘failed’ disability claim assessments – the news that one of the main contractors involved in those assessments incentivises staff to increase the number of assessments completed is of serious concern, not only to disabled people but to anyone who wants to live in a country civilised enough to treat its vulnerable citizens with dignity, respect and compassion.