A former benefits assessor today exposes the grim world of the Tories’ “unfair” and “ethically questionable” disability regime.
Staff have just 15 minutes to read claimants’ medical history before interviewing them for vital Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the whistleblower said. And the process is such a “relentless conveyer belt” that they skip toilet and lunch breaks – just to get “10 seconds” back in the day.
PIP, worth £22 to £141 a week, is meant to be a fairer way for 1.6million disabled people meet everyday costs. But in a Mirror interview, the healthcare professional said they saw vulnerable people through “two worlds – the real world and the PIP world.”
Rigid and “uneven” rules meant some people who obviously needed help were denied the benefit, the assessor claimed. And some staff were reluctant to score claimants higher – because they could be “told to change” their decision by bosses.
“For staff it’s probably relentless, for claimants it’s probably unfair, and as a professional I think it just needs improving,” the expert told us.
Almost a THIRD of PIP disability assessments are ‘not up to scratch’
“I think the process was questionable from a clinical point of view. “If I got my code of ethics out, there were things I was having difficulty reasoning in my head.” Our source worked for a number of years for outsourcing giant Atos, which the government has paid more than £480million to assess people for PIP since 2013.
PIP is replacing the old Disability Living Allowance – but campaigners say assessments for the new benefit are unfit for purpose. Of 947,000 people moving from DLA to PIP, almost half (46%) had their payments downgraded or stopped.
Our source, who resigned amid concerns over the “unpleasant” system, told us the “intense” and “frustrating” daily routine for staff had an effect on claimants. They said: “You’re basically given four slots a day and those slots are fixed. You don’t organise your own diary.” That left 15 to 30 minutes to read claimants’ medical history before starting an assessment, the source said – if the centre was not overbooked that day.
Some claimants had just an application form and GP’s letter. But sometimes “you think great, I’ve got 15, 20, 80 bits – I’ve had 80 bits of evidence before – how am I going to read through that? “Atos won’t say ‘we give them 15 minutes or half an hour to read through’, they would just say ‘we’ll give them as long as they need’.
“But in reality, if I’ve got a 9am appointment, I know at 11am I’ve got somebody [else] coming in.” Our expert said appointments last 45 minutes to an hour, and guidance was to spend 105 minutes on each claimant’s case.
But if someone needed an interpreter or had complications, “booking times go out the window”. “I could have somebody come in with arthritis on their big toe and somebody come in with multiple mental health conditions,” the source said. “You generally get the same slot.”
The assessor claimed staff were so pressed for the time that they would skip lunch and toilet breaks. “You look for 10 seconds, anything you can grab, because you know you’re going to be pushed,” they added.
The second problem was the rigid criteria to decide if people were disabled enough. “We’ll have two worlds – there’s the real world and the PIP world,” the assessor said. “In the real world, you think right, I know they will find it difficult to get dressed.
“But because the definitions are so specific, it’s sometimes difficult to award them a higher level.” Shocking blunders in the past have led to questions over assessors’ competence. One claimant with no dog who couldn’t walk was told they regularly walked their dog. Another was asked: “When did you catch Down’s syndrome?”
Our source insisted staff were highly-trained as nurses, paramedics, physiotherapists or occupational therapists, with pay starting around £30,000. Instead the assessor blamed the scoring system – and audits that check it’s being followed.
Atos assessors give people ‘points’ for everyday tasks they can’t do. If someone scores below eight, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) denies them the benefit. But assessors can have their reports “amended” by superiors – and if it happens too often, they are put on a performance review.
The assessor agreed it was right to check reports but said the process was “uneven”. “It goes both ways,” our source said. “I’ve had reports back where auditors have told me to score higher. But I’ve also had reports where they’ve told me to score lower.
“What I’ve found is, more often than not, it’s more difficult to score people higher. I think it’s uneven.” Our source added: “You’re getting this stuff sent back and you’re thinking God, I really know this person needs assistance. No way they can do it.
“And it will be sent back and an auditor will basically be telling you ‘no, that’s not the case’. “What they’ll do is they’ll pick some other evidence in the report that supports their point. “In my opinion that evidence is sometimes weaker. But you’re essentially told to change it.” They said it took a toll on staff saying: “It’s led to so many colleagues leaving. On a daily basis it drives people nuts.”
A spokesman for Atos’ PIP arm Independent Assessment Services said: “We listen carefully to all feedback provided by those being assessed, and continually adjust our service to help deliver an enhanced experience for all involved. “Our Health Professionals (HPs) are able to take as long as they need to understand a claimant’s health condition or disability.
“All assessments are conducted in accordance with DWP policy, and there is no incentive or encouragement given to HPs to conduct an assessment in any way that would lead to a certain outcome.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Assessments work for the majority of people, with 87% of PIPclaimants telling us that they’re happy with their overall experience. “But one person’s poor experience of PIP is one too many, and we’re committed to continuously improving the process for claimants.
“We expect the highest standards from our assessment providers, and we work closely with them to ensure that all claimants receive objective, accurate and high quality assessments.”
“The stress of it froze me to the spot and I cried”
Janet Roberts burst into tears when she opened the letter that slashed her benefits in 2016. The gran-of-two had been unable to work for four years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s aged 44.
But after an hour-long assessment for PIP at her St Albans home, her mobility payments were cut – from the full rate under the old DLA benefit to zero. Janet faced losing her adapted Motability car on her 30th wedding anniversary to husband Aubrey, 76.
But to her relief a DWP internal appeal restored her benefits with days to spare. The former NHS microbiologist, now 57, told the Mirror: “I just couldn’t believe it. “The stress of it froze me to the spot and I cried, because it was going to make such a difference to my quality of life.
“I had been living with this condition for 10 years. It is a rotten condition that greatly takes away all sorts of bits of your body and relationships. “To decide it was nothing felt like a real insult.”
Janet claimed the assessment was “not fit for purpose” because it didn’t account properly for her condition changing from one hour to the next. She said: “They ask how far you can walk. When my medication’s working I can walk reasonably far – but there’s six or seven times a day when I basically can’t move.” She added: “I had taken my medication at the right time so I was in my optimum physical state when I was there. “I said ‘if you wait ten minutes you will see me in the off state’ but the reply was ‘I don’t need to’.”
PIP is paid in two parts, ‘mobility’ and ‘daily living’, and following her appeal Janet now gets both. But she feared she had lost her mobility payments for around four months while the appeal went through. Thousands wait longer because they appeal to an independent tribunal.
Janet helped charity Parkinson’s UK hand a 33,000-strong petition to Downing Street last month calling for reform to the assessment process. She said the system can be “brutal”, adding: “There needs to be a certain amount of individualism.
“It’s almost like disabled people sometimes are [treated] like a different species – but we’re human beings with real struggles.”