Here’s my last blog of the year. Let’s hope the next one is happier for everyone. For those of you celebrating Christmas I hope you have a lovely time. For the rest of us a few days off spent with friends and family or simply doing things that aren’t about work is very welcome. See you all in 2014 and enjoy your holiday.
Row grows over Harrington’s WCA advice to Grayling
Two government departments are at the centre of a growing row over claims a minister ignored the advice of his own independent reviewer so he could begin the reassessment of 1.6 million incapacity benefit (IB) claimants.
Professor Malcolm Harrington says he told Chris Grayling in the summer of 2010 that the controversial “fitness for work” test was not ready to be rolled out.
But he says that Grayling – at the time the minister of state for employment – ignored his advice and gave the go-ahead for the reassessment process to begin in February 2011, even earlier than originally planned.
That decision, say activists, led to anxiety and despair for hundreds of thousands of disabled benefit claimants, many of whom were found unfairly fit for work through the use of the work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance.
The early rollout of an unfit test is also believed to have caused untold health relapses and cases of self-harm.
Grayling insisted to MPs last year that Harrington gave his blessing for the rollout to begin, claiming that he told him: “I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.”
This week, Grayling’s former department, work and pensions, appeared to be rebuffed by his current department, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), as civil servants scrabbled to clarify what advice he was given by Harrington in 2010.
A DWP spokesman told Disability News Service (DNS) that they could not find any record of the conversation between Grayling and Harrington, and so had contacted the MoJ press office.
The DWP spokesman said: “We both decided among ourselves that it was one for us to answer. The upshot was we were going to be dealing with it because it was our media inquiry.”
But when asked whether the MoJ press office had asked Grayling about his conversation with Harrington, the DWP spokesman said: “I don’t know.”
When DNS approached the MoJ press office, a spokesman said: “Chris stands by what he said to parliament.”
The MoJ spokesman denied that Grayling was therefore accusing Harrington of not telling the truth.
But he then admitted that he had not asked Grayling about the meeting with Harrington in the summer of 2010, or if he remembered the conversation about the rollout of the assessment process.
The spokesman said: “The accusation that was put to me was that Chris had misled parliament with this statement. All I asked him was, ‘this is the accusation, do you stand by what was said to the House?”
He has now agreed to ask Grayling about the meeting with Harrington.
As a result of the growing row – first sparked by the publication of an email conversation between Harrington and disabled campaigner and blogger Sue Marsh – Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Kate Green, has called for answers.
She said: “I just don’t know what was and wasn’t said but if there is doubt about whether Grayling took Harrington’s advice or not, and doubt about whether he misled parliament and misrepresented Harrington’s advice, we are entitled to get to the bottom of that.
“They commissioned Professor Harrington, they wanted his expertise. To disregard that advice is in my view pretty cavalier if you haven’t got a good reason for doing so.
“If you commission expert advice and you decide not to take it, you have to have clear and transparent reasons not to do so.
“The WCA has been absolutely disastrous in terms of its execution over the last three years. If there were warning signs that it wasn’t in a state to be rolled out to thousands of quite vulnerable clients – in some cases – I think that is disgraceful.
“If there were clear warnings that the assessment was not fit for purpose and should not be rolled out, to disregard that advice is disgraceful.”
Marsh said it appeared, “as things stand”, that Grayling misled parliament.
She added: “The coalition brought Professor Harrington in to advise them on employment and support allowance and work capability assessments.
“If he advised that the tests were ‘inhumane and mechanistic’, recommending that the national rollout should be postponed for a year, and they ignored that advice, then this is a very serious allegation.
“Chris Grayling needs to clarify immediately whether or not Harrington did indeed advise him to pause.”
Disability employment strategy: More work needed, say campaigners
A new paper that sketches out the first details of the government’s new disability employment strategy has been given a half-hearted welcome by experts.
In a paper providing details of “discussion so far” on the strategy, Conservative ministers Esther McVey and Mike Penning call for a more “personalised approach” to employment support for disabled people.
Another key idea is for a new “gateway” to support for disabled people, to ensure they receive “the right support at the right time” to find them jobs or help them back into work, with specialist support likely to be more personalised, with a wider range of local provision on offer, and supported – rather than sheltered – employment.
The paper hints that the specialist work scheme Work Choice could be replaced, or at least heavily changed.
But the Work Programme – which has done little so far to secure jobs for disabled people – looks certain to stay.
There are also several proposals in the paper to improve advice, support and information, “raise awareness”, and improve existing schemes such as Access to Work and Two Ticks, while eligibility criteria will be used to select which claimants receive anything more than “a basic, universal offer of support”.
Andy Rickell, chief executive of Action on Disability and Work UK, said the paper had “possibilities” but the implementation plan – due next year – would be “key”.
He said the “direction of travel” appeared to be towards more personalisation and local provision, as employment support was “20 or 30 years behind” direct payments and social care, with disabled people’s user-led organisations (DPULOs) “almost entirely absent”.
He warned that ministers would “really like to do personalisation, but they really haven’t decided that they know how they are going to do it”.
He said: “Disabled people need to have much more say over how employment support is provided, in the same way that we now have much more say over how social care support is provided.”
But he praised DWP for the paper’s “honest reflection on that fact that, generally, specialist government schemes for disabled people have not worked”.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) welcomed the idea of a new gateway designed to secure faster support for disabled people, but warned that many of the ideas in the paper needed “more development”.
Liz Sayce, DR UK’s chief executive, said: “At present, people who are out of work due to disability first have to go through the deeply-distrusted work capability assessment, with its often long-drawn-out, wrong decisions, delays and appeal, and meanwhile get no help at all with employment.
“The new gateway could stop the long waits and loss of confidence, by giving at least some people a chance to get tangible help to get a job.”
She also welcomed a new “one stop shop” for information and advice for employers.
And she said there was a need for “a solid, funded plan for personalised and peer support” that was run by disabled people’s own organisations, which would be “a cost effective way of supporting more disabled people than now”.
Sayce also raised concerns about the idea of rationing support through new eligibility criteria.
She said: “If the government is serious about increasing the number of disabled people in employment it must increase investment. This country should not be providing the necessary support only to the selected few.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she thought the new government paper was “very thin”.
She said: “Disabled people were looking for something much more meaty, much more joined-up, much more coherent about the different elements necessary to support disabled people in the workplace, addressing the serious problems with the work capability assessment and the Work Programme – it just skirted round those.”
She also criticised the paper’s failure to suggest a bigger role for local authorities, in commissioning local provision and perhaps providing support themselves.
And she criticised the paper’s AtW measures as “very vague… It is not clear to me how they are going to improve the take-up and make sure it really works as part of an effective package of support for disabled people in the workplace, and how disabled people will have a really strong say. We need much, much more detail.”
Neil Crowther, the former director of human rights at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, co-wrote a report with Sayce which called for the government’s sprawling work programmes to be scrapped, and replaced with a system in which disabled people could decide for themselves how to spend money allocated to help them into work.
In a blog about the government’s new paper, Crowther says DWP’s flagship Disability Confident programme is “relying on approaches to nurture the engagement and willingness of employers that have been around for the last 10-15 years or more”.
He is critical of the apparent decision to stick with the “uniform, pointless and wasteful” Work Programme, which has a success rate with employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants which “by the government’s own measures amounts to worse than doing nothing at all”.
He adds: “At a time of eye-watering spending cuts this is nothing short of scandalous and appears to have little interest in evidence of what works in helping people into jobs.”
And he says the idea of rationing support by focusing on those closest to the job market will only “perpetuate and deepen existing inequalities and deny support to those who need it most”.
He says: “The promise of personalisation is rendered almost immediately empty by saying most will be channelled to the useless uniformity of the Work Programme, while a rationed ‘specialist offer’ may provide some degree of self-directed support but only to those ‘nearest to the labour market’.”
He adds: “There is nothing of any significance regarding what all evidence confirms could be the most significant game changer for many disabled people – improved skills and qualifications.”
Disability employment strategy: Reform, rationing and a new gateway
The government will base its new disability employment strategy on the provision of more personalised support to help disabled people into work, it announced this week.
In a paper providing details of “the discussion so far” on the strategy, work and pensions ministers said they wanted to move away from “supporting individuals in separated, segregated employment”, and towards a more personalised approach, with a “wider range of ideas and initiatives”.
One idea is for a new “gateway” to employment support for disabled people, to ensure they receive “the right support at the right time to enable them to get into or get back into work”.
Although details were sketchy, individuals will be asked to fill in a questionnaire about their skills and work history, before being placed in one of three categories, according to how much guidance and support they are likely to need in their job hunt.
Those referred for specialist support will be helped by an adviser to develop a personalised employment plan.
The paper suggests specialist support will shift away from the big Work Choice providers such as Seetec, A4E and Ingeus, and towards a more personalised approach, with a greater range of local provision, and supported – rather than sheltered – employment.
There is also an admission that the mainstream Work Programme needs to improve for disabled people.
Much of the rest of the paper focuses on improving advice and support, including a new “one stop shop” for employers, to bring together information on subjects such as Access to Work (AtW), reasonable adjustments and equality law on one website.
Other ideas given prominence include offering help to employment and support allowance claimants much earlier in the claims process, and the need for joint working across agencies to support people with mental health conditions into work.
And there was emphasis on reforming and improving existing schemes, including Access to Work and the Two Ticks programme, which recognises disability-friendly employers.
But there was also much that was potentially controversial, with an emphasis from Conservative employment minister Esther McVey on the so-called “biopsychosocial” model of disability, an approach – favoured by the insurance industry – which puts much of the blame for disability on the disabled person.
McVey says in a foreword to the paper: “A person’s belief about what they can do can be as important as other factors, including their health condition, in determining how likely they are to find a job.”
The paper also claims that replacing working-age disability living allowance with the new personal independence payment will help disabled people into work, when many disabled campaigners believe that it will do the opposite.
And it warns that employment support will be rationed, with eligibility criteria used to select which claimants receive anything more than “a basic, universal offer of support”.
In another nod to the biopsychosocial model, the paper suggests that those who have the strongest “beliefs” about their own skills and ability to work might be prioritised.
It also suggests that some disabled people’s organisations and disability charities could do more to promote the idea of work to their own clients, and should ensure that young disabled people about to enter the labour market are made aware of any jobs in their organisations.
The paper also claims that a number of new programmes that are rolling out or will soon be introduced should also boost employment for disabled people, including the key universal credit reforms, the two-year Disability Confident awareness-raising programme for businesses, the Fulfilling Potential cross-government disability strategy, the new “portability” measures in the care bill, a refreshed adult autism strategy, and the Health and Work Service, which is due to launch next year.
Although the paper includes a reminder that the budget for employment support for disabled people has been set at £350 million for 2015-16, some of the major reforms – including those to specialist support – will not come on stream until 2016 at the earliest, because of existing contracts.
Ministers say they will publish a delivery plan for the new strategy next year.
Disabled peer’s inclusion bid fails by less than 20 votes
A disabled peer has failed narrowly in his bid to force the government to include an explicit commitment to inclusive education at the heart of its children and families bill.
Lord [Colin] Low’s amendment would have placed the commitment among the general principles of the bill, in line with the government’s obligations under article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
His amendment made clear “the need to continue to develop an inclusive system where parents of disabled children have increasing access to mainstream schools and staff and which have the capacity to meet the needs of disabled children”.
Lord Low said – mirroring calls by The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) – that the references to inclusion in the bill’s latest draft code of practice had been “very much watered down” in comparison with current guidance.
And he also warned, as ALLFIE has done, that draft regulations attached to the bill would allow a child to be placed in a special academy or free school even if they do not have an education, health and care plan (EHCP), the planned replacement for statements of special educational needs (SEN).
The peer said this risked a return to a time when parents “could be pushed into accepting a special school place for their child, not because it is the best placement for them but because the mainstream school had not, for whatever reason, provided the appropriate support”.
His fellow disabled peer, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, strongly supported his amendment.
The Labour peer said that Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who was absent from the debate with a heavy cold, had given “eloquent testimony of the blight that her segregated education laid on her life. It was not necessary, and it is something that has never left her.”
She added: “A lot of work still needs to be done to support the development of inclusive education across the country, especially when half of our disabled children and young people with SEN are still being placed in segregated educational provision.
“I am very concerned that without an explicit duty, local authorities will become complacent, and, more worryingly, will revert to the practice of investing increasingly limited resources in existing segregated, rather than inclusive, educational provision.”
Lord Nash, the Conservative junior education minister, said the bill maintained “the general principle of inclusion” through some of its key provisions.
He said he was “happy to consider how the code of practice can be further improved”, but that the government did not believe it was necessary to add to the bill’s general principles in order to fulfil its commitments under the UN convention.
And he said Lord Low’s amendment “could run the risk of being perceived as a threat to specialist provision”.
Lord Nash also insisted that the draft regulations on allowing some children without EHCPs to be placed in special academies was “not a blanket policy and it is also definitely not part of any dark plan”.
He said: “On the contrary, the government’s intention is to facilitate innovative new approaches and provision for the benefit of children and young people with SEN.”
And he said there would be “safeguards” to ensure children without EHCPs were not forced into special schools.
A vote on Lord Low’s amendment was lost by 205 votes to 222.
The bill is now approaching its final parliamentary stages, and should become law early in the new year.
The government’s commitment to including disabled children in mainstream schools has been in doubt ever since it included a pledge in its “programme for government” to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education.
Shared space bus cases double up for court appeal
The courts are finally set to provide a clear and definitive ruling on disabled people’s right to access wheelchair spaces on buses.
Two county court cases which saw disabled people take action under the Equality Act against bus companies will now be heard together at the court of appeal, probably next summer.
The first of the cases saw a judge rule that Arriva North East’s “first come, first served” policy on the wheelchair space on their buses did not breach the Equality Act.
Wheelchair-user Jane Elliott had described how an Arriva driver refused to allow her onto his bus because there was a pushchair occupying the wheelchair space.
The judge ruled that – although such incidents could potentially breach the Equality Act – Elliott had not experienced “substantial disadvantage” because the incident had taken place in the early afternoon, she was not in an “isolated or potentially dangerous area”, and another bus was likely to arrive in about 10 minutes.
Four months later, a second judge, this time at Leeds county court, ruled that wheelchair-users should have priority over other bus-users in wheelchair spaces, and that First Group’s own “first come, first served” policy had breached the act.
This case had been taken by wheelchair-user Doug Paulley, from Wetherby, who had been planning to travel to Leeds in February 2012, but was prevented from entering the bus because the driver refused to insist that a mother with a pushchair should move from the wheelchair space.
Recorder Paul Isaacs concluded in his written judgment that it was reasonable that “the system of priority given to wheelchair-users should be enforced as a matter not of request, to any non-disabled user of the wheelchair space, but of requirement”.
Now a senior judge has ruled that both cases should be heard together by the court of appeal.
Unity Law, which represents the disabled passengers in both cases, said the appeal was “set to become the first and leading case on accessible transport and will provide clarity for disabled passengers on public transport of all types”.
Chris Fry, from Unity Law, said: “We are pleased that the issue of who should have priority over the wheelchair spaces on buses will now be considered by a panel of senior judges.
“It’s an opportunity for the thousands of wheelchair-users in the UK to finally get a definitive answer on this issue.”
Such a ruling could force other bus, train and tram companies with similar “first come, first served” policies to take action.
Surveys, studies and a Commons debate paint grim picture of austerity
A parliamentary debate, studies and surveys have this week exposed yet again the impact of the recession and the government’s austerity programme on disabled people.
Concerns about food banks, a drop in the number of those receiving council-funded care and support, and changes to housing benefit, combined to paint a fresh picture of poverty, despair and misery for disabled people.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP for Aberdeen South, told fellow MPs during a debate on food banks in the Commons that she believed their rise was not just a “passing phase born out of the global banking crisis and the recent years of austerity”.
She said: “One thing that has changed is the government. Another thing is the government’s social security reforms.
“The attitude of the government towards those on welfare has changed, too. So even in relatively affluent areas such as Aberdeen, families are depending on food parcels to eat.”
She suggested the rise could be due to an increase in the use of benefit sanctions, and in long delays and mistakes in benefit payments by Jobcentre Plus.
Dame Anne said: “All too commonly, people are using them because they have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.
“People are still falling ill and losing their jobs as a result, only to face a long delay in getting any benefit. Those delays have got worse in recent years.”
She added: “The government need to recognise that the increase in the use of food banks is no accident, that it is not just a result of the economic downturn, and that it is not happening just because the food banks are there.
“It is a result of the policies being actively pursued by the government.”
Meanwhile, with MPs debating the care bill for the first time this week, the Care and Support Alliance released a study which showed the number of disabled and older people receiving social care support from their local council fell by 347,000 (including 97,000 disabled people) in the five years from 2007-08 to 2012-13.
Adjusting for demographic factors, this means that nearly 500,000 disabled and older people who would have received care and support five years ago do not receive it today, according to the study, carried out by the London School of Economics.
And a survey of nearly 4,000 disabled people by the Disability Benefits Consortium found that more than one in nine of those hit by housing benefit changes – including the introduction of the so-called “bedroom tax”, which sees tenants in social housing punished financially if they are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes – had needed to use a food bank.
A similar proportion of those hit by council tax changes had needed to use a food bank.
And for those affected by changes to both housing benefit and council tax, about 15 per cent had been forced to use a food bank.
The consortium – whose members include Disability Rights UK, Transport for All and RNIB – warned that the replacement of working-age disability living allowance with personal independence payment could see even more disabled people driven to use food banks.
Sally Bell, a disabled woman from Bristol, told the consortium that she had been forced to use her local food bank to feed herself and her 17-year-old daughter after being hit by increased council tax contributions.
She said: “Although the staff at the food bank are very respectful, being forced to use the food bank and having to rely on such little money has made me feel less of a human being.”
Meanwhile, Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Housing Federation (NHF) have revealed that nearly a third of disabled people in England who were affected by the bedroom tax and applied for support were turned down by their local authority.
The research found that demand for discretionary housing payments (DHPs) across England rose by nearly 240 per cent in the period from 1 April to 30 September this year, compared with the same period in 2012.
In some parts of the country, the likelihood of securing help through DHPs was far lower, with nine in 10 disabled people unsuccessful in parts of Kent, and more than seven in 10 unsuccessful in north-east Derbyshire, Basildon, Rotherham and parts of Lancashire.
David Orr, NHF’s chief executive, said: “Whenever ministers are challenged on the bedroom tax, they tell us vulnerable people are not at risk because of these discretionary housing payments.
“But many disabled people and vulnerable families are facing miserable odds of getting help.
“Even those who are lucky enough to get support will have to reapply time and time again, each time facing the stress and worry that the funds will be withdrawn, while councils are being inundated with applications.
“This support fund is ineffective and deeply unfair – just like the bedroom tax itself. The only real solution is to repeal it.”
Retailers offer stress and frustration to disabled online shoppers
Only one supermarket website provides even the most basic level of accessibility necessary for disabled shoppers looking to buy their Christmas essentials online, according to tests of leading food retailers by a disability charity.
Accessibility experts from AbilityNet found that the websites and mobile phone applications used by the top five online food retailers were “needlessly difficult” for disabled people to use.
Only one of the five offered the base-level access requirements – three stars out of five, roughly approximating to the legal requirements of the Equality Act – that are needed for stress-free shopping.
The sites and apps were tested using some of the most common access technologies, such as magnification software and screen readers, and whether or not they could be accessed using a keyboard instead of a mouse.
On some of the sites, disabled users took over an hour to make their purchases, and on others they were unable to complete the checkout process.
The charity concluded that many disabled people would struggle to complete their shopping online if they wanted to have their Christmas groceries delivered.
AbilityNet carried out technical checks on the websites, and also asked disabled users with a range of impairments to check out both the sites and apps for themselves.
They were asked to put three Christmas items – a turkey, a Christmas pudding and a box of crackers – into their online shopping trolley, using both the website and the mobile app, for each of five retailers.
None of the five websites scored over 50 per cent on the technical checks.
Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, said: “The law is clear on this issue. It is just as illegal to bar disabled visitors from accessing your goods and services online as it would be to keep them out of your building in the real world.
“Whilst no company would do this knowingly, as this report shows there are plenty of high-profile companies that are contravening legal requirements by not considering their disabled customers.”
Only Tesco achieved a basic level of accessibility, hitting the minimum three stars out of five for its website, and three-and-a-half stars out of five for its mobile app.
Ocado scored two-and-a-half stars for its website, although it did achieve four stars for its mobile app.
Both Asda and Sainsbury’s scored just two-and-a-half stars for their websites and two stars for their mobile apps.
And Morrisons – the worst performer of the five – scored only two stars for its website, while it does not even offer online shopping and so has no mobile app.
One user of a magnification aid said of the Morrisons website: “What a very inaccessible site – I couldn’t find anything I was looking for.”
The Sainsbury’s site was described as “difficult to use with misleading buttons”, while Asda’s was criticised by a blind screenreader-user for being “time-consuming and frustrating”.
An Asda spokeswoman said they were “surprised” by the report as they had been “carrying out a lot of work in this area” and had made “great strides”.
She said: “We’ve asked for the full report and methodology to help us get a better understanding of the issues AbilityNet says it has uncovered.”
She added: “We’ve made fantastic progress over the last couple of months and will continue to make improvements to the way our sites and apps work throughout 2014, so that the site is easier to use for everyone.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “We are sorry that these customers couldn’t shop as easily as we would have liked them to.
“We are continually making improvements to our website and app, and are in the process of rolling out a new website which addresses many of the points they have raised.
“We are the only supermarket to offer a telephone ordering service for customers to do their weekly shop and this is popular with customers who have disabilities.”
Tesco, Ocado and Morrisons have so far failed to comment.
DPOs face election campaign ‘gagging risk’, says disabled peer
Disabled people’s organisations could find themselves “gagged” when they try to speak out on disability rights in the run-up to elections, if new laws are approved by parliament, a leading disabled peer has warned.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell has written to disabled people’s organisations and charities to warn them that the transparency of lobbying, non-party political campaigning and trade union administration bill could have a serious effect on their ability to campaign in the weeks before elections.
The bill aims to tighten the regulations on spending by charities, community groups, blog sites and other “third parties” during election campaigns.
It would halve the amount these organisations could spend in the run-up to an election before having to register with the Electoral Commission, with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations warning that this would “tie charities up in red tape”.
Baroness Campbell has now written to disability organisations to warn them that this could “have the effect of gagging” them, “limiting disabled people’s participation in public debate”, and could “severely restrict” their ability to “contribute to discussion on national laws and policies”.
She adds in the letter: “I am deeply concerned that the clumsy and unnecessary additional restrictions on organisations such as yours, may undermine our attempts to raise publicly issues faced by people sometimes literally without a voice.”
Baroness Campbell has urged organisations and individuals to fill in a survey on the website of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement (CCSDE).
The results will be used to influence discussions about the bill, which continued its progress through the House of Lords this week.
Baroness Campbell’s letter came as the commission published its second report on how it believes non-party campaigning should be regulated in the lead-up to elections.
CCSDE was set up in response to concerns about the bill, and now has the backing of more than 100 campaigning organisations. Its report says the bill’s proposals would have a “profoundly negative effect on issue-focussed campaigning activity”.
Disabled activist Tony Dean, who was among members of the campaign group 38 Degrees who met with the Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George earlier this month to discuss their concerns about the bill, said the legislation had “very wide-reaching implications for everyone in Britain, because any subject can be deemed to be ‘political'”.
The parliamentary joint committee on human rights has already warned of “widespread concern” that the bill could see “third parties… dissuaded” from taking part in campaigns, with a “chilling effect” on their free speech and freedom of association.
The government says it is concerned about “undue and unaccountable influence” during election campaigns, and the need to avoid the situation where “it might not always be the best candidate who wins an election, but the one with the richest supporters”.
Penning causes confusion over Atos contract comments
The new minister for disabled people has caused confusion after he appeared to suggest that Atos Healthcare would be withdrawing from delivering the government’s “fitness for work” tests in less than two years’ time.
Giving evidence to the work and pensions select committee last week, Mike Penning told MPs that there were “global” contract negotiations taking place between Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
DWP has already announced that it would be looking for other providers to deliver the work capability assessment (WCA) alongside Atos from next year.
The company’s contract to carry out hundreds of thousands of WCAs every year runs out in 2015, but Penning told the committee: “At the moment, Atos is the sole provider. They won’t be going forward.”*
But it was not clear whether he was saying that Atos would not be going forward at all as a provider, or whether they would not be going forward as the sole provider of WCAs.
DWP claimed Penning was “referring to the fact that the current contract runs until August 2015, and as announced in July this year, we are changing our approach to contracting for the WCA, by bringing in additional providers on a regional basis”.
An Atos spokeswoman also claimed that what Penning had meant was that “new providers will also be brought in”.
Asked whether Atos would be bidding to carry on providing WCAs after 2015, she said: “I am not saying anything. I wouldn’t make a comment on what will happen in 2015.
“I am not going to comment on any contractual discussions that take place with the department or on our plans for 2015.”
Atos has become one of the focal points of protests from the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement.
Protesters have claimed that the company is “most responsible for driving through the government’s brutal cuts agenda”, and that it has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, and “trains its staff to push people off benefits”.
Disabled activists have repeatedly pointed to links between the WCA and the way Atos carries out the assessments, and relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other premature deaths among those being assessed.
Penning also told the MPs on the committee that it had not been possible for Atos to make a profit on the “ludicrous” tender the company submitted to win the WCA contract, which had been accepted by the last Labour government.
And he said he had had conversations “at board level” with Atos about its performance on the WCA contract, and that the company realised “how bad this was for their reputation”.
*The minister’s comments about Atos and the WCA contract come at 11.28am in the recording of the committee session on the parliament website.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com