The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Tom Greatrex MP

1.  My submission will centre on two issues outlined by the Committee as areas for investigation in its Inquiry: first, the service provided by Atos to those going through the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) process; and second, the appeals process for those who do not agree with the decision by Jobcentre Plus following the WCA.


2.  The experience of both my constituents and my own office of the customer service provided by Atos has been entirely negative.

3.  I contacted the Atos number provided by the DWP's own website, to determine how long a constituent would have to wait before being dealt with. I did this after being contacted by a constituent who had waited on hold for 40 minutes before she was able to speak with a human being.

4.  It took me 135 phone calls before I was put through to an automated telephone service. This is a ridiculous level of service from an organisation carrying out a public function.

5.  Following this experience, I submitted a number of written Parliamentary Questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on Atos and the service it provides. The responses I received made it quite obvious to me why the service from Atos was so poor.

6.  At present, Atos has only 57 full-time equivalents working in its Virtual Contact Centre, dealing with 56,056 phone calls a month. This works out at, on average, 983 cases a month per individual member of staff. If one considers the absence rate on the day I tried to get through as an average, the caseload per individual member of staff increases to 1,121 a month.

7.  I brought this matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and was advised by the Minister of State for Employment in a letter of 15 February 2011 that improvements to the service provided by Atos would be made. It is essential that this does actually happen in time for thenationwide rollout of the WCA. With 11,000 per week due to be assessed, the customer service system as present would quite simply collapse if it carries on as at present.


8.  The appeals process for the WCA has been an issue of great concern for an increasing number of my constituents.

9.  Of the 43,500 people in Scotland who underwent a WCA between October 2008 and May 2010, 74% were deemed fit to work. However, 40% of these people had the decision overturned successfully on appeal. It is reasonable to suggest that this figure would be even higher were it not for the fact that a large number of those deemed fit for work do not appeal as they do not wish to go through the stress the whole process entails. It goes without saying that it is not acceptable to reduce the numbers of those on Employment and Support Allowance, and its predecessor benefits, simply by making the testing process as difficult and strenuous as possible for those involved.

10.  Following a written Parliamentary Question to the Secretary of State for Justice, whose department is responsible for overseeing the Tribunal Service for ESA applicants, it was revealed that the cost of WCA appeals between 1 May and 30 September 2010 was estimated to be £22.15 million. If this is taken over the whole year, the annual cost to the taxpayer of WCA related appeals is around £50 million.

11.  Without properly addressing the problem of wrong decisions being made by the DWP first time around, in the majority of cases on the advice of Atos, there is no possibility of this situation being improved. In fact, it will only be compounded when the current pilot project is rolled out nationwide.

12.  The Atos assessment must be reformed in line with the Harrington recommendations to take greater account of an individual applicant's needs and condition. Given the wide range of illnesses and conditions that are suffered by those claiming ESA, a one-size fits all test is simply not suitable and will inevitably result in wrong decisions being made first time round and being reversed at a costly appeal stage.

13.  Greater account must also be taken of the professional medical opinion of the applicant's own doctor or consultant, rather than allowing untrained DWP staff to take decisions that they are patently not trained for. Situations can arise whereby an applicant's condition can change. It is then for the medically untrained Jobcentre Plus Decision-Maker to determine whether this change necessitates a termination of ESA.

14.  The Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus, Darra Singh OBE, advised me in a letter that "Decision makers do not receive formal medical training...Where evidence of a change in the customer's medical condition is received, the decision maker must consider whether this change could lead to a change in the award of ESA. Where the nature of the change means that the effect of the award is not clear, advice can (emphasis added) be sought from Health Care Professionals employed by Atos Healthcare."

15.  It is little wonder, then, that so many decisions are wrongly made and almost £50 million a year is spent on the appeals process for WCA.

April 2011

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Prepared 26 July 2011