Written evidence submitted by Tom Greatrex
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
2. The experience of both my constituents and
my own office of the customer service provided by Atos has been
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.