Social Justice

Disability benefits companies used to be fined millions by DWP – but not anymore. What happened?

The government's records seem to show that performance has dramatically improved over the years, but disabled people are still facing "harrowing and inhumane" experiences

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Disabled people are left without support because of failures of the benefits system. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The government has handed billions in taxpayers’ cash to companies to assess disability benefit claims over the years.

But it has the power to claw some of that money back when performance is poor – and has historically fined companies for failure to meet targets. Recently, however, they have faced far fewer deductions. Is it because they have got better at assessing the needs of disabled people?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims companies are now close to or exceeding their performance targets. But disabled and seriously ill people still face “harrowing” and “inhumane” experiences at the hands of the assessment system, with many refused support they urgently need. 

The Big Issue sought to investigate the financial sanctions imposed on the companies after a former claim assessor said he believes it is key to the failures of the benefits system. He claimed financial incentives on all sides lead to a target-driven system which treats disabled people without empathy. 

DWP allowed reports to be ‘riddled with obvious errors omissions’

Previous reporting by The Big Issue revealed assessors were driven to panic attacks and illness because of pressure to “ramp up” the daily number of assessments. This leads to mistakes being made and disabled people are consequently punished for it. 

The government deducted £86 million from companies contracted to run assessments between 2014 and 2018, according to a Work and Pensions Committee report. Each contract allows the DWP to make deductions, known as ‘service credits’, if companies “fail to meet targets for turning around assessments, customer service and report quality”. 

The report says the companies – Maximus, Atos and Capita – failed to meet key performance targets at any point during this four-year period. This is despite the DWP setting a “low bar” for performance “with ample room for reports to be riddled with obvious errors and omissions”, according to the report. 

The former assessor, who worked at Atos in 2018, said auditors sometimes asked him to change or omit details of the reports to make it less likely to go in the claimant’s favour. His experience, which is supported by other former assessors who have spoken to The Big Issue, was that reports had to be adjusted to “make the auditors happy”. 

This could explain inaccuracies in reports experienced by a number of claimants who have spoken to The Big Issue. Aidan, an amputee with multiple neurological disorders, said details in his report were “demonstrably untrue” – including that he didn’t have an autism diagnosis. 

Chelsea, who has fibromyalgia, similarly noted “inconsistencies”. The report said she commuted to work every day even though she was a university student and her attendance records show she was barely able to go in. Both were driven to suicidal thoughts as a result of the assessment process.

The former assessor told The Big Issue: “The entire system is designed to alter and develop reports not to reflect the reality of the individual requesting PIP [personal independence payment], but instead try to make the document as strong as possible in the way that avoids questions, even if that means lying or erasing elements that could be in favour of the claimant.”

This took its toll and he quit after a few months. “The pressure burns many. The turnaround is high in this kind of job. During my time I had multiple complaints about the fact that my reports were leaving some aspects that could be questioned by the claimants and the DWP, and that was reflecting the assessment reality, so I was asked multiple times to change them and lie to make them rock solid.”



DWP: ‘Providers are exceeding targets’

The Big Issue has discovered through a freedom of information request that Atos, Maximus and Capita were fined a further £16.2m in 2018/2019 and £7.5m in 2019/2020. But then in the first year of the pandemic, the companies saw no deductions. The following year there were deductions of £1.4m, and it was just £0.7m last year. 

The DWP’s explanation is that the companies have improved their services. A spokesperson said: “All disability assessors are held to account for their performance, with satisfaction rates currently standing at 92%. As with all our contracts, performance is kept under constant review and we have robust systems in place for spending public money so we can deliver value for money for the taxpayer.”

DWP records show that companies have consistently exceeded customer satisfaction targets. The National Audit Office (NAO) backed this up, finding that “providers are now close to or exceeding quality targets in their contracts”. 

Jane Randell, senior counsel at law firm Farrer & Co, said: “In the case of benefits assessments companies, if the number of service credits paid has reduced, this would indeed indicate that the level of service has gotten better in recent years, and the government has therefore decided to stick with these suppliers.”

‘It doesn’t show an improvement in decision making, far from it’

But disabled people continue to face harrowing experiences during the assessment process, with some facing “psychological trauma to the point of being suicidal”. The government’s own data seems to dispute it too. The vast majority of disability benefits decisions (around 70%) are overturned when the claimant takes their appeal to tribunal stage, suggesting that mistakes were made in the assessment. 

Ayla Ozmen, director of policy and campaigns at anti-poverty charity Z2K, said: “The outcomes data tells a different story. It doesn’t show an improvement in decision making, far from it.” 

Z2K helps benefits claimants with tribunal representation and, in the first six months of 2023, the charity had a 90% success rate in helping people overturn their decisions. 

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“Of decisions that are overturned after a tribunal hearing, in the majority of cases, this is because the tribunal took a different view of the same evidence,” Ozmen said. “A substantial minority were due to ‘cogent oral evidence’, which could have been elicited through better interviewing techniques. Only a very small proportion were due to new written evidence presented at appeal stage.”

There is also currently a significant backlog, with more than 430,000 people waiting for a review of their PIP. People are collectively missing out on an estimated £24 million each month when they desperately need the extra cash, Citizens Advice has found.

The DWP has spent £168m on transforming health assessments for disability benefits since 2018, but the contracts between the companies and DWP themselves have been extended over the years. 

The contract between Maximus and the DWP, for example, is the only one published on Contract Finder and was in place between October 2014 and July 2023. It confirms that service credits would be applied if “the supplier fails to achieve the aggregate monthly target service levels”.

Randell explains that perhaps it was too expensive to switch companies. “Long-term, high-value government contracts are expensive to tender, and switching service providers is not a quick or straightforward process. As such, public sector bodies may prefer to continue to pay service credits and continue a contract, even if the standard of service has not been to the quality expected.”

Only recently have new health and disability benefit assessment contracts been announced for the period 2024 to 2029. Maximus was recently selected as the largest provider of the new services, and Capita has also had its contract renewed. Atos has not yet had its contract extended. 

The former assessor, who has lost trust in his old company, suspects the real reason is that the companies “got smarter at being able to adjust their reports to pass inspection from DWP auditors and not being penalised”. By the time assessments reach the appeals stage, they have already passed through DWP auditors and are out of the companies’ hands. 

“Atos is just interested in making sure their reports are not debatable in the eyes of the DWP and their job is done quickly without going back to claimants as it is costly for them,” he said. “What comes later is a dispute between DWP and the claimants. Atos doesn’t care.”

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Response from disability benefits assessment companies

A spokesperson for the Independent Assessment Services, which is delivered by Atos, said: “We provide PIP consultations in line with DWP guidance and do not make the decision on claims. Our reports are based on medical evidence and information provided by the claimant and fewer than 0.3% of consultations result in a complaint. We also consistently exceed our claimant satisfaction target of over 90%, as measured independently.”

Capita declined to comment. Maximus did not respond to The Big Issue’s request for comment but a spokesperson previously said its “priority is to deliver a sensitive, respectful and expert service” and it is “committed to helping them access the financial support they are entitled to as quickly as possible”. 

They said they work closely with customers and their representative groups to “continuously improve the service”, and “since 2015 have significantly reduced waiting times, improved assessment quality and achieved record customer satisfaction of more than 97%”. 

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