Work Capability Assessments

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot 2:30 pm, 24th February 2014

What timetable his Department is working to for the retendering of contracts to deliver work capability assessments; what progress has been made with such retendering; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

When he next expects to meet representatives of Atos to discuss its work for his Department.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Although we have seen some improvements in Atos quality, we are still in ongoing commercial discussions. Unlike Atos, we respect the commercial confidentiality of those discussions. It is important to get the procurement right. The previous Administration did not share that view, which is why we are in this mess today.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

Will the Minister inform the House of what steps he is taking to address the significant backlog that has been created by the delays in claimants receiving their work capability assessments? In my constituency, individuals say that they have been waiting for up to six months, which has a real impact on their financial circumstances.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The issues to do with the work capability assessment and the unacceptable backlog that Atos has built up over the years are due to capacity and quality. The quality, which was very poor earlier on, has been improved. That means that there is now a huge backlog, which is why we are currently in negotiations with Atos.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

Given that Atos has now announced that it wants to withdraw from the contract that was negotiated with Labour, does the Minister agree that it would be an absolute disgrace if the hard-pressed taxpayer had to pay any form of compensation to the company?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Since we came into power, we have been warning Atos of the need to improve its service. We are seeking agreements with it to ensure that that is done, some of which have not come to fruition. If we terminate the contract today, as the Opposition have suggested, the financial consequences would fall on the taxpayer and not on Atos, which would be absolutely wrong and something that I will not accept.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I am not sure whether the Secretary of State is glad that he is here rather than in my area where there is a clash of the Cabinets. At least, he has managed to avoid the travel chaos.

Atos has acted as a lightning rod for all that is wrong with the work capability assessment. However, it is delivering a Government contract to Government specifications. What guarantee has the Minister got that any new contract will recognise the problems and the flaws of the system and the sheer misery that Atos has caused in delivering its contracts to ensure that they are not repeated?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

That is why we have had five reviews and the rolling reviews continue to take place, and we must learn from the mistakes of the previous Administration, who awarded this contract to Atos—something that they cannot run away from, although they seem to want to do so.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Labour, Bolsover

Now that the Minister has admitted that Atos is in a mess, notwithstanding when that began, will he give a guarantee that there cannot be a test for fitness for work if no one there has medical experience?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

All the assessors have medical experience and are clinicians, but the hon. Gentleman cannot run away from the previous Administration, as he loves to try to do, although he was elected on a manifesto with WCA.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrat, Leeds North West

It is no surprise to many that Atos, appointed by the last Labour Government, has now failed its own work capability assessment. Considering that appeals have been upheld for 40% of the original decisions, what can be done to ensure that original decisions are far more accurate and right much more of the time?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We are driving many of the improvements through, and I have actually instigated measures to ensure that we look carefully at what goes to tribunal, because some of the cases should not have gone there. That is why I have instigated the review that is taking place at the moment.

Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Energy)

I am sure that the Minister will not need reminding that, in fact, his Government extended the contract with Atos and rolled out the move from incapacity benefit, without taking account of the issues that arose in the pilot studies early in his Government’s term in office. Now that Atos has accepted that it cannot deliver this contract, rather than just retendering it, will the Minister take the opportunity to ensure that it is properly fit for purpose, so that it helps those people who want to and who can get into work, rather than hounding those who cannot?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

That is exactly what we are doing in the negotiations that we have been involved in for several months now. That is why we are in negotiations with Atos about the future and bringing in more capacity. But this mess was created by the Government—previous Government—and that is the problem, and we extended the contract because we had absolutely no choice whatsoever.

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The endless point-scoring and sniping between parties is completely counterproductive and a waste of public money. To their credit, Labour have always been better than the Conservatives at recognizing that. This government did not...

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Atos claims that one of the reasons for getting out of the contract is that its staff have received death threats. Is the Minister able to verify that, and if so, does he agree that, whatever the problems of Atos and the contract agreed by the last Labour Government, there is never any justification for threats of violence or violence against front-line staff—whether nurses, doctors, teachers or, in this case, Atos staff?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I would hope that everyone across the House condemns any of the abuse and the threats against the employees of Atos as completely unacceptable, no matter what their view of Atos.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

This Government have had nearly four years to sort this out, and pinning the blame on Atos will not get around that. Why, knowing the weaknesses of that organisation and all the flaws in how it was working, was it awarded a contract to implement the personal independence payment, which is causing huge delays?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The contract for WCA is completely different from the contract for PIP, with a completely different set of assessments. Four years in, we are still trapped by a contract signed by the previous Administration —something that I intend to get out of, but without penalising the taxpayer.