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A tragedy of errors: National Audit Office slams DWP performance

It seemed that little else could go wrong for Tory welfare reform. Reams of negative headlines, bad publicity, IDS seemingly as hapless and callous as ever regarding the effects of his policies on the sick and disabled and so on ad nauseum. Even ATOS, the original contractor hired to administer the hated Work Capability Assessments (WCA’s), suffered so much bad press that, with their share price beginning to suffer, they withdrew early from their contract with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and were replaced by Maximus. This boded badly for claimants from the start. Maximus being part of UNUM, an American company that has attracted the interest of American law enforcement, many claimants were suspicious from the beginning. The report from the National Audit Office has proved us to have been right.

Well, it seems that just when things couldn’t get any worse for IDS with his disastrous mismanagement of Universal Credit and increasingly negative press over welfare policies, they have got worse. Very much worse. On January 8 the National Audit Office, the UK’s chief bean-counters reviewing Government policies and deciding whether they give taxpayers value for money, issued their report on the DWP’s delivery of value for money. Or to be exact their failure to deliver any.

The NAO report makes grim reading for anyone hoping that IDS’s brutal welfare policies would be in some way justified by the savings made. They haven’t been justified. Nor have savings seemingly been made. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the NAO’s report and see the highlights.

In 2014-2015 the projected spending on Work Capability Assessments was £275 million. For 2016-2017 projected estimates are £579 million, an increase of 65% since ATOS fled the field. An average cost of £115 per assessment is predicted to rise to £190 per assessment. The NAO also predicts that some £1.9 billion will be spent on delivering assessments. So, where’s the value for money?

The short answer is that there isn’t any unless you happen to have shares in the assessment providers. Not only does the NAO expect assessments to cost 65% more under the new contractors but, for 2014-2015, only 13% of the assessments made actually met the quality threshold expected under the terms of the contract according to the NAO. Yes, not only are they charging 65% more per assessment, they’re still only providing a small percentage of assessments conducted properly according to their contract with the DWP.

The NAO report also contains a litany of choice remarks about the DWP’s management of the assessment programme. According to the NAO the providers haven’t found it easy to meet the agreed performance targets for either ESA (Employment Support Allowance) or PIP (Personal Independence Payment). Unless, of course, you consider performing only 13% of assessments to the agreed standard as meeting a target. The NAO damns the DWP’s attempts to improve their management of the assessment programme with very faint praise, stating that:

“While the Department has more robust performance management, this does not address the fundamental challenge created by shortages of capacity and a desire to complete large numbers of assessments quickly and accurately.”

Anybody having the misfortune to undergo a Work Capability Assessment under ATOS (and seemingly under their successors) might well have cause to question the idea of WCA’s being performed quickly and accurately. Especially the latter. Stories abound of claimants accusing the assessors of peppering assessments with anything from misinterpreting a claimant’s health problems to inserting outright falsehoods into assessments. DWP decision makers then  decide whether or not a claimant meets the qualifying criteria for either a new disability claim or to keep their existing benefits at all.

It’s no help to claimants that some disability assessment centres aren’t actually accessible to the disabled. Nor does it help to be summoned to an assessment centre that may well be tens of miles from their home. Not much good if you happen to have medical problems that make physically leaving your home either difficult or impossible. You can, of course, request a home visit but, if you do, bear in mind that home visits are beset with a crippling shortage of the recording equipment needed should you ask for it to be recorded and, if you start openly recording an assessment using your own equipment, the assessor will probably refuse to assess you unless you switch it off and tell the DWP you refused to co-operate if you demand the right to have your own recording. The result of that is that you’ll probably face a sanction and stopped benefits. But we digress.

The NAO report then goes on to state:

“The Department recognised problems with PIP and earlier ESA contracts, but recent performance shows the Department has not tackled – and may even have exacerbated – some of these problems when setting up the contracts.”

Or in plain English, the DWP knew full well that ATOS weren’t delivering what they should have been and, rather than dealing with the problem properly when the new contractors took over, they not only failed but may have made claimants lives even harder in the process. To any fair-minded person this may come as a shock. To anybody having dealt with the WCA programme as it’s currently administered this is simply standard practice. We don’t expect competence, we don’t expect fairness, we don’t expect an accurate WCA or for the DWP to make fair and reasonable decisions based thereon. We do expect the DWP to find any excuse possible enabling them to lessen or stop welfare payments and we fully expect to have to go to an appeal tribunal simply to keep any existing payments at their original rates.

For 2015-2016 the DWP set a target of completing one million assessments, a target they have so far failed to reach by some distance. The reason, according to the NAO report, is this:

“The Department did not base its target on the modelling of available resources and did not consider revising the target following bidder’s requests, although it did make changes after contract award. The Department also allowed bidders to make assumptions about staff training that it knew were overly optimistic and difficult to achieve.”

In plain English this translates as the DWP setting a target without considering whether there would be enough assessors available to actually make a million assessments. Nor, despite knowing full well that bidders had unrealistic ideas about staff training and availability (usually pretty important factors in planning any large-scale project) did they correct those misapprehensions before locking the bidders into a contract they seem unable to properly fulfil. They didn’t do that by mistake. They deliberately, knowingly allowed them to take over without informing them of the sheer scale of the problems in the WCA programme.

You might also be forgiven for thinking that, regarding the handing-out of large-scale Government contracts (involving large amounts of taxpayer’s money) that the DWP might have an overall strategy for working out the contracting process. Not according to the NAO report which states:

“The Department does not yet have an overall strategy for contracting out assessments and risks damaging market interest.”

That’s a polite way of saying that the DWP runs the contracting process so badly that other private contractors might look at the opportunity to run the WCA programme and avoid it like the plague based on the DWP’s hapless and seemingly improvised way of managing it. Even with the chance to make hundreds of millions of pounds running IDS’s pet projects, private contractors might consider being associated with the DWP as doing their public relations and share price more harm than good. And why wouldn’t they think that when ATOS have already run to the hills?

The conclusion of the NAO report is as damning as most other parts, only conspicuously lacking in anything resembling faint praise. According to the NAO:

“Despite some progress, the Department has not yet achieved value for money in its management of assessment contracts. Overall it now expects to pay more for assessments and is still not achieving volume and assessment report quality targets. Even if the Department is able to stabilise current performance, it needs to tackle underlying capacity challenges and set challenging but realistic targets in any future contracts. Otherwise, its approach to managing contracts and critical assumptions risks perpetuating a cycle of optimistic targets, contractual underperformance and costly recovery.

Which translates as:

The DWP’s running of the project is doing more harm than good. It’s not worth the price that taxpayers (and especially claimants suffering under it) are paying. The WCA programme run by the DWP is unrealistic, seemingly unworkable, incompetently administered and, so far, shows only the most limited signs of evolving into anything better. While IDS remains Captain of the Good Ship ‘Welfare Reform’ (and continues running it like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick) then the future for claimants’ well-being and taxpayer’s money can only be considered increasingly bleak.

Which begs the question: Why, given his serial incompetence, regular dishonesty, naked refusal to account for his actions and refusal to admit (let alone alleviate) the disastrous effects his programme has on so many people’s lives, is he allowed to continue in public office?

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