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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
How Atos comes under pressure to declare disabled people as fit for workA leaked report shows 97% of people undergoing its assessment are 'expected' to recover within two years.
Ask Atos, the company responsible for executing the work capability assessment (WCA), or the Department for Work and Pensions, which defines how the WCA is conducted, and they will tell you that they have no targets for the number of people who pass. Yet a new report from the Centre for Welfare Reform, How Norms Become Targets, uses a leaked set of Atos data to suggest that the DWP is holding Atos to extremely tight tolerances on its results.
Atos and the DWP admit to the existence of 'statistical norms' and that these are used to manage the performance of individual healthcare professionals carrying out the assessments. Campaigners have long claimed that these norms function as de facto targets, but were surprised by the detail of the data logged and matched against acceptable ranges. Not only are there figures for overall numbers of people awarded the points needed to qualify for the employment and support allowance (ESA), figures also exist for individual prognoses, for the points awarded, even for the word count of the summary findings. And each Atos region is expected to stray no further than 20% from the national average.
Combining any data-gathering system with pressure to meet expectations will drive staff to converge on the 'official' numbers; norms will become de facto targets, and no manager wants to be forced to justify their region's figures. Unfortunately pressure to meet expectations is exactly the process described to the Guardian by Atos whistleblower Dr Greg Wood, who went public after being repeatedly asked to change assessments, including at least one case that conflicted with his professional medical opinion.
Whether the Atos data represents targets, as the CWR report suggests, or norms, as Atos insists, the numbers themselves are deeply problematic. An assessor is expected to see about 40 people per week, 65% of whom, the data shows, are expected to fail the assessment. The remainder will be split between the ESA support group (14.5%) and the work-related activities group (20.5%). Those who pass, in either group, are then further divided across five sub-groups, which specify whether an applicant should be expected to recover in six-24 months or 'longer term' (in practice three years). Only 2.6% of WCAs are expected to result in a 'longer-term' prognosis, which effectively means an assessor can allocate the prognosis to just one person a week; allocating a single extra person across a month hovers on breaching the allowed 20% variation. All other applicants, no matter their disability, are labelled as expected to have recovered within two years or less.
This suggests an explanation for some of the stranger Atos rulings, where people with lifelong or degenerative disabilities have been told their conditions are expected to improve in six months. Any assessor struggling to keep down their average for longer-term prognoses has to be tempted to assign a shorter prognosis instead. Someone with a long-term disability should theoretically face an assessment once every three years, but if they are consistently assigned to the six-months prognosis group, they will potentially face not one but six assessments in that period.
Similar problems exist for points awarded during the assessment. The 'descriptors', if matched, are worth six, nine or 15 points, and many disabled people will match multiple descriptors. It takes 15 points to qualify for the ESA, yet the report suggests national averages of 2.1 points for physical issues and 3.6 points for mental issues. The only way to maintain such low averages is by scoring several people at zero points for each one who passes. Are cases of people who score zero points when they clearly should pass simply evidence that the assessor saw too many seriously ill and disabled people that week? There is already an outcry over the state of the work capability assessment, with roughly one in six of all assessments successfully appealed against, at a cost to the Tribunals Service, and the taxpayer, of more than £75m per year. If that failure rate is not caused by poor quality work at the healthcare professional level but is a consequence of the Atos management system, which in turn is driven by the contractual requirements placed on it by DWP, then shouldn't that outcry be louder still?
Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Welfare reforms cut food budgets to as low as £20 a week, finds surveyPoor households cutting food costs to cope with rising fuel bills, shrinking incomes and government changes, like bedroom tax.
Low-income households spend an average of £2.10 a person a day on groceries, having cut their daily food budget drastically since the summer, according to the latest instalment of a survey on the impact of welfare reform.
The detailed survey of more than 87 families found that a third said they now spent less than £20 a week on food, partly to cope with spiralling gas and electricity bills, while more than half said they had no money left once bills were paid.
A combination of shrinking incomes and rising living costs, coupled with high personal debts meant the 'reality of everyday life has got tougher' for low-income families since April when a series of welfare changes, such as the bedroom tax, were introduced, the report said.
There were no signs yet that welfare reform had helped jobless tenants to find work or an increase in working hours, despite a rise in the percentage of participants searching for work.
The Real Life Reform survey examined the finances and everyday habits of tenants in eight housing associations in north-west England and Yorkshire in October. One in five tenants were in work. The average household weekly income for social housing tenants in the region is £265 a week.
Food spending had dipped from £3.27 a person a day in July to £2.10 in October. The survey found neighbours were coping by sharing the cost of meals, including one group of women who clubbed together to cook a Sunday roast to ensure their children ate 'decent food'. Others were using food banks, eating with relatives, or missing out on some meals altogether.
One tenant quoted in the report said: 'We don't have breakfast and dinner now. We have one meal a day. We've been doing that for about two months and we've got used to it.'
Lisa Pickard, chief executive of Leeds and Yorkshire Housing Association said that despite incredible resilience, some families were struggling to survive: 'With the pressure of worsening weather, rising energy costs and Christmas, there is no question that people will face difficult choices – between eating or heating their homes and getting into more debt.'
Frank Field, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty, told the Guardian the hardship demonstrated in the report reflected already established trends that had been made worse by welfare reform.
'It begins to explain why people have fallen back on food banks as one way of making an inadequate budget stretch further.'
After rent, bedroom tax, transport costs, clothing and council tax, it found participating families spent an average of £33 a week on food. Many participants said they now bought cheaper, lower quality food, and were eating less fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
Cuts in food spending were in part a response to rising weekly energy bills, up 16% since the first survey in July, and amounting to an average of £30 a week. Fuel bills were expected to increase in the winter, though the report noted that in October the average family had just £4.79 left after bills were paid (down from £12.50 in July), making it unclear where the cash for extra heating would come from.
Many households said they could not afford to heat their homes already, however, and a quarter had reduced fuel spending since July.
Survey participant Dawn Lennon, 52, who lives with her disabled 28-year-old daughter Kelly in a three-bedroom housing association home in Runcorn, said the welfare changes, coupled with cost of living increases had left her with barely any money left after bills were paid.
She has to keep the heating on 24 hours a day because of her daughter's condition, Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome. Despite the third bedroom being used as a sensory room for Kelly, she must meet an £11 housing benefit shortfall each week as a result of the bedroom tax, and has been refused discretionary housing payment help.
As a result she has cut down on the volume and quality of food she buys. 'I just get the cheapest stuff that I can afford. I'm not eating healthily. I'm just counting the pennies.'
She said she believed they were being unfairly penalised by welfare reform, and she invited ministers to come and see how they lived.
'At the moment there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Things are just getting harder.'
The report showed that participants' problems were exacerbated by high levels of personal debt. Nearly three-quarters of households owed money, with an average debt of £2,273. Although this average figure was down marginally since July, the number of tenants with debts of up to £1,000 had risen by 23%. One in every three tenants now had a council tax debt, following the abolition of council tax benefit in April.
More than a quarter of tenants owed money on household bills, compared with 17% in debt to the bank and 10% to credit card companies. One in 10 owed money to payday lenders or loan sharks. Despite repaying up to £40 a week, tenants were finding it hard to chip away at underlying debt levels, suggesting many were trapped in a 'perpetual cycle of borrowing'.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: 'The government has taken action to help families with the cost of living, including increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £10,000 which will save a typical taxpayer over £700, freezing council tax for five years and freezing fuel duty.
'The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed and there is no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks.
'In fact, our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with the universal credit making 3 million households better off – the majority of these from the bottom two-fifths of the income scale.'
Monday, 9 December 2013
Employment prospects for disabled people remain bleakDisabled people still face huge barriers to employment in Scotland, despite ground-breaking, anti-discrimination legislation.
Organisations joined on Tuesday to highlight the struggle still being faced by disabled Scots to mark International Day for People with Disabilities.
Sight loss charity RNIB Scotland said the unemployment rate for blind and partially sighted people is still 15 times greater than for the general population, making them one of the most discriminated groups in the country when trying to secure work.
The reminder came as the charity presented leaving certificates to 16 people with sight loss in Edinburgh who had completed a training course to improve their chances in the job market.
Kate Sorrow, the charity’s employment services manager, said a generation ago most disabled people could hope for in terms of work was basket-weaving or assembling cheap felt-pens.
Today, new technology and the rhetoric of a more socially inclusive society means their employment prospects should be much wider.
“Despite this, the actual employment statistics, at 67%, make grim reading,” she said.
“That’s why RNIB Scotland has taken the lead in helping people with a visual impairment find work or retain the jobs they had before losing sight.
“Of course there are jobs that a person with sight loss simply can’t do.
“But the public might be surprised how many they can. Currently there are radio presenters, teachers, senior civil servants, shopkeepers, physiotherapists and scientists working in Scotland.
“We need to challenge the false perceptions that too many employers have about what blind and partially sighted people are capable of.”
However last month an anecdotal survey conducted by TFN found most disability organisations questioned were found lacking when it came to employing disabled people or those from the client group they served.
Many charities in Scotland have less than five per cent of disabled people in their total workforce though this is still significantly higher than the private sector which has less than 2% in many instances.
Remploy one of the country’s largest employers of disabled people said employers had to become “disability confident” if the problem was to be properly addressed.
The company, which has seven specialist recruitment branches and offices in Scotland, was using the day to highlight employer attitudes and show that employing a disabled person is much easier than many believe.
“Helping employers become ‘disability confident’ is crucial to increasing employment rates for disabled people, which currently stands at about 49% compared to 77% for non-disabled people,” said Beth Carruthers, Remploy’s director of employment services.
“Many employers understand that employing disabled people delivers real social and economic value for business.
“However, for those who still believe that it is simply too difficult, our aim is to help them remove barriers, increase understanding and ensure that disabled people have the opportunities to fulfil their potential and realise aspirations.”
Robert Adamson, 52, was made redundant after a 29-year career as a sewing machinist at Remploy’s Cowdenbeath site but found work after being involved in a disability positive mentoring scheme.
The programme recruits volunteer mentors who are matched with former Remploy factory workers.
Robert, who has a learning disability, has now secured a job as a support assistant at a care home in Auchtertool near Kirkcaldy.
“I was devastated to lose my job because I know how hard it is to find work. I’ve been one of the lucky ones but I know how difficult it can be for disabled people,” he said.
Iain Duncan Smith confronts claims DWP staff given targets to stop benefitsIain Duncan Smith was confronted at the work and pensions select committee with claims that job centre staff are being handed targets to reduce the number of claimants by moving them off the register or ensuring that they have their benefit removed.
An anonymous whistleblower, a former job centre worker who was employed in the Greater Manchester area, told local Labour MP Debbie Abrahams and the Guardian that on one occasion the entire staff at a job centre were warned they would be disciplined unless they increased the number of claimants coming off the register, or raised the number threatened with the loss of their benefit entitlement
The complainant's concerns were subsequently aired at the select committee by Abrahams, but in an interview before the work and pensions secretary's appearance, the former employee told the Guardian that the system of benefit sanctions is very subtle. 'They say to you that not enough people are coming off the claimant register and that if you do not get more people off the register you may be subject to an internal disciplinary assessment – a personal improvement plan.
'If you ask managers how many people you are supposed to get off the register, they say more and more continuously. It is your job to make the claimant's life difficult, they say. It creates a target culture.'
The former employee also says that a Department of Work and Pensions internal whistleblowers system is not working since the complaints by staff are being handed to the senior district managers responsible for demanding job centres do more to drive claimants off the register.
The complainant wishes to remain anonymous, saying they were made ill by the strain of seeking to complain, but told the Guardian they would like nothing more than to meet Duncan Smith to explain the culture that has grown up in the department.
Speaking to the Guardian, the whistleblower said: 'I tried to raise these matters on many occasions both face-to-face and in writing with management, but each time I was rebuffed and my concerns ignored.
'But the truth is that benefit claimants are being deliberately set up to fail in order to achieve sanction quotas without regard for natural justice or their welfare. Staff are being asked to behave in a manner that is against the department's values of integrity and honesty.'
The complainant also alleged that senior managers electronically altered a claimant's file to make it appear they had been told to attend the job centre the following day when no such notification had been given. Failure to attend a job centre interview is grounds for sanction.
The DWP has consistently denied that it gives job centres targets for applying sanctions to jobseekers, or discontinuing benefit. Neil Couling, the DWP's work services director, told the work and pensions select committee on 20 November that he does set targets and expectations for job centres, but there are no targets for sanctions.
After the whistleblower's concerns were raised at the hearing, Duncan Smith said he was prepared to look at any complaints, but accused his critics of moaning. He said: 'There are always one or two people operating in an organisation that have a different view.' He said staff apply benefit sanctions within the rules and Couling has looked at complaints in the past and on every occasion had no reason to doubt that people were operating properly. He added that he was happy to meet the whistleblower, but that the complainant should meet Couling first.
Friday, 6 December 2013
Universal Credit may not hit 2017 deadline, says Duncan SmithWork and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has told the BBC that the Universal Credit programme may not be complete by 2017 as planned.
Mr Duncan Smith told a committee of MPs in July and the Commons in September that the 2017 plan remained in place.
But he has now said some people receiving Employment Support Allowance may not be transferred in time.
The government estimates about 700,000 people in this group could be moved to Universal Credit after 2017.
In an interview with the BBC, Mr Duncan Smith said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) 'may take a little longer' as it was dealing with a vulnerable group and the official in charge of the project, Howard Shiplee, may want to take more time.
Mr Duncan Smith insists despite the possible late transfer of claimants the new benefit system will 'essentially' be complete by 2017.
Ministers will argue that these claimants are among those least able to work so least likely to lose out by not being part of Universal Credit.
But the opposition will ask why an apparently unqualified commitment to the 2017 timescale was given to MPs as recently as September.
A written statement from the Department of Work and Pensions said the 'safe and smooth delivery' of the new system would 'take precedence over meeting specific timings'.
Mr Duncan Smith told the BBC: 'We may take a little longer on those who are already in, say, ESA who have no work requirement on them because they are a very vulnerable group and therefore Howard Shiplee may say we want to take a little more time on them because they need to be processed carefully and dealt with carefully.
Iain Duncan Smith wants to send out the message that his Universal Credit plan is under control.
Having been savaged by the National Audit Office, he says the department is getting to grips with a new IT system.
He insists his plans to get Universal Credit set up by 2017 are 'essentially' in place.
But news that 700,000 people could be transferred onto the Credit after 2017 will be seized on by his opponents, particularly after he told MPs in September that he would deliver 'in time and in budget'.
There will be more difficult questions when the DWP reveals just how much taxpayers' money has been written off along the way.
'But essentially Universal Credit as a benefit will be the benefit by 2016 and the remains of the vast, vast majority of the stock will be in place pretty much by the end of 2017.'
The DWP's written statement said what it described as an 'enhanced' IT system for Universal Credit had 'proved viable' and would undergo further tests with a view to using it more widely.
The new system would be more efficient and would eventually become the 'final vehicle' by which Universal Credit was delivered, said Mr Duncan Smith.
The department will continue to use the existing system while the new technology is developed.
The statement said 'most' of the existing benefit claimants will be moved to Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017.
Mr Duncan Smith declined to say whether the Department still aimed to enrol 184,000 claimants onto Universal Credit by April 2014 - an aim set out in December last year - in the existing trial areas.
Asked about the policy he said: 'I'm not setting targets for specific numbers at particular points, what I'm giving you is the overall plan is how we will achieve the completion of Universal Credit.'
Recent figures showed only around 2,000 people were receiving the Universal Credit in pilot areas so far.
Addressing MPs in September, Mr Duncan Smith said: 'The plan is, and has always been, to deliver this within the four-year schedule to 2017. At the time I came here, I believed that to be the case, I am standing here today telling this House - whether you like it or not not - I'm saying that that is exactly what the plan is today. We will deliver this in time and in budget.'
He told the Work and Pensions select committee in July: 'We are bound to the timescales set: between October 2013 and 2017, all of those who fall within the ambit of Universal Credit will be on Universal Credit.'
The DWP will give further details when ministers appear before a committee of MPs on Monday. They may include the amount of money 'written off' as the IT system has changed. Mr Duncan Smith said he did not recognise figures quoted in the press.
Earlier this year the National Audit Office said Universal Credit had been badly managed, was 'overambitious' and provided poor value for money.
It said risks were taken to hit targets, IT systems had 'limited functionality' and an unfamiliar project management approach was used.
Under the Universal Credit plans, six key means-tested benefits - jobseeker's allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, working tax credit, income support and child tax credit - are to be combined into a single payment which ministers say will ensure that claimants are always better off in work and also reduce fraud.
Mr Duncan Smith also denied claims - made by Labour sources - that he had sought to shift blame for problems with the Universal Credit to the DWP permanent secretary Robert Devereux.
Labour's Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, said: 'On the morning of the Autumn Statement this is yet another shambolic announcement from this out-of-touch Government.
'Iain Duncan Smith has today admitted what everyone has known for months - that Universal Credit is massively behind schedule. But just a couple of weeks ago he was telling Parliament the Government would 'roll out Universal Credit on the plan and programme already set out'.'
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