27 October 2005
The DWP has announced that 11 incapacity benefit Medical Examination Centres (MEC) are to close and three new centres are to be built in order to allow Atos Origin to "improve the standard of accommodation and service it provides". At the same time the DWP has announced that some DLA claimants will be invited for examinations in the new centres.
No consultation with claimants
News of the closures follows Atos' earlier announcement, within weeks of winning a new contract from the DWP, that it intended to shut down 21 medical centres (See: 21 incapacity benefit medical centres axed 16.06.05). That announcement caused such outrage that ministers were forced to act, insisting that Atos consulted with them before going ahead with any closures. At no stage, however, did ministers speak to local disability groups, advice agencies or claimants in the affected areas. Following discussions, Anne McGuire the Minister for Disabled People and David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions have given Atos the go ahead to close the following 11 local centres:
Bath MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to Bristol
Catford MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to a new centre in Croydon
Chelmsford MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to Euston, a new centre in Romford and Ipswich
Darlington MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to Bishop Auckland and a new centre in Thornaby
Dorchester MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to Bournemouth, Yeovil and Southampton
Greenock MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to Glasgow
Hartlepool MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to Bishop Auckland, Newcastle and a new centre in Thornaby
Lewisham MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to a new centre in Croydon
Middlesbrough MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to a new centre in Thornaby
Seven Sisters MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to a new centre in Romford and Euston
Thornton Heath MEC closing. Claimants will have to travel to a new centre in Croydon
Longer journeys, fewer points
Claimants will be obliged to undertake journeys of up to 90 minutes to get to examination centres. Not only is the long journey a real problem for many claimants but, very worryingly, the longer the journey time the more likely a claimant is to be found capable of work.
This is because one of the first questions claimants are asked at their medicals is how they travelled to the centre and how long the journey took. Issues such as the length of time a claimant spent waiting for public transport, sitting on buses or trains or in cars, the distance they walked from a bus stop or car park and their ability to drive will all be taken into account when deciding how many points they should score for activities such as standing, sitting and walking. In addition, a claimant's mental health score will be affected by such issues as their ability to travel alone, concentrate to use bus and train timetables and their ability to interact with strangers on public transport.
Claimants need to be aware that they can ask Medical Services to pay for a taxi to and from the examination, though they may be required to provide evidence that their condition is serious enough to preclude other methods of travel.
The DWP have also announced that DLA claimants in the areas covered by the new medical centres will be invited to have doctor's assessments at the centres rather than in their homes. The DWP say that attending the centre rather than being visited at home will be entirely voluntary. However, if it proves cheaper to administer and allows for the creation of computerised assessments for DLA, it can only be a matter of time before the voluntary aspect of the scheme is removed.
It is difficult to see how the closure of 11 centres, without even an attempt at consultation with local disability groups, advice agencies or claimants, can be portrayed as a move which will "improve" the service for disabled people by any but the most cynical government ministers. Whether it will result in an improvement in Atos Origin's profit margin is an issue about which we can only guess, given the DWP's refusal to release any financial information about its former - let alone the current - contract with Atos. (See "Outrageous" secrecy as DWP protects multinational 14.10.05 )
It would, for example, be useful to know whether the redundant medical centres were gifted to Atos under the original contract and are now to be sold off, or whether Atos are leasing them for the life of their new contract at a nominal rent, allowing them to sublet them at a profit to other agencies. Benefits and Work's Freedom of Information application attempting to discover these very facts is already on its way. Meanwhile, until the DWP start telling taxpayers what they are doing with our property, it seems reasonable to assume the worst.