Benefits and Work readers have revealed that claimants are being forced to travel sometimes for hours to personal independence payment (PIP) assessment centres, even though there may be one only minutes away from their home. The practice is widespread and may even be unlawful.
Before Christmas we asked readers to tell us how far they had been asked to travel to a PIP assessment and whether there was another assessment centre closer to you.
We asked because we kept hearing from members who were being told to travel almost 90 minutes for a face-to-face assessment, even when there is a centre in their own town.
We’ve had many responses from claimants, mostly relating to Atos, though Capita feature too, and it appears that in a lot of cases people have been expected to travel for a great deal more than 90 minutes in each direction.
Almost 7 out of 10 PIP centres don’t exist
In their bid for the PIP contract for London and the South of England Atos said “Claimants told us that a local, familiar location in which to be assessed was the best option” and that they would reduce the number of ‘Failure to attends’ by “Allowing the claimant to reschedule appointments to the most convenient time.”
Atos went on to claim that:
“As standard, the appointment will be at the consultation centre nearest to the claimant’s home. Given that Atos will utilise approximately 750 sites in Lot 3 to deliver the service, this means that between 75% and 90% of claimants will be within 30 minutes travel of a local centre . . . and less than 60 minutes for all others”
In fact, so far as we can tell, for London and the South of England Atos have fewer than 110 centres in total. Little surprise then that claimants are being asked to travel huge distances, if almost 7 out of 10 proposed assessment centres never materialised..
Computer says go
The problem of too few assessment centres has been compounded for claimants by the way that Atos staff claim the computerised booking service works.
Claimants say they have been told that appointments are released in two week blocks. Software then finds the first available appointment for a claimant at any centre within - possibly - 90 minutes travelling time, regardless of whether there are closer centres.
No check of whether the claimant has provided information about difficulties with travelling is made before appointments are allocated.
Claimants can phone and ask for a different venue or time once they receive an appointment. But, if they refuse this second appointment, their file is then returned to the DWP for a decision on whether to stop their PIP claim for failing to attend a medical without good cause.
There is a real possibility that such a practice is unlawful discrimination the Equality Act, because people who cannot travel far due to their disability or health condition are being put at a substantial disadvantage compared to people who do not have that condition.
How you can help
In many cases people are being sent to towns and venues that they don’t know at all. If you have had a PIP assessment it would be really helpful if you could share whatever information you have about travel, parking and facilities for claimants who are being forced to attend the same centre.
Even though some of this information may be provided in letters from assessment providers, there’s probably a great deal more that you can add from a claimant’s point of view.
We’re starting with Atos assessment centres, simply because Atos at least have the courtesy to publish a list of theirs. If we get a good response we’ll move on to Capita centres.
Meanwhile, below are some of the experiences our readers have shared with us via comments and email.
700 mile round trip
One claimant was asked to travel almost 350 miles for an assessment. When they refused they were offered an assessment centre closer by – it was only 320 miles away:
“My clients all live in the West Somerset area, and have frequently been asked to travel to Burnham-on-sea, Yeovil and Weston-super-mare – distances of around 40 miles and roughly 90 minutes driving time (no direct bus services to these places, so travel times would be in excess of 2 hours). This means they have to go through Taunton or Bridgwater to get to these places, when assessments are carried out in Taunton & Bridgwater (both around 25 miles away from our area).
“One client with mental health issues was asked to go to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a round trip of close to 700 miles. When he phoned and asked for a closer appointment they refused saying they would return his claim to DWP saying he failed to attend. When I got involved they offered Hartlepool, which would have reduced the distance by about 30 miles – they did not seem to realise that we were in the South West of the Country, being asked to travel to the North-East. Luckily, I then contacted DWP to explain why client would not be attending and asked that client’s claim was not turned down. It wasn’t and he was awarded PIP without a medical assessment!”
More long distances
Another claimant should perhaps have thought themselves lucky that they were only asked to travel 175 miles each way:
“We live near Eye in Suffolk. This weekend we received an appointment for 10.45am in Doncaster. 4 hours on public transport, each way. I did a bit of searching and then decided to call them. They gave us an appointment in Ipswich 1 day earlier.”
Other claimants have been asked to travel long distances, often at unsuitable times of day, such as this 100 mile round trip:
“l live in Rainham in Kent and don't drive, l had to travel to Canterbury in Kent at 18.15 so had to travel with an escort on the train, after not long undergoing open heart surgery, so wasn't in the best state, but was told l needed a face to face interview, which l struggled to attend then when we got off the train it was absolutely pouring with rain, only to be sat around sodden for an hour prior to my appt . . .”
Even where the mileage to a centre is relatively low, the time taken by public transport is often in excess of 90 minutes and sometimes simply cannot be done at all:
“I had to go to Lancaster for my DLA to PIP assessment, a round trip of 86 miles. It takes 3hrs by public transport to get there and then you have to get back with no means of travelling the last 5 miles as the last bus has already been and gone. I drove to the old hospital (90mins) and then couldn't park near the doors so I struggled to walk inside. Guess what the claim result was, yes I've lost my mobility side of it.”
“My sister who cannot go out without supervision had to travel 23 miles, and as no-one to drive was a 3.5 hour bus rides changing twice, to an area which was totally unfamiliar to her which caused even worse anxiety We have a centre 10 minutes away by bus.”
Sometimes, a distant venue is combined with as many changes of transport as possible:
“I live in Hackney, East London and earlier this year had to attend the assessment centre in Southend on sea. This journey took 2 hours each way. However, it's not really the time that was the issue but the fact each leg involved a 400m walk, one bus, two trains and a taxi which is a bit of a mission for someone in good health.”
Easy to change assessment venues
Often it is relatively simple for claimants to change their appointment to a nearer centre. Though even then it means that if there is a problem with the second appointment they will be referred back to the DWP by the assessment provider for a decision as to whether the claim should be ended for failure to attend.
“Initially I was asked to travel to an appointment 90 minutes away. Telephoned and asked why I couldn't attend my closest centre which is 12 miles away. Immediately given an appointment closer, from interview to award notice only took 3 weeks.”
“Got my appointment within 2 weeks and just laughed when I opened the letter. they wanted me to go to a centre that was nearly 2 hours away from where I lived. phoned them up and just said why would you send me somewhere that would take me nearly 2 hours to get to when there was a centre only 15 mins down the road. how ludicrous was that. the reply came back that most people were happy to travel 90 mins to an appointment so I questioned this with the reply that why would they think that somebody on disability would be ok to travel up to 90 mins. told them that wasn't a viable answer and to change my appointment. this was done to the centre 15 mins away.”
“I stay just outside Glasgow and i was asked to attend my medical in Fife which would have been 120 mile round trip ...I phoned PIP and asked them if i could move it they said no problem ,
(they guy also said that they get "loads "of calls about this due to the fact that the computer generates these appointments ..and he spent most of his day changing them)
I end up with one in Glasgow on the same day as original one.”
Some claimants manage to avoid having to attend an assessment at all:
“Last week one of my clients was sent an appointment in Wandsworth (he lives in Basingstoke) at 9am. He has both mental and physical health conditions and very limited mobility. When I rang to say he couldn't get there, or anywhere, for an assessment he was offered an appointment in Reading. However I was able to arrange for a paper based assessment for him.”
Not so easy to change
While some people find it easy to change their assessment venue, others are not so fortunate
“When I found out I would have to travel 24 miles to Cardiff I told Capita I couldn’t manage it and managed to get them to agree for someone to ring and arrange a home assessment. So imagine my shock and distress when I received a letter this week with an appointment booked at the Centre for a week's time! I had a full blown panic attack. Am still fighting to have a home visit...”
“I have been given an 8 am appointment in a town I don't know about 30 miles away. I phoned to ask for a better time as I'm not good in the mornings anyway. They said the only appointment available was for the same time 3 weeks later. Nothing else available. I had stressed in my paperwork that I have difficulties with strange journeys and am at my worst in the mornings, so I think they did this on purpose to prove that I can overcome these obstacles.”
“My husband got 3 days notice for his PIP medical at Lancaster at 9am which would be over an hour without rush hour traffic. He has bipolar and a severe spinal injury. He's in constant pain and has acute anxiety and paranoia about going out. I immediately called Atos to ask for an appointment at our local centre 5 mins away but was told the DWP think it is acceptable to travel up to 90 minutes.”
“I was called in January to a PIP consultation in Preston, 45 miles away. The ATOS website said there were two PIP consultation sites in Kendal, one of them at a doctor's surgery less than half a mile from my house, but when I asked for an appointment in Kendal I got an email back which stated ‘we do not have an assessment centre in Kendal’.
So it wasn't the case that the local centre was overbooked, but that its existence was entirely mythical. I had the consultation in Preston.”
Not wheelchair accessible
Assessment providers may claim that all their centres have disabled access. The truth often seems to be quite different. Even where there is a lift to a first or second floor centre, claimants in wheelchairs are routinely told they cannot enter the assessment centre because they would be at risk if there was a fire, as they would not be allowed to use the lift
“We had to do 60 mile round trip (Bournemouth to Southampton) as local assessment centre is not wheelchair accessible, I kid you not!! Southampton assessment centre has no parking and none of the local carparks have disabled bays.”
“My appointment came through for Scarborough which is about 20 miles away with no parking facilities, I use a wheel chair outside and the area the centre is in is not wheelchair friendly, steps outside etc, yet there was an assessment centre 7 miles away in the local hospital which would be ideal and I had to cancel my appointment in Scarborough to get the closer one in Malton which used up one of my appointment cancellations. The appointment was only 2 days later than the original so why couldn't they have given me this one in the first place?!”
“I have had 2 assessments for PIP one at Anfield, in Liverpool. And one yesterday in Saltney just in North Wales. Both ATOS. These centres are NOT wheelchair accessible.
“The Saltney physio centre has very, very heavy doors that you have to push open but even if you can get them open they do not have any method to hold them open such as a hook or other. A wheelchair bound person could not open these doors and push themselves in no matter how strong they are. I am wheelchair bound and my husband couldn't manage to push and hold the extremely heavy doors open so banged on the door until a woman came reluctantly to help.”
We also heard from people who suffered great distress because their medical was cancelled at the last minute or they were turned away at the assessment centre because appointments were running late.
There was one account which particularly stood out in this regard. It is long and harrowing:
“My sister has a Learning Disability and brain damage since birth. She has begun the process of change over from DLA to PIP. Capita are doing the Face to Face assessment. She has been asked to attend our local centre at Stoke just 20 minutes drive from the sheltered accommodation where she lives. However, they have so far cancelled 2 appointments – the first 2 days before, the 2nd 40 minutes before (she was on her way) – and they’ve also sent her an appointment that arrived by post 2 days after the appointment date.
“After the 2nd appointment was missed, through no fault of her own, Capita returned her case to the DWP telling them that she had missed both appointments. I only found this out when I contacted the DWP on her behalf - and was told that the decision maker would decide whether she could have another appointment. I had to be quite firm in telling them that it was Capita that had cancelled and then sent an appointment that she had no hope of attending as they notified her too late.
“Finally, she was given an appointment this morning that was cancelled just 40 minutes before she was due...as it was an early appointment (9.25am) they had set out early because of the rush hour traffic.
“Every time an appointment is made I have to contact her support workers and arrange for someone to take her, stay with her during the assessment and then return her home. She has to pay for this out of her benefits.
“Another appointment has now been arranged for January.
“Capita keep trying to make her attend at 8.10am but they have been told that this is impossible for her – she has to stick to her routine and there is no way that we could get her there that early! I’m beginning to wonder if they’ll keep cancelling until we are forced to accept such an early appointment.
“My sister is extremely distressed as she doesn’t like going to places she doesn’t know or speaking to people she doesn’t know. I’m sure that other people are going through the same situation but I thought you would like to know what is going on.”
Finally . . .
Just to remind you, if you’ve got this far, that we would really appreciate it if you can share any information about any of the Atos PIP assessment centres listed on this page.