Huge delays to applications for the government's new disability benefit have been caused partly by far more disabled people than planned being forced to attend face-to-face assessments. {jcomments on}

{EMBOT SUBSCRIPTION=5,6}The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had intended that about three-quarters of claimants would have to attend a face-to-face assessment for the new personal independence payment (PIP).

But Robert Devereux, DWP's permanent secretary, told the work and pensions select committee this week that the actual figure was about 10-15 per cent higher than that.

And he admitted that the assessments were also taking longer than during testing.

He said that the two companies carrying out the assessments - Atos Healthcare and Capita - were in discussions with DWP about recruiting and training more assessors and "making the process as efficient as it needs to be", in order to deal with the backlog.

A DWP spokesman told Disability News Service (DNS) later that there were no official figures yet on the number of face-to-face assessments carried out. And he said DWP did not comment on estimates.

DNS has been reporting since December that many claimants of PIP - which is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA) - are facing lengthy delays with their applications.

Dame Anne Begg, the Labour chair of the committee, said: "Six months after people have had the face-to-face assessment, they still don't know if they are getting the award or not."

Devereux insisted that cuts to the DWP workforce of 20,000 staff, and running DWP on a budget £2 billion a year less than in 2009-10, had not played a role in these delays and that the social security system was "working much better than it previously used to do, delivering much better results for its citizens".

The Conservative work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, claimed in the same evidence session that the government was rolling out the PIP assessment "slowly and carefully", with adjustments made when they hit a problem.

He said: "This in a sense is what is called a rolling pilot. You learn as you go along and you adjust and you don't completely open up the volume... because we have decided we need to adjust before we go to the next phases."

Dame Anne said this was "not quite true", as the assessment was being used for all new PIP claimants, and that it was only the rollout of the reassessment to those currently claiming working-age disability living allowance that was being delayed.

Sheila Gilmore, a Labour member of the committee, suggested that new PIP claimants were being used "as a kind of guinea pig" instead of there being a proper pilot project to test out the assessment.

She said there had been a pilot last April but the rollout had begun two months later, before DWP had time to learn any lessons.

Gilmore said that Atos had told another Commons committee that assessments were taking twice as long as had been anticipated.

Dame Anne told DNS after the evidence session: "The secretary of state and the minister for disabled people have said they are taking things slowly so they could get it right.

"I don't think anybody would have an argument with that but what they are doing is not slowing it down, they have brought it to a dead stop.

"There is obviously a huge backlog with PIP assessments but there is no indication that that backlog is moving at all.

"I get the impression that both Capita and Atos are almost paralysed with fear about making any decisions, in case they get it wrong, so they are not making any decisions at all."

Meanwhile, the rollout of the PIP assessment has continued.

From 3 February, existing DLA claimants in and around Carlisle, Lancaster, Darlington, Harrogate and York will have to claim PIP if DWP receives information about a change in their care or mobility needs; if their fixed term award is due to expire; or if they turn 16.

The work and pensions committee has also announced a new inquiry into employment and support allowance (ESA) and the work capability assessment (WCA), the "fitness for work" test carried out by the much-criticised private contractor Atos Healthcare.

The committee said it had decided to launch the inquiry following the publication of independent reviews of the WCA, DWP's expressions of concern about Atos's performance, and the new "mandatory reconsideration" process.

Mandatory reconsideration was introduced last year and means that those found ineligible for ESA have to go through an extra stage before they can lodge an appeal with the tribunals service. During this stage, the claimant is no longer entitled to receive ESA.

The committee will look at the performance of Atos, the effectiveness of the WCA, the ESA decision-making process, and the process the government goes through to choose WCA providers.

Among other issues, it will also examine the reconsideration and appeals process, the impact of time-limiting the contributory form of ESA, and what happens to people found fit for work or placed in the two ESA groups.

News provided by John Pring at


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