‘A sea change’: Campaigners welcome news that @ScotGov won’t use private sector in disability benefits assessments

Ben Wray

63 per cent of claimants have won their tribunal against the DWP over denial of their PIP benefit claim

DISABILITY organisations and campaigners have welcomed the announcement that the private sector will not be involved in the Scottish Government’s disability benefits assessments.

The Scottish Government Is establishing its new social security agency after powers over 11 benefits were devolved to the Scottish Parliament, including the assessment process for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), although not Work Capability Assessments (WCA).

The Minister for Social Security and Older People Shirley-Anne Somerville made a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday [26 September] confirming that the disability benefit assessment process will be run in-house and will be flexible to suit the needs of those being assessed, including assessments carried out at home if need be.


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Bill Scott, director of policy at Inclusion Scotland, responded to the announcement by stating that the organisation “welcomes the commitments on assessments given by the Cabinet Secretary on Social Security.”

He added: “Disabled people have long campaigned for an end to the private sector’s profiteering on disabled people’s misery and the news that assessments will be carried out in-house is a real step forward.

“We also wholeheartedly welcome the news that all assessments will be audio-recorded.  This should put to an end the disputes between disabled people and assessors about what answers were or were not in response to assessors’ questions.

“Perhaps the most important commitments made are that the Government intends to carry out fewer face-to-face assessments and also wants to involve disabled people in the design of the new assessment system.

“We hope that will mean that the system devised is informed by, and in line with, the needs of service users rather than the needs of service providers. That will make for a sea change compared to the DWP’s current approach”.

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Brian Scott, development manager at Glasgow Disability Alliance, agreed that the emphasis on “greater choice and control” were particular strengths of the proposals.

He said: “We warmly welcome the announcement and are particularly pleased about the actions proposed to ensure that individuals will have greater choice and control of their assessments.  That the assessment process will be characterised by flexibility and treating individuals with dignity and respect is clear evidence that the Scottish Government listened to our members and acted upon their recommendations. 

“What the individual says about their condition, how it affects them and the support or adjustments that they require should be the central element of the assessment process”

In 2008, the UK Government outsourced benefit assessments to private provider Atos and has been under heavy criticism ever since, especially following an overhaul of the test process in 2011 under the Tory-Liberal coalition government, which drastically cut welfare support.

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Most famously, the 2016 award-winning film I, Daniel Blake highlighted the cruelty of a system which appeared designed to declare claimants fit to work who clearly were not.

In February this year the Work and Pensions Committee found that all three of the current private providers were failing the government’s own quality standards, leading to inaccurate and unjust decisions, which created “a pervasive lack of trust” and an “untenable human cost” in the system.

Since 2013, 63 per cent of 170,000 claimants have won tribunals against the DWP over denial of their Personal Independence Payment claim.

The committee inquiry into disability benefits received “a deluge” of responses – more than 3,000 – from disabled people telling their stories of brutal treatment in the assessment process.

Horror stories identified in the report included the claim by an assessor that the claimant walked her dog daily, when she struggled to walk at all and didn’t own a dog, and a person with Down’s syndrome asked when she “caught” it.

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Former Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the committee, responded to the report by saying: “The current contracts have not made the system fairer, have not made it more transparent and have not made it more efficient…The Government should be prepared to take assessments in house.”

Somerville told the parliament: “In line with the important principle that social security is a public service, I have decided that our new public agency Social Security Scotland will deliver assessments to determine eligibility for disability assistance.

“It is clear to me that the new agency is best placed to provide a flexible, person centred assessment service, fully supported by public sector healthcare professionals. This decision has been taken following an extensive period of research, analysis and consultation with key stakeholders.

“It is clear that the UK Government are content with an approach that sees private sector assessment providers prioritise profits over people. We will not farm out assessments to private companies.

“Furthermore under the Scottish government system, people will be given greater choice and control over their assessment through four actions I have committed to today.  People will be invited at a time that suits them and to a location that suits them. For those with difficulty travelling, the assessor will come to them.”

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Dr Jim McCormick, Chair of the Disability and Carers Benefits Expert Advisory Group, said of the announcement: “We welcomed the opportunity to advise Ministers on the delivery body for assessments earlier this year, and strongly agreed that agency delivery was the correct option, due to compelling practical, cost and presentational advantages. Therefore we welcome this announcement.”

Michael McMahon, campaign and policy manager at Disability Agenda Scotland, told CommonSpace: “Disability Agenda Scotland believes we need a much more humane system for disability assessments and have been working constructively with the Scottish Government on how to do that. It looks like the Scottish Government have, in these proposals, taken on board a lot of our concerns.”

John McArdle, a member of the Black Triangle campaign group in defence of disability rights, told CommonSpace that they were “delighted” that the Scottish system would be publicly run, but warned that “the devil is in the detail” about whether the assessments “in their current form will be entirely scrapped”.

“DLA/PIP has been based on a bio-psycho social model that has been imported from the US; the whole model needs to go. Assessments need to be carried out by people medically qualified and highly trained so they know the impairment they are dealing with and how it affects people. Those who have been classed as having an impairment that won’t improve shouldn’t be reassessed. They need to scrap the entire Tory system and go back at least to the DLA and incapacity benefit system that we used to have [pre-2008].”

“So the devil is in the detail, they’ve got a lot of work still to do to get this right.  It must be fully compliant with the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.”

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McArdle added that Work Capability Assessments, which have come in for some of the heaviest criticsm, are still not devolved, meaning the likelihood of a growing disparity between DLA/PIP Scottish Government delivered assessments and WCA assessments could increase turmoil for disability benefit claimants, and called on the Scottish Government to pressure the UK Government to devolve the whole disability benefit system to Holyrood.

The Black Triangle campaign group have for years been taken direct action against disability benefit cuts and a draconian assessment regime, and McArdle said that changing the assessment system “could be the difference between life and death”.

“We know cases of people who lost their benefits and did commit suicide – it is that serious. A lot of people have faced destitution. So [these proposals] can ameliorate that, but there will still be no dignity or respect for disabled people in Scotland until all the powers are devolved.”

READ MORE: UN arrives in Scotland to investigate alleged human rights violations by UK Government

New figures show that the recent switch from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to PIP has seen 33,000 Scots have to attend private sector run benefit reviews, with many being removed from the benefits system.

Fiona Robertson, a member of the SNP DIsabled Members Group, said the group were “incredibly relieved that the new Scottish Social Security System will not be replicating the harm caused by the current UK system of assessments.”

She added: “Research has shown unequivocally that the assessments cause frequently catastrophic damage to people going through them. We welcome the commitments the Minister has made to reducing the number of assessments people are put through, especially for people whose conditions are long-term and unchanging.

“The Scottish Government must, however, ensure that the new assessments are administered in a careful and considered manner, with stringent, transparent processes to ensure they are fair and safe.”

Picture courtesy of Roger Blackwell

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