Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Knowledge Is Power - So What Do The DWP Have To Hide?

The world of welfare is a murky one. Balanced, detailed and accurate information can be particularly difficult to find, which is why it was such a pleasure to see a video produced by the Ministry of Justice about appealing against a Work Capability Assessment decision. The information provided was clear, practical and empathetic, it's one of the best pieces of information about appeals that I've ever seen.

So you'd think given repeat assurances from Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith that the genuinely vulnerable have nothing to fear from this process and their confidence, despite the recent BMA vote to call for the immediate end of the WCA, would mean that Ministers and the DWP would welcome any clear, sensible information on these processes.

Not so. The infomercial was removed after less than a week, eventually reappearing after a three month gap, only to disappear again as it became the most popular video the Ministry of Justice have ever made. In an email, the Minister for Work and Pensions complained that the video explained claimants are twice as likely to win their appeal if they appear in person, and that the DWP rarely send a representative to the appeal.

Another difficult to penetrate area is that of welfare to work programmes and the work providers, an industry widely understood to have been beset by fraud many years before the current deluge of allegations began. The company most widely associated with these issues is A4E, run by Emma Harrison who took £8.6 million in dividends from her private funded by the public company. That might be fair enough if A4E had a stunning success rate in helping people into full time, sustainable, fairly paying jobs. But they don't. And to be fair to A4E...neither does anyone else involved in the industry. It really is scraping the barrel when the best you can find to say about a company is that they're just as bad as all the other companies in their sector.

Over the past few weeks I've noticed something on twitter, initially because it seemed like a clever example of a private company turning to social media to improve their brand image, but then increasingly, and a bit grudgingly it turned into respect for the way this individual was behaving. Jonty Olliff Cooper is one of the directors at A4E and he has been using his personal twitter account to answer people's questions, a fair proportion of which are hostile. At first I just noticed that Jonty's responses were always calm, and polite, but as time went on I realised he was also genuinely attempting to engage, to pass on information and vitally to explore the information sent to him.

It's all very odd. No-one explains about welfare in detail, not the DWP, and certainly not the private contractors associated with it. So, it's fascinating, that all of a sudden whilst the DWP are still attempting to conceal accurate information published by the Ministry of Justice, the private providers are starting to try and shine some light into the murk. It would make a cynical person wonder just what the DWP might have to hide?

And then it all got a bit curiouser and curiouser as Alice would say. I noticed this new 'claimants' section on the website of Atos Healthcare. As I read through each section I found myself thinking 'actually this is quite good information'...which is a very disturbing feeling for a welfare warrior to have about the feared and loathed Atos Healthcare. It explains what to expect before, during and after your assessment, and crucially, who is responsible for what. It points out that if you are unable to attend for a WCA assessment the DWP only permit this to be rearranged once, and if you ask for a second then the DWP issue a form. Odd really, you'd think the DWP being a government department covering sick, disabled people and carers as part of their remit would understand that sick, disabled people and those who care for them can have frequent medical emergencies, so why would they not build into the system an ability to cope with that scenario?

It's was interesting to see that although Chris Grayling has repeatedly insisted everyone will have a face to face assessment as part of the WCA process, that this is clearly untrue, Atos describe this as 'an early check to indicate the person does not need to be invited for face to face assessment. Wherever this confirmation comes from it will hopefully be of some reassurance to claimants, because it's been the most vulnerable, particularly those with mental health conditions who have been most terrified of the prospect of the repeated and regular face to face assessments Ministers have insisted will be the case.

For me though, the most fascinating section was 'In Partnership with the DWP'. This clearly lays out the responsibilities of Atos Healthcare, The DWP and HM Government, explaining that Atos are responsible for recruitment, training, collecting evidence, booking and carrying out assessments etc, all in accordance with the criteria laid out by DWP. DWP are responsible for (emphasis mine);

  • Designing and developing the format and criteria for assessments
  • Reviewing all evidence presented by an individual, including but not limited to the report from Atos Healthcare, and making a decision on an individual’s entitlement to benefit
  • Setting delivery targets and metrics for Atos Healthcare quality and service
  • Monitoring service delivery against contractual requirements
  • Authorising medical protocols used in clinical applications

So it seems that finally some light is being shone into the dark details of welfare, from the most surprising of sources, the private contractors themselves. I'd highly recommend people read through all the information on the Atos site, partly because it's a clear explanation of how the process works and what to expect, but also because it clarifies departmental responsibilities. It really should make anyone genuinely interested in who is responsible for the Work Capability Assessment process ask why the DWP are not only the last to come forward with open information, but why, when the other parts of the sector are starting to try to do just that, the DWP are still trying to actively conceal such information?