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theweeksubThe award of a £184 million disability assessment contract to the controversial outsourcing company Atos Healthcare is to be referred to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The crossbench peer Lord Alton decided to write to NAO after he received “inadequate” answers to a series of questions he put to the Conservative welfare reform minister Lord Freud about the contract Atos secured to assess disabled people for the new personal independence payment (PIP).

Quoting from a Disability News Service story, he asked Lord Freud this week why Atos had failed to deliver on promises it made in the tender document that won the company the contract.

Atos won the contract to carry out assessments across London and the south of England by boasting of its “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where assessments would take place.

But in the months after it was awarded the contract last summer, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private healthcare providers dropped out.

Lord Alton told fellow peers: “Why does it matter? It matters because the changes will mean that many disabled people with significant mobility and care needs will face longer journeys – possibly up to 90 minutes by public transport – to reach their assessments, rather than the maximum of 60 minutes promised by Atos when it bid successfully for the contract.”

He added: “At the very minimum this must reinforce the doubts that so many of us have about Atos and the new arrangements which the government are putting in hand.

“Perhaps the central question is why the government are content to spend taxpayers’ money paying a company that fails to honour its contract to the detriment of disabled people.”

Baroness [Celia] Thomas, the disabled Liberal Democrat peer, told Lord Freud the concerns about the contract that had been raised by Lord Alton were “very disturbing”.

But Lord Freud told peers that it was “usual for there to be changes between contract award and delivery” and that Atos had “kept the department informed about changes, and we are confident that Atos and its partners are able to deliver successfully”.

When asked again about the maximum length of journeys rising because of contractors dropping out, Lord Freud said that “Atos tendered for four of the contract areas and received two, so it is not surprising that the 22 sites it was looking at have been reduced”, even though the figures mentioned by Lord Alton referred only to one specific tender document and just one contract area.

Lord Freud also failed to answer Lord Alton’s question on how many assessment sites there now were in the Atos supply chain, or to say whether the Department for Work and Pensions had contacted the NHS trusts that pulled out of the contract.

Lord Alton also raised concerns in the debate about those disabled people who will lose their Motability vehicles in the move from DLA to PIP.

He said it was “unconscionable and deeply irresponsible” of the government to bring in PIP without knowing how many people would lose their vehicles when they were reassessed as having lower mobility needs under the new regime.

The Labour peer Baroness Hollis said she estimated that 180,000 disabled people could face having their Motability vehicles repossessed in the transition from DLA to PIP.

Lord Alton told DNS after the debate that he had tabled follow-up questions in a bid to secure answers from the government about the contract, while he would also be writing to NAO.

He said: “It’s vitally important to keep the issues arising out of PIP before parliament.

“Everything from the repossession of Motability vehicles and the loss of independence to the role of Atos Healthcare will all seriously impact on countless numbers of disabled people.

“House of Commons select committees and the National Audit Office should now be scrutinising these policies with enormous care and calling ministers, officials and Atos executives to account.”

He added: “In the light of the inadequate replies during the debate I have today tabled a series of follow up questions – which I hope will receive straightforward replies.”

John McArdle, a founding member of the user-led campaign group Black Triangle, welcomed Lord Alton’s decision to write to NAO, and said he was “appalled” by Lord Freud’s answers.

He said: “He completely failed to answer the questions Lord Alton put to him. We regard it as an abuse of parliament and a travesty of the democratic process. He should be held to account.”

He added: “Either Atos has been deceiving the government, or the government in cahoots with Atos has been deceiving parliament.”

26 June 2013 

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