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theweeksubThe company being paid nearly £200 million to test people for the government’s new disability benefit has failed to provide a single assessment centre within the area covering hundreds of thousands of disabled people living in north London.

Atos Healthcare has also confirmed that it has only secured one assessment centre in Suffolk, one in Cambridgeshire, and just three in Norfolk.

When it submitted a tender for the personal independence payment (PIP) contract last year, Atos told the government it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London, the south, south-east, south-west and east of England.

But it has now admitted that it only has 96 centres available to carry out PIP assessments, including just 13 in London.

Because there are so few centres, hundreds of thousands of disabled people will face far longer and more complicated journeys to reach their assessments for PIP, the replacement for working-age disability living allowance.

Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives (formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People), said he was “shocked” by how few assessment centres Atos was providing in Norfolk.

He said he believed that it would take many disabled people in parts of Norfolk and Suffolk more than 90 minutes to get to an assessment centre by public transport, even though Atos estimated in its tender document that no claimant would have to travel more than 60 minutes by public transport.

Harrison also pointed out that much of the public transport in rural areas was not accessible.

He said: “This is nonsense. It is not local delivery. They promised 740 centres and they delivered 96.

“They are putting their profits and their shareholders before the needs of disabled people.”

The National Audit Office has already had discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over concerns raised by DNS and the crossbench peer Lord Alton about the £184 million contract.

Atos says it needs fewer locations because the number of assessments expected to take place is lower than anticipated, but the forecast number of assessments for 2013-14 has only dropped from 199,000 to 138,000.

Asked whether it was concerned about the drastic fall in the number of assessment centres, particularly in areas such as north London, Norfolk and Suffolk, a DWP spokeswoman said: “We are satisfied Atos have demonstrated through their supply chain contractual arrangements that they have full geographic coverage with additional capacity.

“As the number of PIP assessments rises so will the number of consultation centres.”

She declined to say whether DWP accepted that having 96 locations would mean longer average journeys for disabled people than if there were 740.

But she said DWP was “satisfied Atos will meet the terms of their contract regarding claimant journey times”, that “travel expenses incurred by a claimant and their companion will be reimbursed and where a claimant is unable to travel to a consultation because of their health condition, Atos will offer a home consultation”.

An Atos spokeswoman said: “Our success in winning the PIP contract was not based upon the number of suppliers or locations but instead on being able to meet the department’s needs for coverage, which we have.

“It is absolutely usual for there to be changes between point of tender and delivery. We were asked by the department to include the names of all those we were in discussion with and they were fully aware that commercial contracts could not be in place at this time.

“The nature of the supply chain model, and its strength, is the ability to flex resource and locations as needed.”

5 September 2013

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