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newslatestThe new minister for disabled people has been caught giving false information to an MP about the distance disabled people will have to travel to reach their face-to-face assessments for the government’s new disability benefit.

Mike Penning had been asked by Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart which of the centres provided by Atos Healthcare to carry out assessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP) across London and the south of England could not be reached on public transport within 90 minutes by all disabled people in the catchment area.

Penning told Mactaggart in a response to her written question that Atos had told the government – when bidding for the assessment contract – that between 75 and 90 per cent of claimants would not have to journey more than 60 minutes, and that no claimant should have to travel more than 90 minutes by public transport.

But the Atos tender actually promised that “between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of claimants will be less than 30 minutes travel time from a consultation centre”, and “less than 60 minutes for all others”, a far tougher pledge.

The inconsistency is significant because, when it submitted the tender, Atos stated that it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England.

But after winning the PIP assessment contract for London and south of England, Atos provided just 96 centres. The government and Atos have so far refused to admit that this will increase disabled people’s average journey times to their assessments.

The public spending watchdog is currently investigating concerns over the award of the contract – worth £184 million – a decision taken following a DNS investigation, and concerns raised with the National Audit Office (NAO) by the crossbench peer Lord Alton.

The results of the NAO study are likely to be published in early spring.

Atos won the contract 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 the tests would take place.

But in the months after the contract was awarded, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private hospital chains dropped out.

Mactaggart, a member of the public accounts committee, said she would write to Penning to ask him how he came to give her incorrect information on the Atos tender.

She added: “There is a real problem that these contracts were not transparent in the first place and have become more and more opaque.”

Richard Butchins, the disabled documentary-maker, whose recent work includes films on the government’s “fitness for work” assessment and the PIP reforms for Channel 4′s Dispatches, said: “It’s not reassuring to see a minister being unaware of important details about a tender that resulted in his department awarding a multi-million pound contract to Atos. A contract that, at present, they appear unable to fulfil.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said in a statement: “There was an error in the PQ [parliamentary question]. We have contacted Fiona Mactaggart’s office to clarify the information.”

21 November 2013

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