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newslatestA cabinet minister and the boss of government contractor Atos Healthcare have both told MPs they know nothing about a major change that leaves disabled benefit claimants at the mercy of civil servants with no medical knowledge.

Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last week that disability benefit decision-makers have been left without expert medical advice to call on for most of their disability living allowance (DLA) and attendance allowance (AA) cases, after Atos Healthcare withdrew from much of its contract.

But neither Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary, or Ursula Morgenstern, chief executive for Atos in UK and Ireland, were able to offer any information about the issue when they were quizzed by MPs in separate parliamentary sessions this week.

Atos doctors previously advised Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decision-makers – the civil servants who decide whether or not a disabled person will receive the benefit – on the more difficult DLA and AA claims.

Duncan Smith claimed the Atos move was a “simple contract adjustment to reflect and meet the corresponding business needs”.

He told Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, who asked him about the DNS story, that she was “completely wrong” and “should really not listen to jobbing journalists who come to her to tell her they have an issue”.

Although personal independence payment (PIP) has now replaced DLA for new working-age claims, under-16s still have to claim DLA, and over-65s must claim AA to cover their care needs.

And due to delays in the PIP rollout process, existing DLA claimants across London and the south of England, the north of England, and Scotland, are still being assessed for DLA rather than PIP if they report a change in their needs, if their fixed-term award is about to expire, or if they reach the age of 16.

Later in the week, Morgenstern and bosses from three other outsourcing giants – Capita, G4S and Serco – appeared before the Commons public accounts committee to be quizzed on their accountability to the taxpayer, and whether they and other private contractors offer value-for-money when delivering public services.

Fiona Mactaggart, the Labour MP for Slough, also raised the DNS story, and told Morgenstern that she was concerned that decision-makers were being advised to use charity websites if they could not make a decision on their existing evidence.

Morgenstern said she was unable to comment on the DWP bulletin leaked to DNS that revealed the changes, but was “happy to provide the details of what it is that may have changed” by letter.

Kate Green, Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people, told DNS later that she was “seriously concerned” about the lack of medical advice now available to decision-makers, who will be “relying on their own interpretation of what they can pick up off different sites”.

She added: “We are now in a situation where ministers are saying that if Atos are not providing this guidance then look it up on the internet, and IDS [Ian Duncan Smith] appeared to accept that.”

She said ministers did not appear to have a grip on the PIP reforms, with many disabled people “left in limbo” because of delays to the rollout of the new benefit.

She said: “I am continuing to get reports of long delays, of people having filled in their forms and still not having received a decision or having a face-to-face assessment.

“Some of those cases are people with terminal illness, so that is a real source of anxiety.”

Sue Marsh, a leading disabled blogger and campaigner, said she was “astonished” by Duncan Smith’s failure to provide clarity on the Atos contract withdrawal.

She said it was yet another example of him dismissing stories about serious problems within his department or implying that they were not true.

On the same day that Duncan Smith responded to Reeves’ questions, disabled campaigners Jayne Linney and Debbie Sayers delivered a petition to parliament calling on the work and pensions secretary to be held to account for his “dodgy” use of statistics to try to justify his welfare reforms.

Their petition, which secured more than 100,000 names – organised through the change.org website – was accepted by Green and fellow Labour MP and shadow minister Liz Kendall, and then formally presented to parliament.

It came as Duncan Smith was finally set to appear before the Commons work and pensions committee – on 9 December – to defend his department’s use of statistics.

The committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, launched a short inquiry into DWP’s misleading use of benefit statistics in July, prompted by Labour MP Sheila Gilmore.

The committee has already received a private briefing from Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, and has questioned John Shields, DWP’s director of communications, and David Frazer, director of its information, governance and security directorate.

21 November 2013

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