Maximus replaces Atos as WCA provider: a step forward?
- Author: Gillian Guy, Chief Executive
Today is an important moment for thousands of Citizens Advice clients whose sickness or disability means they are unable to work. Responsibility for carrying out Work Capability Assessments (WCA), which determine who can claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), has moved from previous provider Atos to a new contractor; Maximus.
ESA is not fit for work
It is no secret that the ESA applications process is not fit for work. Between 2008 and 2014, over 700,000 people experienced application delays and 40% of fit for work decisions resulted in appeals.
Our evidence shows that ESA continues to be a huge source of problems for our clients, with almost half a million such problems recorded by bureaux each year. Many people face issues getting appropriate medical evidence taken into account when their claim is being decided, and when this evidence isn’t sourced directly by the DWP, claimants have to pay up to £125 to get it themselves. We also see thousands of ill and disabled people each year who have experienced low quality assessments, with problems ranging from inaccessible assessment venues to poor treatment by staff and factually incorrect work capability reports.
In June last year, the Work and Pensions Select Committee went as far as to suggest that the whole system could benefit from a radical overhaul. The National Audit Office has also been highly critical of the DWP’s management of the Atos contract because, for example, Atos faced few penalties for poor performance.
This unacceptable treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, is why we spent 2014 campaigning to make ESA fit for work.
A new provider… a new dawn?
So, is the introduction of Maximus the radical overhaul for which we have all been waiting?
The decision to terminate the Atos contract and award responsibility for carrying out the WCA in the future to Maximus demonstrates that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has taken some note of concerns raised.
And we are pleased that the new contract includes steps to improve the process: for example bringing in an independent body to monitor customer satisfaction; tightening requirements on the quality of assessments; including provisions to better hold the new provider to account if things go wrong; and improving feedback between DWP and the assessor.
Maximus have also made some positive announcements. They have promised to make better use of evidence, tackle delays in the assessment process and use increased funding from DWP to provide more staff additional assessment centres and better assessor training. This is a real step forward towards ensuring that no ill or disabled person is left without financial support.
A long road ahead
However, today’s change is not a magic bullet. Many of the issues Citizens Advice identified during the course of our campaign cannot be squarely placed at the door of the assessment provider. It is DWP’s responsibility to ensure that these changes lead to improvements for ill and disabled people. They must hold Maximus to account more effectively than they did Atos.
Further change necessary
As well as making improvements to the assessment process, DWP must ensure that all claimants have their medical problems – and the impact of those on their ability to work – fully explained to an assessor by a health or social care professional of their choosing.
Ministers must also act to end the current situation where thousands of people are left without any financial support because they asked for a second opinion on their claim. That’s why we’re asking all political parties election manifestos to include a commitment to ensure proper support for illness and disability goes to those who really need it, with fit for work decisions made within 12 weeks and financial support available until a final decision has been taken.
The arrival of a new provider offers a chink of light to people who have faced unacceptable treatment. But there remain huge challenges for ministers to address if ESA is to finally be made fit for work.