Since 2010, the government has increasingly outsourced a range of public services. It is difficult to know whether the poor performance delivered by many of these contractors is due to inadequate specification, non-existent monitoring or ministerial indifference. Sometimes it appears to be all three.
Of course, some of those failings have been front page news. For example:
- G4S completely bungled the provision of security for the London Olympics; even the company described it as a ‘humiliating shambles’ and the army and the police had to be called in at the last moment.
- G4S – again – and SERCO were caught ripping off the public purse by charging the Ministry of Justice for electronically tagging people who had left the country, people they hadn’t tagged, and, even in some cases, people who were dead.
I have a clear view that companies which fail to perform or cheat should be prevented from being considered for other contracts, but the current government doesn’t agree.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has increasingly used third-party contractors to provide health and disability assessments. In July 2012, DWP signed three regional contracts to provide Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments: two with ATOS and one with Capita Business Services Limited (CAPITA). A PIP is a benefit for people aged between 16 and 64 who have additional costs because of a long-term illness or disability.
In March this year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found unacceptable local and regional variations in the contractors’ performance. Service was regularly unacceptable. There were particular concerns for claimants with fluctuating and mental health conditions. Too many assessments did not meet the standard required, and the price had increased without any noticeable benefit for claimants or taxpayers.
As well as complaints from individual claimants, there were widespread concerns from third sector organisations about the assessment process. A Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in April revealed serious concerns about the validity of assessment tools, the systems in place, the training of assessors and the lack of ethical practice. Despite pressure, the government simply refused to conduct an urgent investigation into the issues.
If anyone required further proof that something was going badly wrong, the latest Tribunal Statistics show that 63% of PIP decisions were overturned on appeal.
A few weeks ago, the government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) rated the DWP’s PIP programme in the Amber/Red category. This is defined as “Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.” In other words, current PIP performance is shambolic and neither the government or its contractors has any plan to put things right.
This simply will not do, which is why ministers will be asked a lot of questions this week and under pressure to put things right for some very vulnerable people.