UK Politics

David Cameron: Fit-for-work benefits tests must improve

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Media captionDennis Skinner: "Abolish this cruel, heartless monster called Atos"

David Cameron has said the quality of decision-making on "fitness-for-work" tests for disabled people must improve.

But he rejected an angry call by Labour MP Dennis Skinner to "get rid" of Atos, the company that carries out the tests.

Mr Skinner attacked Atos as a "cruel, heartless monster". A constituent with cancer had died before an 11-month-long appeal had been resolved, he said.

Atos said it would look at the case but stressed it did not make the final decision on benefit entitlement.

At Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Skinner raised the case of his constituent, a "butcher and farmer in Bolsover", who had been waiting for the result of an appeal against a fit-for-work assessment and who had died this week.

The veteran Labour MP, his face red with anger, told Mr Cameron: "Isn't it time we put an end to this system, where people that are really suffering should not be allowed an appeal, having to live on £70 a week? Him and his widow.

"Two things the prime minister should do - one, with immediate effect, make an ex-gratia payment to his widow to cover the suffering, pain and lost income.

"And secondly, abolish this cruel, heartless monster called Atos - get rid of it."

'Unacceptable'

Mr Cameron promised to look into the "desperately sad case" raised by Mr Skinner, adding: "Everyone who has constituency surgeries and talks to constituents knows that we have to improve the quality of decision-making about this issue."

But he added: "I think it is important that we carry out proper assessments of whether people are qualified for benefits or are not qualified for benefits."

Atos is paid by the government to carry out "work capability assessments" for people applying for the employment and support allowance, as well as people who were previously on incapacity benefit.

The French-run IT firm was told to improve its services in July after a government audit found an "unacceptable reduction" in the quality of its written reports.

Some 400 reports were analysed, with retraining and re-evaluation of staff among the measures recommended.

Atos said that accusing it of being responsible for an increase in successful appeals against fit-for-work tests was a "gross oversimplification" and it did not make any decisions on benefit entitlement.

The company said it carried out assessments based on government guidelines and sent a report to the Department for Work and Pensions, which made the final decision.

An Atos spokesman said the case raised by Mr Skinner was "terribly sad and our sympathies are with the family", adding: "We will, of course, be looking at the detail of this.

"There are rigorous checks within the system, with both a rolling and random audit process for our doctors, nurses and physiotherapists.

"We do not make the decision on benefit entitlement and will re-do any assessment that is sent back to us by the decision-makers at DWP before a decision on benefit has been reached."

Labour has said it will keep fitness-for-work tests if it wins the next general election, but has suggested it will sack Atos, saying it gets too many tests wrong and delivers poor value for money.

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