Cost saving is not the main driver for reintroducing fitness for work assessments on those on long-term incapacity benefits, the Treasury Minister insists.
Announcing the appointment of UK-based Dependability Ltd to carry out the person capability assessments for an estimated 3,000 claimants over the next three years, Eddie Teare said: ‘I have not factored in any savings in the budget because of this.
‘This is not just about making cost savings, it is a genuine attempt to help people escape the benefits trap and realise their full potential.’
Dependability, which was awarded the contract following a tendering exercise, will be paid a total of £750,000 for its services.
A previous pilot scheme carried out by the then Department of Social Care in 2012-13 looked at the cases of 202 claimants, of which a third stopped claiming before they were assessed.
One third was found to be incapable of work and the other third had their incapacity benefits stopped as they were deemed to be capable of some form of work.
But the tick-box methods used by Atos, the company that carried out the pilot, came in for some criticism. In the UK, Atos hit the headlines when disability campaigners called for it to be stripped of its £100m a year contract with the Department of Work and Pensions in protest at its ‘flawed’ approach which they claim has left thousands denied the correct benefits.
Mr Teare said Atos had completed its six-month contract here and has now pulled out of its fitness for work contract in the UK.
The Treasury Minister said that while tick-box assessments will still be used, Dependability’s approach will be ‘more sophisticated’, with input from GPs and specialists.
Under the new scheme, claimants will be assessed and given points dependent on their physical and mental disability. If they have 15 points or more they will be deemed to be unfit to work.
Claimants will have the right to appeal a decision.
Mr Teare said Dependability had been doing these type of services for a long time in the UK and, unlike Atos, had not hit the radar of the media spotlight, which he suggested was a positive sign.
He said their contract was subject to 120 days’ notice when it could be terminated if performance was not adequate.
About 2,000 people have been claiming incapacity-related benefits for more than a year. About £18m will be paid out on long-term incapacity benefits in the current financial year.
Taking into account new claimants, it is estimated the assessments will be carried out on up to 3,000 people over the next three years, at a cost of £250 per case.
Mr Teare said it would be ‘wholly irresponsible’ of government to leave a person on long-term incapacity benefits without assessing whether they might be capable of doing some form of work. He said: ‘We have a duty to ensure people are receiving the support that is right for their circumstances.’
Member for Treasury Bill Henderson MHK said: ‘We must target our resources to help those most in need and to ensure the long-term sustainability of the benefits system.’
Director of Public Health Dr Parameswaran Kishore said research suggested people are better off in work, not only financially but in terms of their health and wellbeing, their self-esteem and their future prospects.’