Disabled people forced to make 88-mile trip because Norwich assessment centre is on second floor

St Mary's House, Duke Street Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams St Mary's House, Duke Street Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams

Annabelle Dickson Political Editor annabelle.dickson@archant.co.uk
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
8:53 AM

Taxpayers are footing the bill to ferry disabled people on an 88-mile round trip to Ipswich or King’s Lynn by taxi to decide if they are fit to work because the Norwich centre has no wheelchair access.

To send a link to this page to a friend, you must be logged in.

In an uncompromising letter, welfare minister Mike Penning has told MPs there are no plans to introduce a new assessment centre in Norwich and the
inadequate St Mary’s House, on Duke Street, will continue to be used for the work capability assessments. It comes as Norwich MP Simon Wright highlighted the case of a constituent who had been sent to Ipswich by taxi, with other MPs also citing similar stories.

One Norwich woman who is unable to use stairs easily, who did not want to be named, was sent by taxi to King’s Lynn weeks after her appointment was cancelled because of the fire risk.

She said it had made an already stressful situation even more difficult.

South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, who has been campaigning with Norwich North MP Chloe Smith and Mr Wright and said he had constituents who had to travel to Ipswich, said: “It defies belief and taxpayers have the right to be extremely angry. I’m extremely angry and I think most of my Norfolk colleagues are.”

The longstanding member of the government spending watchdog Commons committee said: “I am absolutely convinced after 12 or 13 years looking at this, the public sector is awash with money, we are just really intergalactically stupid with how we spend it. This is just yet another example of it.”

The centre is on the second floor and the work capability assessments to determine whether someone is “fit for work” are held by private company Atos on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

People in wheelchairs or who have restricted mobility are advised they must be able to walk downstairs in the event of an emergency, as the lift would be out of use. They are offered appointments at home or at assessment centres in areas including King’s Lynn, Cambridge and Ipswich as an alternative.

It has emerged under a Freedom of Information request that the DWP has no direct control over the lease on St Mary’s House.

It is managed by the private firm Telereal Trillium as part of a 20 year private finance initiative contract, which ends in March 2018.

Telereal Trillium would not provide details of the terms of its leave citing it as “commercially sensitive”.

But said: “We are obligated to continue to provide DWP’s existing accommodation for as long as it is required, or until March 2018. We are also responsible for ensuring that DWP buildings meet statutory obligations, and can confirm that St Mary’s House complies with relevant legislation.”

A DWP spokesman said that not everyone assessed at the centre required the use of a wheelchair, and it believed the arrangements were reasonable for those who did.

He said there were no plans for the situation to change.

MPs have been calling for a meeting with the DWP, but the department has failed to meet with the Norfolk representatives.

Mr Wright said: “We have continued to raise our concerns about the current situation. I have been dealing with case work and one case I can think of was a constituent who was unable to make the second floor assessment centre. He was then given a home visit, it didn’t happen because the assessor was ill and it ended up being a visit arranged to the Ipswich assessment with a taxi.”

Mr Wright said: “It does seem absurd that taxis are being paid for to take people to Ipswich because of the failure to identify an adequate centre in Norwich.

“The responses we have received do not as of yet suggest there is going to a great shift in the situation. We have asked for meetings, but as of yet, as far as I’m aware, no dates have been forthcoming for this.

He said that he “It does concern me if we have to wait to 2018 and this is why I think a meeting would be helpful so we can get to the bottom of some of these issues. I would hope more progress could be made. This isn’t simply a case of shelving to 2018.”

“The FOI has raised some serious questions about those arrangements and I will be writing to the DWP to find out what options there are in light of current arrangements,” he added.

The DWP has confirmed that it may reimburse travel costs if people have to travel to an alternative assessment centre.

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said she would continue to hold the minister to account over the issue for her “vulnerable” constituents who needed better treatment.

Mark Harrison, chief executive of the charity Equal Lives, said: “How can this coalition government lease buildings that are not fit for purpose and have no control over the access requirements for disabled customers?”

He said the centre was yet another example of the government putting the needs of private sector companies and their profits before the welfare of its disabled citizens.

23 comments

  • Atos isn't the civil service. It is a private company contracted by the government to fulfil many contracts. It also has an obligation to pay dividends to it's shareholders. St Mary's house is very cheap. Might it be cynical to guess that Atos don't have to pay for people to get to assessments further afield. I don't know if that is correct but regardless it must be a more profitable way for them to undertake what they are contracted to do.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    NR1 Guru

    Friday, May 2, 2014

  • Mark Harrison from Equal Lives hits the nail on the head. How on earth can people have confidence in a scheme to assess anyone's fitness to work, when it wasn't considered important enough to provide a building which could be accessed by people who aren't able to use stairs. What on earth were they thinking of ?

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    angela

    Thursday, May 1, 2014

  • They made me travel all the way to Ipswich, had to get a lift from a friend,it took us nearly 2 and half hours because we had to keep making stops because of the pain i was in, they are nothing but a bunch of lowlifes at these atos run centres. once i had made the trip they reported that if i could travel that far i was ok to work, nothing but scum,

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    James Carrigan

    Thursday, May 1, 2014

  • What amazes me is that supposedly educated people who manage the assessment centres pick sites unsuitable for the very people they are being asked to access.There is much emphasis on university education nowadays but the first qualification required in many jobs is common sense. This seems to have been lacking here.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    jennifer jane

    Thursday, May 1, 2014

  • would the most logical answer be to transfer interviews to the now defunct dvla office on prince of Wales road. is this office not now empty ?? but logical thinking from the civil service never has been good

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    k day

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • It's a shame that this story starts, as so many others do, by playing on "the tax payers' ire against disabled people" ticket, although I should point out that the two aren't actually mutually exclusive. Yes "V", there are lifts but they aren't allowed to be used for health and safety reasons, because of evacuation purposes. N. Snelling, ATOS are no longer going to provide the "capability for work" assessments for the government, and I hope they your sake that you never have to come into contact with either them or their replacements. There are recent statistics that claim last year 10,600 sick & disabled people died within six weeks of their claim for ESA or Incapacity Benefit being ended, the majority of these being based on ATOS decisions. With regards disabled people having to travel so far out of Norwich to be assessed then they would really rather not (I speak from experience) as this can only add to what is already an extremely and quite often degrading process. The actual scandal, rather than focusing on how much it is costing the taxpayer, is the fact that there are many vacant accessible ground floor premises in Norwich that could be used instead, including in the same building I'm pretty certain. But despite regular organised protests outside the company, and the government, have decided to stand firm and continue this ridiculous and belittling practice.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Smark67

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Arfur, I work in a six storey building. We have wheelchair bound staff working on the higher floors. In the event of an evacuation the disabled wouldn't be able to walk down (one has no legs!). Their wheelchair fits and locks into a bit of kit that can be wheeled down the stairs by the fire warden. Simple and inexpensive solution.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Andy T

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • I had a previous apt to been accessed for PIP @ queens road, I then appealed the assessment to then be sent a letter to go to St Mary's House, on calling ATOS to advise if a fire in building I was unable to go down stairs, was then sent a letter to attend King's Lynn. I then called them advising's I am unable to drive as had operation on back. Was offered taxi only if had letter from doctor advising of the problem. I then asked why I had to go as King's Lynn to be told I was classed as Health and Safety risk as unable to climb stairs. Asking why I could not go to Queen's Road to be told this only used for 1st assessment's. I have now sent a letter from my doctor to advise I am unable to drive for a further 2 month's so now waiting another letter. Not only is the centre at St Mary's House, there is no use of toilets if needed, and only 2 parking spaces for disabled drivers, Was told nearer toilet is Jarrold's, and car park in St Andrews's car park, both a too far for disabled people to walk to St Mary's House, This a was of tax payers money in all ways

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    saltubs

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • arfur if people in Wheelchairs or with limited mobility are asked to use the stairs, then I am sure some jobworth adviser will then deem someone fit for work regardless, and have peoples Benefit stopped. Clearly ATOS and the DWP wouldn't ever consider such action (Cough)

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    che bramley

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Perhaps if "V" bothered to read the article he or she would have found this sentence : "People in wheelchairs or who have restricted mobility are advised they must be able to walk downstairs in the event of an emergency, as the lift would be out of use."

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    arfur

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Don't know why Assessments cannot be done at Kiln House. Remember they do have front door access ! So if a Car can fit in there, then I cannot see access for those in a Wheelchair being much of a problem

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    che bramley

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • received a reply saying my comment had been rejected, reason = duplicate, so wondering where my original comment is?

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Smark67

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Paul H and N snelling your callous comments here, from a position of healthy superiority shows you up as ignorant. ATOS should have never opened this office on the first floor and no lip service from our Tory and Lib Dem MP's has achieved any changes, instead disabled people are fobbed of with some secretive talks about leases and third party arrangements. ATOS has also paid no corporation tax despite their prominence in the Olympics and sponsoring the Commonwealth games this summer, it is spending money for show, but is performing dismally for the disabled. Not good enough!

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    ingo wagenknecht

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • It's a shame (Annabelle Dickson) that this story starts, as so many others do, by playing on "the tax payers' ire against disabled people" ticket, although I should point out that the two aren't actually mutually exclusive. Yes "V", there are lifts but they aren't allowed to be used for health and safety reasons, because of evacuation purposes. N. Snelling, ATOS are no longer going to provide the "capability for work" assessments for the government, and I hope they your sake that you never have to come into contact with either them or their replacements. There are recent statistics that claim last year 10,600 sick & disabled people died within six weeks of their claim for ESA or Incapacity Benefit being ended, the majority of these being based on ATOS decisions. With regards disabled people having to travel so far out of Norwich to be assessed then they would really rather not (I speak from experience) as this can only add to what is already an extremely and quite often degrading process. The actual scandal, rather than focusing on how much it is costing the taxpayer, is the fact that there are many vacant accessible ground floor premises in Norwich that could be used instead, including in the same building I'm pretty certain. But despite regular organised protests outside the company, and the government, have decided to stand firm and continue this ridiculous and belittling practice.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Smark67

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • I feel very sorry for those who do deserve to receive benefit for the problems they are encountering. Nevertheless, the numbers coming off benefit suggest that a proper review is long overdue. With regard to this particular issue and especially the costs, as Richard Bacon says, 'the public sector is awash with money, we are just really intergalactically stupid with how we spend it.' Too many 'officials' just don't care what they do with tax payers money to an extent that would not be tolerated in the private sector. I take it that 'Equal Lives' is a left leaning charity and has missed the point entirely that this contract was set up by the previous government and not the coalition?

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    andy

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • There are lifts to the second floor in this building, so why not use them ?

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    "V"

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Might I suggest that N.Snelling and PaulH would be better off directing their ire at the money grabbing private contractors rather than the disabled?

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    arfur

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • The real scandal here is why is the taxpayer funding the taxi & not the contractor who is requiring taxi's to complete the contract they tendered for, due to an inept choice of operating base.. If taxis are needed due to an inadequate building having been chosen as a operating base, then are they suitably competent to have tendered for the contract??? If the building is not suitable, then that is an issue for the private company who sought the contract, not ours or that of those they assess.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    el84

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • My husband is severely disabled, but, despite this he has managed to work for most of his life until his condition became worse and he was made redundant, he has tried for work since but because of his problems no-one wants to know when they have millions of able bodied people to chose from. Anyway, regarding the assessment centre in Norwich, yes, this is completely ludicrous, my husband was given D.L.A higher rate for life because of his disability, but, as this is now changing to the new P.I.P he was given an appointment to go to Ipswich and it stated that help would be given for travel costs, so, thinking this was further than Norwich and would therefore cost the tax payer more I phoned to suggest we go to Norwich as it was closer only to be told it was not suitable for people in wheelchairs or disability scooters! I was dumbfounded to think they had such a place which was not suitable when many of those attending such a place would require these things! You could not make it up could you?! Surely with all the empty premises there are around there must be somewhere which is on the ground floor which could be used, they only need basic rooms for examinations, so nothing out of the ordinary. I am just surprised this matter is only now coming to light as it must have been going on for years.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Lynda

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • What a farce, I hope all the extra costs go back to the contractors and not the taxpayer(IE. DWP as stated)...What a foolish organisation to chose an establishment for testing disabled people without disabled access!

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    WTH

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Just glad some of these welfare claimants are being assessed .Something that was never done for years under Labour.If you are incapable then you get more benefits If not you work for money like the rest of us. Get it

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    PaulH

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Maybe the MP's etc. should question how a contract could be placed without the premises meeting the disabled access criteria like all LA and Nat Gov't contracts are required to. The ATOS website clearly used to show that the majority of their sites were not suitable. These contracts should have been placed with NHS or local Doctors instead of funding thousands of Doctors in the private sector

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Arkle

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • I spoke to a fellow I know who was supposed to attend one of these assessments at St Mary’s House the other day and despite him not being wheelchair bound and being able to take his dog for long walks and drive a car he was asked if he could get there and up the stairs? He said he couldn't so two week later a taxi was sent to take him back and forth to Ipswich at the cost of £120. There's something wrong somewhere.

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Old Long Balls

    Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Norfolk Weather

Sunny

Sunny

max temp: 25°C

min temp: 18°C

Five-day forecast

loading...

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT