Anger over assessment unit closure

Alan Reid (Disability Information and Support service manager) at Whitegate Drive, Blackpool.
Alan Reid (Disability Information and Support service manager) at Whitegate Drive, Blackpool.
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Disability campaigners today told of their anger after a dedicated centre to assess benefit payments was closed – just months after it opened in Blackpool.

It means disabled people must once more travel to Preston to file personal independence payments (PIP)claims.

A centre was opened at Warbreck House, North Shore, last November following a long campaign by then Blackpool MPs and current Parliamentary candidates Gordon Marsden and Paul Maynard, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and the Disability First advice centre on Whitegate Drive.

But since then it has closed its doors, and a new centre will not open in Blackpool until June at the earliest, according to Atos, the body which conducts assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The company did not confirm today why the centre had closed.

Alan Reid, senior manager at Disability First, said: “A lot of the people we support are suffering hardship and are 
vulnerable.

“They may have mental health problems or suffer panic attacks so it is very 
unfair to expect them to travel to Preston.

“Also, Blackpool has a higher than average number of disabled people so it is important we have a centre here.”

Labour’s Mr Marsden, prospective candidate for Blackpool South, said: “It’s a disgrace ATOS are sending vulnerable people from Blackpool again to Preston, after they’d had to be shamed and pressed for failing to set up a proper assessment centre in Blackpool when they got the PIP contract.”

Conservative Mr Maynard, Parliamentary candidate for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said: “It is vital we have a Blackpool assessment centre so people do not have to travel to Preston, which is a situation that is unacceptable.”

An Atos Healthcare spokesman: “We are doing all we can to reduce people’s travel times and will have a consultation centre for PIP opening in Blackpool in June.

“If anyone feels they will have difficulty visiting a centre they should call us to discuss as we do pay for taxis or go to people’s homes where they are unable to travel.”

The agreement with the DWP sets out that people should be within a 90 minute journey to their nearest consultation centre.

Atos pulled out of its contract with the DWP last year.