A Berwick woman has criticised a policy which means sick and disabled people on benefits have to travel to Tyneside for a medical assessment.
Pam Vassie is calling on the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to provide these assessments closer to home.
She explained: “Anyone who is sick or disabled and needs to claim employment and support allowance or a personal independence payment is required to attend a medical assessment. These assessments are carried out on behalf of the DWP by a private company, ATOS.
“ATOS are committed to making sure that claimants should not have to make a journey of more than 90 minutes by public transport to reach an assessment centre.
“Claimants in Berwick are routinely sent appointments at Gosforth, Newcastle. This centre cannot be reached by public transport within 90 minutes.”
She raised the matter with Sir Alan Beith last December who has taken it up with the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, but ATOS, supported by the DWP, has not changed anything.
Mr Duncan Smith said a review had considered changing the default postcode to Berwick assessment centre rather than some for Newcastle.
But in a letter to Sir Alan, he said: “In view of the assessment capacity in Berwick and the potential for delay in completing assessments, it was decided to leave this unchanged.
“When a customer receives an appointment letter they are advised to phone our contact centre if they are unable to attend the allocated appointment. Their appointment can be changed to Berwick if this is requested, although this can result in some delay in arranging the assessment.
“There is limited availablility of space in Berwick and only when there are sufficient numbers of customers is an examination session arranged.”
However, Mrs Vassie says the option of a Berwick appointment should be clearly stated on letters to claimants.
“At the moment the wording used is to phone ATOS if they are unable to attend,” she said.
“Claimants are scared. They know if they don’t attend their benefits will stop. They naturally assume that ‘not able to attend’ means they are too ill or in hospital.
“If ATOS wished to do so, regular space could be hired at Berwick Infirmary instead of hiring space on a casual basis.
“ATOS is not willing to tell claimants they can be seen in Berwick because they know there would be considerable demand and it would cause them inconvenience.
“Claimants in Berwick are getting a raw deal.”