Croydon Council spent nearly £17,000 in the past year on medical assessments of often vulnerable people which were carried out by a private health firm without even speaking to them, let alone examining them.
The assessments, by a company called NowMedical, are usually commissioned to assess a person’s housing need. The assessments are often used by councils as a “cost-effective” way to reject a person’s housing claim.
The use of these medical assessments – which in the past was advertised on the company’s site as being turned around in as little as one working day – have been criticised in cases brought before the courts.
According to figures provided to Inside Croydon under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, for the 11 months between April 2019 and February 2020, Croydon’s Labour-run council paid NowMedical a total of £16,645.
There was not a single monthly period in which Croydon did not spend more than £1,000 in commissioning health assessments from NowMedical. In July 2019, Croydon Council paid NowMedical £2,280 – enough to buy at least 45 such tests.
Croydon began using NowMedical in 2015, and between then and the end of last year had spent a total of £53,165 to assess the housing needs of 1,519 people. On average, that’s an annual spend of a little more than £13,000 per year.
NowMedical’s reports have been used by the council to help decide whether disabled or ill applicants have a priority need to be housed.
Yet it is now more than a decade ago since no less a figure than Lord Justice Leveson had described the use of this kind of assessment by local authorities as “irrational”.
Presiding in a 2006 case that appealed a decision taken by Ealing, Leveson said that the view of the council had been “tainted” by their reliance on the work of NowMedical.
Using a remote medical assessment, Ealing had decided that a woman who was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after being raped, tortured and imprisoned in Iran could be placed in the lowest housing priority band as she had “no recognised housing need”.
The company is based in Chiswick. NowMedical’s website states: “NowMedical are the UK’s leading provider of housing medical advice. Created in 2004, we now advise over 150 local authorities, housing associations and organisations across the UK, providing prompt and professional medical and psychiatric advice on housing applications.
“Our services are highly cost-effective, for example reducing time spent in temporary accommodation, and by more efficient use of housing stock…
“Our doctors are UK-registered general practitioners and psychiatrists in current medical practice.”
NowMedical’s six-strong team of medics and psychiatrists, led by Dr John Keen, have been providing councils with 14,000 paper-based housing needs assessments a year – an average of 55 a day. At between £35 and £50 a pop, Keen & Co have pocketed around £2.2million of taxpayers’ money since the start of 2014.
Croydon is among those local authorities, and the Home Office, who continue to use NowMedical’s “highly cost-effective” assessments.
The problem is that, in some cases, sick and disabled people have been wrongly denied housing support or were threatened with deportation by local authorities who relied on NowMedical reports.
Investigations conducted by The Independent, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Private Eye have, over the past decade, discovered a series of disturbing cases, often where the courts had intervened and criticised both the authorities involved and NowMedical.
For example, in 2017, a suicidal homeless woman won her appeal against Lambeth Council after she was refused housing support. The council had relied on the assessment of NowMedical, who declared the woman to be not “significantly more vulnerable than any other person”.
The woman’s own GP had stated that she would “not cope with being homeless”.
In that case, Judge Parfitt criticised Lambeth’s “fundamentally flawed” approach to the case, commenting that “it might have helped” if someone from NowMedical had “taken the time to see the appellant or indeed considered her medical records”.
Another case from a south London council involved a mother and her 22-year-old daughter who has autism, learning disabilities, and severe mental health problems. The Bureau discovered that the pair were threatened with eviction from their temporary home by Bexley Council just before Christmas, after reports from NowMedical found the daughter was no more vulnerable than “an ordinary person if homeless”.
But when a forensic psychiatrist, Dr Rachel Daly, actually examined the daughter, she found that she was “extremely debilitated”, that her hands were raw from obsessive washing, that she had suicidal thoughts and was unable to leave the house.
Dr Daly concluded that it would be a “disaster” for the young woman to be made homeless and after a legal battle, the council conceded the pair were indeed in priority need of housing.
Following such reports, one London council, Islington, decided in the light of the publicity not to renew its contract with NowMedical.
Not so Croydon, who despite such reports have continued to spend more than £1,000 per month with NowMedical for its assessments.
The cabinet member in Croydon’s Labour-run council who is responsible for housing is Alison Butler.
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Under the past and present Data Protection Acts, processing personal sensitive data about an individual requires their consent. There is also a legal obligation for the records created by Now Medical to be correct.
If, in these cases, Croydon Council was providing information to Now Medical without the consent of the people concerned, and Now Medical were making up records about people they’d never seen, then appear to be good grounds for the individuals to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
There would also seem to be good reasons for the victims to complain to Croydon council, and once their concerns have been dismissed with the usual contempt, they can then take the matter up with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. A finding of maladministration causing injustice could follow, which is hardly the accolade that an aspiring brassnecked politician (or a bailing out Chief Executive) would want to have on her CV.
We are not aware of any suggestion that Croydon Council has been passing on personal information to a third party without permission – we’d be surprised if there was not some tick-box waiver in the application form.
But if anyone has direct experience of applying to Croydon for housing help and having their data passed to NowMedical without having given their permission, we’d certainly be interested in hearing from them.