Atos is "black and white" on fitness and disability

One man's experience of successfully appealing a Work Capability Assessment ruling.

One man's experience of successfully appealing a Work Capability Assessment ruling.{C}

I'm one of the 39 per cent. I appealed against a decision by Jobcentre Plus that, despite being five months into recovery from a stroke, I was not entitled to sickness benefit. On Tuesday, I won. The overturned decision was based on the infamous work capability tests carried out by French IT company Atos. The accuracy of the tests has been described as "worryingly low" by Citizens Advice. I know why.

In the summer of 2010 I suffered a brain haemorrhage and subsequent stroke. In comparative terms the stroke was mild, but felt devastating. My balance was shot to pieces (getting from A to B involved going via C, D sometimes S), my speech so badly slurred I could barely be understood and I developed double vision. My cerebellum had been damaged; the part of the brain that is temporarily impaired if you get blind drunk. I spent three weeks in hospital. At 40-years-old I was a relatively young, but told that recovery would take time.

After a long struggle of contending with doctor's notes that mysteriously disappeared when posted, during which time I felt that the universe personally hated me, I eventually received £65.45 a week Employment and Support Allowance. In November that year I was told by my Jobcentre Plus adviser that I would have to attend a "medical" to confirm my condition. What followed was a distinctly "unmedical" procedure to demonstrate that I was capable of work, when I obviously wasn't.

I arrived at a former driving test centre on a cold Saturday morning in December 2010. I sat alone in the waiting room. The test had been postponed from the previous week because -- you have to admire the irony -- the doctor was sick.

The test lasted no more than 20 minutes. I was asked various questions by a "healthcare professional" sat behind a desk about whether I prepared my own meals, did my own shopping, walked to friends' houses nearby. The answer, in all cases, was a "Yes, but . . .". But as the computer keyboard rattled in response to my answers, I realised that there were no conditionals in the Atos universe.

The "but" was all the difference in the world, both to me and any potential employer. I could perform "tasks" as the pre-assessment form put it; but if done repeatedly, as real jobs tend to demand, they would soon result in chronic fatigue, and the deficiencies of my damaged brain would come to the surface. My speech would become incomprehensible, my dexterity would collapse, I'd have to squint to see properly, I wouldn't be able to walk in a straight line and concentrating would become an insurmountable achievement. Besides the loss of balance, I have a permanent sense of slight dizziness. I pointed this out but had the feeling no one was listening.

The Atos doctor ploughed on with the test. I was asked to touch my fingers, just once, above my head. I'm still not sure what this proved. The doctor then shook hands and asked if I was satisfied. As I left I could feel his eyes in the back of my head as I walked, slowly, down the corridor.

In employment terms, at that stage in my recovery I was useless. I knew I was unemployable, my Jobcentre adviser knew I was unemployable. But Atos -- and the Department for Work and Pensions -- thought otherwise.

Two weeks later, I was phoned by the Jobcentre and told I had been found fit for work. I received the test report through the post. My disabilities had been minimised and frozen in time: if I could do something once, I could do it, period. Unhesitatingly, I appealed against the decision.

Atos says it is focussed on high standards and its customer satisfaction ratings exceed 90 per cent. Also, it works under contract -- worth £100m -- from the Department for Work and Pensions. The government ultimately decides what level of incapacity has to be shown to qualify for benefit.

I was plunged into a horribly unfair struggle to prove what I knew what wrong with me; all the time aware of the irony that if I applied for an actual job then my real abilities, or lack of them, would be glaringly exposed. It was cruel. With the government "unreservedly and implacably opposed" to letting the "real world" impinge on the work capability test, the cruelty and colossal expense, estimated at £50m, of thousands of sick people appealing against the injustice, will go on. I hope it never happens to you.

Mathew Little is part-time freelance journalist.

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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit