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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Labour picks Gillian Troughton to fight Copeland by-election

Troughton, a Copeland councillor, was critical of Jeremy Corbyn during the summer leadership race. 

Labour has picked Gillian Troughton, pro-nuclear former doctor to fight the Copeland by-election.

After accepting the nomination, in an email shared online, Troughton said she was "pro-nuclear; no ifs, no buts", and that her husband worked in the nuclear supply chain. She is also a local councillor and a practising Christian. 

She described the election as a choice about the NHS: "I have been part of the campaign against the proposed cuts to A&E and the maternity wing because I know that our community needs this service."

Like Jamie Reed, the current MP for Copeland, Troughton is a critic of Jeremy Corbyn and backed Owen Smith in the 2016 Labour leadership campaign.

She also campaigned to remain in the EU, and now must win over a voting population that voted 62 per cent to leave - the strongest Eurosceptic vote in Cumbria. 

Her victory is a symbolic defeat for the Labour leadership, as she beat Corbyn supporter Rachel Holliday, also a councillor with ties to the nuclear industry and the NHS. 

However, the decision to pick a non-Corbynite may be a relief for those within the Labour leader's camp who worry about "owning" a possible by-election defeat. 

Corbyn said of the selection: “I am delighted that Gillian Troughton will be Labour’s candidate for the Copeland by-election. 

“Gillian is a local councillor with a strong track record of getting things done for her community. She has campaigned tirelessly to maintain local hospital services. 

“As a St John’s blue light ambulance driver, Gillian has seen first-hand the extent of the crisis caused by this Conservative government, which has chosen to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest instead of our health service. 

“I am proud that Labour has selected a local candidate with such dedication to her community.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.