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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.