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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder