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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.