The tragedy of Alice

How the Work Capability Assessment costs lives - its impact on people with mental health problems is more serious than Atos have acknowledged.

You probably won’t have heard much about the case of Alice (name changed). She’s a 33-year-old woman who lives in the West Country with her parents. She’s very poorly: she suffers from severe bipolar disorder, and has been sectioned on numerous occasions after harming herself.

In February last year, she received a letter from the outsourcing company Atos, which told her that she was about to lose her disability living allowance and would have to undergo an assessment before could receive employment support. Shortly after this, Alice was found by her mother in the bathroom. She'd slashed her throat in the bath. She was taken to hospital for treatment, and survived.

Alice’s community psychiatric nurse and a forensic psychologist contacted Atos, and told the company not to contact her directly again. The company agreed. The morning after she’d been released from hospital, she returned to find another letter concerning an appointment. She slashed her throat again, and was readmitted to hospital.

Alice’s mother got in touch with Bufferzone, a local benefit advice charity. They managed to restore her benefits without the need for further tribunals. But the last issue of Private Eye - thus far the only publication to have covered this story - carried a staggering update:

Last week, Atos wrote to Alice again. Fortunately the letter arrived while her condition was stable and she suffered no ill effects. Tony Lea of Bufferzone was again forced to take up her case. Atos told him the letter was computer-generated - and could not be stopped. Brilliant.

Perhaps, were it to concern another company, this ludicrous tale of cruel incompetence would be making more headlines. But the problem is, we’ve run out of ways of telling the story. Here’s a list of 30 similar tales where the outcome was worse: the victim died.

As John McDonnell MP has pointed out in Parliament:

The first [now second] example on the list was that of Paul Reekie. Some Members may have known Paul, an award-winning writer and poet in Leith, Scotland. He did not leave a suicide note, just two letters on the table beside him. One was about his loss of housing benefit and the other was about his loss of incapacity benefit.


Tony Lea, Alice’s advisor, has been working at the coal face for years. A garrulous, likeable man, (“Stop me if I’m going on: I’m just some bloke with a big mouth”) he set up Bufferzone six years ago, originally as an advocacy service for those suffering from mental illness. Its remit expanded - now he helps the homeless, alcoholics, those suffering from disability, victims of abuse, and other vulnerable. He’s got a whole load of stories, from meeting a mentally ill woman in the middle of a field at night with the police in tow because that was the only place she’d talk to him, to being attacked and having his car windscreen smashed. He’s seen it all: last year, on a budget of £16,000, which he secured from Lloyds TSB, the Co-Op, the Claire Milne Trust and Awards for All, he managed to support 187 people.

And one thing he’s sure of is that Alice’s case, though shocking, is hardly new. He wonders whether the rules should mean that a risk assessment has to be carried out before contact is made with people like her. “I was struck when I saw her in the ward,” he tells me. “I couldn’t believe how badly she’d damaged herself. But I’ve seen this sort of thing day in, day out. The simple fact is, the people behind the assessment don’t understand mental illness, nor do they understand invisible, fluctuating conditions like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. A question like “Can you switch off an alarm clock?” just doesn’t begin to cover these conditions or co-morbidity - the way that one affects the others. And they’re not just putting the lives of the mentally ill at risk - they’re putting the lives of the people with whom they could end up working at risk too.”

It’s not just the likes of Tony who have noticed this - or, here in more detail, charities like MIND. In January’s parliamentary debate, which I wrote about here, there was general condemnation of the Workplace Capability Assessment’s (WCA) performance when it comes to mental health. Michael Meacher said the “current criteria and descriptors do not sufficiently—or even at all—take into account fluctuating conditions, especially episodic mental health problems.” Pamela Nash described “Seeing people who have claimed employment and support allowance as a result of a physical disability or illness ending up with mental health problems owing to the stress of going through the system.”

Madeleine Moon described a female constituent, “Mrs E”, who had worked as an accounts officer, but suffered a vicious sexual assault which left her with post traumatic stress disorder. She went to an Atos assessment for Employment and Support Allowance, was found fit to work, and found herself in a similar situation to Alice, repeatedly having to attend appeal tribunals and having her payments stopped on several occasions due to “administrative errors,” the stress leading to a suicide attempt. She concluded: “This lady is being hounded by the state: there is no other way of describing it. There is no excuse for this behaviour. This is a company that is not playing fair by this country’s most vulnerable people.”

So what’s being done? The answer is detailed on Atos’s company blog: “We have put in place a network of Mental Function Champions to spread best practice across the business and offer advice and coaching to other professionals carrying out WCAs. We invited leading external experts in mental health to help us shape the role for the Mental Function Champions, and we now have 60 Champions.” As Heather Wheeler MP made clear, not only are these “champions” only giving guidance (they won’t be sitting in on interviews), but given the WCA’s lack of suitability to deal with the issue of mental health, it’s patently clear that 60 is not enough of them.

And more to the point, what do they really do? The journalist Kate Belgrave has been monitoring the development closely and has recently written this excellent blog post on the lies, prevarication and lack of transparency that has characterised the initiative (as she told me on the phone last night: “At one point, we started to wonder if these people even existed”). Since that blog was published Atos has told her group that a face-to-face meeting is possible, but it would have to be off the record. They are waiting to find out if they’ll be able to report on any discussion.

Flawed, secretive and cruel: it’s the very worst of the shadow state. Or, as John McDonnell MP put it:

The concern expressed by Members about an issue of public administration in all [these stories] is unprecedented in recent decades. There is example after example of human suffering on a scale unacceptable in a civilised society.



Protesters carry placards during a protest against Atos in London in August 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.