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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.