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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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.