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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.