What Balls & Byrne should have said today: ‘This brutal new system’: a GP’s take on Atos and work capability assessments


PLUS CA CHANGE PLUS C'EST LE MEME CHOSE: The shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, says Labour's new welfare plan may come as a culture shock to some. Photograph: David Jones/PA Archive/PA Photos
PLUS CA CHANGE PLUS C’EST LE MEME CHOSE: The shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, says Labour’s new welfare plan may come as a culture shock to some. Photograph: David Jones/PA Archive/PA Photos

I see work capability assessments damaging patients struggling with mental health issues and serious illness

 guardian.co.uk, Jump to comments (182)

I had not seen Eileen for some time, until a few months ago when I was asked to phone her. She sounded distressed, confused and frightened and did not understand what was happening to her. She has been a patient of mine for 10 years and over time, I’ve tried to help her cope with her mental illness. A few years ago her mental health had deteriorated so much that she needed to be in hospital.

All her benefits had been stopped, Eileen explained, and she was in arrears with her rent. She was assessed by Atos, a private company employed by the government to carry out what it calls the “work capability assessment” to decide whether people receiving incapacity benefits should be sent back to work. Eileen found the form she was asked to fill extremely long and bewildering. The assessment is a tick-box exercise, with points scored depending on the patient’s replies. The assessors do not ask GPs like me to provide any medical information about patients to help them make their decisions, even though someone may have received incapacity benefits for many years.

Later, Eileen was sent a letter. She was fit for work, she was told, and so she would no longer be receiving benefits. Instead, she would need to go out seeking work. She had no money and soon fell behind with her rent and bills. She told me she didn’t understand why all this was happening to her, but having no money, she decided to leave London to look for work elsewhere. But she had nowhere to stay, and ended up sleeping on the streets. Nor could she find work, despite the government’s mandate that she do so. She eventually returned to London to seek help. She has no insight into her mental illness and doesn’t believe she is unwell.

I have watched with mounting horror as my patient, an extremely vulnerable woman, has been put at risk of homelessness and deteriorating illness as a result of government policy. I am very aware of the importance of work, and as a GP will always encourage people to look for a suitable job if I think they can. But I also know my patients, and I am outraged that some are being put through the punishing stress this assessment causes. Many of my patients have gone through the Atos assessment to be told that they are fit for work with all their benefits stopped without notice. The financial impact is extreme. Several of my patients have shown worsening symptoms of depression, and some have become suicidal. Because we were so concerned about a patient’s mental health – which worsened as a result of the stress caused by these assessments – we have had to involve a psychiatric crisis team.

The government will say that there is an appeal process built into the system for those who have been passed capable of work and disagree with the outcome. True, but it is very expensive. In my experience, patients whom I consider unable to work or even look for work usually win their appeal. In a recent appeal hearing, the tribunal judge read my medical report and concluded on the back of it that, contrary to the Atos assessment, my patient was indeed incapable of working.

I have witnessed a woman in her 20s who has a condition that means she is slowly dementing, and will eventually die at a young age. She is unable to walk, and now even unable to talk. She is looked after round the clock by her family. Her family has been forced to endure great stress from the work capability assessment. I believe that this could have been avoided had I been asked to provide a medical report explaining her disability, prior to the assessment process.

In another case, a man in his 40s had been homeless for many years. He has learning difficulties, alcohol problems and also has insulin-dependent diabetes. He is unable to read and write. A charity worked closely with him and managed to find accommodation and medical care for him, and they encouraged him to engage with the local drug services. In our GP clinic, we were working closely with him to help him to manage his diabetes better, in the hope of avoiding acute emergency admissions had his diabetes remained uncontrolled. Despite all this intensive help, Atos bulldozed their way in and found him capable of work. All his benefits were stopped immediately, and he is now in arrears. He has appealed and is waiting a tribunal hearing – a process that can take up to six months. Meanwhile, all that precious rehabilitation work we were offering him has also stopped as he has become so stressed, depressed and at times suicidal.

I am fearful that more of my patients will be put at risk of homelessness and suicide by this brutal new system. From my perspective, the most disadvantaged in our society are being punished. Work is good for all of us, if we are lucky enough to be in employment. But not all of us have the skills to work and some of us are so unwell or damaged by past experiences that they cannot do a job. We should accept that some people, for many different reasons, need supporting.

Instead of forcing vulnerable people onto the streets, why not concentrate on helping young people find worthwhile, fulfilling jobs? Leave patients like Eileen alone. She does not deserve the punishment that is currently being wrought upon her. For her safety and well-being, and for the sake of a humane society, I hope she wins her appeal.

• The name of the patient, and details of her case, have been changed to ensure confidentiality


11 thoughts on “What Balls & Byrne should have said today: ‘This brutal new system’: a GP’s take on Atos and work capability assessments

  1. jeffery davies says:

    no our mps dont want to help well not many speaking out about this abuse of sick and disabled people but do labour care nah ed words on atos they doing a good job so more to die bfor this is fixed once and for all as its not the sick or disabled who lost the money its the bankers so why aint they being done nah its easier for the sick and disabled to be bleed instead jeff3

  2. jed goodright says:

    What balls and byrne should have said – but can’t cos they’re thick – is the current system is illegal, it is contrary to the United Nations Protocol on disablitity and disabled people, it is an anathema in a modern nation to treat its most vulnerable in such a manner, it is tantamount to criminal abuse and negligence. From today the WCA is banned. From today ATOs can pack up and leave. From today disabled people will find a peace they have not known for years, will have their incomes restored if not increased, will find greater access at all levels of our country, will not fear being abused because the perpetrators will be charged and taken to court.Current ministers and officials will be investigated for crimes against disabled people. The media will be further investigated into the role it plays into the dissemination of propaganda.
    from today a sytem of assessing people will be researched that accounts for a total social model of disability and treats people with respect. One that doesn’t make people iller than they ordinarily are. One that accounts for NEED NOT IDEOLOGY. Prof. Wessley shall be striped of his knighthood

    If I can do it why can’t these two miserable fuckers do it – they know what’s going on but they are too self serving to care. labour is FIN ISHED

  3. cheryl says:

    iv been waiting a year have a tribunal monday, even though i think i should get it back, and gp cpn all say that i should get it back i m sorry but i dont have that much hope realisticly on all the reports i have read but im still hoping that ill be granted DLA back. my car went to day somthing burning and causing lots of smoke couldent afford to find out whats wrong with it so had to be scrapped iwas lucky to be able to get someone to acctually come with me so he will pick me up, if the worst comes to worst im totaly house bound not even able to go shop for my self if i had to so heres to it heartless swins

  4. Sasson says:

    And as we all know, from April, ESA claimants who have been found fit to work will not be able to appeal straight away, but will have to apply for a ‘reconsideration’ first. This can take up to 13 weeks, meantime, they will not be able to claim a single penny until they can officially request for an appeal, because they will not be eligible for JSA which is only available to people who are obviously fit for work.

    How is someone supposed to manage for 13 weeks with no income? I’m about to go through this treadmill again and I’ve had to give this serious thought. My housing association are very understanding and might let me get into arrears with my rent, perhaps the council tax department too. But what about other considerations? I can’t use public transport and there will be no money for taxis so how do I get to important appointments? I’ll obviously have no food, but the nearest food bank is 6 miles away: how do I get there, and if I do, how do I manage on the handouts limited to only 3? Utility companies can wait for their money, and you can even apply to their charities to pay arrears, but I have coal central heating, so how do I buy my coal? What about soap, soap powder, toilet roll, personal feminine hygiene products and the like? Phone companies are less understanding and will cut me off after a month, so how do I protect myself without ‘care call’, a button I press in an emergency? How do I contact my carers and my family?

    This is what very sick people are about to face. On top of this, each year I now face 6 separate financial, care and disability assessments. My whole life is focused on proving again and again how ill I am, and submitting to humiliating financial checks and assessments.

    Chronically disabled people need rest, peace, and financial/social stability, but the systems of assessing disabled people produce the very opposite of that. I’ve often said that I have considered suicide over this, but the stress involved in constantly being under the microscope will kill me long before that.

    The treatment of us is despicable, unfair and very damaging. I now have no quality of life. I just want to be left alone to be ill.

    1. pamela fegan says:

      I agree wholeheartedly, I too just want to be left alone to be ill, the stress of all this is seriously damaging my health(what’s left of it)

  5. alan says:

    sorry sasson could make a horror movie, respect to you sasson , im in same boat and no oars, paddles, we are so weak as a group of disabled people / no action , just talk, this is urgent ,atos staff must have sick friend, relatives mams dads children brothers sisters or are they exempt or being blind to what there son/daughter do for a living shame on them culpable i say

  6. pamela fegan says:

    You report as a GP would not be taken into account anyway. I have two reports, one from my GP and one from a specialist (the guy who writes the NICE guidelines on my illness) stating I am not fit for work and ATOS disregarded them completely. My benefit was stopped and I now survive on a £4oo a month occupational pension as I had worked for 42 years prior to my illness.

    1. jeffery davies says:

      but they care dont they tell the others they do they give money out willy nilly to all us deserving sick and disabled people well they tell them they do then backstab you by taking it all away yep about right it all goes to people like emms who can award herself a nice lttle bonus 8.6mill and then get more a yr down the line yep you got it her other 10mill in payments from her firms yes its apritty goverment who look right after their mates if you one no need to look out as you be rolling in it jeff3

  7. Humanity2012 says:

    It is Beyond Outrageous and It is Time Things got Better Not Worse

    Politicians are Monstrously Out of Touch

  8. jay says:

    Tory minister Helen Grant claims £19,200 a year (£1,600 a month) for a second home in London although her 1.5 million home is only 19 miles from the House of Commons. Yes you read that correctly 19 miles!

    Anyone that is a millionaire should be barred from standing as an MP.
    They know nothing about the lives of ordinary people in this country their mismanagement and cuts are crucifying us while ever increasing their own wealth from taxpayers money.

    They call the front bench of the cabinet Millionaires Row, it should be Rotten Row.

  9. c p says:

    Disgusting, vile, inhumane treatment of the sick and disabled. This must be publicized to counter the propaganda being spewed out by government attacking a minority in society.
    ATOS = Profit

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