‘Atossed aside’ | Private Eye | 5-18 Oct, 2012

FITNESS TO WORK

WHEN disabled people are unfairly denied benefits after a slapdash medical assessment by pisspoor French company Atos, at least they can appeal (at the expense of taxpayers, not Atos), right? Tribunals, alas, won’t necessarily give a fairer hearing.

Dr Jane Hunt, 55, from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, suffers from ME, restricted movement following back surgery, anxiety, depression and fatigue. She used to work 70 hours a week as a research fellow at Lancaster University. From 2005 her illness forced her to work part-time and by 2006 she had to take early retirement, after which she survived on benefits and a small work pension. In 2010 she missed an Atos assessment due to ill health and lost her employment and support allowance (ESA).

When she reapplied, she was found to be capable of work by one of Atos’s infamous assessments, even though she has been, as she puts it, “flattened” by ME. She believes the assessment failed to take into account the fluctuating nature of ME, and took her occasional ability to carry out tasks as evidence that she was routinely able to do them and was therefore fit for work. But as her brother Peter says: “She could not today say that she would be capable of waking up tomorrow and doing anything, or even to wake up at the appropriate time.”

Dr Hunt appealed to a tribunal, but the original decision was upheld.

The tribunal’s semi-literate “statement of reasons” devotes several paragraphs to Dr Hunt’s failure to attend the hearing – something she was under no obligation to do – seemingly to tarnish her character. The fact that she missed it due to being immobilised by arthritis brought on by needing to use crutches after she broke her ankle, and her turbulent mental condition caused by coming off anti-depressants she had been using for 15 years, were apparently not a good nenough reason.

For further “evidence” of her ability to work, the statement details how she doesn’t suffer from hepatitis C (which she never claimed to), and, for reasons known only to the author, unnecessarily names somebody who does. Dr Hunt is planning to complain to the Information Commissioner about what she sees as a breach of that person’s medical confidentiality.

On her occasional good days Dr Hunt is able to drive. The tribunal wrongly asserts that “she drives regularly” – she must do, because the ability to drive is apparently “essential” to living in “remote” Stornoway. Never mind the fact that the town has a bus service, a mobile shop and a home delivery service.

Dr Hunt’s leisure activities of reading, watching television and listening to the radio are used to suggest that her claim to have difficulty sitting for long periods is “not credible”, despite the fact that she usually does these lying down if she is able to at all.

Dr Hunt says that if the statement were a piece of undergraduate work she would fail it. Meanwhile, she is left unable to work and dreading a winter shivering in fuel poverty.