One of the prime minister’s disabled constituents has issued a personal plea for his help, after he was forced to appeal for the third time against an unfair and inaccurate assessment of his ability to work.
David Cameron promised to write to his own ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after Chris Caudle told him how he was treated during three work capability assessments (WCAs) carried out by “healthcare professionals” employed by Atos Healthcare.
Atos has been subjected to a sustained and angry protest campaign from disabled activists over the poor quality of its work and the generosity of its contract with the DWP.
Caudle, who has to take morphine three times a day to deal with the pain of ankylosing spondylitis, told the prime minister at his constituency surgery last week that he was now waiting for his third appeal against the outcome of a WCA in as many years.
He has already won two appeals, and is so angry at the treatment he has received from Atos that he is considering legal action.
The first time Caudle was assessed, for a new claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – he was found fully fit for work.
Caudle won his appeal, and was one of the small number of disabled people placed in the “support group”, for those whose barriers to employment mean they do not have to carry out any work-related activity.
At his next WCA, he was forced to walk a quarter of a mile in agony from a car-park to the assessment centre, because he was told he could not park outside the building.
The journey took him 90 minutes and by the time he arrived at the centre he was “crying with pain”.
Caudle says he was only asked one question during the assessment – to confirm his name – and was subsequently placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), for those expected to prepare to return to work. Again he appealed successfully, and was placed back in the support group.
This year, he was called in for a third WCA and again placed in the WRAG. He has been told he may now have to wait until November to have his latest appeal heard.
Meanwhile, his benefits have been cut by £19.65 a week and will not be reinstated and backdated to the full amount until he wins the appeal. The previous two reductions in his benefits while he was waiting for appeals have destroyed his credit rating.
Caudle, from Eynsham, near Oxford, said the treatment he has received from Atos has been “inhuman”.
He said: “They don’t care how you feel when you get there. They don’t offer any help if you are in pain.
“They are almost like a production line. The doctors there just sit at the keyboard, typing.
“Every time I think, ‘why have they put me through all this pain and agony just to sit there?’ Every time I feel degraded.”
Susie Drohan, manager of Oxfordshire Welfare Rights (OWR), said the WCA was clearly “not fit for purpose” and was producing a “revolving door” of disabled people moving from assessments to appeals and back to assessments.
The organisation has a 96 per cent success rate for appeals against the outcomes of claims for ESA, she said.
Nick Turnill, an OWR case worker, who has supported Caudle, said: “Chris is a severely disabled man who is caught up in a process that is inflexible and, as presently constituted, not fit for purpose.”
Caudle said the prime minister concluded that Atos was “not carrying out the procedures as they should be carried out”.
He added: “You could see by his face that he was concerned. He seemed as though he wanted to do something about it.”
A DWP spokesman said he could not comment on individual cases, but that the review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington would make it “a fairer and more effective assessment” and reduce the number of appeals.
He said that a successful appeal “does not necessarily mean that the original decision was inaccurate”, because claimants often “produce new evidence” for their appeal.
And he said the DWP was also introducing measures to reduce appeal rates, which have been endorsed by Harrington.
An Atos spokeswoman said: “We definitely would not comment on individual cases.”