We are currently trialling our new-look independent.co.uk website - please send any feedback to beta@independent.co.uk

UK Politics

Family demands end of Atos's ‘traumatic’ fitness-to-work tests after death of scientist with heart condition

Robert Barlow lost the right to free prescriptions on the NHS when his benefits were withdrawn in 2012

A former Government scientist with a severe heart condition died after an Atos assessment deemed he was deemed fit for work and stripped him of benefits.

The family of Robert Barlow has called on the Government to review its policies following his death.

Mr Barlow, 47, who worked as a microbiologist for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and was a classically trained pianist, also lost the right to free prescriptions on the NHS when his benefits were withdrawn in 2012.

The decision was made by the controversial company contractor, which has quit its £500m government contract to assess people claiming sickness benefit. The Government is looking for another firm to do the work.

Mr Barlow, of Liverpool, stopped working nine years ago after developing severe cardiomyopathy. Doctors recommended that he should have a heart transplant, but he turned it down because he thought someone else should get one before him.

But Atos decided he was fit for work in January 2012 and his benefits were withdrawn three months later. Towards the end of his life he developed a brain tumour, was unable to walk and his eyesight became poor. He died following a fall in November 2013.

His aunt, Joan Westland, 85, told the Daily Mail: “I don’t know how they expected him to work. Nobody would have loved to work more than him, but he simply couldn’t.

“Robert said he wouldn’t have the heart transplant. He had no commitments and thought it would be better if there was a heart for it to go to somebody else. We tried to talk him into having the operation but he wouldn’t do it.

“It’s too late for Robert but there must be so many other people out there who are going through the same thing. It’s horrible.”

She said the Government should “rethink the whole system because they are ruining people’s lives”.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said Mr Barlow had objected to his benefits being stopped, but had then withdrawn his appeal. His aunt said that was because he was too ill to fight his case.

“Robert had very little money on benefits and nothing at all when his money was stopped. I know there are scroungers but he was not one of them,” she said. “I want these fitness-to-work tests to stop because I don’t want other people going through the same trauma. Robert was very, very distressed after his assessment.”

His local MP Luciana Berger, a shadow health minister, said: “It’s not enough to change the provider. The whole process needs to be totally redesigned. My constituent is someone who lost his life at a time when his ESA [Employment and Support Allowance] was suspended.

“He was too sick to appeal the decision and died while he had no access to benefits.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with Mr Barlow's family. However, it is not true to say he died after being found fit for work. Mr Barlow appealed to the Tribunal Service, but the appeal was then withdrawn so we couldn't continue the benefit claim. He died over a year later.”