DWP presentation on ESA plans ‘confirms worst fears’ about green paper

Ministers have been accused of ignoring a public consultation and ploughing ahead with plans that will make their “fitness for work” testing regime even more stressful and unfair for sick and disabled people.

A presentation delivered by two senior Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants earlier this month suggests that ministers have decided – as many disabled activists feared after the publication of last year’s green paper – to introduce new benefit sanctions for sick and disabled people with the highest support needs.

The presentation at a DWP “Operational Stakeholder Engagement Forum” appears to confirm that the government had decided how it would reform the system of out-of-work disability benefits before its “consultation” process had finished on 17 February.

The government had claimed that it wanted to make the work capability assessment (WCA) less of an ordeal for claimants, with work and pensions secretary Damian Green telling last October’s Conservative party conference he wanted to support those disabled people who cannot work, and “sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weighs them down”.

But slides from the presentation appear to show that his new regime will be even harsher, and that many employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants with the highest support needs and barriers to work will for the first time face having their benefits sanctioned if they do not co-operate with the regime.

The slides show DWP has already begun introducing a compulsory, face-to-face “health and work conversation” (HWC) with a jobcentre work coach that will apply to nearly all new claimants of ESA, weeks or even months before they go through the WCA process to decide whether they are not fit for work and eligible for the benefit.

The presentation says that “vulnerable” claimants will not have to take part in the face-to-face HWC.

A DWP spokesman has told Disability News Service (DNS) that work coaches will be “issued clear guidance on who will be exempted from the HWC” and “will also be able to defer the HWC if the claimant cannot attend due to temporary circumstances”.

But disabled activists have warned that these decisions will be taken by non-medically trained civil servants.

The slides say: “Currently Jobcentre staff do not routinely engage with ESA claimants before the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which can take place many months into the claim.

“We know that the start of the claim can be a challenging time for claimants and that the longer a claimant is on benefit, the more difficult it is for them to move into employment where appropriate.

“The Health and Work Conversation (HWC) will provide this early support to claimants.”

The presentation said the HWC – which it claimed was co-designed with some disabled people’s organisations – will draw on “behavioural insight techniques and research” to “develop voluntary action plans” and help claimants “move closer to the workplace”.

And it said that all new ESA claimants would have to sign a new “ESA Claimant Commitment”, which would “set out the expectations and legal requirements that claimants will be required to accept in order to receive ESA”.

http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/dwp-presentation-on-esa-plans-confirms-worst-fears-about-green-paper/

Maximus ‘admits’ using brutal and dangerous suicide questions

BY JOHN PRING ON MARCH 9, 2017

One of the outsourcing giants paid to assess disabled people for their eligibility for benefits appears to have admitted that it is standard practice – approved by the government – to ask claimants with mental health conditions why they failed to take their own lives.

A leading clinical psychologist has warned this week that such questioning “brings huge risks” and is one of the reasons behind the increase in suicides associated with the government’s work capability assessment (WCA) process*.

The admission from Maximus, which carries out WCAs for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), came after a disabled campaigner produced a recording of his own assessment.

On the recording, shared with Disability News Service (DNS), a Maximus assessor – an occupational therapist – is heard asking Jonathan Hume a series of questions during his WCA, while typing on a keyboard.

She asks him [his replies have not been included]: “Back to some questions that we have to cover…

“Have you ever tried to harm yourself or take your own life or needed to go to hospital?

“Do you have any thoughts around that at the moment, any intentions or plans to hurt yourself currently?

“When you say desires, how often are you having thoughts like that?

“And what is it that stops you from acting on the thoughts that you have?

“Can you think of any reason that you’re not doing that? Is it friends or family support?”

Hume’s assessment took place in Sunderland last September, and both Maximus and DWP appear to have conceded that the DNS transcription of the questions is an accurate description of what took place.

Hume came forward after fellow disability rights activist Alice Kirby sparked a horrified reaction on social media last week after revealing how the healthcare professional who assessed her eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP) had asked her: “Can you tell me why you haven’t killed yourself yet?”

After she shared her experience, many other claimants came forward to say that they had been asked the same, or a similar, question by their assessors.

Hume said he had raised concerns with Maximus about the questioning by email on the day of his assessment, before he knew the result of his employment and support allowance (ESA) claim.

He told DNS: “As both clinicians and claimants have made clear, the WCA is a hostile, stressful and coercive situation and the carelessness and brutality with which these questions are asked has the potential to do a great deal of harm to vulnerable people, many of whom are already avoiding claiming their rightful benefits due to a system which is degrading and stressful from the first phone call.

“We are forced to justify our very survival in a hostile context to answer questions which are only dubiously related to the legal criteria of ESA.

“Such information, if truly necessary for the claim, could be gained in so many other ways that avoid putting claimants in significant distress and risk, such as written statements from the claimant’s therapists or other carers.

“There are no grounds to continue such questioning.”

Dr Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist and academic, told DNS that people should only be asked about suicidal ideation by a trained professional who can offer help or someone in an “existing trusting relationship with the individual”.

She said that WCAs were “degrading and humiliating experiences for most if not all claimants” and were carried out in a space which was “not a trustworthy one”.

She said: “Individuals are required to parade their distress and feel compelled to answer intrusive questions (for the means to live relies on this).”

She added: “To ask about suicide or self-harm in this context brings huge risks.”

And she said that such questioning “can be suggestive if the environment is unsafe.

“If someone is low or anxious, for example, made to feel they are a ‘skiver’ for needing benefits, an implication that if they were really ill they would have killed themselves can be the final straw. It may lead directly to an attempt on one’s life.”

She said that claimants were “battered with multiple questions about that which is most personal” in disability assessments and questioned about suicide while the assessors are “typing away” on their keyboards.

Watts said: “I have no doubt that questions on suicidal ideation, and the degrading manner in which they are asked, are one reason behind the suicide spike associated with the WCA process.”

She called on Frank Field, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, to carry out an urgent review of the way disability benefit assessments are carried out.

In a statement, a Maximus spokesman said that its role was “to carry out high quality and sensitive functional assessments”.

He said: “Mr Hulme [sic]contacted us last year and a doctor reviewed the recording of his assessment and the report.

“We are satisfied that the healthcare professional who conducted the assessment did so in line with our policies and guidelines.

“Every healthcare professional we employ is trained to ask people with a mental health condition a series of clinical questions to assess how their condition affects their daily lives.

“The assessment report was passed to the Department for Work and Pensions, who make the decision on eligibility for benefits.”

He had failed to clarify by noon today (Thursday) whether the questions asked of Jonathan Hume were standard questions; if DWP was aware that such questions were being asked in assessments; and whether Maximus and DWP believed that they were appropriate and safe questions to ask of someone in his situation.

Despite requesting a copy of the recording, which was provided by DNS – with Hume’s agreement – DWP also failed to provide clear answers to a series of key questions.

These include whether it accepted that the questions were asked in Hume’s assessment; whether asking such questions was appropriate and safe in an assessment, particularly for assessors who are not trained mental health professionals; and whether these were standard, DWP-approved questions asked of ESA and PIP claimants with suicidal ideation.

Instead, in response to the DNS questions, a DWP spokeswoman said: “We are not aware of any complaints made to DWP on this issue, but would investigate any allegations thoroughly.

“All PIP assessment providers receive training on mental health conditions, including suicidal issues.”

She said that assessors “receive training in order to conduct functional assessments on behalf of the DWP and their training includes conducting a mental health assessment which may, if appropriate, include questions about suicide or self-harm.

“Health professionals are medically qualified professionals and as such, they should have the appropriate skills to enable them to deal with people in a supportive and sensitive way.

“If an individual has mental health issues or a there is an indication of suicidal thoughts or intentions, this will be given careful and sensitive exploration to establish the circumstances.”

She added: “There is a duty of care to act where appropriate, for example if the individual is considered to be in substantial and imminent risk.

“Both the department and our contracted providers have a duty of care where there is any indication or possibility of suicidal thoughts or intentions, and it would therefore not be appropriate to not explore this further.”

Government-funded research by public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford concluded in late 2015 that the programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years. Maximus declined to comment on the research at the time.

 

http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/maximus-admits-using-brutal-and-dangerous-suicide-questions/

Want to take part in autism research?

We want to understand the biomedical causes of autism spectrum conditions, and develop new methods for assessment and ways to offer support.
With your help we can achieve this!

Studies include: personality tests, genetic research, cognition tests, and brain scans

If you are over 16 with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or a parent of child/ren with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum please go to

https://autismresearchcentre.net

Arc – Autism Research Centre

University of Cambridge

arc-flyer-aug2016

Tories ‘shifting the goal posts’ on disability benefit entitlements, say Labour

Government has rewritten the law to deny higher benefit payments for more than 150,000 disabled people.

Callous Tory ministers have been accused of “shifting the goal posts” on disability benefit entitlements, after it was revealed that the UK Government has rewritten the law to deny higher payments for more than 150,000 disabled people.

Two social security tribunal cases resulted in the government being told to ensure more disabled qualify for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), which would better recognise how their condition affects their ability to live as independently as possible.

PIP consists of two separate components – a daily living component and a mobility element – each paying a standard or enhanced rate, with the enhanced rate paying more than the lower rate.

Claimants are awarded points in each component, depending on how their disability or long-term illness affects them on a daily basis, through an assessment system campaigners have likened to a “tick-box exercise”.

A minimum of eight points are required to qualify for the standard rate of each component, while claimants need to secure at least 12 points for the enhanced rate.

The first tribunal said those who experience “overwhelming physical distress” when outdoors alone, a common and debilitating symptom of severe psychological disorders that can leave sufferers trapped in their homes, should be awarded more points for the PIP mobility component.

An estimated 143,000 sick and disabled people would have benefitted from the ruling, with around half of these qualifying for the enhanced higher rate of £57.45 per week.

The other half would have qualified for the standard rate, currently £21.80 a week. A further 21,000 would have been moved from the standard to the enhanced rate.

A second tribunal said more points should be awarded in the daily living component for those who need help taking medication and monitoring their condition. More than 1,000 people would have benefitted from this decision, if the DWP had accepted it.

The DWP argued that adhering to the tribunal’s recommendations would cost the department an extra £3.7bn by 2022, the Daily Mirror reports.

So rather than accepting the Tribunal’s recommendations, and recognising how those affected incur extra costs as a direct consequence of their illness or disability, the DWP has instead decided to rewrite the law – yes, you read that correctly – thus denying tens of thousands of sick and disabled people the additional financial support they desperately need.

Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams MP, blasted the decision: “Instead of listening to the court’s criticisms of PIP assessments and correcting these injustices, this government have instead decided to undermine the legal basis of the rulings”, she said.

Abrahams added: “This is an unprecedented attempt to subvert an independent tribunal judgement by a right-wing government with contempt for judicial process.

“By shifting the goal posts, the Tory Government will strip entitlements from over 160,000 disabled people, money which the courts believe is rightfully theirs. This is a step too far, even for this Tory government.”

http://www.welfareweekly.com/tories-shifting-the-goal-posts-on-disability-benefit-entitlements-say-labour/

Brain scans could identify babies most at risk of developing autism, study shows

Images revealed which infants would go on to have an autism diagnosis, raising hopes for earlier care and interventions for those affected.

Babies who are most at risk of developing autism as toddlers have been identified from brain scans in the first year of life.

The images helped doctors spot which of a group of children who were already at risk because of autism in the family would later be diagnosed with the condition.

The work raises hopes that affected children could be helped with earlier specialised care and interventions to help their social abilities before any behavioural symptoms start to appear.

Scientists studied 106 babies, all of whom had an older brother or sister with autism, and found that telltale features in brain images taken at six and 12 months revealed which infants would go on to have an autism diagnosis.

The technology is not ready to use in clinics, but researchers who took part in the study believe it lays the groundwork for a tool that can predict autism in high-risk babies before their first birthday.

“We don’t have such a tool yet, but if we did, parents of high-risk infants wouldn’t need to wait for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at two, three or even four years,” said Annette Estes, a co-author on the study and director of the University of Washington in Seattle. “Researchers could start developing interventions to prevent these children from falling behind in social and communication skills,” she added.

About one in 70 children in the UK develops autism, but among those with a diagnosed sibling, the risk of the condition can rise to about one in five. The test has not been tried on children who are not at high risk.

Writing in the journal Nature, the scientists describe how they compared brain scans of high-risk babies with those from 42 low-risk children who had no siblings with autism. On each lab visit, scientists assessed the children’s behaviour and intellectual abilities.

The images, taken as the babies slept, revealed that high-risk infants who developed autism experienced a “hyperexpansion” of the brain’s surface in the first year of life. The unusual growth preceded a rise in brain volume over the following year that was linked to social difficulties the children developed.

The scientists next used a machine learning algorithm to predict from the scans and the infant’s sex which high-risk children would be diagnosed with autism at the age of two. The computer identified eight in 10 of those who developed autism. In about 3% of cases, it predicted autism that did not appear.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/15/brain-scans-could-identify-babies-most-at-risk-of-developing-autism-study-shows

I, Daniel Blake review – a battle cry for the dispossessed

Ken Loach crafts a Cathy Come Home for the 21st century, the raw anger of which resonates long after you leave the cinema.

Mark Kermode

Ken Loach’s latest Palme d’Or winner, his second after 2006’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, packs a hefty punch, both personal and political. On one level, it is a polemical indictment of a faceless benefits bureaucracy that strips claimants of their humanity by reducing them to mere numbers – neoliberal 1984 meets uncaring, capitalist Catch-22. On another, it is a celebration of the decency and kinship of (extra)ordinary people who look out for each other when the state abandons its duty of care.

For all its raw anger at the impersonal mistreatment of a single mother and an ailing widower in depressed but resilient Newcastle, Paul Laverty’s brilliantly insightful script finds much that is moving (and often surprisingly funny) in the unbreakable social bonds of so-called “broken Britain”. Blessed with exceptional lead performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, Loach crafts a gut-wrenching tragicomic drama (about “a monumental farce”) that blends the timeless humanity of the Dardenne brothers’ finest works with the contemporary urgency of Loach’s own 1966 masterpiece Cathy Come Home.

We open with the sound of 59-year-old Geordie joiner Daniel Blake (standup comic Johns) answering automaton-like questions from a “healthcare professional”. Having suffered a heart attack at work, Daniel has been instructed by doctors to rest. Yet since he is able to walk 50 metres and “raise either arm as if to put something in your top pocket”, he is deemed ineligible for employment and support allowance, scoring a meaningless 12 points rather than the requisite 15. Instead, he must apply for jobseeker’s allowance and perform the Sisyphean tasks of attending CV workshops and pounding the pavements in search of nonexistent jobs that he can’t take anyway.

Meanwhile, Squires’s mother-of-two Katie is similarly being given the runaround, rehoused hundreds of miles from her friends and family in London after spending two years in a hostel. “I’ll make this a home if it’s the last thing I do,” she tells Daniel, who takes her under his wing, fixing up her flat and impressed by her resolve to go “back to the books” with the Open University. Both are doing all they can to make the best of a bleak situation, retaining their hope and dignity in the face of insurmountable odds. Yet both are falling through the cracks of a cruel system that pushes those caught up in its cogs to breaking point.

“We’re digital by default” is the mantra of this impersonal new world, to which carpenter Daniel pointedly replies, “Yeah? Well I’m pencil by default.” Scenes of Blake struggling with a computer cursor (“fucking apt name for it!”) raise a wry chuckle, but there’s real outrage at the way this obligatory online form-filling has effectively written people like him out of existence. Yet still Daniel supports – and is supported by – those around him; from Kema Sikazwe’s street-smart China, a neighbour who is forging entrepreneurial links online (the internet may alienate Daniel, but it also unites young workers of the world), to Katie’s kids, Daisy and Dylan – the latter coaxed from habitual isolation (“no one listens to him so why should he listen to them?”) by the hands-on magic of woodwork. Having lost a wife who loved hearing Sailing By, the theme for Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast, and whose mind was “like the ocean”, Daniel carves beautiful fish mobiles that turn the kids’ rooms into an aquatic playground. Meanwhile, their mother is gradually going under.

A scene in a food bank in which the starving Katie, on the verge of collapse, finds herself grasping a meagre tin of beans is one of the most profoundly moving film sequences I have ever seen. Shot at a respectful distance by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the scene displays both an exquisite empathy for Katie’s trembling plight and a pure rage that anyone should be reduced to such humiliation. Having seen I, Daniel Blake twice, I have both times been left a shivering wreck by this sequence, awash with tears, aghast with anger, overwhelmed by the sheer force of its all-but-silent scream.

“They’ll fuck you around,” China tells Daniel, “make it as miserable as possible – that’s the plan.” For Loach and Laverty, this is the dark heart of their drama, the use of what Loach calls the “intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy as a political weapon”, a way of intimidating people in a manner that is anything but accidental. “When you lose your self-respect you’re done for,” says Daniel, whose act of graffitied defiance becomes an “I’m Spartacus!” battle cry that resonates far beyond the confines of the movie theatre. Expect to see it spray-painted on the walls of a jobcentre near you soon.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/23/i-daniel-blake-ken-loach-review-mark-kermode

TV’s The A Word: a father and his autistic daughter give their verdict

What does the drama get right and wrong about autism? As the dad of an ‘autie’, Simon Hattenstone wonders where the laughs are – while his daughter Maya Hattenstone finds a birthday party meltdown all too familiar.

You can’t move for autists on TV these days. If it’s not The Autistic Gardenerletting rip with his floral fireworks, it’s aspiring thesps in Young, Autistic and Stagestruck or detective Saga Norén deadpanning her way through another murder mystery in The Bridge. As Guardian television critic Sam Wollaston wrote recently: autism is the new baking. Auties invariably make good telly because they are brilliant at sums or art or music. And when they’re not being Rainman clever, they are chucking tantrums or ticking away like crazy, or being spectacularly uninhibited.

The A Word is the latest TV programme to tackle autism. It’s a highly watchable drama written by the skilled Peter Bowker about a family coming to terms with five-year-old Joe’s autism. What makes it so watchable is that it is about much more than autism – love, lust, family breakups, rivalries, ageing, death, it’s all there. The A Word is set against the stunning mountainous backdrop of the Lake District, and plays out to a fantastic indie pop soundtrack.

The music is central because it is Joe’s thing. On telly all auties have to have a thing – a gift as it were. Joe’s is that he knows the words, date of release and writer of every song his father has ever listened to. The show opens with Dad throwing him up in the air and asking him: “Who’s a genius?” “I am,” Joe replies. His dad even calls him Mozart. And this is the classic autism trope.

It’s true, lots of autistic people do have obsessions and great recall. But it’s equally true that not all have a photographic memory or Rembrandtian eye for detail. Nor are they all walking calculators.

Take our Maya. She has a condition called pathological demand avoidance syndrome. It’s a fairly obscure form of autism, but is rapidly becoming less so. Children with PDA tend to find all forms of learning difficult so they find ways of avoiding tasks, and become hugely manipulative in the process. Which, to be fair, is a skill in itself.

It would be nice to see an autistic kid in a drama who is not a prodigy. The problem is, though, that makes them less dramatic. What Maya was, and is, brilliant at is heroic struggling. So she struggled through Sats, then through GCSEs, then through A-levels, and finally, magnificently, struggled through a degree against all possible expectations. We couldn’t be more proud of her. At secondary school her headteacher wrote her off. The school discouraged her at every stage from taking exams that would damage its league table averages. Her gift was in her resilience; learning most of her multiplication tables by the time she left, mastering the word spaghetti rather than masketti.

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/09/the-a-word-autism-funnier-than-this-tv-drama