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/

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

Ken Loach: Tory government ‘callous, brutal and disgraceful’ and ‘must be removed’

Accepting the award for best British film at the Bafta awards in London, the veteran director says politicians speak for corporations – and film-makers must stand with the poor and vulnerable.

Ken Loach has launched an uncompromising attack on the UK government at the 70th British Academy Film Awards.

Speaking as he picked up his award for outstanding British film for I, Daniel Blake, which is conceived as a critique of the current state of the benefits system, Loach touched on accusations by some that his film failed to reflect reality.

Loach thanked his cast and crew, the people of Newcastle and the academy for “endorsing the truth of what this film says, which is that hundreds of thousands of people – the vulnerable and the poorest people – are treated by the this government with a callousness and brutality that is disgraceful.”

Loach continued by making reference to the Tory government’s apparent U-turnon its promise to accept thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing danger in Syria and elsewhere.

“It’s a brutality,” he said, “that extends to keeping out refugee children we promised to help.”

“In the real world,” added Loach, “it’s getting darker. And in the struggle that’s coming between the rich and the powerful, the corporations and the politicians that speak for them, and the rest of us on the other side, the film-makers know which side they’re on.”

Speaking at the press conference afterwards, Loach went further, saying that the government “have to be removed”. He hoped that voters would see his film, but there was little point politicians doing so as “the people actually implementing these decisions know what they’re doing. It’s conscious.”

Their welfare policies, he said, harked back to the Victorian workhouse ethos of telling people that poverty was their fault. “They know they’re doing. We have to change them; they have to be removed.”

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/12/ken-loach-governments-treatment-of-refugee-children-callous-brutal-and-disgraceful

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

Antidepressants during pregnancy linked to autism

A New study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, finds a link between antidepressant use during pregnancy and an increased risk of autism in offspring.

The risk factors for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are complex, poorly understood and potentially great in number.

Many facets have been studied, but the exact etiology of ASD is a long way from being unravelled.

This current study looks in depth at Canadian births, antidepressantuse and their influence on ASD. The results might be considered controversial and are guaranteed to spark debate.

Antidepressant use during pregnancy is already a bone of contention and has been discussed and researched at length. This latest study adds an extra dimension to the conversation.

The question of whether to prescribe antidepressants during pregnancy is a difficult one. There are inferred risks to the unborn child, however, if the prescription is stopped, there are risks for the mother.

As many as 1 in 10 pregnant mothers in the US take antidepressants at some point during the course of their pregnancy.

This high level of prevalence, plus the fact that depression appears to be on the rise, has sparked further research into the implications.

Studies into antidepressant use and pregnancy have so far unearthed a number of associated risks; these include an increased chance of spontaneous abortion, major congenital malformations, premature birth, lower birth weight and pregnancy-inducedhypertension.

Other studies have, with various levels of confidence, found links between antidepressant use during pregnancy and a risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension and the possibility of neonatal withdrawal symptoms.

The latest research, led by Prof. Anick Bérard from the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital, adds ASD to this list.

Use of SSRIs significantly linked to increased ASD risk

In short, people with ASD learn, interact, communicate and behave in subtly different ways to the rest of the population.

Each case of ASD is different; some children with ASD may need an incredible amount of support. Other ASD individuals could not be picked out from a crowd, but in certain circumstances, they might struggle to understand or integrate with society.

Because ASD has only been described relatively recently, and the official diagnostic criteria are still in flux, no one knows whether the incidence of ASD is growing, or whether modern parents and clinicians are simply better at spotting it.

Prof. Bérard’s study used data from the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort. In total, 145,456 conceptions leading to live births were collated and followed up for 10 years.

For the first time, the investigators took note of not only antidepressant use, but also they marked which trimester the drugs were taken in and, importantly, the class of antidepressants being taken.

The high quality of the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort’s data allowed for close control of potentially confounding variables. The team had access to factors including the mother’s socioeconomic standing, family history of autism, history of depression, previous births and age at conception.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/304046.php

The stability of your personality peaks in mid-life (then grows increasingly wobbly again)

As we continue to settle into ourselves, you might think that personality would be something that becomes ever more cemented through life.  Not so, according to a survey of nearly 4000 New Zealanders aged from 20 to 80 years (including 2409 women). Petar Milojev and Chris Sibley report that the stability of personality increases through youth, peaks in mid-life and then gradually reduces again into old age, presumably in response to the variations in social and biological pressures we experience at the different stages of life.

The researchers asked their participants to complete short personality questionnaires twice, two-years apart. The questionnaires measured the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) and also an honesty-humility factor. The researchers then looked to see how the “rank-order stability” of people’s traits (how their scores ranked compared to other people’s) varied across that two-year gap, and how this stability varied as a function of age.

The participants’ personalities showed “impressive” stability, as you’d expect since personality is meant to be a description of people’s pervasive traits. Extraversion was the most stable trait, and agreeableness the least. However, the key finding was that personality stability varied through the lifespan, increasing from the 20s to the 40s and 50s, and then declining towards old age, up to age 80. This broad pattern was found for all traits, except for agreeableness, which showed gradually reduced stability through life. For conscientiousness, openness to experience, and honesty-humility, trait instability had returned at the oldest age to the levels seen at the youngest age.

For the five traits that showed an inverted U-shape pattern of changing stability through life, Milojev and Sibley found that the specific point of peak stability varied – extraversion and neuroticism showed highest stability in the late 30s, while the other traits (openness, honesty-humility, and conscientiousness) showed peak stability in the late 40s, early 50s. The researchers said these “domain specific” variations in personality stability point to different environmental and social demands influencing different personality traits to varying degrees at slightly different times of life.

“This report further highlights the need to test … the effects of events that might cause the lower stability [of personality] in younger and older adulthood,” the researchers said. “In addition our finding of systematically different peaks in stability between different personality dimensions suggest the need to further investigate age-specific changes in environmental and social pressures that are associated with such domain-specific effects.”

http://digest.bps.org.uk/2014/08/the-stability-of-your-personality-peaks.html