Universal credit flaws pushing claimants towards debt and eviction

Recipients falling into rent arrears because of payment delays, forcing them to turn to food banks, Guardian investigation reveals

Thousands of benefit claimants are facing debt, rent arrears and eviction as a result of policy design flaws in universal credit, according to landlords and politicians, who are demanding an overhaul of the system.

They have warned that UC rules that require claimants to wait at least six weeks for a first benefit payment mean many are going without basic living essentials, forcing them to turn to food banks and loan sharks.

Ministers are being urged to slow down the national rollout and to increase support for vulnerable claimants who are struggling to cope with the demands of monthly payments and an increasingly online-only system.

The findings have emerged during an investigation by the Guardian, which has also revealed that:

Eight out of 10 social housing tenants moved on to UC are falling into rent arrears or increasing the level of pre-existing arrears.

Families unable to manage the regulation 42-day wait for a first payment are regularly referred to food banks by housing associations or local MPs.

Some claimants are waiting as long as 60 days for an initial payment because of processing delays on top of the formal wait.

Uncertainty about the system has contributed to a dramatic decline in the number of private landlords willing to take on benefit recipients, even if they are in work.



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.


Interrupting yourself can be more disruptive than being interrupted by someone else

By Christian Jarrett

At work or study, whenever you choose to break away from your main task to do something else – such as leaving an email you’re in the middle of writing to go check Facebook instead – you are effectively interrupting yourself. It’s obvious that self-interruptions risk hurting your focus, but you might not realise just how much. A new study in Computers in Human Behaviour shows that in certain contexts interrupting yourself can be even more disruptive than an external interruption, and that it has to do with the brain power that’s needed whenever you make a decision to pause your main task to do something different.

Ioanna Katidioti and her colleagues at the University of Groningen had 28 young adult participants complete a computer task that was designed to simulate a typical work situation in which the primary objective was to answer client emails, while a secondary objective was to participate in a live text chat with a friend. Answering the client emails involved remembering the product the client was enquiring about, looking up the price in a browser, then emailing back the answer. The live chat with a friend involved answering questions about favourite things, like books and restaurants.

To complete each stage of the experiment, the participants were told that they had to answer 10 client emails and exchange 15 chat messages with their friend. The most important detail is that for some stages, the participants chose when to switch from answering emails to chat with their friend (i.e. self-interruption), whereas in other stages, the live chat was forced on them (i.e. external interruption – the chat window came to the foreground of the computer screen and the email window went out of focus).

One other thing about the task set-up – the researchers programmed the simulation so that the external interruptions actually occurred at the same moments in the email answering and price-look-up process as the self-interruptions – this was to rule out the effect of interruption timings on the results (I’ll explain more about this later).

It seems counter-intuitive, but the participants actually took longer to answer client emails in the stages of the experiment that involving self-interruption as opposed to external interruption – 24.83 seconds to answer 10 emails, on average, compared with 23.36 seconds (a statistically significant difference).

Past research has shown that work interruptions are often particularly disruptive because of the time it takes us to get back into our primary task. However, in the current study, the slower performance during self-interruption stages of the experiment was not due to participants taking longer to return to emailing as compared with after external interruptions.

This prompted Katidioti and her colleagues to reason that perhaps the greater cost of self-interruptions is due to effects that happen prior to the interruption. To test this, they repeated the first experiment with more participants and this time recorded their pupil dilation – a well-established marker of mental effort. They found that pupil dilation occurred one second earlier prior to self-interruptions, as compared with external interruptions, indicating that the decision of whether and when to self-interrupt takes a  degree of mental effort, which has an adverse effect on subsequent performance on the primary email task.

This results suggest that when you’re working on your computer and you have social media apps open in the background, there’s going to be a significant cost to your performance, even if you have all the alerts turned off. This is because you’ve now got the mental burden of deciding whether and when to stop what you’re doing, to go check your social apps. By contrast, when you have the app alerts switched on, or the phone rings, or there’s someone at the door, this decision is effectively made for you.

There is a major caveat here related to the timings of interruptions. One reason that real-life external interruptions can be so disruptive, compared with self-interruptions, is that they can occur when you’re in a particularly tricky part of your primary task, whereas when you self-interrupt,  you can make sure you only switch tasks at more convenient moments. The current study removed this part of the equation by ensuring the external interruptions were timed similarly to self-interruptions.

What does this mean for real-life working? The researchers said their results suggest the ideal situation would be to have external interruptions – such as app alerts – that are programmed to occur only at low-demand moments of the primary task. For example, perhaps one day Facebook or other alerts could be designed to monitor your work behaviour to only appear on-screen when you’re doing something that you’ve identified as relatively easy. Such a set-up would save you the mental effort that the current study suggests is involved in self-interruptions, while also removing the usual main disadvantage of external interruptions – their inconsiderate timing.

—Interrupt me: External interruptions are less disruptive than self-interruptions

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest


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.


How The Bridge’s heroine became a role model for women with autism

By Lucy Townsend

BBC News

Saga Noren from the Scandinavian TV crime drama The Bridge has become an unlikely hero. Widely diagnosed by viewers as being on the autistic spectrum, she is lauded not just because she is a leading character with the condition, but – more unusually – because she is a woman with it.

She is blunt, doesn’t understand jokes and struggles to build relationships. She strips down to her underwear to get changed in the office without embarrassment, and asks and answers questions with often excruciating honesty. “Would you like the recipe?” asks her dinner host. “No, thanks, it wasn’t tasty,” comes her reply.

While the writers of The Bridge have never confirmed that Saga has Asperger syndrome – a form of autism – it has been generally assumed to be the case. Sofia Helin, the actress who plays her, has regularly referred to it in interviews. She researched the condition before filming started and has been sent letters and fan mail from people with the condition, as well as from the Swedish Asperger society.

But while people have been increasingly exposed to fictional characters with autistic traits in recent years – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, or Christopher from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time – Saga stands out because she is a woman.

Autism was once described as a manifestation of an “an extreme male brain” – the theory being that maleness involved a predisposition for mechanistic or logical thinking. Paediatrician Hans Asperger first defined the form of autism which now takes his name after observing boys with regular intelligence and language development, who nevertheless displayed autistic traits. He originally believed that no girls were affected by the syndrome, although clinical evidence later caused him to revise this.

But increasing numbers of women are receiving diagnoses as adults.

Elisabeth Wiklander was diagnosed with autism in her late 20s. Exhausted by being turned away by doctors, she had packed all the books, articles and folders she had read on the subject in a large bag and unloaded them onto her doctor’s desk.

“I said, ‘I have read all of this. I know I have this condition, please listen to me,'” she says.

Wiklander had spent many years being ignored by doctors and psychologists, who couldn’t relate her symptoms to the type of autism that they knew. She was professionally successful (she is a cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra), she was in a long term relationship, and is articulate. She had learnt to mask many of her more textbook autistic traits.

But her case is not unusual. Journalist Laura James received her diagnosis at the age of 46. A married mother-of-four, she had spent her life “always feeling different”. She says she had been “written off” as having anorexia (she would often forget to eat), anxiety and sometimes just as being “difficult”. Finally this summer a psychologist confirmed what she already knew – that she had adult Asperger syndrome.



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.