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/

Advertisements

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/

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