Further DWP pressure on people with mental health problems?

By Bernadette Meaden
January 18, 2016

Having just written about how current employment practices make the aim of getting a million disabled people into work practically untenable, I was shocked to see it reported this morning that Iain Duncan Smith is planning yet another shake up of disability benefits. Although often not the most reliable source of information, and with neither Mr. Duncan Smith or his department having made an official policy announcement, the Secretary of State has spoken to the Daily Mail, and what it reports looks alarming.

The report correctly says that the current system is "fundamentally flawed". In fact, it is a disaster. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is costing more than it saves and causing misery for the people affected by it. The reason it is such a failure is that it was devised on a false assumption, the assumption that a large percentage of people claiming out-of-work disability benefits were in fact malingerers who were fit to work. The WCA was designed to weed them out, slashing the numbers of claimants. Because this assumption was false, and the vast majority were genuine, the numbers of claimants has reduced only marginally, despite the enormous cost of the WCA.

The rational and humane thing to do in these circumstances would be to admit the initial policy was wrong. To scrap the WCA, accept it when somebody's doctor says they are not fit to work, and switch from a policy of enforcement and punishment to a policy of genuine support. Take the pressure off claimants and focus on employers, to create employment practices which could accommodate the needs of people with an illness or disability.

Instead it is reported that Mr. Duncan Smith is planning  "a shake up" of the WCA. The Daily Mail reports: "Those deemed capable of some types of work will then be required to look for employment, or risk losing some of their benefits." Ominously it adds, "Under the new test Mr Duncan Smith is particularly keen to target those signed off work with conditions related to their mental health."

It is difficult to say just how alarming this is. There is robust evidence to show that the current system of assessments and benefits conditionality is taking a terrible toll on the mental health of sick and disabled claimants. Academic research recently found that "The programme of reassessing people on disability benefits using the Work Capability Assessment was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing. This policy may have had serious adverse consequences for mental health in England, which could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefits." Specifically, the research linked the WCA with 590 additional suicides.

And the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said, "The use of sanctions is not only ineffective, but has a detrimental effect on people's mental health."

So to hear that the DWP will be further 'targeting' people with mental health problems for additional pressure seems almost guaranteed to produce two outcomes. One would be a further deterioration in the mental health of claimants, with possible suicides. Another would be growing destitution amongst the mentally ill, as they simply give up on what is left of the welfare state and disappear into a void.

We already know of people with mental health problems in both these circumstances. People who are barely existing because they could no longer take the pressure now involved in a benefits claim, or who have tried to take their own life because of that pressure. For them, a supportive welfare state has practically ceased to exist.

Mr. Duncan Smith is obviously determined to dramatically reduce the numbers of sick and disabled people claiming out of work benefits. This determination, juggernaut-like, is trundling over and crushing some of our most fragile and anguished neighbours. And, just a practical question – where are the employers queuing up to employ people with mental health problems? Because until that queue forms, putting pressure on the mentally ill to get a job, on pain of taking away their meagre incomes, looks like bullying.

Once can only hope that today's report is inaccurate, but in the absence of any official announcement, and in light of past experience, it seems worryingly credible.

*For further evidence on the harm already caused by current DWP policies regarding sick and disabled people, see the reports from the Spartacus Network;  and from MIND, on the failure of the Work Programme to help people with mental health problems find employment.

If these issues affect you and you need to talk to somebody, please call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123. Calls are free and the helpline is open 24 hours a day.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden




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