'Taking pills at home' - PIP and mental illness

By Bernadette Meaden
February 27, 2017

Last week an Upper Tribunal ruling clarified the law, making it clear that people suffering from mental illness and who meet the criteria are entitled to a Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

The government was not happy, but instead of taking the usual step of lodging an appeal, it called the ruling 'bizarre' and hastily and quietly changed the law to prevent people receiving the support to which they were legally entitled. In justification, George Freeman, head of Theresa May’s policy unit, said benefits should not go to “people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”.

The government’s own Equality Impact Assessment clearly states that in reality, the people concerned are people who have to be accompanied when they leave home, “in order to avoid suffering overwhelming psychological distress”. It gives a list of the conditions most likely to be affected, including; schizophrenia, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychotic disorders.

The fact that the government can make such a decision, and its top policy adviser make such a remark, reveals the gulf between the Prime Minister's rhetoric on mental illness, and what her government actually thinks and does.

Mr Freeman went on to say that, "we want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.” Again this tells us so much about the government’s real attitudes towards people with a disability or chronic illness. It says that someone with a severe mental illness like schizophrenia or PTSD, who can’t leave the house without experiencing “overwhelming psychological distress” is not really disabled. It then sets those people in competition with the people who pass Mr. Freeman’s test of a ‘real’ disability. It says there is a limited amount the government is prepared to spend on supporting people with a severe illness or disability, and it simply won’t stretch to everybody. In order to justify that limitation on spending, some people’s problems will have to be dismissed as insignificant.

Presumably Mr. Freeman would consider a person with Motor Neurone Disease “really disabled”. Is he aware that even they are having such problems trying to access PIP that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Motor Neurone Disease has felt it necessary to launch an inquiry? http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23785

The idea of ‘getting the money to the people who really need it’ has always been code for ‘taking it away from people who we think don’t need it quite so much, or as many people as we can get away with.’ That was the whole purpose of abolishing Disability Living Allowance and replacing it with PIP - it was intended to cut the budget by 20 per cent, and hundreds of thousands of people were expected to lose support. 

What should also be understood is that if people lose their entitlement to PIP, the person who is caring for them automatically loses their entitlement to Carers Allowance (£62.10 per week). They may have to go back to work and leave a person with a serious mental illness at home, alone and housebound.  Or they could claim Jobseekers Allowance but be unable to meet the conditions and be repeatedly sanctioned, leaving them with no income.

Defending the government’s actions, Conservative Party Chairman Patrick McLoughlin said on BBC television's Andrew Marr Show that disabled people (who are more likely than the general population to be living in poverty) have to do their bit towards reducing the deficit. He also said that the government was very generous, spending £50 billion on disabled people. This £50 billion figure is so disingenuous it really should be consigned to the scrapheap. To use it in a discussion of disability benefits for working age people is highly misleading. It includes what the government spends on adult social care for everybody in the UK, be they 18 or 100. It's also worth noting that the government were saying in 2013 that they spent £50 billion on disabled people – if it hasn't increased in four years, with a growing and ageing poulation, that doesn't sound very generous.

Natasha Devon was the government’s mental health champion for schools, but was sacked after she pointed out that whilst young people’s mental health is getting worse, the government will not address the social inequalities and policies that are causing it. In response to Mr Freeman’s statement, she said on Twitter, “Completely typical of govt attitude towards #mentalhealth behind closed doors. They dont believe it's real. They do recognise it wins votes.”

Meanwhile, also on Twitter, a parent says, “I care for my 28yo son who has accute schizophrenia. We've been treated as though we were scrounging scum for years.” 

It doesn’t matter what Theresa May says about mental health, it’s what her government does that matters. And currently, what her government does is pretty shoddy.


* If these issues affect you and you are in distress, please call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123. Calls are FREE and the helpline is open 24 hours a day.

As I wrote this comment Mr Freeman issued an apology  of which I was unaware. However, the government's position appears to remain the same so I think the points made still stand.


 © 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


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.