The House of Lords will today debate two amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill which supporters say are vital to the mental wellbeing of the poorest in the UK.
The amendments to a bill which has attracted huge opposition for its attempts to slash welfare, cap benefits and reduce provision for the most vulnerable, aim to provide safeguards against the damage done to mental health when debts are enforced against poverty incomes.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind, the major Christian Churches, Citizens Advice and Liberty are among twenty NGOs supporting the changes.
Lord Ramsbotham’s WRB amendment, 62A, would ensure that jobcentre and local authority officials do not punish welfare claimants with sanctions and penalties, nor enforce overpayments made in error by officials, when they know there is good reason not to, by requiring officials to examine the facts and circumstances of each case.
Meanwhile, Baroness Hollins’s amendment, 62ZC, would retain the current legal prohibition on enforcing overpayments of welfare against claimants which are made in error by officials.
Both amendments have been put forward by Zacchaeus 2000, a Christian charity that works with vulnerable and impoverished debtors.
The Rev Paul Nicolson, Chair of Zacchaeus 2000, commented: “The Department of Work and Pensions has been advised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists that poverty is trigger factor for poor mental health, a factor in maintaining poor health and part of the experience of those with poor mental health."
He continued: "We know from our experience of serving welfare claimants in debt to the State how seriously depressed they are: it hurts their families too."
Mr Nicholson continued: "Welfare incomes are already set at poverty levels to act as an incentive to look for work; but the Welfare Reform Bill, coupled with cuts and caps on one hand and rising prices of food and fuel on the other, is creating debts without the necessary safeguards for welfare claimants or poor people in work."
"The Centre for Mental Health has shown that mental health problems already cost the economy in England £105 billion in 2010/11; the Bill will increase that cost,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, Church of England bishops and rebel peers galvanised by Lord Paddy Ashdown and others are set to oppose the government's £26,000 benefits cap - which critics say will hit families badly and punish some of the most vulnerable claimants.
* Zaccheus has an e-petition at: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/25438