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The Government Risks Pushing Hundreds of Thousands to the Brink of Despair, Unless We Act Now

11/12/2015 17:19 GMT | Updated 11/12/2016 10:12 GMT

As the year draws to a close and things begin to slow down, it is a perfect time to unwind, spend time with loved ones and, in some cases, get those gladrags on and enjoy yourself. The festive season also lends itself to reflect on what's happened in the last 12 months and start thinking about the next.

So, let's think about what's happened in 2015...

It is the year that we finally caught up with Back to the Future and sadly came to the realisation that we don't have hoverboards. It looks like they'll have to make another film before we get those. We witnessed the arrival of another Royal baby, following months of speculation of whether it would be of the pink or blue variety. Speaking of blue, the Conservatives scored an unexpected triumph in the general election. Extending the blue theme to breaking point, this led to a rush on the Alka-Seltzer market amongst pollsters, who'd been consistently calling a hung parliament. But the piece of news that has gathered almost no public attention might turn out to be one of the biggest stories of the year unless urgent action is taken.

So let's rewind back to July. A central plank of the Conservative manifesto was a reduction of £12billion in welfare spending which the chancellor outlined in detail in the July Emergency Budget.

Although elements of these proposals, such as cuts to tax credits, took a bit of a battering in the Lords, the chancellor has recently expressed himself determined to press ahead.

One of the proposed changes in the July Budget was that those who apply for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and are then placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) will receive almost £30 a week less in benefits. This means that those who are experiencing mental illnesses and are in recovery are set to lose out on more than £1,500 per year.

To be fair to the Government, it began its term with a powerful message of intent on mental health. Just two weeks after being elected, the Conservatives pledged up to £15m of new funding to provide health-based alternatives for the 4,000 people a year who spend time in detention in police cells under the Mental Health Act. They also recommitted to the previous Government's intention to invest £1.25billion in mental health services for children, young people and new mothers. These commitments were welcome and certainly a leap in the right direction. But these proposed cuts to ESA and WRAG threaten to unravel the good work being done.

The cuts would mean that those affected will have less money to pay for rent, food and other necessary expenditures, which is therefore likely to intensify the issues they are facing on a daily basis.

We know this because we surveyed people living with mental illnesses and 87 per cent told us that they would struggle to feed themselves and pay their household bills if their benefits were cut. Also 78 per cent of respondents said that if their benefits were to be cut, they would need more support from other parts of the system, for example their GP, community health services or inpatient mental health services - surely only increasing costs of these other services.

This begs a very big question. Has the Government thought about how this move would affect people's lives on a daily basis?

The Bill introducing these cuts to legislation states that the reduction will 'remove the financial incentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work'. However, we know that 69 per cent of those experiencing mental health issues said they would find it harder to stay in or return to work and education if their benefits were reduced. Sixty seven per cent of those who were accessing benefits said they wanted to work or were looking for work, while 33 per cent stated that work was not possible for them at the moment.

This week a parliamentary review into these proposed cuts was published and it clearly outlines the detrimental damage this will have on individuals affected by the changes.

'Halving the Gap?' was led by Lord Low of Dalston CBE, Baroness Meacher and Baroness Grey-Thompson DBE, and was created with the input of 30 organisations, including Rethink Mental Illness, and individuals living with mental health difficulties.

We wholeheartedly agree with the findings which state that there is no evidence that shows 'a convincing case that the ESA WRAG payment acts as a financial disincentive to claimants moving towards work, or that reducing the payment would incentivise people to seek work.'

It seems counter-intuitive that a cut to a benefit which helps people experiencing mental health problems stabilise their lives would increase their chances of moving back into paid employment. At best it could be called short term-ism.

So although this time of year can provide a perfect opportunity to reflect and plan for the coming year, those living with mental illnesses can often find their worries and anxieties amplified at what can be a lonely and stressful time of year.

It's quite simple. We all need to work together, individuals and groups, to ensure that those living with mental illnesses do not feel sidelined any more. We believe a better life is possible for people affected by mental health issues and we run services and support groups that change people's lives and challenge attitudes about mental illness.

We need to take action to challenge these proposals so that those struggling at this time of year don't have added worries about impending changes to benefits.

To find out how you can help us, visit www.rethink.org/halvethegap