On Tuesday evening, MPs voted to retain certain clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill meaning that, from April 2017, people who need support from Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will receive £30 less a week than current claimants.
The changes will affect people who are placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) because they are currently unable to work due to their health or disability. At Mind we believe this is a step in the wrong direction and could have a negative impact on people with mental health problems.
We are 100% behind the government's aim to halve the disability employment gap. The number of people with mental health problems who struggle to find and stay in work has been too high for too long and needs to change. Currently, about half of all people supported by ESA need this benefit primarily because of their mental health. The vote yesterday by MPs in favour of cutting benefits for sick and disabled people is a disastrous move for people supported by this benefit, especially those with mental health problems.
Last year the government announced its intention to cut this benefit by £30 a week for new claimants to "remove the financial incentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work". We were extremely concerned about this, referring to this announcement as 'misguided and insulting'.
Misguided because it fails to understand the myriad reasons someone with a mental health problem might struggle to find or stay in employment. Failing to acknowledge the impact a mental health problem can have on them or their ability to work. Not taking into account problems accessing services, waiting times for treatments such as talking therapies, side effects of medication. Not giving enough consideration to the role of employers - their attitudes, and flexibility. And finally not providing tailored personalised support and instead, under the threat of sanction, pushing people into activities that are often generic and don't take into account the barriers to work that they face, with little regard for their skills or ambitions.
Insulting because it's based on the assumption that people with mental health problems are deliberately failing to find work because they prefer to stay on benefits. This simply isn't the case. Our research found that the vast majority of people with mental health problems would like to work, and the government has acknowledged the high 'want to work' rate of people with mental health problems, yet this cut implies the opposite.
£30 per week may not sound much, but it means a lot to those who receive it, and is the difference between staying well and independent and not. Our beneficiaries explained to us that the extra £30 a week covers the cost of travelling to health appointments, helps pay towards private talking therapies while waiting for NHS treatment, travelling to see friends and family, a mobile phone contract or internet access for those who find it difficult to leave the house or even buying food for a pet.
Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) is there to tide people over between jobs (unlike ESA where people spend much longer out of work) and doesn't allow for these extra costs. All of these activities are essential to enable people with mental health problems to stay well, facilitate social contact, alleviate anxiety and stress and, importantly, help them move closer to a point where they can work.
The government argues that recipients of ESA should not receive more money than those on JSA, because disabled people are also eligible for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the benefit replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA), designed to cover the 'extra costs' associated with being disabled. Typically these are things like the cost of having to have heating on more, or making adjustments to your home, but this doesn't account for costs like those mentioned above, with the outcome that people could become increasingly isolated.
A couple of weeks ago the House of Lords voted against the cut, presenting reasonable and sensible arguments as to why the government should reconsider. This was helped by a Review led by Lord Low, Baroness Meacher and Baroness Grey-Thompson which highlighted that far from supporting the aim of getting more disabled people into work, this cut could in fact make things worse.
With so many positive strides made in supporting people with mental health problems over the last ten years, and with government prioritising improving mental health services, it's frustrating to see this counterproductive cut. We know that there is unfortunately a positive correlation between debt, poverty and experience of mental health problems. Removing £30 a week is a short-sighted cost-cutting move that will only backfire, causing a huge deal of extra anxiety as well as financial problems, with the potential that people are pushed even further from work than previously. We need a supportive, personalised benefits system that works with people, not against them. One that understands the barriers to work people face and offers truly personalised support delivered by people with expertise in mental health.
Anyone worried about the changes to ESA can find out more on our website.