Britain’s top mental health experts just tore the government a new one on benefits sanctions

jobcentre benefits
Tilly Grove

The heads of Britain’s most important mental health bodies have blasted the government’s benefits sanction regime.

The letter, published in The Independent on 26 February, is signed by Peter Kinderman of the British Psychological Society, Martin Pollecoff of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, Dr Andrew Reeves of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Helen Morgan of the British Psychoanalytic Council, and Steve Flatt of the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies. It calls on the government to:

Immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system. It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.

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 ‘Set up to fail’

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) applies benefit sanctions to claimants who do not meet a range of criteria. This includes not attending appointments, interviews, training and unpaid work set up by the Jobcentre. People have widely criticised sanctions, including film director Ken Loach. On Newsnight, Loach branded it:

an appalling system… People are set up to fail. The system is there in order to trap them… People are in fear…

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The Canary goes on to demonstrate with evidence from the DWP and anecdotes from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) that this has definitely been the case for some claimants.

Cost/benefit

The DWP uses a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) to determine the level of support someone receives. It was reported in 2016 that their guidance had changed to include the following line about claimants who are suicidal or at risk of self-harm:

Have you considered the benefits of employment weighed against any potential risks? Remember that there is good evidence that people in work have better health outcomes and are at lower risk of suicide.

This essentially instructs assessors to consider whether it’s worth making someone suicidal by pushing them into work if they might feel less suicidal later on.

It is this idea in particular that the mental health experts in The Independent are challenging.

No job is better than a bad job

They use findings from the National Audit Office to point out that there is little evidence that sanctions work and are cost-effective. They also refer to evidence that:

links sanctions to destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems.

Instead, they call on the government to stop sanctions and carry out an independent review of their impact on mental health and well-being. They also demand “a range of policy changes to promote mental health and wellbeing”, including mental health awareness training for Jobcentre staff and a reform of the WCA. They brand the WCA “psychologically damaging”, and say it “lacks clear evidence of reliability or effectiveness”.

Finally, they urge the government to shift the Jobcentre role away from merely increasing employment. A bad job, they say, can be worse for mental health than having no job. And if the government is using sanctions to force people into just any work, people aren’t getting the chance to have quality employment.

The experts have spoken. But don’t expect a response from the government any time soon.

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