A charity thinks it can fix the DWP’s awful track record on mental health, but the jury’s out

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A staff member of mental health charity Mind is being seconded to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for a year, starting in November. Tom Pollard, from Mind’s Policy and Campaigns team, will be working with the DWP as a Senior Mental Health Policy Advisor.

Government failures

The DWP’s track record on mental illness is rocky to say the least. In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in May 2016 for access to peer reviews carried out in response to deaths of benefit claimants, the DWP stressed:

DWP takes its responsibilities to vulnerable people very seriously and has put in place clear processes to help our staff identify vulnerability and provide the best possible service for them.

But the peer reviews themselves suggested something else. The DWP has repeatedly insisted that a link cannot and should not be drawn between deaths of claimants and their claims. A spokesman said:

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Any suicide is a tragedy and the reasons for them are complex, however it would be inaccurate and misleading to link it solely to a person’s benefit claim.

While this is true, the internal inquiries highlight several ways that more could have been done for vulnerable claimants. One report states:

We need to ask whether or not in the context of a fast-moving environment of high [claimant re-assessment] volumes and anticipated levels of performance, the current process requires, encourages and supports… colleagues to independently and systematically consider claimant vulnerability.

The government was warned about the limitations of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) as early as 2010, but pushed along with rolling it out to long-term benefits claimants regardless. Professor Malcolm Harrington, who worked with the government in an advisory position to review the WCA, said he believed at the time that the test was “inhumane and mechanistic”, but the government decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Critics describe the WCA as crude and inaccurate, discriminatory against mentally ill claimants, and say it causes stress, anxiety and even suicidal feelings among claimants.

With this in mind, concerns from mental health activists that Mind’s involvement with the DWP will do little except give a stamp of approval to harmful policy become a lot clearer.

Optimism vs cynicism

According to Mind’s CEO Paul Farmer, Pollard will be:

advising on the most appropriate and effective ways to support and engage with people with mental health problems across a range of policy issues.

Some people welcomed the news.

Others, however, were more cynical.

https://twitter.com/EdBryning/status/786212758857494528

As an example of why, Professor Harrington insisted in 2013 that he did not advise the government to go ahead with the WCA as it was. He told disability campaigner Sue Marsh that he:

never – repeat never – agreed to the [incapacity benefit] migration.

He said he wanted to have the roll-out of WCAs for long-term claimants delayed, so that their effect on new claimants could be tested. But speaking to parliament in 2012, then Work and Pensions Secretary Chris Grayling claimed Harrington had said:

the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.

Either Harrington lied about the interactions he had with Grayling, or the minister did. But either way, it’s not difficult to see why people have lost faith in advisors being able to have a significant impact on DWP policy.

“Work cure”

This lack of faith is bolstered by the fact that many criticise the very ethos of the DWP’s methods in the first place.

Damien Green, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, gave a speech at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference in which he repeatedly referenced giving people the “chance” to work and earn money. Of disabled people in particular, he said:

The fact is, seven million people of working age have a disability in this country. That’s seven million people who’ve been given a more difficult path than most of us.

And as our Paralympic athletes prove, they are not to be written off. Most people do want to work but far too many are denied that opportunity.

While Green is not wrong, and many people who are not currently able to work would like to, this statement is not true for all, and should not be used to dictate who receives help. Dr Sarah Glynn, of the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network, suggests that it’s unsurprising that disabled people should want to work:

In a society that fetishises work and defines people by their job, it is inevitable that lack of work will affect self esteem and social engagement; and when benefits are also cripplingly low, those without work can be starved of the necessities for basic subsistence, never mind social engagement.

Glynn calls the idea that disabled people should be pushed back into work for the good of their health the “work cure”. Examples of this are readily available in the DWP’s guidance.

“Benefits of employment” vs risks of suicide

In September 2016, reports said that the guidance assessors receive had changed in January. Before, those who were suspected of being at risk of suicide or self-harm should there be a change to their benefits were advised to be placed in the Support Group, the highest rate of Employment Support Allowance (ESA). It now reads:

If you conclude that finding a claimant fit for work would trigger risk of suicide or self-harm then you need to consider whether there are factors that would mitigate the risk if the claimant were found fit for work.

The guidance asks the assessor to weigh the “benefits of employment” against “any potential risks”, urging them to:

Remember that there is good evidence that people in work have better health outcomes and are at lower risk of suicide.

Those deaths referenced in the FOI request reports seem to suggest that even if this is true, removing people’s benefits and pushing them back into work can have devastating consequences. Mind itself found in 2015 that 83% of people in the government’s Work Programme felt that the scheme’s “support” had made their mental health problems worse, or much worse.

“Treachery”

Given the DWP’s track record, it’s not difficult to see why some, like the Mental Health Resistance Network, have described Mind’s involvement with the DWP as “treachery“. But it’s also possible that Mind and Pollard truly believe they may be able to ease the suffering of mentally ill benefit claimants by advising the DWP in this way.

When Professor Harrington stepped down in 2013, he said of his advisory work:

When you finish you wonder: ‘have I made any difference at all?’ Only time will tell.

Given the thousands of deaths noted to have occurred after claimants were found fit for work by a WCA, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he didn’t make a difference. And many vulnerable people will not wish to see Mind become complicit in this situation either.

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