Cutting through rhetoric: welfare reforms in context
The mental health implications of welfare reforms need to be fully examined before radical changes are made.
Following in the footsteps of successive governments, the Coalition has expressed its intent to shake up the welfare system. They insist that too many people are trapped in worklessness or have been abandoned by the state on long-term disability benefits. They are adopting a ‘carrot and stick’ approach, promising to always make it pay to work but threatening to withdraw benefits if job opportunities are passed up.
Millions of people with mental health problems rely on a variety of benefits to manage their condition and support their needs. Unsurprisingly, many people are anxious about the pace, extent and impact of the proposed reforms.
The reforms proposed include reassessing Incapacity Benefit (IB) claimants, a new assessment for Disability Living Allowance, and a single ‘back-to-work’ scheme. Campaigning on welfare reform is currently one of Mind’s key priorities. It is our job to consider how these reforms will affect people with mental health problems and to campaign for a system that treats mental health fairly and supportively.
The Work Capability Assessment
The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is the gateway to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is replacing IB. Applicants for ESA who have been going through the WCA since October 2008 are reporting significant problems with the process. From April 2011, 1.6 million current IB claimants will begin to be transferred to ESA via the WCA. Figures show that almost half of the people claiming IB are doing so because of a mental health problem.1 It is vital that the assessment process accurately recognises the impact of mental health on an individual’s ability to work.
An independent review of the WCA made extensive recommendations for reform to the assessment process, in response to the feedback from organisations and individuals that the WCA was not working.2 It is hoped that the recommendations, if implemented fully, will improve fairness and effectiveness of the assessment. Mind believes that the WCA is not fit-for-purpose and requires major reform. The review was a good start, but migration of IB claimants onto ESA should not happen until it is clear that the assessment is fair and effective.
The Government has also announced that claims for ESA will now be limited to one year for those claiming on the basis of previous National Insurance contributions (you can also claim on the basis of low income). Mind is opposed to this change. We believe that people who have paid into the system should receive the support they require. And for many people, a year will not be enough time to prepare for a return to work.
Disability Living Allowance
Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is designed to recognise the extra costs that disabled people face in terms of mobility and care. It has been a very popular benefit, having a transformative effect on some people’s lives. However, the Government has announced that it wants to see a 20 per cent reduction in the future cost of DLA through the introduction of an ‘objective’ assessment of eligibility.
It is not yet clear how this assessment will work and what the criteria for eligibility will be, but the Government has insisted that it will not be a ‘medical’ assessment in the model of the WCA. The assessment will not be in place until 2013-14. Although charities like Mind are opposed to this change, we will be engaging with the consultation process in order to ensure that those with mental health problems are not disproportionately affected by the cut.
The Work Programme
The Work Programme will be introduced in the summer of 2011 and will replace all existing back-to-work schemes with one central programme. It will become the largest single back-to-work programme ever seen in this country and will affect many people claiming ESA as well as those who transfer from IB to Jobseekers Allowance.
Although Mind welcomes the apparent focus of the Work Programme on personalised support, we have a number of concerns about the current plans. A number of large welfare to work providers will take on the contracts for delivering the Work Programme, with smaller, more specialist organisations taking on sub-contracts. We want to be sure that the needs of people with mental health problems are correctly identified and that the right support will be available to them in every area.
In contrast to this support, there may be sanctions for those who fail to engage with the Work Programme. People could lose their benefits for a number of weeks if they miss appointments without ‘good cause’. We are concerned about the impact of such sanctions and want to make sure that the priority is protecting the health of claimants.
What Mind is doing
We are committed to making sure that the Government is made aware of any negative impacts of current or proposed policies on people with mental health problems. We are also working hard to push for more balanced media coverage of these issues (explored more fully elsewhere in this edition of Open Mind).
Our current approach to these issues is to try and influence changes in policy through engaging with the Government’s reform process. It can be very difficult to alter Government plans but we have already played a key role in the independent review of the WCA. Mind’s Chief Executive, Paul Farmer, sat on the Scrutiny Panel for the review and Mind has been asked to work with other charities to come up with amendments to the assessment.
The current pace of change is so fast that it is a challenge just to respond to the announcements and engage in consultation. However, if our approach does not produce the outcomes we want, we will shift to a more proactive and public stance in order to confront the Government about our concerns.
Tom Pollard works at Mind as a Policy and Campaigns Officer in the Social Inclusion and Rights Unit.
This article appeared in the January/February 2011 edition of Open Mind.
1 Department of Work and Pensions (2010) Incapacity Benefits Migration: Customer Segmentation Programme Summary of Key Findings and Final Customer Segments.
2 Harrington, M (2010) An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment. Department for Work and Pensions.