Mind disappointed as Incapacity Benefit reform threatens welfare of vulnerable claimants
Posted Tuesday 24 January 2006
People with mental health problems may be forced back into work too soon
Mind today expresses concern at Incapacity Benefit (IB) reforms that may force people with mental health problems back to work too soon, without providing for the support they need both in and out of the workplace.
- Increased compulsion/sanctions - the 'carrot and stick' approach may force people still unwell to sign up to work plans for fear of losing benefit.
- Inadequately trained staff making assessments and benefit decisions - recent records show poor quality assessments by doctors (non-specialists lack mental health expertise and interviews are often rushed), and lack of funding for comprehensive training of Jobcentre Plus staff. Worryingly, incentives may now be offered to GPs as well as Jobcentre staff to get people off benefit.
- Lack of responsibility on employers - a recent Mind survey (1) showed less than 10 per cent of companies have a mental health policy. Employers must support current employees with proper systems that could prevent sickness in some cases, and assist those who have been unwell to return to work.
- Low level of IB fraud - involves less than 0.5 per cent of claimants, despite 'sicknote Britain' scares.
- High number of successful appeals against IB decisions - this indicates poor initial decision-making, not a need to modify an efficient appeals system.
- In Pathways to Work pilot areas, sanctions are already imposed for non-attendance of interviews. These are now increased - up to 25 per cent can now be immediately deducted from a person's weekly benefit. Reduction continues until a person can show good reason for not attending or reschedule and attend another interview.
- Conditionality is increased, with people compelled to attend a Work Focused Interview and also sign up to further work preparation activities.
For someone with mental health problems, these are extra pressures that could severely impede recovery.
Inadequately trained staff
Jobcentre Plus staff and, even more so, Incapacity Benefit Personal Advisers (IBPA) need in-depth understanding of mental health to make decisions about whether a person is ready to work again. The fluctuating nature of many mental health problems needs to be taken into account and the evidence on which decisions about benefit are based must be comprehensive. But currently, non-specialists make both medical assessments and further benefit decisions.
With no money promised beyond October 2006 to implement these reforms, it seems unlikely that necessary staff training can take place. And with return to work programmes contracted out to private and voluntary sectors, it is essential that the DWP ensures providers deliver the full range of quality support.
Many people claiming IB for mental health issues want to return to work, and Mind supports the Government's stated aim to help those who can work back into employment. However, the Government's own figures show that only 37 per cent of employers say they would recruit someone with mental health problems (2). It is vital to remove barriers of stigma and discrimination in the workplace. Employers need mental health policies just as they have physical health and safety policies before Government's proposals for supporting people back to work can bear fruit.
Today Mind's Director of Policy Sophie Corlett said:
"The majority of people with mental health problems want to return to employment as soon as is possible. But they need to be helped and supported, not goaded and ultimately forced to return to work before they are ready to do so. Simply causing them further financial worries is not going to help them. And the Government needs to involve employers in the process - they have a vital role in ensuring this is successful."
Mind believes these reforms should:
- ensure that the medical assessments of people with mental health problems are accurate, comprehensive, and undertaken by those with mental health expertise
- understand that people with mental health problems often need a significant period of time to build up confidence before returning to a working environment
- recognise that people with mental health problems frequently face a barrier of discrimination from potential employers.
Mind believes that people should:
- be given assistance to find supportive working environments rather than being forced into potentially stressful situations.
1. Stress and mental health in the workplace report, 2005 Mind.
2. Department for Work and Pensions, 2001.