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Talking benefits in Brighton

Friday, 27 September 2013 Tom Pollard, Policy and Campaigns Manager

Party conference season continued in Brighton this week, and we were there to talk to Labour Party politicians about mental health and the key issues facing our supporters.

As at the Liberal Democrat conference last week, mental health seemed to pop up unprompted as a topic of discussion all over the place, showing just how far we’ve come in recent years. This culminated in a whole section of Ed Milliband’s speech dedicated to the issue:

"I had a letter from a 17 year old girl suffering from depression and anxiety. She told me a heart-breaking story of how she ended up in hospital for 10 weeks: mental health is a truly one nation problem, it affects rich and poor, north and south, young and old alike. 

And let's be frank: in the privacy of this room; we've swept it under the carpet for too long. It's a very British thing, we don’t like to talk about it: if you’ve got a bad back of you’re suffering from cancer you talk about it, but if you’ve got a depression or anxiety you don’t talk about it because somehow it doesn’t seem right. We've got to change that."

But although mental health is becoming a more mainstream political issue, we know that many people with mental health problems are still struggling to access the services and support they need. Issues around benefits are a particular concern and, since this is an area of our work I lead on, I was keen to see what politicians, commentators and party members had to say on this topic.

It had been trailed over the weekend that Liam Byrne MP, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, would call on the Government to “sack” Atos, the company that carry out Work Capability Assessments. At a fringe event I attended, he was discussing issues around poverty and benefits with Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Liam Byrne was very critical of the current system and talked about bringing all disability support together into one personalised package, as recently introduced in Australia. Julia Unwin argued that the system needs to provide specialist support for people with mental health problems.

Later on, another member of the Shadow Work and Pensions team, Stephen Timms MP, acknowledged that there were real problems with conditionality and sanctions. He claimed that it was Labour who had pushed the Government into setting up an independent review of the current approach.

Issues around disability benefits are clearly very important to many Labour Party members – they were raised a number of times during a Q&A session with Ed Miliband. The Labour leader agreed with suggestions that support for disabled people needed to improve, stating "If you're asking people with disabilities to work then you have to give them the support to make it possible".

Alongside improving assessments and support, we feel there needs to be a real change in the way benefits, and the people who are supported by them, are talked about. We spent some time promoting the new Who Benefits? campaign, with the other charities running it with us, by handing out ‘Benefits Bingo’ cards to highlight the gap between the debate and reality.

It will be interesting to see at next year’s conference, with the general election so close, whether the debate on benefits has improved, as we are seeing with mental health more generally, and what all the parties are saying about how they will improve support from benefits.


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