Naked Politics Blogger
Disability benefits should only go to “really disabled people, not those taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”. These comments, recently made by a senior Tory George Freeman MP, are a far-cry from the 2015 Conservative Manifesto that pledged to ‘take mental health as seriously as your physical health’. This signalled change of policy by May’s Government will have huge ramifications for those with mental health issues who depend on disability benefits. It would follow that cuts to the welfare budget over the next five ways will see some of the most vulnerable people in the country slide into debt and misery.
Over the course of the last Parliament there were the beginnings of a consensus being built around treating mental and physical health with “parity of esteem”. The seven main parties, including the Conservatives and UKIP, committed to increased funding for mental health services in their manifestos. Norman Lamb, the Minister for Care between 2012 and 2015, changed the rules to allow those who were suffering from mental health issues to be able to choose where they receive their care and commissioned mental health service providers to write ‘transformation plans’ for how they would deliver care in the future. Between 2015 and 2020 a further £1bn a year was promised by the government on mental health to make the plans a reality by 2020. In short, mental health charities and campaigners had been successful in putting their cause on the political agenda. However, this legacy is now at risk of being undermined by the proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for disability benefits.
Under the present rules, those suffering from a debilitating mental illness or distress can claim disability benefits such as Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). However, the government is now seeking to make changes to the eligibility criteria for these benefits. The so-called ‘tweaks’ will almost certainly make it more difficult for those unable to work due to mental health issues to access them. Furthermore, the government is keen to tighten up the means of redress and review open to benefits claimants.
No government relishes the prospect of checks on their power. But Theresa May’s administration seems particularly intolerant of dissent and accountability. This was seen most pertinently in the Prime Minister’s extreme reluctance to allow Parliament to vote on triggering Article 50. Now it would seem the Tory high command is turning its ire towards the courts that review benefit appeals. Over the course of the last Parliament, mandatory reconsiderations and appeals were used by welfare claimants to reinstate benefits after being sanctioned. Those suffering from mental health conditions were able to get a fair hearing and sometimes able to have their benefits reinstated. In the controversial statement George Freeman expressed the desire of the government to implement ‘tweaks’ that are “actually about rolling back some bizarre decisions by [benefits] tribunals.”
Number 10’s hardened attitude towards benefits claimants with mental health disorders is more than just empty rhetoric. By changing the eligibility criteria for disability benefits, the government plan to trim the welfare bill by £3.7 billion over the next five years. Although thwarted in their attempt to implement his cut in the spring budget of 2016, it is clear from Mr Freeman’s comments that the government wants to have another bite of the cherry. Critics argue that this proposed change would affect around 164,000 people who can’t leave their homes alone because of the severe psychological stress it causes. Whilst Brexit and Scottish Independence dominate the headlines, the question mark over the financial future of these people is a potent reminder of the devastating impact of austerity.
What are the end results of the government’s change in policy? Misery, debt and in extreme cases maybe even suicide. In my day job, I give debt advice and regularly speak to people who suffer from mental health issues and others who are facing benefit ‘sanctioning’. I have spoken to numerous clients who live in fear of moving from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to PIP because they know the criteria for eligibility are much tighter. This is especially the case for those who suffer from psychological distress. By the very nature of mental illness, it is much harder to prove that someone is suffering. For those already having to cope with anxiety or depression, worrying about a potential loss of benefit income is a huge burden and for some it might just be the final straw. It is thought that in the period 2010-15 benefit cuts or sanctions were a factor in around 80 suicides.
Despite being the architect of the overhaul of the welfare system in the last Parliament, Iain Duncan Smith handed in his resignation as Work and Pensions Minister in March 2016. This high profile walk out was in response to being asked to deliver further welfare cuts that are similar in scale to those now being proposed by George Freeman. If the progress made in the policy discussion and politics of mental health is to be lasting, the government would do well to change its direction.