People with disabilities or chronic illness who refuse to take work offered to them will have their benefits cut, the government says
“We know that applying benefit sanctions to people with mental health conditions, or coercing them into job seeking or ‘work related activity’, is harmful and potentially very dangerous. The evidence is clear that poverty and the threat of sanctions have a toxic impact on people’s wellbeing. We would urge the government to consider the mental health impacts of any changes." Andy Bell, CEO, Centre for Mental Health
The government is to invest £2.5 billion in its Back to Work plan over the next five years. As part of the plan, the sick note system will be changed to assume that people can work, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said. The government is also expanding its Restart scheme of employment support for the long-term unemployed. The expanded scheme will include 12 months of intensive, tailored support to tackle barriers to employment.
From late 2024, however, universal credit claimants who have completed Restart, and remain unemployed after 18 months, will be expected to undergo mandatory work experience to “increase their skills and improve their employability,” Hunt said. He added: “If a claimant refuses to accept these new conditions without good reason, their universal credit claim will be closed.”
Hunt also said that the government would “target claimants who continue to disengage with Jobcentre support by closing the claims of individuals who have been on an open-ended sanction for over six months.” He said the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) thinks this will get another 200,000 people into the workforce.
Other elements of the Back to Work plan include further investment in the NHS Talking Therapies programme and expanding Individual Placement and Support (IPS) to help people with mental health problems find meaningful, paid work. IPS is an employment support programme integrated in community mental health services. Employment specialists work with people who have severe mental illness to help them find employment that matches their aims, interests and skills.
The benefit sanctions part of the plan was described as “deeply worrying” by Andy Bell, CEO of the Centre for Mental Health. He said: “We know that applying benefit sanctions to people with mental health conditions, or coercing them into job seeking or ‘work related activity’, is harmful and potentially very dangerous. The evidence is clear that poverty and the threat of sanctions have a toxic impact on people’s wellbeing. We would urge the government to consider the mental health impacts of any changes. Mandatory activities, with the threat of sanctions if people don’t take part, will do nothing to help people get jobs, and fly in the face of the evidence about why IPS is so successful in helping people to get jobs and enjoy better health.”
Vicki Nash, associate director of policy and campaigns at Mind, agreed: “Evidence has repeatedly shown they [benefit sanctions] don’t work and make people’s mental health worse. Changes to sick notes will also make it tougher to be signed off from work and could mean people don’t get the time they need to recover.
“The investment announced shows that the government knows the answer to tackling the number of people struggling with their mental health is to increase, not decrease support. Yet the support being offered doesn’t match the scale of the need and is undermined by a raft of other changes announced.”
Mind also said that the government’s insistence that people with disabilities could work from home was flawed. It pointed to the results of a survey of 2,000 recruiters, which showed that 84% had seen a reduction in home-based roles since the end of the pandemic.
The charities responded positively to the other elements of the government’s Back to Work Plan, however. Bell said he welcomed the plans to invest further in NHS Talking Therapies provision, adding: “We know that timely psychological therapy can be incredibly helpful for people struggling with their mental health.” He also welcomed the expansion of Individual Placement and Support (IPS), which, he said, “helps people with mental health problems find meaningful, paid work.” He went on: “IPS has been recognised as the most effective approach and we’re hopeful this investment will increase people’s access to effective employment support.”
The number of people who have left the workplace as a result of chronic sickness has increased dramatically since the pandemic. The latest government figures show that there are now 2.6m people without jobs because of ill health. In the three months to July, an additional 491,433 adults were added to the total. It is understandable that the government wants to find ways to encourage more people with chronic illness into the workplace. Extending NHS Talking Therapies and expanding the Individual Placement and Support schemes to help people with severe mental illness find work that suits them are positive moves. Charities are right to be concerned, however, that tightening benefit sanctions is likely to worsen the health of people with mental illness rather than make them more likely to seek work.