Scrap benefits sanctions or risk mental health crisis, psychologists warn

Exclusive: Leading psychological organisations tell The Independent that evidence links sanctions to rising mental health problems

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The Government must immediately stop suspending the benefits of hundreds of thousands of claimants each year or risk soaring rates of mental health problems, experts have warned. 

In an open letter to The Independent, doctors from Britain’s leading mental health organisations said that an urgent review of the system must be carried out to discover how deep an impact it is having.  

Ministers are facing a separate battle in Parliament over plans to slash £3.7bn of disability benefits that would go to people with mental health problems, epilepsy, diabetes and dementia.

The doctors' letter comes just 10 days before Philip Hammond’s spring budget, with the Government still struggling to bring the deficit under control and under intense pressure to spend money giving companies more business rates relief.

It reads: “We, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and counsellors, call on the Government to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system.

“It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.”

The letter sets out bodies which have provided evidence linking sanctions to “destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems”, before adding: “We call on the Government to suspend the benefits sanctions regime and undertake an independent review of its impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

More than a million unemployed claimants must meet conditions, such as turning up for appointments and applying for enough jobs, in order to receive benefits. If the rules are breached the claimants can incur a punishment or sanction which sees their welfare payments stopped, with a four-week penalty hitting over-25s for £300.

Today’s letter – signed by the British Psychological Society, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the British Psychoanalytic Council, and the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies – goes on to argue that “suspending the sanctions system alone is not enough”.

It advocates a complete overhaul of the way in which the Government approaches the benefits system, moving away “from making unemployment less attractive, to making employment more attractive” and calls for mental health awareness training for job centre staff and reform of the controversial work capability assessment. 

It adds: “These policies would begin to take us towards a welfare and employment system that promotes mental health and wellbeing, rather than undermines and damages it.”

According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ own estimates, the state spends up to £50m a year applying sanctions and £200m monitoring whether claimants meet the conditions for receiving payments.

Last year it withheld payment of £132m in the form of sanctions. It also paid out £35m in hardship payments, according to National Audit Office estimates, many of which directly compensate for withheld benefits.

A report from the NAO also found different job centres and employment schemes take radically different stances on enforcing the rules, with some more than twice as likely to sanction as others in the same area and many sanctions overturned on appeal.

It described the system as one involving “pot luck” and a “postcode lottery” for those affected and claimed sanctions were allegedly causing hardship and depression for many individuals.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams said: “Like the British Psychological Society and evidence from many other sources, I believe that the Tories punitive sanctions regime is irresponsible, ineffective, and in the worst cases, has been linked to premature deaths.

“That's why I have committed Labour to scrapping the Tories punitive sanctions regime as part of our plan to transform the social security system.”

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Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the sanctions system is “fundamentally flawed and needs to be restarted entirely” while Jonathan Bartley, the Green Party co-leader, said the Government must listen to the warnings from the psychological bodies, adding the DWP should scrap the system entirely.

A spokesman from the department said: “Sanctions are an important part of our benefits system, and are only used in a very small percentage of cases as a last resort when people don’t fulfil their commitments to find work. We have made improvements to the sanctions system, particularly to help those who are vulnerable or have a mental health condition, and the number of sanctions has halved over the last year.”

Ministers are also facing a separate battle in the House of Lords this week after announcing legislation to tighten the criteria of Personal Independence Payments (PIP), resulting in a £3.7bn saving between now and 2022.

The Government argued that the measure was needed after tribunals ordered that the payment should cover a broader spectrum of claimants, including those with some mental health problems.

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