Benefits changes could have serious consequences on mental health, warns UK psychologists’ body

Exclusive: British Psychological Society describes planned changes as ‘deeply concerning’

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 20 February 2022 13:38 GMT
<p>Jobseekers will soon have to apply for roles outside their preferred sector after just four weeks</p>

Jobseekers will soon have to apply for roles outside their preferred sector after just four weeks

The planned tightening of the benefits system is “deeply concerning” and could have “serious negative consequences” on claimants’ mental health, according to a leading body representing psychologists in the UK.

The warning from the British Psychological Society (BPS) comes after work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey last month hailed a new government target to get 500,000 jobseekers back into work by June.

Under the existing benefits rules, individuals claiming universal credit while looking for work are given three months to find a job in their preferred sector – or face the possibility of sanctions.

But under changes expected to be ushered in next month, claimants will have to apply for roles outside their area after just four weeks. They risk having their benefits cut if they are deemed not to be making “reasonable efforts” to secure a job in any sector.

Ms Coffey said the move would ensure people can get “any job now” while critics warned it would force some skilled workers to accept insecure, short-term employment.

In a statement to The Independent, the British Psychological Society (BPS), said the decision by the government to reduce the time limit is “deeply concerning, and could have serious negative consequences on claimants’ mental health”.

Sarb Bajwa, the organisation’s chief executive, added: “The effects of poverty can reduce individuals’ ability to improve their own circumstances. That is why people looking for jobs need all the help they can get to find suitable employment to help lift them out of poverty, not punitive measures that fail to appreciate the complexities of why they might be out of work and struggling to find a job.

“We know that many people struggle to find fulfilling employment due to mental health difficulties, and that proper support can help people with mental health problems live independent and fulfilling lives.”

He added that the benefits system should be designed to support vulnerable individuals and “must not cause or exacerbate psychological harm and distress”.

Announcing the new Way to Work scheme, Ms Coffey said “helping people to get any job now means they can get a better job and progress into a career.

“Way to Work is a step change in our offer to claimants and employers, making sure our job centre network and excellent work coaches can deliver opportunities, jobs and prosperity to all areas of the country.”

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, described the changes heralded by Ms Coffey as a “complete misunderstanding of what’s really happening in the labour market”.

“Those out of work for long term sickness, including ill mental health, is already at a twenty year high and this ill-thought-through gimmick will do little to truly support those who need tailored help find good jobs,” he told The Independent.

It remains to be seen whether the changes will have an impact on the sanction rate, but last month the government also faced criticism for blocking an evaluation into the effectiveness of the sanctions regime commissioned three years ago.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claimed the research did not “represent a comprehensive picture of sanctions”.

A spokesperson for DWP said: “As part of the way to work campaign, our work coaches will provide tailored, individual support, taking into account mental and physical health when agreeing work requirements.

“The intention isn’t to force people into unsuitable work but to encourage people to take up available roles that they are capable of, as we know work is good for mental wellbeing and the best way for people to improve their lives and support their families. People are at least £6,000 better off in full time work than on benefits.”

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