When most people see a person in the depths of despair or on the brink of suicide, they see a vulnerable person in need of help and compassion. Although not if you're Iain Duncan Smith, it would seem.
It’s been revealed that his Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) refuses to count serious mental health conditions amongst their criteria to protect vulnerable people on benefits. If you have depression, anxiety or OCD and are on the dole – tough luck. Under Tory logic, you probably chose being mentally ill as a lifestyle; just like you chose to be poor.
The “vulnerable person” provision of the Tory benefits cuts is there to apply the breaks on procedures if someone is in serious risk of harm or death. The principle is that, while the Government can stop peoples’ benefits abruptly and for no reason, if someone is really and truly in desperate need of help they can apply for their situation to be considered for a small amount of emergency funds.
Iain Duncan Smith clearly thinks this is the height of compassion and tolerance. That if you are on the cusp of starvation or homelessness, the DWP will begrudgingly throw you a meagre bone to tide you through. It’s a "get out of jail free" card which the Government has used to justify austerity. It basically says "Yes we’re going to make poor people suffer, but just enough to make them squirm. We’ll intervene before anyone gets seriously hurt".
But last week, it was revealed that even this insulting policy has been twisted to exclude some of the most vulnerable people that the system is meant to help. Even the Government’s pitiful protection for benefits claimants does not exist in reality.
The DWP has said that it only includes physical disabilities as making a person “vulnerable”. Having a mental health condition, no matter how serious, does not count. It is estimated that around 23 per cent of people on Job Seekers Allowance suffer from a mental health condition. They will still be able to claim for support when they need emergency support, but along with everyone else who is not classed as "vulnerable" they'll have to do this via a lengthy application process. This means they may have to wait two weeks when what they're applying for is emergency support.
The attitude perpetuates an outdated view that just because they might not affect people physically, mental illnesses are less real and less valid. For those who suffer from them, mental illnesses can be life encompassing and life-threatening. Their pain can be just as searing and profoundly felt as anything that can be picked up on an X-Ray or in an MRI scan.
The Government’s refusal to acknowledge mentally ill people as vulnerable doesn’t just cause stigma. The policy puts people with mental illnesses at serious risk of distress and even death. For many mentally ill people, life on benefits can be a deeply distressing experience. Constantly under pressure to find work, jumping through ever-changing hoops to meet new demands and targets, being demonised for needing help and having to live a dreary existence on inadequate income.
Campaigners estimate that at least 80 suicide cases are linked to abrupt benefits sanctions. But the bottom line is that we simply do not know how many have died as a result. This is because Iain Duncan Smith is still refusing to reveal how many people have died after having their benefits sanctioned. The Government used to reveal this information until 2012 but abruptly stopped as the Conservatives proceeded to carve the heart out of the welfare system.
Iain Duncan Smith is point blank refusing to reveal the numbers. This is despite the Information Commissioner saying there is no justifiable reason to conceal the information. Despite the UK independent statistics watchdog writing to him this weekend to urge him to release honest and clear figures. And despite the fact that a petition from the public seeking the truth has reached close to a quarter of a million signatures.
But beneath the Government’s chilling silence on the issue, vulnerable people continue to suffer unheard. As Iain Duncan Smith continues to refuse to put a figure on it, we can only imagine the horror that is unfolding for vulnerable people around the country. It may be undocumented and undisclosed, but still a very real human suffering.
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