Cash cut or helping hand?

In the first of our articles in our focus on welfare reform, Katie Leason reports on the concerns of people with mental health problems with the proposals on incapacity benefit.

Male, middle aged, with a bad back. That’s the stereotype of the average person claiming incapacity benefit. But this stereotype is misleading. In fact, more than 40 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants are women, over half are under 50, and nearly four in 10 have a mental health condition.

For many of the 2.7 million people claiming incapacity benefit, the prognosis is grim. Those who stay on the benefit for longer than two years are more likely to die or retire than they are to find a job. A startling statistic that the government hopes to amend by overhauling the welfare system.

To meet the target of reducing the number of people on incapacity benefit by one million – more than a third – within 10 years, the government has come up with a host of proposals to help and support people back into work.(1)

The problem is that many people believe the emphasis is very much on “help” rather than support, if help is indeed the right word to use. “Compel”, “pressurise”, and “enforce” are some of the alternatives preferred by those on the receiving end of the proposals.

The most contentious proposal is that the new benefit, called the employment and support allowance (note the absence of the word incapacity), requires claimants to do tasks related to finding work in order to qualify for their full money. These tasks will include attending interviews, forming an action plan, and carrying out work-related activities. Where claimants refuse to co-operate, the amount of benefit they are paid will be cut, right back in some cases to the significantly lower level paid to those on jobseeker’s allowance.

Government assurances that those with the most severe disabilities and health conditions will not be subject to these conditions have done little to reassure those who believe their payments could be at risk.

People with mental health problems, the biggest group of claimants (one in three new claimants cite mental health as the main cause of their incapacity compared with 10 years ago when it was one in five), are particularly concerned given the fluctuating nature of many mental health conditions. While they may feel well on one day, they may feel unwell the next.

Worries about losing their benefits could result in people with mental health problems feeling under pressure to go back to work before they are well enough, leading to a deterioration of their mental health and even a relapse. Another fear is that people will be forced into jobs that are unsuitable for their skills and experience, resulting in additional stress, and leading to them dropping out of the workforce again.

Sophie Corlett, policy director at the charity Mind, says that these difficulties are already encountered in the current welfare system, let alone in the proposed version.

“One person we’ve heard from took an unsuitable job because she felt she would lose her benefits. She became very unwell and ended up in secondary care when in the past she had only been in primary care.

“Someone else with bipolar disorder went to a work focused interview and came away with the impression that she had to get a job. She did but was dismissed after two days and ended up abandoning her children and leaving her home town to find work.”

From 2008, when the new allowance is introduced, the increased financial sanctions in the hands of benefits personal advisers could have a damaging effect on how they interact with claimants. “It will reduce the trust between people and change the relationship.” says Corlett.

Many people with mental health problems want to work but find it impossible to find employment because of prejudices from employers. Only 37 per cent of employers say they would recruit someone with mental health problems, and one in five say they would not consider anyone with a history of mental health diffilculties.(2) Also, mixed messages from the government, such as powers in the draft mental health bill that suggest that more people with mental health problems may be detained, do  little to reassure employers.

Given this, it is hardly surprising that four out of five people with severe mental illness are out of work. Corlett says under the government’s proposals it appears people will be “penalised for not getting jobs when it is really the case that nobody will offer them”.

Unless employers are willing to employ people with mental health problems and other disabilities, the government’s desire to encourage people off incapacity benefit is on a road to nowhere. But the green paper says the onus is clearly on individuals not employers “to meet their responsibility to take the necessary steps to re-enter the labour market”.

Yet even if individuals rise to this challenge, once they are in work, many will need support to stay in their jobs. Marilyn Howard, policy manager at the Disability Rights Commission, says that at the moment many employers fail to take even simple steps to help workers with special needs.

“Sometimes employers don’t realise what is required and people may not ask for an adjustment,” Howard says.

She knows of one case where a teacher with a visual impairment went off on long-term sick leave because her school wouldn’t give her written material in a font size that she could read.
“Had the employer made that minor adjustment an experienced teacher wouldn’t have been lost,” says Howard.

Another case involved a woman whose depression was related to her workplace. Her occupational health department suggested that she should redeploy to another part of the organisation but her employer refused.

Little things such as a later start time or short breaks in the day can make a difference and help to retain staff, says Howard.

It’s all very well encouraging people back to work, but unless employers become more open minded, flexible and attentive to the needs of the workforce, the government’s plans are doomed to fail.

(1) A New Deal for Welfare: Empowering People to Work, Department for Work and Pensions, 2006
(2) Labour Market Outlook, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, September 2005

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