Joint letter to the DWP
26 March 2020
Dear Secretary of State,
We are writing to you today as a coalition of mental health charities, to highlight urgent concerns that people with mental health problems could miss out on the new support measures put in place by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
We welcome the government’s commitment to ensuring people are able to access the vital support offered by the benefits system at this time. In particular, we were pleased with the DWP’s decision to pause reviews and reassessments for three months. We also welcomed the decision to suspend face-to-face assessments for all sickness and disability benefits for three months, and to introduce alternative arrangements for telephone or paper-based assessment. All of these measures will help minimise the risk of exposing vulnerable claimants to the virus.
However, we are concerned that even with these arrangements, new claimants still face a number of significant barriers that could prevent them getting the help they need, particularly those with mental health problems.
Research by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute shows that nine in ten benefit claimants with experience of mental health problems find it difficult to provide information over the phone. The same share of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claimants with mental health problems struggle to complete paper based application forms.
These are just two of the many challenges people with mental health problems encounter when trying to access the benefits system in normal circumstances, meaning that many claimants rely on friends, family and professionals for help with managing their benefits. However, due to the ongoing rules on social distancing and self-isolation, many claimants may find themselves cut off from the usual support networks they rely on to help them with their claims.
As a result, both new and existing claimants with mental health problems are likely to struggle to complete applications, respond to queries and participate in assessments in compliance with strict timescales. At a time when accessing support through the benefits system is more critical than ever, this group of vulnerable people are therefore at risk of missing out on the benefits payments they are entitled to, or falling out of the system entirely.
In view of these concerns, we urge the DWP to make the following small changes to ensure that people with mental health problems can access the support they need from the benefits system in the coming weeks and months:
- Suspend all forms of conditionality for a three month period, to help people who will struggle to engage and comply under current circumstances.
- Ensure that people identified as vulnerable or at risk receive interim payments while they navigate the full claims and appeals processes. This will ensure that new and existing Universal Credit and PIP claimants who are unable to navigate the current channels do not miss out on payments.
- Extend the one month timeframe for people to return PIP claim forms, and proactively follow up with claimants who have not returned forms within timescale. This would ensure that people who are unable to return applications within a month do not miss out.
- Extend the time period for new Universal Credit claimants to make appointments for telephone interviews beyond one week, to ensure that people who require support to arrange and participate in appointments are not disadvantaged.
- Ensure there are sufficient telephone advisors available to support people with Universal Credit claims, and open new communication channels such as webchat. This will help new and existing claimants to participate in assessments, raise queries and manage claims.
We recognise the extraordinary pressures on your Department at the moment and that these changes would require a re-prioritisation of resources for a time. But by taking these simple steps now, the government can help people with mental health problems access the support they need from the benefits system at this critical moment, and avoid severe financial hardship.
We hope you will consider this proposal, and would welcome an opportunity to to discuss this further.
Katie Alpin, Interim Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
Vicki Nash, Head of Policy and Campaigns, Mind
Mark Winstanley, Chief Executive Officer, Rethink Mental Illness
Wendy Burn, President, Royal College of Psychiatrists
Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive, Centre for Mental Health
Jeff Smith MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health, and member of Money and Mental Health’s Advisory Board
Lisa Cameron MP, Scottish National Party Shadow spokesperson for Mental Health, and member of Money and Mental Health’s Advisory Board
Lee Healey, Founder and Managing Director, IncomeMax