Stop Benefit Deaths: our campaign calling for an independent inquiry
This week, Rethink Mental Illness launched Stop Benefit Deaths, a campaign calling for an independent inquiry into welfare related deaths. Danielle Hamm, our Associate Director for Campaigns and Policy explains more about the campaign.
As a charity, our vision is for equality, rights, the fair treatment and maximum quality of life for all those affected by mental illness, their carers, family and friends. For many years now, we have worked closely with our network of groups, services and members to represent the broad range of experience that people have, including on the topic of welfare.
The welfare system should be there to support all of us. Many people living with severe mental illness will be reliant on benefits at some point in their lives.
There has been significant concern for a long time that vulnerable people have been negatively impacted by the policies and practices of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), who are responsible for welfare benefits.
"People tell us that their experience in the welfare system puts them under a huge amount of pressure, that crucial payment and support is often delayed, and the assessment process itself can by highly intrusive and triggering. These characteristics of the welfare system can cause damage to people living with mental illness, but they affect everyone who relies on benefits."
Evidence is mounting that the system is desperately failing people it is supposed to support.
In February of this year, the scale and impact of these failings were spelled out. The National Audit Office published a report looking at the extent to which the DWP learns lessons from cases where claimants have taken their own lives.
The report made it clear that this process of review does not happen in a consistent or adequate way.
We know that the DWP has investigated 69 cases where people have taken their own lives following contact with the welfare benefits system since 2014-15, but the report suggested that actual number of cases may be substantially higher.
We also know that some deaths have been caused as a result of starvation or other reasons related to destitution, as it was in the tragic case of Errol Graham, who was severely depressed and died of starvation after his benefits were stopped.
Given that mental health plays such a significant role in so many of the cases thus far identified, Rethink Mental Illness has launched this campaign to call on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Dr Thérèse Coffey, to establish an independent inquiry into welfare related deaths.
We must see action. In November, the Government plans to begin a ‘managed migration’ of people from the current sickness benefit—Employment and Support Allowance—to Universal Credit. These changes will affect millions of people, many of whom will be vulnerable and live with mental illness.
An independent inquiry is vital. It would provide greater transparency and allow us to develop a far better understanding of how DWP policies are contributing towards avoidable deaths, and most importantly, what could be changed to improve people’s experience of the welfare system.
We recognise that we are not the first people to campaign on this issue. Many grassroots organisations and individuals have tirelessly been campaigning for change. But the more voices we have, the more powerful we can be. We are hugely grateful for the 23 organisations who have backed this call for an independent inquiry, and we hope more people will add their voice to this campaign.
We must learn from these avoidable deaths and stop them happening in future. Welfare policies and processes must treat people with the care and compassion they deserve.
Rethink Mental Illness was founded by people with lived experience of mental illness and their carers. We operate as a membership organisation, with members serving on our regional committees, board and lived experience advisory board. We continue to work closely with our network of groups, services, members and our own staff to represent the broad range of experience that people have, including on the topic of welfare. These relationships very much support our work as a charity, including our public campaigns.