The Select Committee were critical of the Government, as more support is needed for people with mental illness.
Below we hear from, Danielle Hamm, who has been the Associate Director responsible for Campaigns and Policy at Rethink Mental Illness since January 2016.
In summer 2016 I was able to give evidence at Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Select Committee hearings. I, and many other organisations representing hundreds of thousands of people living with disabilities or long term illnesses, fed back what they had told us would help them into work, and what would make their lives harder.
The Committee, made up of MPs from across political parties, is responsible for scrutinising the work of the DWP, particularly its plan to close the disability employment gap and accompanying changes to benefits. The Committee has now come back with its report that is rightly critical of these plans.
The Government has proposed a cut to the rate of Employment Support Allowance, the benefit you get when you are too unwell to work, paid to people in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). The WRAG is for those people who are still too unwell to work but could be able to in the near future. It includes extra support to get you ready for the workplace, but this is too often inappropriate for people with mental illness.
Currently the WRAG is paid a higher rate than people on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), the benefit for when you’re out of work and looking for a new job. The Government plans to change this by cutting the WRAG payments by £30 a week, in line with JSA, as it believes that this will encourage people to look for jobs.
The report found that the evidence that a cut would achieve this was ‘ambiguous at best’. It also concluded that it could leave people unable to afford their basic living costs like rent, food and bills.
We believe that this reduction in income would actually make it harder for people to find work when they are struggling to make ends meet. This runs counter to the Government’s aim of reducing the unemployment amongst people with disabilities and long term illnesses.
The Government’s plan also includes offering back-to-work support to those who have been assessed as being too unwell to work in the longer term (the Support Group). Whilst we support this principle, it is vital that this is offered to people as a voluntary option and without the threat of a reduction in their benefit in they do not take part. I was pleased to see our view reflected by the Committee’s report.
People living with severe mental illness have some of the poorest employment rates of all health conditions, only 8% of people living with schizophrenia are in work. Of course some people are simply too unwell to work, but many people do want to get back into employment. However there can be serious obstacles to this, such as discrimination from employers and a lack of flexible jobs.
It’s crucial that any attempts by the Government to close this employment gap recognise the reality of living with a severe mental illness. We know what works; alongside appropriate welfare support, people need flexible and personalised help.
Unfortunately the system just isn’t set up to provide this. The amount of time that Work Coaches (staff based in Jobcentres to help people find work) have with each claimant is extremely limited and there is a shortage of expertise in mental health.
There are also fundamental problems with the assessment system used to determine the level of support people receive. Currently a large number of the decisions are overturned, reflecting serious flaws. And alongside this, we know that the process itself can also cause huge distress to people with mental illness. The Government has proposed reforms to the assessment process but they fail to address these underlying problems.
Following the Select Committee’s report, we will be making our own submission to the Government on their plan, to let them know what needs to change to make the system work for people with severe mental illness. We’ll also be joining together with Rethink Mental Illness campaigners over the next few months to make sure our voices are heard.