‘Deeply worrying’: Government’s ‘Back to Work’ plan raises concerns about impact benefit sanctions’ threat will have on claimants’ mental health

The government’s rhetoric around the plan, including the work and pensions minister referring to claimants as potentially ‘taking taxpayers for a ride,’ has also been criticised.

Campaigners are urgently calling on the government to rethink benefit sanction measures which could be ‘potentially very dangerous’ for claimants who are living with a disability or are seriously ill.

Ahead of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement this week, Mel Stride, the secretary of state for work and pensions, unveiled a new employment support package, known as the ‘Back to Work’ plan. The aim of the package it to support over 1 million people who are either long-term unemployed or have long-term health conditions to enter or renter the workforce or remain in employment.

Part of the new measures to get people into work will mean claimants will face potentially crippling sanctions for failing to find work, including the possibility of having their benefits taken away.

Andy Bell, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said: “Measures put forward today in the government’s Back to Work Plan that will increase the threat of benefit sanctions for disabled people are deeply worrying.

“We know that applying benefit sanctions to people with mental health conditions, or coercing them into job seeking or ‘work related activity,’ is harmful and potentially very dangerous. The evidence is clear that poverty and the threat of sanctions have a toxic impact on people’s wellbeing.”

The Centre of Mental Health is urging the government to consider the mental health impacts of any changes.

“Mandatory activities, with the threat of sanctions if people don’t take part, will do nothing to help people get jobs, and fly in the face of the evidence about why IPS [Individual Placement Support] is so successful in helping people to get jobs and enjoy better health,” Bell added.

The British Psychology Society (BPS), a member organisation which advocates for a psychological approach to policy-making that puts people first, shares similar concerns about the impact the government’s threat of benefit sanctions in its Back to Work plan could have on the mental welfare of claimants.

Dr Roman Raczka, President-Elect of the BPS, said that while there are some positive elements of the new ‘back to Work’ plan, the increased threat of benefit sanctions is “hugely damaging and a big step backwards.”

“Mandatory activities, combined with the threat of sanctions create a toxic environment of fear and put simply, they do not work.

“Poverty and mental health is a vicious cycle and the answer to tackling the growing number of people struggling with their mental health is not threat or fear, but rather to treat people with compassion and provide access to appropriate professional support,” Dr Raczka added.

The government’s rhetoric around the plan, including the work and pensions minister referring to claimants as potentially ‘taking taxpayers for a ride,’ has also been criticised. In a statement on the Back to Work plan, Mel Stride, said: “…our message is clear: if you are fit, if you refuse to work, if you are taking taxpayers for a ride – we will take your benefits away.”

But as Steven Vass, business and economy editor at The Conversation notes, such rhetoric appears to be counterproductive, and is more likely to “alienate the very people the plan’s support mechanisms purport to engage by stigmatising back to work support.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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