Katie Evans, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health

Welcome steps on benefits reforms, but much more to be done to make the system accessible

6 MARCH 2019

It’s been a busy week so far for news about benefits. On Monday, we published our latest report, The benefits assault course, setting out new evidence on the challenges people with mental health problems face accessing their entitlements. Then yesterday, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd MP, set out a range of changes to the benefits system, and specifically to the process of health assessments. How close are the announcements to what we had called for in our report?

Some good news

The Minister pledged that the government will explore the idea of introducing a single assessment for people who are claiming an income-replacement benefit like Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or Universal Credit because they are too unwell to work, and may also be eligible for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – a benefit to help with the extra costs of living with disability or ill health. In this announcement, the government has recognised an argument made in our report: that applying for and managing multiple benefits is often too difficult. These assessments are relatively similar, as they both examine how your health condition affects your day-to-day functioning. But until now, there has been no data sharing between the assessments, which were carried out completely separately. This left many people we spoke to feeling the process was repetitive – a particular problem if explaining your mental health problem means revisiting past trauma or is otherwise distressing.

“I have been told by a medical professional that I should not ever return to work and yet I must still go through all these assessments all the time… It’s stressful.”

Reducing the stress of assessments

Our research also found that just being in assessments was stressful. Nine in ten of the claimants we spoke to said their mental health deteriorated before an assessment, and most said it continued to suffer afterwards. Sitting in a room with a stranger, discussing your mental health and all the things you can’t do as a result, and knowing your income is on the line, is invariably a stressful process. As such, the government’s idea of limiting the number of assessments a person needs to go through is thus undoubtedly a good move.

Ensuring assessments reach the right answers

However, it makes it all the more important that assessments get the right results. At present, we hear too often of assessors lacking understanding of mental health problems, and making judgements based on outdated stereotypes – for example,  that a person cannot be ill because they are well-presented or make eye contact. As assessments are redesigned and consolidated, we would urge the Minister to ensure that the following changes are made to ensure the system works fairly for people with mental health problems:

  • Provide people with advanced sight of questions to be asked at assessments, so that people experiencing mental health problems who might struggle with memory problems or self-advocacy have chance to prepare
  • Improve training assessors receive about mental health
  • Ensure people are offered a choice of location and time of their assessment.

An opportunity to reduce benefits paperwork

As another step towards simplifying this process, the Minister also pledged to create a single, integrated digital platform for both benefits. This could create another substantial opportunity to make claiming benefits easier for people experiencing mental health problems, and to make the system fairer.

At present, a person claiming ESA (or the component of UC for those too unwell to work) and PIP must complete two, separate, lengthy forms for these claims – which collect seemingly similar information. I don’t know anyone who completes paperwork for fun, but for people experiencing mental health problems, finding the energy to fill in these forms can be enormously difficult (especially when you factor in other common symptoms such as poor concentration). In some cases, this initial step is so daunting, that people delay claiming for long period of time, or go without altogether – meaning that people may be left without sufficient income, and essentials like heat or food.

“It took a couple of weeks on and off before I had completed the forms. They were repetitive. Asking the same questions worded differently.”

Building a new digital platform could offer another opportunity to make this process easier for the substantial number of claimants experiencing mental health problems – and, in doing so, could also make life easier for other claimants too. In particular, the government should design the system to:

  • Pre-fill basic details for renewal and reassessment forms, such as name, address and health care contacts, so claimants only need to input anything that has changed
  • Ensure progress in online forms can be saved and returned to at a later time, and that the ability to do this is clearly communicated to claimants
  • Make forms modular, so people clearly know which sections to fill in (and which they don’t need to).

The new changes announced this week suggest a welcome recognition from the government of the need to reform the benefit system to make it more accessible for people with mental health problems. But as our report shows, changes are needed at every stage of the system, and there is much more the government should do before the full rollout of UC. We will continue to push the government to make these changes, so that anyone experiencing mental health problems can get the support they need form the benefits system.