Conor D’Arcy, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health
Budget to “protect livelihoods” misses many people with mental health problems
3 March 2021
This afternoon’s Budget didn’t feature too many surprises, with most of the big announcements being trailed in the run-up. From a benefits perspective, the headline news was the confirmation that the £20 per week uplift for Universal Credit (UC) recipients would be extended. This will be a huge relief to the millions of people who would otherwise have faced a sharp drop in their income from next month.
Keep the lifeline
But the decision to keep the uplift for just another six months means that the hit to living standards is only postponed, not cancelled. The new cliff-edge in support becomes September. While this Budget’s title was “Protecting the Jobs and Livelihoods of the British People”, that aim will be fatally undermined if £1,000 is knocked off people’s annual household budgets in the autumn.
A more technical but sensible announcement on UC was that the government is bringing forward its plan to help reduce monthly deductions from people who get ‘advance’ payments. This doesn’t solve the ongoing difficulty that the initial five-week wait for a UC payment can often lead to but introducing it from April will mean the impact on people’s finances will be smoothed.
Another welcome aspect was help for some of those who had previously been excluded from government support, with the Budget document estimating that over 600,000 people may be newly eligible for the self-employed grant. But one large group that continues to be ignored are people receiving ‘legacy’ benefits. Many people with mental health problems rely on Employment and Support Allowance or JobSeeker’s Allowance but, unlike those on UC, they haven’t had any increase to their payments in response to the pandemic. The government has argued that the design of the legacy system makes it harder to pass on an uplift, but that explanation for excluding this group is undermined by today’s announcement of a one-off £500 payment to those receiving Working Tax Credit. Overlooking people on legacy benefits remains one of the black marks on the government’s efforts to support people coping with the turmoil of the last year.
Jobs and mental health problems
Support for jobs and employers was another major theme of the Budget. As with the UC uplift, the extension of the furlough scheme was the right thing to do. However, the government will still face a challenge when it withdraws this support, with firms asked to contribute from July and August before it ends in September. With one in five people who have had mental health problems telling us they have been discriminated against in work, the government will need to monitor the impacts of the unwinding of support very carefully, that it’s not leading to people with mental health problems bearing the brunt of redundancies or reduced hours, and taking action if it happens.
One positive announcement that could potentially improve workplaces was the “Help to Grow” scheme. Part of the programme will give training to the leaders of 30,000 small and medium business on a range of topics, including on how to improve employee engagement and responsible business practices. With the damage done to our collective mental health over the past year, this presents a great opportunity to help more firms understand how mental health problems can practically affect us and what they can do to help people to stay in work and thrive.