Adenike Adebiyi, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health
Event catch-up: launching ‘The Benefits Assault Course’ report in Parliament
11 MARCH 2019
Last week we launched our new report on the difficulties people with mental health problems face when trying to access the UK benefits system. It sets out the changes we want the government to put into place to tackle these problems, so we were delighted to launch the report in Parliament with Department for Work and Pensions minister Sarah Newton MP and a host of other great speakers.
After some short opening remarks from our Chief Executive Helen Undy, Katie Evans (our Head of Research and Policy) kicked the discussion off by setting out the purpose, methods and findings of the report. She began by stressing that the benefits system is the single most important topic for many members of our Research Community, which is why we have now turned to focus on it. She then spoke about the scale and severity of the problem, highlighting that not only are there a significant number of people claiming benefits with a mental health problem, but there are also many working age people dealing with these issues who do not claim benefits. In part, that’s because many of us struggle on even when we’re unwell, but it’s also because some people may be unaware they’re going through mental health problems, and so they’re often not aware of their entitlement to support. Either way, she reiterated, there are significant bureaucratic barriers at every stage that aggravate people’s mental health problems, and this has to change before Universal Credit is rolled out any further.
After that, we had the honour of hearing from Lisa, who is a member of our Research Community and has over 10 years experience of using the benefits system. She spoke about some of the difficulties she encountered when trying to apply for and manage benefits claims, as well the impact this had on both her mental health and her financial situation. In particular, she mentioned the difficulties she had with understanding and navigating the application process – from completing long and complicated paperwork, to having appalling assessment experiences with interviewers she felt patronised and misunderstood by. In short, she said, changes must be made to ensure people working in the benefits system are more aware and understanding of mental health problems, and that communication lines are made clearer between staff and claimants.
Norman Lamb MP
Next we heard from Norman Lamb MP, who is a member of Money and Mental Health’s Advisory Board and a former Health Minister. He touched on the lack of parity in the benefits system, in terms of awareness of mental and physical health problems, as revealed by the experiences of his constituents. He also argued that it is unfair that people with mental health problems can be penalised for not turning up to assessments, and then be subjected to lengthy delays of hearings for appeals against benefit decisions, all while enduring financial distress. Norman suggested that the fact that the majority of appeals by claimants are successful shows the system is inherently flawed, and there is need to get it right in the first place.
We then heard from Lee Healey, Founder and Managing Director of IncomeMax, a social enterprise that helps families to navigate the welfare system and access the support they’re entitled to. He spoke powerfully about the real difference benefits can make to people struggling with mental health problems, but that people often struggle to access them in the first place, which is why reform is needed. He also emphasised that he felt that we’re beginning to see a change in approach from the government, and that the case for a fairer benefits system is starting to be heard.
Sarah Newton MP
Our last speaker was Sarah Newton MP, Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who responded to the research and concerns presented. She commended the report as difficult but valuable reading, which she intends to respond to in writing in full. She also pointed to the positive changes to the system that are already underway, highlighting that more people with mental health problems access Personal Independence Payments (PIP) than received Disability Living Allowance (DLA). The Minister remarked that “one person having a bad experience of the system is too many,” and conceded that waiting times for benefits tribunals are too long and cannot continue to be so. She also alluded to further reforms to come, which have since been announced by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd MP, and which we have responded to here.
To finish off, Helen opened the discussion to questions from attendees. This prompted some engaging back-and-forth about everything from experiences of the application process, to the quality of jobs people in the benefits system end up with.
Overall, it was a heartening conversation about a disheartening problem. That the government is aware of the shortcomings of the system, and want to move in the right direction to improve it, is encouraging. We agree that one bad experience is too many, but the poor experiences of the system raised by our Research Community are not isolated incidents. These early steps are encouraging signs of improvement, but there is a long way to go to make the system work.
You can read the report in full here.