Conor D’Arcy, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health
Why the Spring Statement doesn’t go far enough to support people with mental health problems
24 March 2022
A lot has changed since October, when the Chancellor set out his Autumn Budget. Despite that, one of the main takeaways from last year unfortunately remained true in yesterday’s Spring Statement: the support going to people who aren’t in work just isn’t enough. The decision to allow the pace of price rises to run ahead of benefits means millions of people – including many with mental health problems – will still be deeply worried about how they will make ends meet in the months ahead.
No relief for people on lowest incomes
The biggest move the Chancellor made yesterday was on National Insurance, raising the level at which deductions start to be made. That will be a relief to many households, with any blunting of the impact of rapid inflation welcome. But it comes against the backdrop of other taxes rising next month, including the rate of National Insurance and council tax. And crucially, if you’re not working or earn less than the previous threshold, the change has no impact.
The biggest missed opportunity is on the uprating of benefits. They will rise from next month, but based on older inflation data, when price rises were gentler, at 3.1%. That’s well behind both the most recent figure (6.2%) and the peak projected towards the end of this year (8.7%). The uprating mechanism means benefit levels will eventually catch up over 18 months. But for people relying on benefits to cover bills that are rising now, it does nothing to help.
Problems with the Household Support Fund
For those struggling the most, the only tangible offer was on the Household Support Fund, which has been extended with another £500 million in funding announced. The most important point is the size of that fund: it’s only a sliver of the effective hit to benefits, estimated at £12 billion by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
A second, less examined issue is on how it’s administered. Changes to benefits levels are relatively straightforward to deliver, as the £20 uplift introduced in the early days of the pandemic showed, raising the odds that the people who need support get it, and quickly. But the Household Support Fund is managed by councils, and seems to have been managed differently from place to place. Some local authorities have directed support to people who are already identified as on low incomes, for instance children receiving free school meals or households in receipt of Council Tax Support. Others opened up an application process, requiring people to contact the council and demonstrate why they need support.
Both approaches could be challenging for people with mental health problems, who often struggle to access support that’s available. Common symptoms of mental health problems – low mood, reduced concentration and anxiety – can make it incredibly difficult to go through the steps required to get help.
[I’m] always worried about having the money to top up [my energy meter], constantly feeling anxious about what I have to do because my energy company has collapsed. Not good at asking for help or applying for funds I know I’m entitled to. Can’t do forms (the impossible task).” Expert by experience
As it stands, we don’t have a clear picture of how effectively the Household Support Fund is being delivered, who is benefitting and who is missing out – something the government should be assessing now.
In media interviews in the wake of the Spring Statement, the government has left the door open to taking further action. But with millions of people already struggling, and the links between debt and serious negative impacts on our mental health, the time to act was yesterday. People who aren’t in work can only hope that if and when the government does provide further support, they will finally get the support they so desperately need.