Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health
Stopping the Charge across the UK - two countries down, two to go
4 March 2021
This time two years ago, we were celebrating a big campaign win: the news that GPs in England were dropping charges for the Debt and Mental Health evidence form — crucial paperwork that people with mental health and debt problems need to get extra support from creditors.
But with every campaign win, there quickly comes complex questions which need to be answered in order to turn promises into practice. In this blog, we wanted to share an update on how we’ve been working to turn our Stop the Charge campaign success into real change that affects people’s lives, and to end the charge across other parts of the UK.
About the campaign
Our research shows that people experiencing mental health problems are three and a half times more likely to be in problem debt, which can make mental health recovery take longer. Many banks recognise this and are willing to offer extra financial support — from freezing interest payments to even writing off some debts when people are struggling. But to access this help, customers are often asked to provide evidence of their mental health problem, usually a form signed by a doctor.
The Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form was created for this purpose over a decade ago by the Money Advice Liaison Group. However, back in 2016, we launched our ‘Stop the Charge’ campaign after finding that one in three people who asked their doctor for this form were being charged for it. Charges usually amounted to £30-£50, but some people were asked to pay more in a few cases over £100.
These charges were leaving many either in greater financial difficulty, including having to go without essentials in order to pay the charge — or on the other hand going without help from creditors, as they couldn’t pay their GP for the paperwork.
Turning promises into practice
After two years of negotiations and meetings between bodies representing creditors, health professionals and people with personal experience of mental health problems, we finally secured a consensus to end the charges in England.
But that wasn’t the end of the story – next, we had to put in the hard yards with this cross-sector working group to find a way to put the agreement into practice. For example, GPs told us they were concerned about the time and resource needed to complete the existing Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form. To address those concerns, we worked with partners including the Money Advice Trust, financial services bodies and the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a new, shortened Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form, to make it easier for GPs to complete (the new version of the form is available here on the Money Advice Trust website).
We also gained a commitment from creditors to only ask for this form as a last resort, with more emphasis instead on trusting customers’ own accounts of their mental health problems, and considering other forms of evidence that customers might be able to more easily access (such as prescriptions or benefits letters).
Finally, we teamed up with the Money Advice Trust to produce The Need to Know – a new guide to help creditors and debt collectors better understand and engage with customers experiencing both debt and mental health problems (you can find the guide here).
An end to charges in Wales
While we celebrated success in England, our thoughts also turned to how we could make progress in stopping the charge in other parts of the UK. The emergence of the pandemic last year, and the strain it has put on many people’s mental and financial wellbeing, only increased the urgency of that aim.
It was therefore welcome news last year when the Welsh government secured an agreement with the BMA to end the charge in Wales. This was part of the revised GP contracts for 2020/21, and came into effect at the end of September last year. These changes mean that nobody in Wales should have to pay their GP to fill in the Debt and Mental Health Evidence Form. Another welcome development was the focus on creating a new digital version of the form, to make it easier for people to get their GPs to fill it in.
There are many people to thank for contributing to this success, from those who shared their own experiences of debt and mental health as part of this campaign, to all the organisations who backed it, especially our friends at the Money Advice Trust who have supported us at every step. But particular credit also needs to go to activists in Wales who have built on our campaign and worked hard to ensure that this issue stayed high on the Welsh government’s agenda. With so many people facing difficult times in terms of their financial and mental wellbeing, we are delighted those efforts paid off.
The end to charges in Wales is another major campaign milestone, but work goes on to stop the charge in Scotland and Northern Ireland too. In the coming months we will be pursuing this with the devolved administrations in those places, so that we can put an end to the charge once and for all.