Becca Stacey, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

The government’s proposed benefits reforms are a worrying step backwards

23 April 2024 

  • Last week, the Prime Minister announced plans for reforms to the benefits system – including to PIP eligibility, fit notes and speeding up Universal Credit migration.
  • We are worried that these reforms will further restrict access to health and disability benefits for people with mental health problems.
  • The changes don’t address the wider causes of rising levels of poor mental health. Instead, they would make it even harder for people who are out-of-work to receive much-needed financial support. 
  • Improving access to mental health support and services would better address rising levels of mental ill health.

Proposed changes to the benefits system announced last Friday were incredibly concerning. 

The Prime Minister outlined a package of potential benefit reforms designed to ensure the system is ‘more accurately targeted at those who need it most and delivers the right kind of support for people with disabilities and health conditions’. Having considered the implications of these reforms, as outlined below, we are deeply worried that they will instead further restrict people with mental health problems’ access to health and disability benefits – leaving many without the vital financial support they need. Speeding up the roll-out of managed migration, from legacy benefits to Universal Credit (UC), also puts people with mental health problems at risk of losing the vital lifeline of their benefit income altogether. 

None of the proposals address the root cause of the rising levels of poor mental health we are seeing. At a time when millions of UK adults are struggling with the psychological and financial impacts of the cost of living, the government should focus on improving access to mental health support – while ensuring people with mental health problems can receive the financial assistance they require. 

Tightening PIP’s eligibility criteria

The PIP assessment process already fails to adequately recognise people’s mental health problems – but the steps announced on Friday will make that worse. The Prime Minister suggested that only those with more severe mental health problems should be eligible for PIP. This was based on the premise that people with mental health problems don’t face the same additional costs that those with certain physical conditions and disabilities do, and that the system as it stands is too easy to exploit.

We believe this justification is unfounded on several levels. 

First, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the reality of living with a mental health problem. Members of our Research Community routinely face additional costs as a result of their condition – from help with chores around the home due to fatigue or lack of motivation, to using taxis because their condition makes public transport too challenging, and the cost of medication or paying for therapy because NHS services are too hard to access. 

Research from Citizens Advice has shown that people with mental health problems can face extra costs of up to £1,550 a year as a result of inaccessible services, poor regulatory protections and inadequate support. This DWP-commissioned paper outlines how support to meet these additional costs is essential to keeping people with mental health problems safe and creating the right conditions for recovery. Put simply, people with mental health problems who receive PIP need that extra money to stay well.

Second, evidence from our Research Community of 5,000 people with lived experience of mental health problems has found time and again that the process of applying for PIP, can be stressful and overwhelming and can exacerbate poor mental health. We would also argue that a system where 70% of PIP decisions are revised at a tribunal in favour of the applicant, is not a system that is easy to exploit.

Changing the fit note process

Rishi Sunak also announced changes to the fit note system. Fit notes evidence when individuals are unable to work, and are used to support a claim for the health-related elements of UC. They can trigger a referral to a Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and demonstrate entitlement to financial support via Limited Capability for Work (LCW) or Limited Capability for Work Related Activity (LCWRA), until an individual has their WCA. Proposed changes suggest that steps will be taken to make fit notes harder to get, with the aim of reducing the number of notes that GPs are issuing. Again, this fails to address the wider challenge of rising levels of ill-health and what might be driving these numbers, and instead just makes it even harder to get out-of-work support.

An already inadequate health and disability benefits system

These proposed changes compound an already inadequate health and disability benefits system. WCA and PIP assessments routinely fail to capture mental health problems. Questions tend to focus on people’s physical ability to carry out activities, and members of our Research Community tell us how questions aimed at understanding mental health problems are limited and do not cover the full range of their symptoms. This can make it hard for people with such conditions to get LCWRA or be entitled to PIP. 

What’s more, the government has recently announced that it will be tightening the criteria for the LCWRA Substantial Risk regulation, which provides a vital safety net for people who would be harmed by engaging in work-related activity, to only protect those with the most acute mental health conditions. Recent estimates suggest that removing it will result in 163,000 people losing their extra LCWRA support. You can read more about our thoughts on this proposal here.

Speeding up managed migration

A further concerning change announced on Friday, was the speeding up of managed migration, with all migration notices now scheduled to be sent by the end of 2025 instead of the original 2028. We still don’t believe the DWP has the processes in place to identify, support and safeguard those who need more support or reasonable adjustments as a result of their mental health problem during the managed migration process. As we’ll be outlining in an upcoming blog, speeding up this rollout of UC instead of taking time to ensure vital safeguards are in place, puts people who will struggle to engage with the managed migration process due to their mental health at risk of being cut off from their benefits. 

The wrong approach

Instead of making it harder for people to get the financial support they need, the government should focus on identifying and addressing what’s driving this concerning rise in poor mental health, including improving people’s access to mental health support. As it stands, long wait times and overstretched services mean millions of people are not getting the support they need for their mental health. Suggesting people should receive NHS Talking Therapies instead of PIP, or that the fit note process should shift to focus on what work people can do with the right support in place, fails to recognise that the fabric of support is threadbare. And financial support should be provided alongside greater mental health and employment support. It should not be an either-or situation. 

We understand these proposals might cause a great deal of concern for people with mental health problems receiving social security support. It’s important to remember that these changes are not coming into effect right now, and we’ll continue to fight against them. 

If you have any questions relating to these changes, Mind’s welfare benefits line is open 9-5, Monday to Friday on 0300 222 5782. And if you would like to use your voice to campaign against these reforms, please consider joining our Research Community.