Benefits crackdown amid rising inequality

Benefits recipients are once again the target of the Government as it seeks to tackle what it calls the ‘sicknote culture’.

Child hold woman's hand at a table. She has her head in her hands and there is an open purse on the table with just a few pence spilling out of it.

 

In the midst of an economic crisis, which is hitting the poorest the worst, the Government has chosen to focus on a benefits crackdown on the sick and disabled. Rishi Sunak outlined the plans on Friday. They had already been proposed earlier, but this time they have a ‘sicknote culture’ spin on them to be extra divisive.

The headline announcement was a review of the fit note system which Sunak claims is being used to write people off as “not fit for work” by default. The Government is considering shifting responsibility for fit notes from GPs to other work and health professionals. The idea is that GPs are signing fit notes willy nilly and that many are off work with ‘everyday’ mental health problems which work will improve.

It is unclear at the moment who these health and work professionals will be. Minister Mel Stride was asked on the radio last week if that meant nurses, given GPs are out the window. He didn’t answer the question.

The Government’s main emphasis is on the work coach part of things. They will liaise with employers to make sure they make the right adaptations to get people back to work. The Government is spinning it as work improves mental health – which it can do, but not always, depending on the conditions of that work –  just as it span benefits cuts as ‘making work pay’. The real driver is, of course, to reduce the benefits bill in the short term, no doubt to fund tax cuts which will benefit those higher up the income bracket in advance of the general election. Which is not to say that helping people into work if they want to work more is not a good thing.

There’s a difference, however, between help and force and reports that the Work & Health programme is being scrapped this year [and well before the Universal Support programme comes in] just adds that sense that it’s more about stick than carrot. What’s more a policy built on force and fear won’t work in the longer term if it doesn’t tackle the root causes of the problem.

Alongside the headline announcement came news of other crackdowns:

– A consultation on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) on possible changes to the eligibility criteria, assessment process and types of support that can be offered “so the system is better targeted towards individual needs and more closely linked to a person’s condition rather than the current “one size fits all” approach”.
– Legislation in the next parliament to change the rules so that anyone who has been on benefits for 12 months and doesn’t comply with conditions set by their Work Coach – including accepting available work – will have their unemployment claim closed and their benefits removed entirely.
– The Work Capability Assessment will be tightened affecting people with “less severe conditions”.
– Raising the weekly earnings threshold for conditionality from £743 to £892 for individual claimants and £1,189 to £1,437 for couples – or the equivalent of 18 hours at National Living Wage a week for an individual from next month.
– New powers on tackling benefits fraud.

In effect benefits rules are being tightened. There is a crisis involving economic inactivity in the country for a number of different reasons. The numbers have been rising for years and have gone up significantly in some age groups since Covid, particularly the young. Mental health is a particular worry, although many people have a cocktail of different health issues, often combining physical and mental health problems.

Exacerbating this is the health backlog. It can take over a year to get any kind of treatment for children and teenagers, for instance, and even that may not actually be a useful intervention. There are so many factors influencing mental health these days. Job insecurity, housing insecurity, life insecurity and so forth, set against a backdrop of climate change and constant scrutiny on social media.

What is needed is a better understanding and focus on the things that make for good mental health, rather than a benefits crackdown on those who are already unwell. Good work is part of this – there are not nearly enough jobs that are available that people with, say, a long-term chronic illness could do without worsening their health problems.

And the focus needs to be not just on job insecurity but also overwork. I see many people, particularly in the public sector, who are completely overloaded and on the point of collapse. Their workplace may have all sorts of mental health programmes, but the everyday stresses of overload – after a pandemic which we have yet to have time to reflect on and which affected so many people in so many different ways – mean that superficial statements about work being the cure-all for mental ill health will sound very hollow to many people.



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