Electioneering

The Green Paper on cutting sickness and disability benefits is being presented as about compassion and fairness…

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.

 

Crackdowns on asylum seekers; new proposals on tightening of welfare rules? You’d think the Government was gearing up for a general election. With promises of tax breaks the usual Conservative tactic ahead of an election that means cutbacks somewhere along the line. As is the custom, it seems, the poor and vulnerable are the ones to foot the bill. It’s not just the tactic itself, however, but how it is presented. Apparently proposing to cut sickness and disability benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable is about putting fairness and compassion at the heart of the welfare system. While we’re only at the Green Paper stage for now it’s more about the message this sends and to whom than about imminent action.
And it’s not just the morality of the whole thing, but the fact that toughening up benefits and forcing people back to work who are ill is not an effective policy. It’s short term and generally backfires and it’s no substitute for investment in infrastructure such as health, social care and childcare when it comes to getting people back to work.
We’ve seen it used time and again – the same old rhetoric and policies – toughening up one part of the benefits system, increasing conditionality, for instance, and forcing people into greater hardship only brings greater health issues with other parts of the benefits system coming under more demand.
Almost all of the experts agree that support is the way to go, rather than force when it comes to tackling the rising numbers of people who are on sickness and disability benefits. People have a whole complex array of issues they are dealing with, from housing to health to debt. Family situations are complicated.
That’s why the recent policy of putting advice online doesn’t tend to work unless it is just a supplement to individual support because people have complicated lives – because, generally, people don’t have just one problem that is easily fixable. They have a whole range, with physical health problems affecting mental ones and vice versa. While work can have a good impact on mental health, sometimes it makes things worse rather than better. Job insecurity – and the knock-on impact on benefits [we’ve seen the impact of the Carer’s Allowance cliff edge, for instance] – does not generally make for good mental health. Low pay, overwork, poor conditions and lack of enforcement of employment rights also impact health. A whole range of things are needed to make work contribute to good mental health.
At the very core of all of this is, of course, access to healthcare, although all the other things – good housing, lack of financial stress, greater equality all round, good quality food, secure work and so forth are vital to prevent ill health. Anyone who has tried to get a GP appointment will know how long it can take. And that’s just the start of the process. Accessing mental health support means long waiting lists. I’ve certainly been there with teenagers and, in fact, we’re still on the waiting list for CAMHS. What I’m seeing is that as soon as teenagers turn 18 and can access anti-depressants they are doing so rather than wait 18 months while being told to access online forums and waiting for CBT which may or may not work. Back in the day parents were worried about their kids taking heroin. Now so many are on legal drugs such as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs. And yet for the Government this is just about young people being oversensitive.
There is a culture of speaking more about mental health these days and every other influencer seems to talk about their mental health, it’s true. Mental health sells, it seems. But the mental health issues I’m seeing in the teenagers around me are serious ones – self-harm [generally cutting], regular panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or attempts, eating disorders and more. And this was happening before the pandemic so it’s not all the fault of the pandemic. Access to good work and a friendly, supportive environment may well be part of the solution, but work doesn’t always pay. StepChange’s recent report shows that a growing number of people in negative earnings – paying out more than they earn – are full-time workers. What’s more, writing off, underplaying and stigmatising mental health problems is likely to backfire.
You can judge a society not by the challenges it has to surmount – in this case, many of these are of the Government’s own making –  but the way it goes about doing so. Cutting back benefits after a pandemic and in the midst of a cost of living crisis where many are finding it hard to afford basics and presenting that as compassion is surely a sign of our dystopian times.


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