Forcing the sick off benefits?

It seems the Government will threaten sanctions if the sick and disabled don’t engage with the support it says it is offering and don’t take work from home jobs.



The papers have been caught up in speculation about tax cuts ahead of the Autumn Statement. But who will pay for them? It looks like the most vulnerable. Laura Trott, chief secretary to the Treasury, told Sky News that those with disabilities or mental health had a ‘duty’ to work. She said: “Of course, there should be support for people to help them into work but ultimately there is a duty on citizens if they are able to go out to work they should. Those who can work and contribute should contribute.” She had earlier told Times Radio that sanctions would be used if people did not engage with the support available.

While the Government has said that sanctions will be imposed on people who have been long-term unemployed if they do not engage, it previously stated that the support for those on sickness and disability benefits was being offered on a voluntary basis. This was welcomed by experts on the basis that those who want to work are keen to have more support in order to do so and that work can help ease the financial issues and isolation that we know contribute to worsening mental health. It looks as if they will force more people into conditionality through changes to work capacity assessments.

Telling people it is their duty to work and threatening them with sanctions if they don’t take whatever job they are offered does not seem likely to be a helpful way forward.

The other issue lost in all of this is what kind of support we are talking about. I have been trying to find out what support will be available for those with mental health problems. There is a lot of talk of ‘integrated care’, but not much on the specifics. Recently the Government announced cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT] would be available for those suffering severe menopause symptoms. Setting aside whether CBT works for menopause, which is, after all, a biological process, is this likely to be what is on offer for those who are off work due to mental health issues?

Speaking as someone who has come into contact with CBT several times in the last few years, I am not a big fan. Maybe it works for some mental health issues, but certainly not for all. My daughter was fairly recently prescribed it for depression triggered by grief. She had had CBT before and it didn’t help at all. Even then there was a waiting list of over a year.  Anyone who has tried to access mental health support knows the waiting lists are phenomenal. Where is this support coming from and who will deliver it? If you do the standard eight sessions of CBT or maybe group therapy [cheaper] with a link to a few chatrooms, are you going to be assumed to be ‘cured’ and then told to get to work or face sanctions?

I know a young person who had attempted suicide several times who was given CBT in hospital. She was asked how she felt on a scale of 1 to 10 and she said 2. ‘That’s great,’ she was told. ‘What do you think it would take to get you to a 3?’ She may be suicidal, but she’s not stupid and she could spot a patronising non-solution a mile off.

The other issue is that the Government seems to be saying that all these people with disabilities or mental health problems can work from home. Yet the Government and its supporters in the media have spent the last months or more denigrating working from home and pushing people to go back to the office for as many days as possible. The Daily Mail recently did a story on ‘mum-ployees’ who are ‘shirking from home’ with the kids present, which is likely to be in no small part because of childcare costs/availability. And in fact, there aren’t that many working from home jobs available, as Timewise’s recent survey shows. Figures are flatlining.

What’s more, many people have a range of physical and mental health issues at the same time and some of those issues mean that working from home is not sufficient. I’ve been speaking to people recently who have severe arthritis who say they could maybe work from home if the pain is controlled, but they would need a flexible schedule to work around the pain. Many are on long NHS waiting lists for treatment.

Definitely more support is needed to help those who are able and want to work and everything needs to be linked up [for instance, job insecurity and mental health], but threats won’t work and will surely only push vulnerable people further towards the edge. But judging from what is emerging from the Covid inquiry, it’s hard to escape the feeling that some people are regarded as more expendable than others.

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