100 claimants with mental health problems have their benefits stopped every day
Figures obtained by the Methodist Church from the Department of Work and Pensions have revealed that claimants thought to be unfit for work due to mental health problems are disproportionately and increasingly likely to have their benefits stopped under sanctions.
The DWP’s own figures show that in March 2014, the last month for which statistics are available, approximately 4,500 people with mental health problems who receive the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance, (ESA), because of mental health problems were sanctioned.
The proportion of claimants with mental health problems rose from Feb 2010 to Feb 2014, but the proportion of sanctions for this group received rose even more sharply.
Proportion of claimants with mental health problems and the sanctions they receive:
Source: FOI figures from DWP obtained by Methodist Church
Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Advisor for the Methodist Church, said:
“We believe that the number of people with mental health problems who have their benefit stopped due to being sanctioned is in fact a great deal higher than 100 a day. According to the DWP data, the most common reason for being sanctioned is that a person has been late or not turned up for a Work Programme appointment.”
What the figures don’t show is the human cost of a system that seems intent on punishing those that are looking for work while suffering with mental health problems. For some, the stress of sanctions, of not having any money, proves too much and pushes them over the edge.
A 48-year -old single mother from Glasgow was sanctioned for not attending a meeting. She wasn’t directed anywhere for help and the stress became too much for her. She was found hanged in her home two days before Christmas 2013 (Source: Poverty Truth Commission).
A 53-year-old Glasgow man said the stress made him want to turn to drink and drugs. He said:
“I was on ESA and was called to attend a medical with ATOS. I was sent a letter the day before I was to be paid saying I had been sanctioned for six weeks. When I phoned to query this I was informed that I had been phoned to explain I was being taken off ESA and put onto JSA (Job Seekers Allowance) and invited to a meeting. I had not answered this phone call as I did not know it was from the DWP and am afraid to answer numbers I don’t know on my phone as they are very often from debt collectors. I was given no direction over where to go for help. I felt so angry, insecure, negative, depressed and beaten. I felt like finding solace in drugs and drink.” (Source: Poverty Truth Commission)
Where sanctions increase stress and anxiety they may aggravate a mental illness. Tragically, this may then make it even harder for the claimant to obtain or return to work and may lengthen the period they are incapacitated.
If people with mental health problems are increasingly being sanctioned more often than other claimants this suggests the sanctioning policy is discriminatory against them. This may be direct or indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination (treating someone less favourably because they have a mental illness) does happen. But indirect discrimination, when for example someone has difficulties attending meetings reliably because of their illness, may be more common.
Very common mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression, can often result in indirect discrimination. If someone with one of these illnesses is sanctioned for not attending a meeting , there will often have been good cause related to the symptoms of the illness. Those administering the benefits system would benefit from remembering that the welfare state was designed to help those who fall on hard times at the time they most need help – just like the claimants who have mental health problems.