Benefit sanctions must be stopped to avert a national mental health crisis, doctors have warned.
Doctors from Britain’s leading mental health organisations also called for an immediate review of the sanctions regime to gauge its effects on psychological well-being.
The open letter to the government – signed by the British Psychological Society, the British Psychoanalytic Council, the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, the UK Council for Psychotherapy and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy – was published in the Independent.
It states, “We, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and counsellors, call on the government to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system.
“It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.
“We call on the government to suspend the benefits sanctions regime and undertake an independent review of its impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
The letter referenced evidence that links sanctions to “destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems”.
Generally sanctions last for four weeks and punish benefit claimants by withholding Jobseekers Allowance, meaning a loss of around £300. Around 400,000 sanctions were imposed in 2015.
The letter said the government must shift “from making unemployment less attractive, to making employment more attractive” and highlighted the need for job centre to staff to receive mental health awareness training.
It also called for the flawed work capability assessment system to be reformed.
The letter states, “These policies would begin to take us towards a welfare and employment system that promotes mental health and wellbeing, rather than undermines and damages it.”
Sanctions putting NHS under pressure
Unite has thousands of key mental health workers in membership. Unite national officer for health, Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, said sanctions were putting undue pressure on the NHS at a time of unprecedented crisis.
“Mental health services, along with the rest of the NHS, have been strangled by austerity. This government has continually failed to put mental health funding on par with physical health funding, despite years of promising to do so,” he said.
“Sixty per cent of NHS trusts have had to cut beds for mental health patients because their budgets have been devastated by the Tories, while the number of mental health nurses dropped by 10 percent between 2010 and 2015.”
Jarrett-Thorpe added, “Benefit sanctions add to the crisis in the NHS by increasing demand for mental health services. These’s no evidence that these cruel sanctions work. In fact all they do is demonstrate how one entirely avoidable crisis – created by the Tories pushing the poorest and most vulnerable into increasing penury – impacts another.”
Responding to the letter a government spokesperson insisted that sanctions “are only used in a very small percentage of cases as a last resort when people don’t fulfil their commitments to find work”.
However, a damning report by MPs on the public accounts committee released last week said the regime was inconsistent, did not make enough provisions for those at risk and had pushed people into homelessness.
The letter came as the government attempts to force through even more welfare cuts that could remove £3.7bn of disability benefits for people with mental health issues, dementia, epilepsy and diabetes.
Head of Unite Community, Liane Groves, said, “This letter, from Britain’s leading mental health experts, adds to an avalanche of calls for the government to overhaul the benefits system and particularly for the scrapping of benefit sanctions. It comes as no surprise that the sanctions regime is regarded as such a serious contributor of mental ill-health.
“Sanctions cause enormous harm to some of the most vulnerable in our society. They punish often desperate people for no good reason and cause homelessness and premature deaths. The government knows they don’t work but are happy to let the wicked practice continue. Sanctions cast shame on our nation and Unite is demanding they are ended immediately.”
Unite Community is holding a national day of action against benefit sanctions on March 30.