Will New Benefits System be Fair on Mental Illness?

It’s official – the Incapacity Benefits system is about to be overhauled. In the Queen’s Speech last week it was announced that a Bill will be introduced to establish a new Incapacity Benefits system – a system that will “facilitate a return to employment, while offering long-term support for those unable to work”.

The new system would see incapacity benefit split into two new benefits: Rehabilitation Support Allowance and Disability and Sickness Allowance. This would differentiate between those on incapacity benefit who have a “severe condition” and those with “potentially more manageable conditions”.

Speaking about the proposals, new Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett explained: “It is absolutely crucial that we distinguish between those who can and cannot work.

“If people are undertaking treatment that will restore them to health and to be able to work, they won’t be touched.”

But the proposals to overhaul the system have sparked a mixed reaction from mental health organisations and clients alike.

Bill Walden-Jones, Chief Executive of Welsh Mental Health Charity Hafal, stated: “The problem is ensuring that people with a severe mental illness are properly recognised as being unable to work when that is the case.

“Judging who is severely ill and who is ‘potentially more manageable’ will be more difficult when it comes to mental illness, particularly if severe mental illness is not properly understood by assessors. Indeed, the very pressure to get back to work might worsen the condition of people with a mental illness.”

Ewan, a patient with schizophrenia from Conwy, welcomed the proposals tentatively, saying: “I’m working hard to get back to work. I think any system that encourages people back to work could be a good thing.

“Many people who are recovering from a mental illness want to return to work. However, no one who is still too ill to work, or just not ready to, should be forced to by the new system.”

Janey, a client from Glamorgan, added: “I just worry that we’ll be lumped in with people who have minor physical problems. Will they understand mental illness and see it as a legitimate disability? I’m not sure.

“Someone with a mental illness might also come across as difficult or uncooperative, and this could prevent them from getting higher benefits in this new system.”

Bertie Massey of The Disability Rights Commission was also ambivalent about the proposals, stating: “If the Government is serious about supporting disabled people back into work, then the energy it has exerted in sounding tough should be turned toward the real challenges – tackling the barriers to work, ending employer discrimination and investing in disabled people’s skills.”

Mind Chief Executive Richard Brook commented: “We welcome the Government’s objective to reform Incapacity Benefit – provided that the ‘Pathways to Work’ initiative fully addresses the need to positively engage with people with mental health problems, and supplies proper funding to carry this through for the whole of England and Wales.”

Currently Incapacity Benefits cost about £7bn a year – being paid out to 2.6 million people.

Speaking to BBC News, Blunkett pointed out: “As a nation, we need everyone who can work to work not just to fund services but to fund future pensions.

“I don’t want a fight with anybody… I am looking to consult and to win people over and to take those affected most with us.”

For a full breakdown of the new Incapacity Benefits system, follow this link

For more on the Government’s plans for the next Parliamentary session, including:
• the Charities Bill
• the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) proposal
• the Housing Benefit Bill
• the Health Improvement and Protection Bill
• the NHS Redress Bil
click here.

For more on returning to work as part of your recovery from a mental illness, click here.