New Employment and Support Allowance criticised by mental health charities

Mental health charities have greeted changes to the new system of sickness benefit, which were introduced this week, with caution.

The changes have seen the old incapacity benefit abolished and replaced by a new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

The Government believes the ESA will help people with illness and disability by focussing on what they’re capable of doing instead of what they can’t do.

However major mental health charities like Rethink and Mind have expressed deep reservations about the legislation.

Rethink claimed the new system will do nothing to get to the root of the problem many people with a mental illness face namely discrimination from employers.

Mind agrees. They believe that thousands of people who are already stuck in the benefits trap will now be pushed onto Jobseeker’s Allowance, placing emphasis on the individual to find work while, at the same time, no pressure is applied to employers to recruit people with mental health problems.

The ESA came into force on Monday and applies to new claimants for the time being; those currently receiving Incapacity Benefit will not come aboard until 2010 when this new legislation is instigated across the spectrum.

Those applying for an ESA will initially undergo a 13-week Work Capability Assessment phase, a process that entails filling in forms (plus the possibility of an interview) designed to indicate what tasks the applicant is capable of doing.

If, following this phase, the claimant is declared to have limited capacity for work they will qualify for ESA and be put into one of two groups: The Support Group or The Work-Related Activity Group.

The Support Group is for people whose illness or disability is so severe they are unlikely to be able to participate in any work-related activity. People in this group will not have to do anything to get the highest level of benefit.

The Work-Related Activity Group is for those judged capable of taking part in some form of employment. Those in this group will receive ESA at a lower rate and will have to take part in a series of employment-related activities.

On the day the ESA became operational The Independent newspaper ran a startling story with the headline: “Strict new benefit rules ‘will drive mentally-ill people into poverty’.”

It claimed that around half of applicants for the ESA are expected to be rejected “because of much stricter rules, forcing thousands of people with mental health problems on to the much less generous Jobseekers Allowance, or into jobs they are unable to cope with which could lead to a relapse in their conditions.”

Paul Corry, Rethink’s Director of Public Affairs, was more measured in his assessment of problems the ESA may bring. He said: “The main barrier to employment for people with a mental health problem is discrimination by employers, and the new benefit system is not going to change that. It is all ‘stick’ and no ‘carrot’.

“People who have an invisible illness like a mental health problem are all-too-easily deemed ‘fit for work’ and expected to just go out and walk into a job.

“In reality some really are too ill to work, but those who can work face a brick wall because of the stigma attached to mental illness. If the Government really wants to get people back to work they should make sure that all employers get training and support to employ people with mental health problems”.

Mind’s Chief Executive Paul Farmer expressed a similar sentiment. Although he welcomed the Government’s commitment to provide extra support to get people back into employment he stressed that “it won’t work without requirements being put on employers. “

He added: “If businesses refuse to adapt their practices then people with mental health problems will not fit easily into the government’s welfare reform proposals.

“Businesses must recognise that the health and welfare of their employees affects their bottom line and that looking after staff that are experiencing mental distress makes economic sense, especially in the current financial climate.”    

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