Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Cedric Knight after the publication of the Welfare Reform Green Paper

  I am responding to the Committee as a result of the Green Paper, "A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work".

  1.  Firstly, I am rather disappointed that the consultation time for the document is only about three weeks [This referred to the time between publication of the Green Paper and deadline for the Committee's consultation. I will advertise the DWP's 21 April deadline, although its consultation is on very limited areas. I am the newsletter editor for Fellowship of Depressives Anonymous, a small national self-help organisation, and I think it would have been vastly preferable if there had been time for information about the consultation to be circulated among networks such as ours to allow the people potentially affected to comment. I am responding, however, in a personal capacity.

  2.  While I have never personally been on incapacity or sickness benefits myself, I can say that there is already great concern among users at the various mental health agencies where I volunteer. Practically everyone I know through these schemes would love to work, both for self-esteem and their personal means, although many have attempted to do so in periods of relative wellness and it has precipitated relapse or worse. There is therefore panic in response to what may have been heard on the news—both about the recurrent stress of the All-Work tests (perceived as being carried out in a biased, unsympathetic way that is ignorant of episodic stress-related illnesses) and possible reductions in the benefit levels. Really, the representation in the media of the proposals could have been managed in a better way.

  3.  The "Work Focussed Interviews" I suspect will be not only bestressful, but about as useful as "Restart" schemes for people onJSA/IS in the early 1990s. If "Restart" reduced levels of people on Income Support, it ironically only did so by pushing large numbers onto Incapacity Benefit. Genuine understanding of individual circumstances (rather than random attacks on self-esteem by somesemi-compentent outsourced HR consultancy firm) may be possible to a degree, but not without providing some surety and removing the threats of effects on entitlement to benefits. I have accompanied people (for reasons of emotional support rather than advocacy) to medical assessments and I have observed the deleterious effects of "assessment", particularly before but even afterwards. (How would you like yourself and your livelihood and entire future to be assessed by someone in a position of power that you'd never met?) Increasing the frequency of "assessment" for people with mental health problems wouldbe, to put it bluntly, cruel, pointless, and morally wrong.

  4.  The proposed reduction of benefits to JSA levels until interviews or medical assessments have been completed is utterly illogical. People should not suffer because the benefits agency have not yet arranged an assessment—people would be punished for bureaucratic machinations out of their control, a sure recipe for "learned helplessness" (a cause of depression and anxiety). In any case, usually but not always, there would have been an assessment by the patient's own GP or psychiatrist. Right to appeal is largely welcome,but again would be highly stressful, without increased funding for advocacy organisations.

  5.  The extension of voluntary schemes such as "Pathways to Work"seems to be the only positive proposal in the Green Paper; sanctions are unnecessary. The Work Credit system seems excessively complicated, where a Basic Income scheme would be much more comprehensible and less threatening. Therapeutic earnings are a useful way for people to incrementally build up confidence and a direct reward system, and could be extended. It is also vital that there is no danger that ability to do voluntary work could undermine claims to "incapacity" (I may send some evidence to this effect once I have obtained permission). Voluntary work is socially, personally and economically productive, and there are many who can cope with this but not with any existing paid work in their area.

  6.  It's hard to see how Employment Advisors would fit in at a surgery, although some DEAs are currently perceived as useful.

  7.  The reported suggestion that GPs should receive inducement for getting people off IB (!) is unlikely to be welcomed by the medical professionals, because as described above, often be in direct conflict with their duties to patients. So far as I understand it, this was not a serious suggestion, and I hope whichever anonymous (PR?) official put it forward has been told how absurd/ignorant it is!

  8.  Finally, the emphasis on "workplace health" is understated and too vague, since it is the main barrier to people re-entering paid work. The truth is that "Incapacity Benefit" does represent a real incapacity, the incapacity of organisations and modern working practices to accommodate people who are vulnerable. The rise in stress-related IB claims can be directly correlated to the loss of job security and collective support throughout the 1980s, as well as with a continuing increase in impersonal bureaucracy, paperwork and "targets" particularly in the public sector (we all know people who have been forced out of work in the last few years by exactly this). To genuinely re-enable people to come off benefits, without increasing the suicide rate, will require a difficult social shift. It could be accomplished by assessing workplaces, not by assessing individuals,looking at things like staff turnover perhaps along the model of the HSE; and also by using social psychologists to look at ways of increasing satisfaction with work (the Layard report is a promising move in this respect). Back in 1997-98, there was a New Labour commitment that every new policy would be assessed for its impact on mental health (can't remember the name of the document—it was pre-NSF). This has obviously been forgotten, but would also be a very useful practice to achieve a healthier society, which should be an end in itself, and as a consequence, a greater proportion of people able to work. I am happy to be listed as a respondent to the consultation as an individual.

Cedric Knight

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