Benefits claimants judged as ‘unfit to work’, due to mental health problems, are more likely to have their benefits stopped by sanctions than those suffering from other conditions, according to new data released today.
Policy advisers for the Methodist Church obtained the data using Freedom of Information Requests to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
It shows that people who receive the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), because of a long-term mental health problem, are being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day.
In March 2014 – the last month for which data is available – approximately 4,500 people with mental health problems, who were in receipt of ESA because of mental health problems, were sanctioned.
Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church, warned that the true number could be “a great deal higher than the 100 a day”.
“Not included in these figures are people who receive ESA due to a physical illness, but who have a higher risk of mental health difficulties”, said Mr Morrison.
Homeless charity Crisis warned in 2014 of a “shocking increase” in the number of ESA sanctions. In the first three months of 2014 alone, 15,995 disabled people had their benefits docked, compared with 3,574 during the same period the previous year.
Whilst it isn’t possible to say how many of these ESA claimants also suffered from mental health problems, disability is often accompanied by mental health issues – such as anxiety and depression.
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.
“Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping”, said Mr Morrison.
He added: “The fact that this system punishes people for the symptoms of their illness is a clear and worrying sign that it is fundamentally flawed,” said Mr Morrison, who is also the author of an upcoming report on the sanctions regime.
“Churches have increasingly seen people in desperate need because they have been sanctioned. The suffering and injustice we have seen caused by the sanctions system deserves serious scrutiny.”
Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind, said:
“We’re very concerned about the number of people having their benefits stopped. This causes not just financial problems but added emotional distress.
“It’s unjustifiable that people with mental health problems are being sanctioned disproportionately compared to those who have another health problem.
“Stopping benefits does not help people with mental health problems back into work. In fact, it often results in people becoming more anxious and unwell and this makes a return to work less likely.
“Sanctions are based on a false assumption that individuals lack motivation and willingness to work, but it’s the impact of their illness and the environment in which they are expected to work which actually present the toughest challenges. That’s why they should only be used as a last resort, when someone simply refuses to engage.”
These figures – and other new data on the sanctions regime – will feature in a report that is due to be launched in the spring by a coalition of major Churches, including the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the Church in Wales.
The Revd Sally Foster-Fulton, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, said:
“With others in the Scottish Leaders’ Group on Welfare, we are, sadly, well aware of the negative impact of sanctions on vulnerable people, often left with no income and no security and no way out of the deeper hole they have fallen through.
“We welcome the publication of the upcoming report. It is important that we highlight these facts and begin to counter this troubling trend.
“We will use the new data in our 28 February conference looking ‘Beyond Food Banks’, for which sanctions are a key trigger.”