This new announcement outlines plans for the toughest set of benefit sanctions yet.
Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, said: “Our message is clear: if you are fit, if you refuse to work, if you are taking taxpayers for a ride – we will take your benefits away.”
Universal credit claimants who are still unemployed after a year will face a review where a work coach will decide what further searches for work or employment pathways they must take. If the claimant refuses to accept these conditions, their benefits will be stopped.
If a claimant refuses to accept a job or undertake work experience or “other intensive activity” to improve their employability prospects, their standard allowance of universal credit will be removed.
There will be even “stricter sanctions” for people who are deemed by the government to be someone who “should be looking for work but isn’t”. Claims will be closed, and people could lose access to free prescriptions and legal aid.
The government will also be given powers to “track claimants’ attendance at job fairs and interviews” using digital tools.
Andy Bell, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said: “Measures put forward today in the government’s Back to Work Plan that will increase the threat of benefit sanctions for disabled people are deeply worrying.
“We know that applying benefit sanctions to people with mental health conditions, or coercing them into jobseeking or ‘work related activity’, is harmful and potentially very dangerous. The evidence is clear that poverty and the threat of sanctions have a toxic impact on people’s wellbeing.
“We would urge the government to consider the mental health impacts of any changes. Mandatory activities, with the threat of sanctions if people’s don’t take part, will do nothing to help people get jobs, and fly in the face of the evidence about why IPS [Individual Placement Support] is so successful in helping people to get jobs and enjoy better health.”
Bell welcomed some of the government’s plans for mental health support and employment programmes, such as IPS – aiming to help an additional 100,000 people – and NHS Talking Therapies. But he said that the positives of this would be marred by the negative mental health impact of the new benefits regime.
“There is a very real danger here that the government takes one step forward and another step back,” Bell said. “Any progress made by expanding support could be undermined if accompanied by actions which increase financial hardship. That’s why we continue to call for a cross-government approach to mental health, which recognises the role of social and economic determinants on people’s chances of good mental health.
“We are very worried that claims made about people ‘coasting’ on benefits, and pejorative language towards those who are not in work, will exacerbate the distress many feel. The least well-off need support not sanctions, and enough money to live on, not the threat of even greater impoverishment.”
The plans have been announced ahead of next week’s Autumn Statement, which will set out the government’s next steps for boosting the economy.
The chancellor Jeremy Hunt said: “We’re serious about growing our economy and that means we must address the rise in people who aren’t looking for work – especially because we know so many of them want to and with almost a million vacancies in the jobs market the opportunities are there.
“These changes mean there’s help and support for everyone – but for those who refuse it, there are consequences too. Anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers will lose their benefits.”
As the government itself points out, the number of people inactive in the UK due to long-term sickness or disability has risen by almost half a million to a record high of 2.6 million, with mental health, musculoskeletal conditions and heart disease being some of the main causes.
The government claims it will “support almost 60,000 long-term sick or disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work” – and benefits sanctions are one of its key tools.
Vicki Nash, associate director for policy and campaigns at Mind, added: “Poverty and mental health problems form a vicious cycle that need to be tackled by every part of government working together. Today’s announcements look like they have come from departments working on different planets.
“We welcome the UK government making real investment into empowering more people with mental health problems to find work in a way that supports them to get better. And with close to two million people on waiting lists for mental health treatment, investing in talking therapies is the right move.
“The increase in the use of sanctions is deeply worrying though – evidence has repeatedly shown they don’t work and make people’s mental health worse. Changes to sick notes will also make it tougher to be signed off from work and could mean people don’t get the time they need to recover.
“The investment announced shows that the government knows the answer to tackling the number of people struggling with their mental health is to increase, not decrease support.
“Yet the support being offered doesn’t match the scale of the need and is undermined by a raft of other decisions announced. And if expected changes to work capability assessments are confirmed in next week’s Autumn Statement, we will see more people pushed further from work because of their mental health.”
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The government wants to drive people into work to boost the economy – but there is a very real fear it will drive people into poverty and further illness, pushing them further away from the workforce.
Alicia Walker, Centrepoint’s head of policy, research and campaigns, said: “We know that a lack of investment in supporting young people into work ultimately costs the taxpayer billions of pounds in lost revenue, so further investment in this area is sorely needed.
“However, the government’s own reporting has shown sanctions to be ineffective. It therefore makes no sense for the chancellor to double down on a regime that only serves to lock people into poverty and potentially risks pushing them into homelessness.
“Some of the briefing ahead of next week has suggested punitive measures that would invade claimants’ privacy and do nothing to bring them into the workforce – the chancellor should instead focus on understanding the complex reasons behind individuals’ economic inactivity and the support they require.”
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