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Universal Credit “should be modified to reduce mental health harms”

The first large-scale study into the impact of the controversial welfare reform on mental health estimated that more than 63,000 unemployed claimants had experienced psychological distress over a five-year period

EPA/Andy Rain

A landmark study into how Universal Credit affects mental health has warned that the benefit could “exacerbate pressures on already stretched mental health and social care services” when the full rollout is completed.

Researchers’ analysis of the nine-year observational study, published in The Lancet, suggested a 6.6 per cent rise in the prevalence of psychological distress among Universal Credit recipients. They estimate that increase is equivalent to 63,374 unemployed recipients between April 2013 and December 2018 with 21,760 possibly clinically depressed.

Academics pored over interviews with 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales and Scotland before concluding that the controversial benefit needs to be “fundamentally modified”.

With a further 5.5 million recipients of existing benefits expected to claim Universal Credit over the next few years, this expanding group may exacerbate pressures on already stretched mental health and social care services

The University of Liverpool’s Dr Sophie Wickham, who led the research, said: “Our study supports growing calls for Universal Credit to be fundamentally modified to reduce these mental health harms.

“So far, the government has only looked at the impact of Universal Credit on the labour market, and there are no plans to assess its effect on health and wellbeing. With a further 5.5 million recipients of existing benefits expected to claim Universal Credit over the next few years, this expanding group may exacerbate pressures on already stretched mental health and social care services.”

Universal Credit has had a troubled time since it was first announced by then-Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith in 2010 before being launched in April 2013.

Moving claimants on to the new welfare system, which combines six benefits into one, has proven to be a tricky process – originally set to be completed by 2017, the completion date was recently pushed back to September 2024. The study published today covers up to the end of 2018 when 1.6 million people were receiving Universal Credit across England, Scotland and Wales, including 73 per cent of unemployed people.

While authors caution that broader welfare changes may have contributed to mental health toll, they did find that all socioeconomic groups were affected similarly by the introduction of Universal Credit.

The researchers did, however, speculate that the mental health of people with low levels of education will be more affected by the reform because they are more likely to be unemployed. This has the potential to widen health inequalities beyond the shocking state of affairs uncovered in the Marmot Review earlier this week.

“Given the mounting evidence of substantial mental health harms related to Universal Credit, it is crucial that the government conducts a robust health impacts assessment of all welfare reforms, including Universal Credit,” said co-author Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead, also from the University of Liverpool. “With nearly two-thirds of households in the UK receiving some kind of welfare benefit, any changes to the welfare system—even those with small individual effects—could have major implications for the nation’s health.”

The authors of the study did note that the observational nature of the study and the self-reported data may have an impact on the accuracy of the estimates and that the negative impact of the reform is likely to be underestimated because not all unemployed people have moved on to Universal Credit.

But University of Glasgow’s Dr Peter Craig, who was not involved in the study, added: “Policy makers must take seriously the health effects of reforms of the kind associated with Universal Credit, which newly expose a large swathe of the population to an unfamiliar regime of sanctions and conditionality and to a claim process that for many is worryingly opaque and uncertain.”

The DWP recently invited the BBC behind the scenes for a documentary that revealed the latest Universal Credit delay. The response triggered an urgent question in the House of Commons in which Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance Minister Will Quince said: “It is right that we revisit our forecasts and plan, and re-plan accordingly – ensuring that the process is working well for people on benefits.”

The minister also praised Universal Credit for bringing “broad stability into people’s lives” after less people naturally migrated on to the benefit than previously expected.

A Department of Work and Pensions spokesperson hit back against the findings of the report. They said: “This research does not prove that people are experiencing distress due to the design of universal credit.

“People coming to the jobcentre are often doing so at a difficult time in their lives, and there is a range of support available for those with mental health conditions. We know that the vast majority of people on universal credit are satisfied with their experience.”

Image: EPA/Andy Rain

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