Incapacity Benefit: Reassessments
Private Members’ Business
Alex Easton (DUP)
The welfare system that we have today was born of our society’s concern about how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable. It was seen that the state should protect the most vulnerable when they need it the most. One of the things that make people most vulnerable is poor health that leaves them unable to work.
Welfare reform, which requires people to move from incapacity, DLA or income support on the grounds of incapacity, is a reform that we have to ensure that we get right. The current process, which is the work capability assessment, has three main outcomes for those on long-term illness benefits. It is another reform that has been imposed on us through the issue of parity with the rest of the UK. However, we must be sensitive to the fact that, as a region in the UK, Northern Ireland is unique as regards these types of benefits. A higher percentage of the population in Northern Ireland is on incapacity benefits than in any other region in the UK. A great number of recipients suffer from severe mental health issues, having come through the conflict that we experienced over 30 years. The capability assessment process seems to be failing some of them. The process has left those with mental health issues, particularly the most vulnerable, many of whom are long-term claimants with multiple barriers to employment, feeling let down.
Some 75% of 300 respondents to a survey on the Mind website stated that the WCA had made their mental health worse, and 51% admitted that they had had suicidal thoughts as a result of worry about the WCA. Suicide is still much stigmatised in our community, and it is an issue that is often hidden. That statistic and honesty gives me real concern that many more people are feeling similarly and that some might act on these acts purely as a result of their reassessment and the possibility of an appeal process. A staggering 95% of respondents indicated that they were fearful that they would not be believed in this process. That is a worrying statistic, and the evidence appears to suggest that we are placing this very vulnerable group under more pressure than necessary. The process also appears to have a lack of empathy with and understanding of illness in the mental health arena.
Northern Ireland is also unique compared to the rest of the UK when it comes to employing people with disabilities, regardless of hidden or covert disabilities. That needs to be addressed. People who are forced off incapacity benefit must have a reasonable expectation that a job exists that they can be reasonably be expected to do.
We must address the prejudices that exist in our employment arena and that stop people who want to be productive members of our community from fulfilling their potential. In my experience, people do not want to be ill long term or to be written off. The premise of this reform is that no one will be written off. However, we must ensure that we empower individuals to come off this benefit when their health allows them. The rate of successful appeals suggests that we have not got the equation quite right. Feedback from those suffering from mental health issues and other disabilities suggests that we have not got the equation right, and it is with that in mind that I support the motion.