Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:16 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 8:16 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, it would be wrong to discuss the measures in this Bill without highlighting the disproportionate impact the changes would have on people with mental health problems, and I am very glad to say that a number of your Lordships have already raised this issue as important. Just like physical health, we all have mental health. More of us are speaking out about mental health than ever before but, as has been mentioned, there is still a long way to go.

One area where people with mental health problems are still far too often unsupported and misunderstood is in back-to-work support. Over a third of people with mild to moderate mental health problems, and almost two-thirds of people with more severe mental health problems, are unemployed. Only 9% have been supported into work through the Government’s flagship back-to-work scheme, yet we know that the majority of people with mental health problems want to work. It is essential that this legislation looks at improving support to help people with these difficulties into work.

One problem is that mental health needs are not properly understood or acknowledged, which leads to the wrong support being provided. This does not help people get into work. The story of Lee, a 38 year-old man with mental health problems including depression, anxiety and a personality disorder, illustrates the difficulties. When out of work, in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group—the ESA WRAG—Lee attended a weekly self-help management course at his local jobcentre, which he had to attend or face his benefit being sanctioned. But the support he was provided with did not take into account his mental health. Lee said that,

“it was focussing more on people in pain, people who had bad backs and first aid ... and I did say a number of times at these meetings that this doesn’t apply to me. I’m not in pain as such, I have a mental health problem”.

Of course, Lee’s experiences are not unique. Another sufferer said that her adviser,

“simply did what I could already do on my own, put together a CV and look for jobs. There was not enough support geared to my specific difficulties. Every task was the same for everyone. Not everyone’s needs are the same”.

In addition, the conditionality and sanctions regime has become an unchallenged aspect of back-to-work support. Research by Mind, which does so much in this field, shows that people with mental health problems are three times more likely to have their benefit sanctioned than they are to be supported into employment. That is a clear signal that the system is not working for people with mental health problems, despite this group making up over half of all people on employment and support allowance.

The changes which this Bill legislates for—namely, reducing the amount people on the employment and support allowance work-related activity group receive by £30 a week—would have a serious impact on people with mental health problems, as others have said. We should all be concerned by the Government’s lack of assessment of the impact that these changes will be having on people and their families. I am pleased to hear about the review being undertaken by my noble friends Lord Low, Lady Meacher and Lady Grey-Thompson, which I gather will look at how the cut will affect the day-to-day lives of disabled people and whether it will help them move closer to work. We know already that 75% of people with common mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, receive no appropriate treatment, and that many people use their benefit to pay for talking therapy treatments and well- being activities. There is space in this legislation to support people with mental health problems better and ultimately to move closer to the Government’s welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap.

I end by asking the Minister two questions. One is a repeat of the question that my noble friend Lord Rix asked. The government impact assessment stated that the justification for the £300-a-week cut was to,

“remove the financial disincentive to work”.

Can the Minister present us with the evidence to show that cutting disabled people’s benefits results in more disabled people getting jobs? Secondly, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that the impact assessment accompanying the Bill does not,

“fully assess the impact on equality and human rights. This may make it difficult for parliamentarians to properly consider the implications of the measures in the Bill”.

Does the Minister accept this criticism? It would be good to hear his reply at some stage as the Bill progresses through your Lordships’ House, even though I do not expect much of an answer this evening.