Mental Illness: Job Security and Inequality - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 4th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords) 2:36 pm, 4th July 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for using the initiative he described to us at the start to seize the opportunity of securing this debate and giving us the chance to talk about these issues. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, for some very interesting speeches. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for some really thoughtful reflections on the interaction between mental health and employment, issues around stigma and discrimination, and the role of the Church and communities. There is so much more that one could go into.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, for another piece of articulate advocacy on behalf of those with learning disabilities and autism. I loved that story about an employee and the impact that one person with learning disabilities can make. It reminded me so much of the lessons taught to us by the late and much-lamented Jean Vanier on how much we could all benefit by taking them on. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, for a really interesting approach, talking about risks and interventionist factors and how we could use those on a rights-based agenda, as well as the existing health and LEP programmes we have to tackle these issues.

I am being quite literal. I want to look at the title of the debate and ask: do job security and inequality impact on mental health? What does the evidence say? There are two questions. First, does inequality have an impact? Yes, it does. There is clear evidence, summarised well by the Equality Trust, that a much higher percentage of the population suffers from mental illness in more unequal countries; for example, the evidence from the USA is that rates of depression in US states are associated with income inequality. The evidence and the academic side are clear. While I am here, it is worth noting that poverty is also a significant driver of stress and poor mental health, a point made by the right reverend Prelate. The 2016 report from the Mental Health Foundation and the JRF found that:

“Poverty increases the risk of mental health problems and can be both a causal factor and a consequence of mental ill health”.

Secondly, what about job insecurity? Various studies have looked at the impact of the nature of employment on mental health. I read one just this morning. Research by Menéndez-Espina et al, published in February, observed that,

“job insecurity … has direct effects on the different areas of mental health evaluated, in men as well as in women”.

Of course, the report of the UN rapporteur, which we have already heard about, draws attention to the fact that the way work is organised has profound and lasting social and psychological repercussions.

Does the UK have a problem with either inequality or job security? Yes, it does. The Equality Trust shows that, according to the most recent data from 19 OECD member states in the Luxembourg Income Study dataset, the UK is the fifth most unequal country and the fourth most unequal in Europe. Figures from 2016 show that the poorest fifth of society has only 8% of the total income, whereas the top fifth has 40%. The figures for wealth are even worse. We are not talking about poverty, but the figures on poverty show that it is rising and the problem is getting worse for those in and out of work.

What about job insecurity? A recent spate of company closures from retail to steel has put many people out of work and made other people very nervous about what is happening to their jobs. Also, we have 850,000 workers on zero-hours contracts, two-thirds of them stuck on them for more than a year. A TUC-commissioned poll of workers on zero-hours contracts found that more than half had had shifts cancelled with fewer than 24 hours’ notice. Nearly three-quarters had been offered work with fewer than 24 hours’ notice. More than a third have been threatened with not being given shifts in the future if they turn down work. It also found that only 12% get sick pay, only 7% would get redundancy pay and 43% do not get any holiday pay.

This is really stressful and insecure work. If you have no idea how many hours you will get each week, you do not know whether you can pay your rent or feed your kids. If you do not get sick pay or any other pay, you will be afraid to turn down work. You will go to work when you are sick or injured because you do not have any alternative. If you are threatened with not been given work if you turn down shifts, you will go even if you are not up to doing it. That is bad for people’s physical and mental health. Other TUC analysis found that those on zero-hours contracts were twice as likely to be working night shifts or seven-day weeks. They earn less per hour as well. This is not good work.

What is the Minister going to do about it? First off, does she accept this association between job insecurity and inequality on the one hand and mental ill-health on the other? If she does, I have some serious questions to ask. What might she do about it? Will the Government look again at the rights extended to workers on insecure jobs? Why should they not get the full range of rights that other workers do? If she is in the position to, will she look again at whether people should be presumed to be employed, with the burden of proof going on to the employer to show that they are not? Does she recognise that, in fact, most workers’ rights have been won by trade unions over the years? History shows that. The reduction in collective bargaining and unionisation in many sectors has been clearly associated with a reduction in rights. What will the Government do about that? Will she consider revisiting some of the anti-union legislation or making it easier for people to organise to get the rights they deserve?

Also, what will the Government do about addressing the fall in living standards, especially for those in low-paid work? What are they going to do about the inequality that has been revealed by the studies I have mentioned? Will the Government look again at the way they use the tax and benefits system to address inequality? What will they do about those who are in work, or those who want to get into work, but are struggling with mental health? All the evidence we have heard from people is that the nature of the assessment process they have to go through to get help—with PIP, for example, to get help with moving into work or trying to get help because they cannot work—actually makes people’s mental health worse.

I have personally sat down with someone who had an appalling time applying for PIP. She was turned down, but she got it on appeal. She said that the process was so bad for her mental health that she would never again apply for it, no matter how desperate she got. I know that that is a single case, but I have heard over and again that people find the process so stressful that something has to be done about it.

That is an amazing canter through what is there, but I suggest that if we take seriously the association between job insecurity and poor mental health, and between inequality and poor mental health, it is not enough simply to buy a much bigger box of sticking plasters. We need to tackle the root causes.