Building the skills to avoid benefit sanctions

‘Sanctioning a man with mental health issues because he hasn’t returned a form in time, and then refusing to reinstate, is not humane treatment of the vulnerable and ill. No one knows what has happened to him. He was last seen around Waterloo, homeless.’

This quote is from our survey of staff at Bridge Mental Health – a charity which works with adults experiencing long term mental health needs. We carried out the survey to help us better understand the barriers and challenges that people with mental health problems face when experiencing benefit sanctions, as part of our new public legal education project to help people build the skills to avoid benefit sanctions.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can sanction a benefit claimant (stop or reduce their benefits) if the claimant doesn’t meet certain conditions, for example, attending a Job Centre appointment or a job interview.

A recent study on welfare conditionality adds to the growing body of research that indicates that benefit sanctions are ineffective in supporting people into work and routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial and health outcomes.

Those who are most affected are the people who are most disadvantaged to start with. For example, a WelCond paper in 2017 looked at the experiences of welfare conditionality for people with mental health problems and concluded that it exacerbated mental health conditions and caused stress for many.

Universal Credit roll out

Universal Credit was introduced in 2013 to replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits. It is being rolled out across the UK. Universal Credit places a greater emphasis on full-time job searching and working. Sanctions for not complying can be applied for up to three years. Universal Credit claimants are more likely to be sanctioned than claimants of other benefits.

With this context in mind Law for Life secured funding from Awards for All to develop and deliver public legal education (PLE) workshops and an online information series focused on helping people understand and build the skills needed to avoid unnecessary benefit sanctions. We aim to help people address issues at an early stage and prevent unnecessary hardship. The community element of our project will focus on the needs of people with mental health problems.

Survey with mental health and wellbeing workers

As part of this process we carried out a small survey of staff at Bridge Mental Health. The responses to our survey echoed recent findings on the negative outcomes of benefit sanctions.

Staff had experience of mental health service users being sanctioned for a variety of reasons including failing to attend an appointment, interview or training session; not completing forms correctly or not giving enough information; and not taking up a job that was offered. These sanctions were applied despite the claimant’s mental health status.

It is clear from our survey that the nature of mental health service users’ condition can be key to their failure to meet the benefit requirements. For example, the effects of stress, severe anxiety, depression and paranoia make interviews and appointments very challenging for many.

‘Attending an interview, can cause huge anxiety amongst our users, which in turn can result in clients being unable to attend. Despite, knowing how significant the meeting is and consequences they may be subject to.’

Others, like benefit claimants of all types, struggle with the complexity and demands of the system:

‘Not understanding what is expected of them, for example, they may need regular sick notes, or not applying for the allotted amount of jobs.’

And some of the practical difficulties which face all benefit claimants when trying to comply with the conditions for their benefit, are magnified for those with mental health problems:

‘We get appointments for interviews first thing in the morning in North London for service users with mental health problems who live in South London.’

Impact of sanctions on mental health service users

We learned from our survey that the effects of benefit sanctions on mental health service users at Bridge Mental Health fall into two main overlapping categories. The first is financial hardship:

‘They have the real decision of either eating or paying a bill to maintain their current debt.’

‘…we find we’re turning to foodbanks more and more just for users to survive.’

The second impact that emerged in our survey was the negative effect that sanctioning had on service users’ mental health, which in turn reduced their ability to engage with both the benefits system and their mental health care plan. Survey respondents talked of stress, anxiety, panic and depression:

‘When cut, we have had one guy leave the site entirely, he left the country. His benefits being cut, was a part of the stress that made him relapse and leave the hub.’

Our survey suggests that benefit claimants with mental health problems appear trapped in a catch-22 situation. Their mental health condition means that it is challenging for them to comply with the conditions both of paid employment and the system that is meant to support them if they are out of work or on a low income. And furthermore, being sanctioned for failure to comply with the conditions can often worsen their mental health, which can mean that they are even less likely to comply with conditions.

What Law for Life’s project will do

We will use the findings from the survey together with focus group findings to develop training for staff at Bridge Mental Health to equip them to better support their service users to avoid being sanctioned in the first place, and therefore the negative effects that sanctions trigger. We will also create a new mini information series on avoiding benefit sanctions which will be available to all on the Advicenow website.

We are grateful to Awards for All from the Big Lottery Fund for funding this project.

Published: 4 July 2018

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