First published by The Independent, 30th October 2015
Yet again, the Department of Work and Pensions has been revealed as an organ of monstrous bureaucratic cruelty this week, with a report from the charity Mind showing that the DWP is three times more likely to sanction someone with mental health problems than to help them find work. The report states that 250,000 people with mental health issues are receiving Employment and Support Allowance, and of these, 19,259 were sanctioned last year while only 6,340 were helped into work in the same time frame.
One in four adults in the UK will suffer from a mental health problem each year, indicating that the number of sufferers collecting ESA is comparatively low. It’s safe to assume that if your mental health problem is so serious that you cannot hold down a full-time or part-time job, you’re in need of support and understanding, not sanctions. Mental health problems can be accompanied by extreme physical exhaustion, compromised timekeeping due to heavy medication or mental confusion, shattered self-confidence, and difficulties relating to other people – yet the unique situations of the mentally ill fail to be recognised by the DWP, who continue to strip benefits for minor infractions such as being a couple of minutes late to an appointment, or failing to look for jobs every day.
Employment and Support Allowance is supposed to act as a safety net, to prevent Britain’s most vulnerable citizens from extreme levels of poverty. If you’re suffering from a mental illness, the safety net is filled with holes and suspended over a pit of sharks, each with Iain Duncan Smith’s face. The analogy is flippant, but the facts are anything but. The levels of distress that arbitrary sanctions can bring to people suffering from severe depression, anxiety, and eating and personality disorders are huge. To inflict this kind of stress on someone already struggling with a mental health problem is nothing short of barbaric, and yet the DWP continues to trample those who need help beneath its great, crushing wheel of incompetence and cruelty.
Another stellar idea from the Department of Work and Pensions has been to station DWP employees in food banks, ostensibly help those seeking emergency food supplies to find work. Ironically, this is clear proof that Iain Duncan Smith is aware of the effects of his punitive measures. He knows that sanctions have forced more than a million people to rely on emergency food, and by placing DWP advisors in food banks, he is essentially making food banks an accepted part of social security in Britain.
The new scheme is being trialled in Manchester before it’s rolled out over the whole of the UK, because it’s obviously better to stick a few DWP staff in food banks than to address the policies that have left people needing emergency food in the first place.
To make this dystopian horror show complete, the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has announced an investigation into the government’s benefit reforms. The Tory administration has behaved with such callous impunity that the United Nations will now look at the proposed tax credit cuts, and the effect of benefit reforms on single parents, children, and the disabled. Doesn’t that make you proud?
We’re bombarded with side issues (‘Someone threw an egg at a Tory conference delegate’, ‘Martin Amis doesn’t like Jeremy Corbyn’) while the real stories of widespread human suffering due to deliberate policy decisions rarely make headlines. We now have to decide whether we should keep sleepwalking back into Victorian Britain, or whether it’s time to wake up.