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'Punishments' for benefits claimants with mental health issues rocket, figures show

Benefit claimants with mental health problems are more likely to be punished and have their payments stopped, new figures have revealed.

The numbers of those judged unfit to work were released by the Department of Work and Pensions following Freedom of Information requests from the Methodist Church.

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) sanctions by disability. Credit: DWP/Methodist Church FOI

The figures show that in March 2014 – the last month for which data is available - approximately 4,500 people with mental health problems who were on the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were sanctioned.

Paul Morrison, public issues policy adviser for the Methodist Church, said: "We believe that the number of people with mental health problems who have their benefit stopped due to being sanctioned is in fact a great deal higher than 100 a day.

"Not included in these figures are people who receive ESA due to a physical illness, but who have a higher risk of mental health difficulties."

Paul Morrison, public issues policy adviser for the Methodist Church. Credit: Methodist Church

According to the DWP data, the most common reason for being sanctioned is that a person has been late or not turned up for a meeting.

Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping.

The fact that this system punishes people for the symptoms of their illness is a clear and worrying sign that it is fundamentally flawed.

– Paul Morrison, who is also the author ofan upcoming report on the regime.
Around 4,500 people with mental health problems were sanctioned. Credit: PA

Paul Morrison, who is also the author of an upcoming report on the regime, added: “Churches have increasingly seen people in desperate need because they have been sanctioned. The suffering and in justice we have seen caused by the sanctions system deserves serious scrutiny.”

Stopping benefits does not help people with mental health problems back into work.

In fact, it often results in people becoming more anxious and unwell and this makes a return to work less likely.

Sanctions are based on a false assumption that individuals lack motivation and willingness to work, but it’s the impact of their illness and the environment in which they are expected to work which actually present the toughest challenges.

That’s why they should only be used as a last resort, when someone simply refuses to engage.

– Mental health charity Mind CEO Paul Farmer
Claimants were sanctioned for arriving late or missing appointments. Credit: PA

Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind, said: “We’re very concerned about the number of people having their benefits stopped. This causes not just financial problems but added emotional distress.

"It’s unjustifiable that people with mental health problems are being sanctioned disproportionately compared to those who have another health problem."

The new regime has been criticised. Credit: PA

The figures, along with other new data on the sanctions regime - will feature in a report due to be launched in the spring by a coalition of major churches, including the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the Church in Wales.

...We are, sadly, well aware of the negative impact of sanctions on vulnerable people, often left with no income and no security and no way out of the deeper hole they have fallen through.

– Rev Sally Foster-Fulton

The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, said: "We welcome the publication of the upcoming report. It is important that we highlight these facts and begin to counter this troubling trend.

"We will use the new data in our February 28 conference looking ‘Beyond Food Banks’, for which sanctions are a key trigger.”

A DWP spokesman said decisions to suspend benefits "aren't taken lightly".

Every day Jobcentre Plus advisers work hard to help claimants into work, and where claimants don't do the right thing they risk having their benefits suspended.

These decisions aren't taken lightly, and less than one per cent of ESA claimants have their benefits suspended each month for not taking up the jobs support that is offered to them.

– DWP spokesman

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