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Government Accused Of Undermining Mental Health Progress With Employment Drive

Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride has been criticised for remarks he made about mental health. (Alamy)

4 min read

Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride has been criticised for his claims there is a "danger" that openness around mental health has gone "too far".

Launching the government's overhaul of out-of-work benefits on Thursday, Stride told The Telegraph that he was "grateful for today's much more open approach to mental health", he was concerned "normal anxieties" were leading to people being written off work. 

“There is a real risk now that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions which then actually serve to hold people back and, ultimately, drive up the benefit bill," he said. 

But his comments have sparked backlash among those who have long been working to improve support for people with mental health issues, who see the tone as dismissive and undermining. Andy Bell, chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health, told PoliticsHome it felt like a "worrying development" that was detrimental to positive work the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has otherwise done around the issue. 

"The frustrating thing is we know what works, and the government is investing in it," Bell said. 

"There's an approach called individual placement and support (IPS) and it is known to produce very, very good results in terms of supporting people into paid work, to real paid jobs.

"If we had a system which used that approach consistently, you'd never need to have [benefit] conditions and sanctions because we know it works better without that.

"Rather than treating people as somehow trying to get out of seeking work, you actually give people the right support at the right time to get the jobs they want, and we know that that has has a great level of success."

Bell also said it was important not to belittle mental health issues and risk damaging progress that has been made in recent years on destigmatising the topic. 

"I think we have to be really mindful of how significant an issue that is for people, and how disabling it can be when people are very unwell, rather than thinking that this is just people being a little bit worried and anxious," he continued. 

Labour MP Stephen Timms, chair of the work and pensions committee, told PoliticsHome while Stride was "undoubtedly correct that there is a very large increase in the number of people who are out of work on [mental] health grounds" it wasn't entirely clear what the government's strategy is.

"I slightly get the impression that the government thinks that this is going to require a crackdown in some way," Timms said.

"We haven't seen yet what they've got in mind, but we can guess given things that have happened in the past.

"My fear is that the rather threadbare character of the current social security safety net is making these problems worse. The level of the headline rate of Universal Credit is the lowest in real terms it's been for 40 years, and the consequence of that is large numbers of people simply cannot survive."

Timms said he hoped that the government wouldn't start "hacking down" benefits following Stride's remarks and would "take account" of his committee's report released on Thursday which said benefit levels in the UK are too low. "It's a unanimous report, I very much hope that it will be taken seriously," Timms added.  

A Labour spokesperson told PoliticsHome Labour would tackle the "root causes of worklessness" if elected at the next election. 

"On the Tories' watch, almost two million people are stuck on mental health waiting lists and a near record number of people are locked out of work due to long term sickness at huge cost to them, to business and to the taxpayer, too," they said. 

"The Tories cannot be the change from their own failings.

"Labour will tackle the root causes of worklessness by ending the crisis in mental healthcare, cutting NHS waiting lists, reforming social security, overhauling Jobcentres, making work pay, and supporting people into good jobs across every part of the country."

A spokesperson from the DWP said: “The link between work and good mental health is clear, which is why our £2.5 billion Back to Work Plan will give those struggling the support they need to find a job and build a better life.

“This is backed by record levels of mental health provision and specialist employment support as we shift the focus to what people can do, not what they can’t, while always protecting the most vulnerable.”

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