The APPG on Mental health and the APPG on Universal Credit: Mental health and the Benefits System

Tuesday 8th March 2022, 10.30am-12 midday via zoom


Debbie Abrahams MP:

  • Chair of the APPG on Universal Credit.
  • Event is run jointly with the APPG on Mental health, and am delighted to co-host with Vice Chair Wera Hobhouse MP
  • Social security system not fit for purpose for people without mental health problems, but even harder for people with mental health problems. Some evidence it can cause mental health concerns.
  • I have been raising issue of serious harm and deaths as a result of the benefits system and continue to call for an independent inquiry.
  • Issue that the work and pensions select committee, which I am a member of, has examined and raised.

Imogen Day, mental health campaigner and sister of Philippa Day:

  • Lost sister in 2019 with benefit issues listed as most significant factor. DWP and contractors made 28 mistakes during her application. E.g., decision made to deny her home assessment because she self-harmed.
  • At inquest we learned she would just have needed a phone call to get a home assessment. But she was told she had to go to the next city for assessment.
  • Have listened to disabled people fret and worry over PIP applications. 284 IPRs since 2012, but DWP refuse to acknowledge systemic issues. Without housing, food security, finance support, it is hard to support people with mental health problems.
  • The Secretary of State refused to meet to discuss my experience, or that of other bereaved families.
  • Ensuring that benefits system is cost-effective should not come at cost of human lives.
  • Can’t count the number of panic attacks I coached my sister through. My sister told me the benefits system would kill her.
  • After the pandemic we can expect more mental health referrals.
  • Hope that a full and thorough investigation into benefits system and impact on mental health can be the start of change. Request that attendees here lobby for it.

Alexa Knight, Associate Director of Policy and Practice, Rethink Mental Illness:

  • We’re working with the families of people who have died due to benefits system.
  • Calling for full independent inquiry and new body to investigate future cases.
  • Our mission is to improve lives of people with severe mental illness, including finances and employment as part of communities that Care model. Services include the Mental Health Money Advice, run by Mental Health UK.
  • Benefits system is meant to be safety net. But many people including people with severe mental illness find navigating system so distressing and it makes them more unwell, often to point of self-harm or ending lives.
  • Published report last year into serious harm and death.
  • Our new report is based on survey responses and detailed interviews about the harm people have experienced as a result of their interactions with the benefits system, and how the DWP responded. Our analysis led to several key findings:
  • Cases of death and serious harm related to the benefits system are a current issue, not only a historical one. Experiences related to applications, assessments and appeals were the largest cause of harm.  
  • The DWP is failing to investigate cases of serious harm that do not involve a death. The proportion of serious harm cases compared to deaths reported in our survey suggests there should have been many hundreds of serious harm IPRs since July 2019, compared to the 31 that the DWP instigated. 
  • Many cases of serious harm do not get reported to the DWP because of a lack of awareness about the process and a lack of trust in the department.
  • Only a public inquiry can find truth. Only independent system to can give confidence to people that their cases will be investigated
  • We have made recommendations for reforms that the DWP could make immediately, including publishing annual reports on the IPRs that it has conducted, and lessons learned; establishing a simple process by which incidents can be reported; and providing a clearer definition of what constitutes ‘serious harm’.
  • Time and time again we’ve seen opportunities for transparency missed. E.g bereaved families not routinely told their case is under investigation.
  • Amanda’s story: difficult time with depression and anxiety, application for PIP to address financial impact. Assessor was dismissive, and during the wait for a decision her mental health spiralled, was hospitalised. She feels the DWP does’t care. Important to keep focus on individuals. We are confident system can be improved. 1ST step is for DWP to be open about what has gone wrong to restore trust in system.

Dan Norris, Head of Advice and Rights, Child Poverty Action Group:

The audio recordings which were played by Dan can be listened to here.

  • Report we recently published about impact on mental health of applying for Universal Credit (UC).
  • For our report, we spoke in depth to 27 claimants from across UK about all aspects of making a claim, including the 1 size fits all approach and fully digital system. They had to adapt, rather than the system adapting to their needs.
  • UC was launched as a personalised benefit. But people told us about difficulties applying. People need support from family. One person thought she’d claimed but she hadn’t pressed submit.
  • The claimants we spoke to felt UC system was too rigidly oriented towards finding work. But if mental health is a barrier, leaves people worried about potential sanctions.
  • The very nature of a sanction creates that situation for people whether they’re mentally ill or not. Very large amount of money to dock from someone, often for something quite small like making a mistake. Constantly on edge, don’t know if they’ll be understanding. It might partly depend on job coach, whether they understand mental illness and understand you. Makes it anxiety-provoking to interact w/ job coaches because you don’t want to make bad impression.
  • Big problem for claimants with mental health problems is that, unlike with your award, you can’t challenge a failure to ask about your mental health, or to make changes in response to the way the system treats you through the normal appeals process. DWP office manuals commit staff to ask claimants at every interaction about their mental health and consider changing the way a person can apply for UC, how they’re treated at the job centre plus, or what they’re expected to do to find work.
  • The Equality Act 2010 says public service providers like DWP who fail to make reasonable adjustments so that their service is equally accessible to disabled people are guilty of unlawful discrimination. DWP doesn’t keep records of how often it asks people about reasonable adjustments, so hard to be confident they’re sticking to the Equality Act duties. Only 2 people we spoke to had ever been asked about reasonable adjustments. Few felt confident or even aware they could ask for a change.
  • At CPAG, we would like DWP to embrace their responsibilities under the Equality Act, to ask about, record, and take account of the needs of people with mental health problems, in the way they plan and operate UC.
  • We’d like to see alternative ways to apply being easily available, private interview rooms available and a flexible approach to appointments and work search requirements. We’d like to see training for staff on the responsibilities the Equality Act imposes, to proactively look for ways to level the playing field for people with mental health problems.
  • It’s only with that type of personalised support, flexible approach and understanding, that those people who I met in the London foodbank will be adequately supported by UC in their time of need.


Q&A moderated by Wera Hobhouse MP

Imogen Day: In terms of finding strength to campaign, pain propels you forward, forces you to get up in the morning and do what you need to do. Pip (Philippa) left me this task and I’m going to see it through.

Baroness Browning: from own experience, with everything being done online, I want people to be seen face to face. Very often, a couple of very general questions about mental health is not good enough. When combination of physical and mental health, they downgrade the mental health.

Dan Norris: I have seen assessors focus on physical health. Stressed claimants tend to accept that rather than push the point. Need better training for staff.

Wera Hobhouse MP: some cases I’ve seen are so cruel that I wonder if it’s about targets. How is it possible that someone has been found fit for work when so clear they’re not? Any knowledge about internal targets?

Alexa Knight: this is exactly the question that we need an independent inquiry to look at. Process or culture? Or both. There is a lack of empathy for people with mental health problems – the way Qs are asked makes them feel disbelieved.

Alison Turner: Patterns re how people have died, all link to mental health in some form. When we went to court, EHRC raised adjustments and need to anticipate needs of disabled people. Judge said that because Errol (Graham) had previously communicated with DWP in past, he could do it again. Not always the case that people can function to same level as before. Sometimes he was assessed as not having capacity but other times he did. Major culture problem. DWP not doing enough to make those adjustments.

Alexa Knight: we’ve asked DWP several times to meet with families, but they don’t want to. They’ve refused. We have given them our report and contacted them.

Wera Hobhouse MP: seems to be complete wall of defence that DWP is putting up.

Dan Norris: Changes could be made if there is willing. Need commitment from top.

Imogen Day: Re coroner’s courts and PFDs, everyone has vastly different experiences. Pip had 11-day inquest, but Joy Dove had 20 mins. Entirely up to coroner and whether they think it’s relevant.

Wera Hobhouse MP: we see how difficult it is for people to get justice, especially without legal aid. How do we make sure more people can come forward?

Dan Norris: There are provisions within existing DWP to correct errors when made e.g., wrong level of PIP. That system is incredibly long-winded. If you want to challenge a decision, you could be looking at over a year before that problem is resolved. There is capacity to make it a responsive system but needs to be properly resourced. We need to see an attitude that we all work together to make sure right amount goes to people rather than confrontational system that we have currently.

Alexa Knight: We want a cross government approach that supports people’s mental health, not just down to department of health, it’s also housing, welfare.

Alison Turner: The amount of money spent on appealing assessments is big problem and a waste of taxpayers’ money. DWP still leaves itself at arm’s length where duty of care is concerned. It only reacts after death, doesn’t prevent death. Want to see change that prevents death. We were bombarded by DWP at Errol’s inquest – their lawyer treated it like a criminal case. Coroner can only ask for things that they’re aware of. Doesn’t give transparency to families.

John Pring: Disabled people’s grassroots groups have been calling for independent inquiry from 2019. Will RMI commit to working with them?

Alexa Knight: yes, we are very happy to join with others.

Imogen Day: Re Coroners’ courts: at our first pre-inquest review, 3 lawyers from DWP came and their words were awful. Heavily implied that I forged my sister’s suicide note. Their legal teams came for my mother to the extent she felt she had to make a speech about how much she loved her daughter.

Tom Pollard: from my time at DWP its clear that it’s a huge benefit processing machine and doesn’t have expertise or mindset to proactively meet duty of care. Relies on people advocating for themselves, but that’s not easy for people with mental health problems. Needs to be greater sense of care and responsibility, and in situation like Errol, there was sense he hadn’t provided info required and so assumption was that he didn’t need support. This is not good enough. DWP should actively demonstrate someone doesn’t need support. Lots of incremental changes that are valuable, but also need fundamental culture shift so that DWP sees itself as having caring role.

Wera Hobhouse MP: We need massive political pressure on DWP to hold a public inquiry.

Dan Norris: DWP assessors are not experts in mental health. Easy step forward for DWP would be to simply get experts.

Imogen Day: Anyone that works in mental health has to have relevant safeguarding training and follow safeguarding practices at risk of losing jobs if we do not. DWP has said they don’t have safeguarding duty yet work with some of most vulnerable in society. We should be pushing them to use safeguarding processes.

Wera Hobhouse MP: design faults in UC journal make it harder for people with mental health problems. Without help, many people find it hard to use their accounts.

Alexa Knight: Agree this should be fixed. Cost of living crisis- DWP must get this right now. People’s mental health has got worse over last 2 yrs.

Dan Norris: need the managed migration process to protect people’s welfare.


Jonathan Ashworth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions:

  • Too often benefits system exacerbates problems and dehumanises people. For over 5 years I was shadow SoS for health – healthier societies are fairer, and much more about provision of services – also about life opportunities.
  • If you want to create healthier society, and tackle determinants of mental health, we need to confront fundamental injustices such as people dying earlier due to poverty.
  • Deprivation makes people ill. Poverty is cause and consequences of mental health problems – vicious cycle.
  • Mental health is now one of biggest reasons people take sick leave and fall out of work.
  • Need to rebuild social security. Assessments are fundamentally flawed, confusing, complicated, repeat assessments are traumatising.
  • The pernicious use of sanction pushes people under rather than spurs people.
  • Ministers blocking research data on sanctions and suicide – I hope MPs across house can find way to get it published.
  • Job Centre Plus has become a sanctioning regime. Needs reform to create modern employment service. Needs to understand needs of claimants with mental health problems.
  • Flaws in UC are wilfully impoverishing people. Need fundamental reform. 5 weeks wait has to go, debt collection must be humane.
  • Need wider strategy from government to address poverty especially child poverty. Poverty in childhood often coincides with adverse childhood experiences.
  • Need to change culture of welfare system. DWP must get better at identifying vulnerable claimants and supporting them. The system does not treat people like human beings.
  • Re Q on whether there should be an independent public inquiry into deaths related to welfare, it seems to me right to have an inquiry. Will speak to other MPs to discuss how to work together. If I was Secretary of State, I would want to do it.
  • Agree it is worth doing an assessment of cost-effectiveness of DWP battling court cases instead of just making improvements. We have got a gov who is fighting tooth and nail to deny people their rights. Stats show something is going wrong. Select Committee could be foundation of proper assessment. We all understand that money is tight, but way SoS casually throws money at pursuing people through courts is unacceptable. Supporting people would be more economical.
  • Agree assessors should have mental health training
  • Support greater investment in counselling environment for welfare claimants.
  • Support a trauma-informed Job Centre Plus service and agree general need to prioritise people’s interest over system efficiencies. We’re dealing with human beings. Need to give people platforms on which to flourish to achieve a better economy

Wera Hobhouse MP: You would have my support for a public inquiry. Think there would also be support from media. We know that gov always says no before it says yes, so need to continue to put pressure on. Lib Dem colleagues would also support. I hope that other Parliamentarians will join us in writing to SoS on this issue. I encourage people to write to MPs to ask them to join APPG on Mental Health.