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Welfare benefit reforms “devastating” to health and wellbeing conclude cross party group of MPs

26 February 2021

The effect of the Welfare Reform & Work Act 2016 has been ‘devastating’ to the health and wellbeing of people on low incomes, a new report by MPs of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Health in All Policies has concluded.

The MPs found overwhelming evidence showing how the Act has pushed many low income households into poverty and financial hardship, disproportionately affecting children and disabled people.

The analysis also reveals how the treatment of those people reliant on social security by the DWP often leaves them feeling worthless and even “dehumanised”.

The report considers five specific measures within the Welfare Reform & Work Act 2016:

  • the benefit cap;
  • the benefit freeze;
  • the two-child limit;
  • the abolition of the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance (ESA); and
  • the extension of conditionality to ‘responsible carers’.

The MPs conclude that although the Government achieved their aim of cutting welfare spending by introducing these measures – working age spending on social security has shrunk by £34 billion since 2010 – there has been minimal impact on helping to get people into work who wouldn’t have got into work without these measures.

The APPG said that there is a growing evidence base of the direct and negative impacts of different aspects of the social security system on the mental and physical health of claimants and their families, in addition to the indirect impacts mediated by poverty as a result of having inadequate income from work and/or social security support.

In addition to quantitative evidence it looked at qualitative studies which pointed to a process of ‘dehumanising’ claimants that eroded their self-esteem and confidence, making them feel worthless. In some cases, the whole experience had proved too much for some claimants and they have taken their own lives.

The MPs stress that it is important to note the knock-on impact that this ill health will have on health services and for social protection to be recognised as mitigating against socio-economic health risk factors.

As a result, the APPG makes 16 recommendations including:

  • For the Equality and Human Rights Commission to undertake an investigation into the deaths of vulnerable claimants, by suicide and other causes between 2008 and 2020;
  • For the DWP to develop systems and practices across the Department for Work and Pensions which identify and support vulnerable claimants at all stages of their application and claim;
  • Making the social safety net sufficient for people not in full-time work to receive a minimum income for healthy living;
  • Making permanent the £1,000-a-year increase in the standard allowance for Universal Credit;
  • Removing sanctions and reduce conditionalities in benefit payments;
  • Eradicating benefit caps and lifting the two-child limit;
  • Providing tapering levels of benefits to avoid cliff edges;
  • Ending the five-week wait for Universal Credit and providing cash grants for low-income households;
  • Giving sufficient Government support to food aid providers and charities;
  • For the DWP to change their culture from one that is perceived to ‘dehumanise’ claimants to one that trusts, supports and enables claimants;
  • For the DWP to ensure that any future social security policy measures are subject to comprehensive and cumulative impact assessments (IAs) which are published prior to their scrutiny in Parliament, and for such IAs to include an assessment on the potential health effects of such measures;
  • For the DWP in conjunction with the DHSC to commission research into the scale of mental health issues arising from all social security system measures since 2012, including the potential mental health effects arising from the Covid-19 pandemic from new social security claimants;
  • For the DWP in conjunction with the DHSC to commission research into the medium to long term health effects of different scenarios: no change; maintaining £20 a week Universal Credit uplift and extending to legacy support; maintaining £20 a week Universal Credit uplift and extending to legacy support, eradicating the benefit cap, two child limit and sanctions;
  • For the academic, charity and DPOs sectors to collaborate on a citizens’ assembly for a new social security system, as part of a cross party commission for a new welfare state which builds back fairer.

The full APPG report is available from debbieabrahams.org.uk.