Daniel Boffey Observer policy editor
Saturday 20 February 2016
The Bishop of St Albans Dr Alan Smith has questioned the prime minister’s stance on welfare reforms affecting those with mental health issues. Photograph: Alamy
David Cameron’s claim to be backing a revolution in the treatment of the mentally ill has come under attack from a senior bishop who claims welfare cuts currently being considered by parliament will hit the very people the prime minister has pledged to help
The House of Lords struck out government plans last year to take up to £1,500 year in benefit payments from 250,000 people with psychiatric conditions – but on Tuesday ministers will seek to overturn the decision.
The government claims that reducing the amount paid to sick or disabled people currently unfit for work from £102.15 to £72.40 per week will incentivise them to find employment.
In a letter published in the Observer, Dr Alan Smith, the bishop of St Albans, writes that he has been left “puzzled” by the contradiction between the prime minister’s claims to want to tackle mental health problems and the government’s actions in the realm of welfare.
“The House of Lords called into serious question the notion that those found to be unable to work can be incentivised back to work by a cut to their living standards,” he writes. “I welcome the prime minister’s initiative on mental healthcare, but I am puzzled why the government at the same time wants to cut out-of-work benefits to those with mental health problems.”
Last week this newspaper published details of a leaked report from NHS England’s mental health taskforce, which disclosed the number of people killing themselves is rising, that three-quarters of those with psychiatric conditions are not being helped, and that sick children are being sent “almost anywhere in the country” for treatment.
The study, overseen by Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, makes it clear that the situation is dire despite promises of reform. “Many people struggle to get the right help at the right time and evidence-based care is underfunded,” the report said. “The human cost is unacceptable and the financial cost is unaffordable.”
The prime minister subsequently accepted recommendations from the mental health taskforce, including that there should be access to services for people with psychiatric conditions on a 24/7 basis.
The prime minister promised an extra £1bn in funding to plug gaps in services. However, there are continued concerns that the money will not be invested and that the government is not placing enough attention on mental health in its welfare reforms.
A Crossbench review, published by Lord Low, Baroness Meacher and Baroness Grey-Thompson, has found that the proposed cuts to people on employment support allowance, who are unfit for work, would be likely to hinder rather than help claimants seeking a way back into work, pushing them further into a cycle of poverty that would only exacerbate mental and physical health conditions.