People with mental health problems will not be forced to work, says minister

People with mental health problems will not be driven into crisis by being forced into the labour market, the government has promised.

Last month a new employment and support allowance (ESA) replaced incapacity benefit. New claimants will have to undergo a “work capability assessment”. This will include a medical assessment.

People who have not worked for years because of long-standing problems could have to start looking for jobs as the new scheme is rolled out to the 2.5 million on incapacity benefit, around 40 per cent of whom have mental health problems.

Anne McGuire, the minister for disabled people, has promised that “safeguards” will be in place to ensure people with mental health problems are not forced to take up inappropriate or unsupported work.

Her pledge follows campaigners’ fears that such people will be shifted to the less-generous job-seekers allowance, or made to find jobs which are excessively demanding or with unsupportive or prejudiced bosses. This, in turn, could throw a person into crisis.

But Ms McGuire said the ESA assessment “focuses on what people can do, not what they can’t.”

“People who fall into the ‘support group’ of ESA will get a higher rate of benefit and will not face any sanctions,” she wrote in a letter on Monday to a national newspaper.

“For everyone else on ESA, it is reasonable to expect claimants to engage with our work programmes.

“If they don’t they could lose some of their benefits, but not all. There are safeguards in place and no one will be forced to take up work which isn’t suitable for them….We are also looking at ways of providing better support while they’re in work.

“These historic reforms are about ensuring another generation of disabled people are not abandoned, as they were in the early 1990s.”

A study of 279 people reported by the charity Mind reported that, after disclosing a mental health problem, 31% of people were sacked or forced out of a job, 26% were demoted and one in four had job offers withdrawn.

Hilary Caprani, a spokeswoman from the charity Rethink, says: “There should be a culture of openness about mental health in the workplace and employers should provide support, for example, through flexible working or access to regular supervision and appraisals to discuss working conditions.”

The ESA’s principle is that “everyone should have the opportunity to work” and that those with an illness or disability should get adequate support to work.

Mind wants employers to carry out mental health risk assessments of their workplaces, policies and practices, and for employees to have a right to request flexible working on mental health grounds and to qualify for disability leave.

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