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Welfare Reform and Advice Support

9 Nov 2012 - 11:37 by Mike Wild

One of the dangers for me in writing a blog is that I'll end up writing only about things I'm angry about (there seems to be quite a lot at the moment) and it will become a terribly depressing read. However, I'm not going to apologise for the bleak picture I'm about to paint because it's what's really happening to people in our communities.

The other day I went to a briefing by Manchester Citizens Advice on a report they had produced in partnership with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies on the impact of the changes being made to welfare benefits alongside cuts to other public services. This includes cuts to the very advice services people need to support them in getting through all the changes.

We've all heard the stories about the Work Capability Assessments being conducted by ATOS. I guess most people have not only seen the stories in the media but also have a family member or friend who has been put through this system: it's had a lot of attention so I'm not going to focus on that here. Instead I want to pick out some of the facts raised by the speakers at the event as they show the wider results of this process.

According to a speaker from the NHS, 54% of those being assessed are found to be fit for work - but many of these people have underlying mental health and/or drug and alcohol issues which, from our own investigations at Macc, we know were not being picked up by the assessment process. The problem the speaker highlighted is that this has created a massive potential demand for services which can support people with these kinds of issues: and they're simply not there.

You can see the problem all too easily. With the state of the economy, there is increased competition for jobs. Given the deep-rooted stigma around mental health and substance misuse, the only way to encourage employers to take these people on is to ensure that there are support services available. Without that support, people with mental health needs will remain largely excluded from the limited jobs market. Sadly it goes even deeper than that: because of the loss of income from benefits and the low likelihood of finding employment which will bring in a living wage, the impact is then felt not only by the individual but their family and carers.

The outcome of this policy seems to be that people who are already disadvantaged by their health issues are will be further excluded. Government policy is, we are told, based on the principle of encourginging people to be 'aspirational' but when the systems designed to move people away from 'dependency' instead penalise those with greater needs, the words 'aspirational' and 'fairness' sound like a sick joke.

If you think I'm exaggerating, then it's worth noting two key statistics quoted by the next speaker who was from the field of public health. Between 2006 and 2011 the suicide rate in Manchester has risen by 42%. The prescription of antidepressants has risen by 8% every year since 2008. Clearly, that's not solely the result of policy by either the present or previous Government: but I would argue that it's an indicator of how some of the most vulnerable people in our communities have been affected by the impact of a global recession in an area which already had high levels of deprivation.

The current programme of welfare reforms seems to be doing nothing to mitigate that impact. In fact it seems to be making it worse.

One hope is that at least these processes can be challenged by those agencies which provide support to people in negotiating the complex welfare benefits system. However, that's where there's a further blow. I spent most of the event scribbling furiously to capture the statistics and analysis offered by the speakers. I missed some points, no doubt, but one line I did capture in full. The message from Manchester CAB "Free advice may be impossible to obtain for the 64,000 people affected by these reforms". That says it all really.

I left the briefing trying to think what Macc could do to help. For a start, one thing we can do is encourage you to read the report for yourself. Here it is:

(CLES have also produced a general brieing on the impact of welfare reforms which gives useful background: click here to download it from the CLES website )

I'm going to be raising this with the Health and Wellbeing Board and other decision-makers in the city. Macc will also continue to work with voluntary and community sector groups which provide support to people with mental health needs, families dealing with complex issues and people struggling in poverty. Our sector is already doing a lot to undo the inequalities in society, but clearly the task is getting bigger and bigger.

Mike Wild's picture

Comments

Submitted by Ben Crouch on

Hi Mike,

Good reminder of the perfect storm still brewing for next year.  With the voluntary and community sector being hit hard with funding cuts and having to cope with the huge changes in their commissioning arrangements there is going to be a tidal wave of demand from the public being overwhelmed and left to fend for themselves by the State as their incomes and security of housing is significantly reduced.

Even organisations with exisiting large clients group will probably see a huge shift in their wants and needs (e.g. not really bothered about CBT for now - want / need food, shelter, money to get kids to clothes).

There is so much for the sector to cope with at the moment and the predictions of charity closures for next April fills me with terror when the role of the sector is going to be so important in providing a safety net to individuals and familes in their most desperate hour.

There was a great BBC report on the rise of Food Banks in the Midlands which was a stark reminder of people in the UK needing charity as more and more people are being forced into poverty.  These were single Mums, families where the parents had been made redundant and had  been unable to find work.  The benefits system even as is, is not fit for purpose to support and enable people to get back on their feet.  The changes coming up especially those in relation to housing benefit are loaded with a political agenda where this Govt believes that no one should be entitled to support for their rent despite wages for many being so low and rents for private housing in the UK being so high.

There is a such a focus on income generation either through social enterprise, payment by results commissioning in the sector to try and secure enough income to keep jobs and services afloat that I do worry that the huge increases in demand, especially for services where people can't pay and therefore will need to be delivered by volunteers won't be put in place until it is too late.

God - that is depressing!!  But definitely is a stark reminder for not only where we are at but also of what we know is coming.

Look forward to reading more of your blogs.

Ben Crouch

Twitter: @bencrouchmcr

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