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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.

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