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Depression and anxiety sufferers ‘to lose sickness benefits in welfare reforms’

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride will set out plans for welfare reform on Monday (Victoria Jones/PA)
Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride will set out plans for welfare reform on Monday (Victoria Jones/PA)

People suffering from depression or anxiety could lose access to sickness benefits as part of the Government’s major welfare reforms, the Work and Pensions Secretary has said.

Mel Stride is set to announce plans to overhaul the way disability benefits work in a statement to the Commons on Monday, with proposals aimed at providing “more tailored support in line with their needs”.

In a Green Paper due to be published alongside Mr Stride’s statement, ministers will set out plans to reform personal independence payments (PIP), the main disability benefit, through changes to eligibility criteria and assessments.

The plans, which will be consulted on over the coming months, also include proposals to “move away from a fixed cash benefit system”, meaning people with some conditions will no longer receive regular payments but rather improved access to treatment if their condition does not involve extra costs.

In an interview with The Times, Mr Stride suggested this would mean people with “milder mental health conditions” would no longer receive financial support.

Monday’s proposals follow a speech in which the Prime Minister announced major changes to the welfare system earlier this month, saying “people with less severe mental health conditions should be expected to engage with the world of work”.

Mr Stride said the system should not be paying people to deal with the “ordinary difficulties of life” and suggested that many voters “deep down” agree with him.

Describing the reforms as “probably the most fundamental reforms in a generation”, he said: “There are those that have perhaps milder mental health conditions, or where perhaps there has been too great a move towards labelling certain behaviours as having certain (medical) conditions attached to them, where actually work is the answer or part of the answer.

“What we’ve got to avoid is being in a situation where we too readily say ‘Well, actually, we need you to be on benefits’.”

Mr Stride said a “whole plethora of things”, such as talking therapies, social care packages and respite care, could be used as alternatives to benefit payments.

He added that the main reason for the changes is to provide better help and not cut costs, but he acknowledged the cost “has to be one of the considerations”.

James Taylor, the executive director of strategy at disability equity charity Scope, called for an end to the “reckless assault” on disabled people and to fix the “real underlying issues”.

“It’s hard to have any faith that this consultation is about anything other than cutting the benefits bill, no matter the impact,” Mr Taylor said.

“Life costs a lot more for disabled people, including people with mental health conditions. Threatening to take away the low amount of income PIP provides won’t solve the country’s problems.

“The Government needs to end this reckless assault on disabled people and focus on how to fix the real underlying issues.”

The number of monthly PIP awards for mental health disorders has doubled since 2019, from 2,200 to 5,300, in line with an increase in overall PIP awards which have also doubled to 33,000 a month.

Rishi Sunak said Monday’s Green Paper marks “the next chapter of our welfare reforms” that will make the benefits system “fairer to the taxpayer, better targeted to individual needs and harder to exploit”.

He said: “It’s clear that our disability benefits system isn’t working in the way it was intended, and we’re determined to reform it to ensure it’s sustainable for the future, so we can continue delivering support to those who genuinely need it most.”

During a “PM Connect” event at DHL in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, Mr Sunak said he was particularly concerned by the significant rise in younger people who “ought to be in the prime of their lives” but were now “trapped on benefits”.

Pointing to forecasts that suggest the overall cost of PIP could rise by 50% over the next four years, he added: “That’s why I’ve set out the most comprehensive reforms to our welfare system that we’ve seen in a while, that will do a range of different things.

“We’re going to actually look at the whole fit-note/sick-note system that is just routinely signing everyone off as sick and not thinking actually can people do some work.”

The Prime Minister insisted people suffering from mental ill-health should receive the support they needed, but should also not be told they could not work at all.

The three key changes set to be included in the Green Paper are:

– Changing PIP eligibility criteria to better reflect how conditions affect a claimant’s daily life;

– Making the PIP assessment more closely linked to someone’s condition, including removing assessments entirely for some conditions supported by medical evidence;

– Moving away from a fixed cash benefit for some conditions, providing either one-off grants for specific costs such as home adaptation, or ensuring access to “alternative means of support”.

The Government hopes the overall impact will be to move to a system where PIP is more geared towards covering the actual extra costs faced by people with disabilities.

Acting shadow work and pensions secretary Alison McGovern said: “The Government’s failure to get Britain working is terrible for people and catastrophic for the public finances.

“The PIP system that the Tories created isn’t working for disabled people and isn’t working for the taxpayer. We want to see a system that allows disabled people to live independently and enable as many as possible to work.

“Merely consulting on this now, after overseeing years of failure and a soaring benefits bill, proves this Conservative Government is out of ideas and out of time.

“Our plan to get Britain working will drive down NHS waiting lists, reform social security and make work pay. Change with Labour can’t come soon enough.”

– The consultation will run for 12 weeks, closing on July 23.