Ministers ‘must come clean’ about ESA story, says MP


newslatestA disabled MP has called on ministers to reveal the source of an article that claimed social security claimants in mental distress could soon be forced to undergo talking therapy – or have their benefits removed.

The idea was floated by an anonymous source at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in an article in the Sunday Telegraph, but was later dismissed as “complete tosh” by a Conservative MP, and “not a sensible idea” by the Liberal Democrat care and support minister Norman Lamb.

The article says that claimants face losing their out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA), “if they refuse to undergo treatment for anxiety and depression, under radical plans being drawn up by ministers”.

The source said: “We know that depression and anxiety are treatable conditions. Cognitive behavioural therapies work and they get people stable again but you can’t mandate people to take that treatment.

“But there are loads of people who claim ESA who undergo no treatment whatsoever. It is bizarre. This is a real problem because we want people to get better.”

The move could affect 260,000 people in the ESA work-related activity group – those who are expected to move towards work in due course – according to the Sunday Telegraph, with the source suggesting that it could move more than 230,000 of the claimants off ESA.

The story suggested that it was not legal for the government to force someone to receive treatment as a condition of receiving benefits, but that ministers apparently now think this should be reviewed in order to cut the “huge” numbers claiming social security as a result of mental health problems.

DWP has already launched one trial and is beginning three others within weeks that will test different ways of linking mental health services with employment support for ESA claimants, but these pilots – designed by both the DWP and the Department of Health – will not include any mandatory treatment.

The story sparked anger and ridicule from disabled campaigners, particularly those with mental health conditions, while Lamb said it would not work and was “not a sensible idea”.

He said: “The idea that you frogmarch someone into therapy with the threat of a loss of benefits simply won’t work.

“It is not a question of whether tough love is a good concept. You actually need someone to go into therapy willingly.”

The independent-minded Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP who chairs the Commons health select committee, also dismissed the idea, and tweeted: “Presumably this complete tosh planted by someone who has no understanding of consent to treatment.”

DWP initially refused to confirm that it had no plans to introduce mandatory treatment, and insisted that it had made improvements to the WCA – the ESA eligibility test introduced by the previous government in 2008 – for people with mental health conditions as part of its rolling independent review.

A DWP spokesman said: “As part of ongoing review, we are always looking at ways to further improve the system including through the use of our mental health pilots.”

He then told DNS: “We are absolutely not considering, proposing or planning any kind of mandation at the moment.”

But he refused to say whether DWP would be complaining to the Sunday Telegraph about the story, and said: “I do not see that it is relevant.”

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said DWP had a duty to “come clean” about the origins of the story, which would terrify “even the most mild-mannered disabled person”.

She said: “My select committee has on a number of occasions pulled the department up for comments that have appeared in the press, either directly attributable or not to the department, and their response has always been that they are not in control of what the press writes.”

But she said the committee did not accept that as an excuse because such stories must originate from somewhere, and can cause disabled people a “great deal of fear and alarm”.

Reaction to the story was tracked through the social media tool Storify by Mark Brown, editor of the user-led mental health magazine One in Four.

He said there had been “huge amounts of tweets from other people with mental health difficulties who are frightened, upset, angry and despairing”, and he called it “easily the most ridiculous, regressive” mental health policy to be floated yet.

In her blog, Jayne Linney described the idea as “another government ‘fag packet’ proposal for benefit sanctions and cuts”, and wrote: “Rarely do I come across a Tory policy proposal that makes me both Smile (albeit at the irony) and Shudder (with fear); but today’s report in the Telegraph does exactly this.”

Adrian Smith, @kernowsmith, tweeted: “Seems crazy to me, most of us wait ages to get treatment even when we agree to it. Nasty party propaganda.”

While Mared, @maredtm58, tweeted: “And so it goes on. Endless Gvt discrimination against the sick and the vulnerable.”

And Debbie Sayers, @debbiesayers, added: “Likely to push people over the edge there is no quick fix for MH and many cant get help because of the cuts, not by choice.”

17 July 2014