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We need a ceasefire in the welfare system

Annie Irvine and Cassie Lovelock

Postdoctoral Research Associate

15 August 2023

How can the welfare benefits system be improved to better support people with health conditions and disabilities? In this first blog of a series around understanding mental health and the UK welfare system, Annie Irvine and Cassie Lovelock discuss the themes that are emerging from qualitative research in this area.

The welfare system is a battleground

We know that the existing welfare benefits system is not working for many of those who it is supposed to help, and it can be especially challenging for people with mental health problems. At the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health, qualitative research into the experience of benefit claimants with mental health problems is revealing a picture of combat and conflict, instead of security and support.  

When describing their encounters with the welfare system, we are noticing that the language used by claimants with health problems frequently conjures images of a warzone:

Four quotes:

Much qualitative evidence already exists to show that the current regime of assessment, conditionality and sanctions is both extremely distressing  and, as more recent Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) evidence has confirmed, largely ineffective in moving people into work. Our emerging analysis suggests that, more than this, the system of placing people into health-related conditionality groupings might even be counterproductive, moving them further away from their work aspirations.

“The group that’s safe”

Because they fear that their needs will not be fairly taken into account by those at the frontline of welfare delivery, people are forced to take refuge in the area of the benefits system that will not push them into unsuitable or unfeasible work-related activity, punishing them with sanctions if they are unable to do so.

As one participant in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Support Group put it, “I'm in the group that's safe.’ Once in this place of safety, the data is suggesting that some people actually feel more able to start thinking about steps towards work.

Quote: Now that I'm on [ESA] I'm much more relaxed. Like it put me in the place where I was ready to start trying to improve myself … [because] they're not forcing me to get a job … I've got a little bit of a stop gap where I haven't got to stress about a

The problem is that, once in this safe space, some people can then feel abandoned. Being ‘left alone’ by the violent system can be a mixed blessing for those who would like some support to work towards their goals:

Quote: t's like they've just forgotten about me … It just feels like I've been left alone, which I'm happy for and not at the same time. I'm happy because I don't have to deal with them, but I'm annoyed because I just feel like they're just going to leave

At the moment, the welfare system is not a safe place. At worst, it is deadly. How might things be different if the whole of the welfare system – not just the ESA Support Group or Universal Credit’s Limited Capability for Work-Related Activity group – was a place of safety. If it was, then people could extract themselves from the battle and instead focus on their hopes, aspirations and possibilities:

Quote: I want to work and I want to get out there, but I shouldn't have to be fighting for where I'm at and where I've been at.

Our research project is still in its early stages. However, we are yet to come across a claimant who expresses no desire to work. In fact, many claimants with health problems and disabilities talk about both a strong desire to work and quite specific types of work that they would like to do, and moreover can describe the adjustments, supports and flexibility that would make this possible.

However, as Jones & Kumar note in their critique of UK active labour market  policy, a dominant work-first approach “crowds out more meaningful support which might realistically help to empower and improve disabled people’s position in the labour market. An overwhelming emphasis on policing benefit eligibility forces unhelpful distinctions between those deemed fit or unfit for work”.

Time for a ceasefire?

At present, huge amounts of administrative, financial and emotional resource are devoted to the project of proving whether people are fit for work or not, whilst claimants with health problems report a lack of effective accompanying support to move towards employment.

As one participant summed up, the current welfare system feels combative rather than collaborative, with each side fighting to overcome the other instead of focusing together on high-quality employment support:

Quote: Their attitude is that it's a battle zone. That's their attitude. Like, they're trying to get one over on you and they've got to stop you from getting one over on them … How is any of this helping you get a job? Do you see what I'm saying? They're

As we have argued elsewhere, “The benefits system has become a battleground on which to prove (or disprove) severity of impairment, rather than an arena in which the totality and complexity of people’s lives can be understood and supported in a diverse range of more effective ways.” What might be the result if we abandoned this battle altogether, and instead provided everyone with a decent living income and redirected the administrative resource to understanding people in their wholeness – not only as sick or disabled people, but also as parents, carers, survivors of abuse and discrimination, people with skills, hopes, and aspirations for their future. And what if we then offered the kinds of holistic, tailored and long-term support and encouragement that would enable people to find and sustain decent and appropriate work that took all of their personal circumstances into account.

Looked at from where we are currently, these proposals may seem utopian and idealistic. Whilst there is talk of scrapping the work capability assessment (WCA), no party seems willing to give up their commitment to conditionality. Yet a radical shift in approach seems necessary if we are to get out of this impasse. As it stands, both sides are up in arms. We need a ceasefire so that people can come out of the trenches and feel safe to explore steps towards work; so that, in the words of one participant, people on both sides can stop “wasting time in this battle”.

Quote: The benefit people should look on the benefits and signing, look into the people, because everybody has a different need, and just try to address them. So that whatever the person’s stage is … instead of wasting time in this battle [of] whether the

Understanding mental health in the UK Welfare System

This project is funded by the ESRC Secondary Data Analysis Initiative [Grant Ref: ES/X002101/1] and is a qualitative secondary analysis of the Welfare Conditionality Project (WelCond). The WelCond project (2013-2019) focused on sanctions and support in the UK welfare system. Over 200 of the study’s 481 participants described mental health problems of one kind or another. Our secondary analysis of the WelCond data set is digging deeper into the experience of these participants, seeking to better understand the relationship between mental distress, engagement with the welfare system, and work-related outcomes. We gratefully acknowledge the Welfare Conditionality Project team who have made their data available via the Timescapes Archive. Data set identifier:

In this story

Annie Irvine

Annie Irvine

Research Fellow

Cassandra  Lovelock

Cassandra Lovelock

Qualitative Research Assistant

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