Research for Gateshead council finds system increases depression and anxiety.
Patrick Butler Social policy editor
Thu 15 Nov 2018 15.46 GMT.
Universal credit has become a serious threat to public health, doctors have said, after a study revealed that the stress of coping with the new benefits system had so profoundly affected claimants’ mental health that some considered suicide.
Public health researchers found overwhelmingly negative experiences among vulnerable claimants, including high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems and social isolation exacerbated by hunger and destitution.
“Universal credit is not only failing to achieve its stated aim of moving people into employment, it is punishing people to such an extent that the mental health and wellbeing of claimants, their families and of [support] staff is being undermined,” the report states.
It concludes that universal credit is actively creating poverty and destitution, and says it is not fit for purpose for many people with disabilities, mental illness or chronic health conditions.
It calls for a radical overhaul of the system before the next phase of its rollout next year.
Alice Wiseman, the director of public health at Gateshead council, which commissioned the study, said: “I consider universal credit, in the context of wider austerity, as a threat to the public’s health.” She said many of her public health colleagues around the country shared her concerns.
Universal credit was “seriously undermining” efforts to prevent ill-health in one of the UK’s most deprived areas, Wiseman said. “This is not political, this is about the lives of vulnerable people in Gateshead. They are a group that should be protected but they haven’t been.”
The qualitative study of 33 claimants and 37 welfare advice staff was carried out by Teesside and Newcastle university academics between April and October. It focused on claimants with disabilities, mental illness and long-term health conditions, as well as homeless people, forces veterans and care leavers.
The Gateshead study comes as the UN’s investigator on poverty, Philip Alston, prepares to publish a report of the impact of austerity in the UK. Alston has been collecting evidence on the effects of council spending cuts, welfare reform and universal credit during a two-week tour of some of the country’s poorest areas.
Last month the government declared that universal credit, its ambitious and troubled benefits overhaul, which rolls six benefits into one monthly payment, was “here to stay” after it injected £2.7bn into the system in October’s budget in an attempt to head off a rising tide of concerns, including from Tory backbenchers.
However, the Gateshead study is likely to fuel fresh calls for the system’s rollout to be paused to attempt to fix fundamental design flaws and ensure adequate protections are in place for vulnerable claimants.
Around 750,000 chronically ill and disabled claimants are expected to transfer on to universal credit from 2019.