Universal Credit system pushing thousands into ‘psychological distress’, MPs told

'There was no evidence that universal credit moved people from unemployment to employment.'

Some 64,000 people have experienced psychological distress because of the Universal Credit benefit system, MPs have been told – with a third of those claimants being diagnosed with anxiety or depression. 

Dr Sophie Wickham, a Public Health and Policy specialist at the University of Liverpool, warned of the growing mental health crisis as she gave evidence to Parliament.

Her concerns were backed up by another public policy researcher, Teeside University’s Dr Mandy Cheetham, who claimed the Government’s flagship welfare system was having an “extreme” impact on the mental and physical health of many claimants.

The warnings come as unemployment is expected to soar thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic – with 2.6million applications for Universal Credit submitted in the eight weeks after the lockdown was declared. 

Universal Credit – introduced by former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith – replaced a range of pay-outs such as housing benefit and income support, but it has been criticised for being less generous than the system it replaces. 

Applicants also have to wait five-weeks before receiving a pay-out, and even if they are able to get an advance, this money is deducted from future receipts.

Speaking to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Dr Wickham said her study used data from 50,000 people, and she said: “We found that the introduction of universal credit led to an additional seven people experiencing worse mental health for every 100 people affected by the policy. 

“When you put this back out into a population level, when you put this back out into a national level, we estimate that the introduction of universal credit led to an additional 64,000 unemployed people experiencing psychological distress and of these individuals we estimate that around 21,000 recorded a diagnostic threshold for anxiety or depression.”

Dr Wickham added: “There was no evidence that universal credit moved people from unemployment to employment.”

Dr Cheetham said her research echoed the conclusions of Dr Wickham, and said: “The impact on mental and physical health was I think extreme. 

“People talked about self harm, they talked about anxiety and depression, and in our study six participants talked about feeling so low they had considered suicide.”

Committee member Ben Spencer, Conservative MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, questioned whether it was the universal credit system which was causing the distress, or the stress of a change to a benefit system in general.

Dr Wickham replied: “Any changes to the welfare benefit system can cause psychological distress, particularly large changes like we’re seeing with universal credit. 

“What I can say from our study is that the pre-policy period there were other changes to the welfare system and the levels of psychological distress reported from our intervention group remained largely parallel, largely stable, and it was only the introduction of universal credit where the change was observed.”

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