Mental health inpatients have been told to attend jobcentre meetings relating to their benefits claims, including one claimant who was told to turn up for a work-related appointment, the Observer can reveal.
Three patients at Forston clinic, an NHS mental health inpatient service near Dorchester, were told to attend meetings in recent months – sparking complaints from the local Citizens Advice branch, which has an adviser based at the clinic.
Despite appearing to contradict national guidance from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), local jobcentre managers have refused requests from Citizens Advice Central Dorset to guarantee that no further demands of mental health inpatients will be made.
“It’s just ridiculous. It’s beyond ridiculous,” Daphne Hall, south-west England representative at the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (Nawra), told the Observer. “There should be no way somebody in hospital for whatever reason – mental health or physical – should be expected to attend a work-related appointment. They’re in hospital. They can’t possibly do that.”
Last week employment minister Jo Churchill clarified that DWP guidance did not require hospital inpatients to attend jobcentre meetings, in response to a parliamentary question from Stephen Timms, chair of the work and pensions committee.
“Anybody in those particular units, which are for seriously mentally ill people, should not be required to engage in any kind of work search, work preparation, work-related activities – they should be completely outside of that,” said Caroline Buxton, business and partnerships manager at Central Advice Central Dorset.
“Surely the fact that he’s sectioned is enough to know this person is not at a stage in their claimant journey when they could come and discuss ‘Should I do an IT course?’ or whatever. This is just totally inappropriate.”
Two of the patients did not have to attend after Citizens Advice intervened, while staff at the clinic decided to send a third patient to a jobcentre, so as not to delay their universal credit claim.
“If [the meetings] didn’t go ahead, that was because we have some funding for a dedicated Citizens Advice adviser, able to be in that unit, picking up the phone or emailing somebody and saying: ‘Hey, what are you doing this for? Why are you asking this person to come?’” said Buxton.
Universal credit claimants who are out of work and not judged to be severely disabled are generally required to look for work and attend work-related jobcentre meetings.
But national DWP guidance on work-related requirements lists “mental health issues (eg low self-confidence and self-esteem, anxiety state or depression)” as a “complex need” that means “it would be unreasonable to expect [claimants] to meet their current work-related requirements”.
“Putting any sort of pressure on somebody who’s going through a mental health crisis is likely to be extremely detrimental to their health,” Nawra’s Hall told the Observer.
A DWP spokesperson said: “There are no references within our guidance which state we would require a hospital inpatient to attend a meeting at a jobcentre.
“Work coaches have the discretion to personalise the work-related requirements for individual claimants based on the impact of their health condition.
“In exceptional circumstances, where a claimant is absolutely prevented from making any commitments in return for receiving their benefit, the requirement to do so can be temporarily lifted. This includes, but is not limited to, instances where a claimant is undergoing medical treatment as an inpatient in a hospital.”