If you're looking to claim benefits, chances are you're already down on your luck and feeling pretty glum.

It would be a strain on anyone's mental health, and especially people for whom issues such as depression or anxiety are simply a part of the daily struggle. So the most insensitive question someone could possibly ask in this situation would be why you haven't killed yourself.

That's apparently what's happening in the UK, however, as a committee of UK MPs has heard that benefits claimants are regularly treated this way, even while they are 'curled up crying on the floor'.

"There are people curled up crying on the floor and they're in assessments," said Labour MP Ruth George, addressing the UK government's disabilities minister Sarah Newton.

"The assessor will simply not look at them but will repeat questions to them.

"Do you think that is an appropriate way to support people with very serious mental health conditions?"

George was speaking to Newton as she appeared before the House of Commons' Work and Pensions Committee - a committee of MPs who look into work and benefits issues.

Newton agreed with George in criticising the approach, saying that the reported behaviour was 'deeply troubling' and 'not acceptable at all'.

Newton stressed that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) - responsible for overseeing Jobcentres - wants to give those seeking handouts 'a good customer experience'.

George also discussed the Work Capability Assessment, a DWP test which determines people's ability to work before giving them benefits.

According to George, people with serious mental health problems who have reported having suicidal thoughts are regularly asked: 'Why haven't you killed yourself then?'

"Do you think that is an appropriate question to assess someone's capability to work?" George asked Newton.

Newton said that it was 'important' for safeguarding purposes to ask benefit claimants if they had suicidal thoughts, but agreed that the question of 'why have you not acted on them' was inappropriate.

Last year the government spent a huge £700 million ($935m) on the system - most of it going to private firms - despite claimants getting no more than £141 ($188) a week.

The Labour MP Neil Coyle said that the DWP spent £579m ($774m) last year on tests for Personal Independence Payments and Employment and Support Allowance.

The government also spent £22m ($29m) on internal appeals, £103m ($137m) on independent appeals and £4m ($5m) on paying officers to attend appeal tribunals.

"This is a £700m-a-year administration system for benefits that are worth between a maximum of £110 and £140 a week," Coyle said.

"How is this mugging of the taxpayer that is destroying the lives of thousands of disabled people fair?"

Newton defended the benefits system, vowing to 'improve it', but denied Coyle's allegations of ripping off taxpayers.

A DWP spokesperson said: "Suicide is a serious and complex issue and it's important that assessors establish whether someone is at risk as part of safeguarding.

"Assessment providers receive thorough training on mental health conditions, including suicidal issues, and we expect them to maintain the highest standards in dealing with vulnerable people."

Featured Image Credit: PA

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