Campaigners are involved in a stand-off with the government over a major new report that warns hundreds of thousands of disabled people could find themselves driven “over the edge” by welfare reforms.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson led the inquiry by Disability Rights UK, Citizens Advice and The Children’s Society into the impact of “universal credit” on disabled people, which included surveys of almost 3,500 disabled people and their families.
The report, Holes In The Safety Net, concludes that about 450,000 disabled people could eventually lose out under the planned changes, which will see key means-tested benefits and tax credits combined into a new, simpler universal credit, which will start to be introduced next year.
The government insists that “transitional protection” will ensure that no-one moving onto universal credit will see their benefits cut in cash terms.
But the three organisations say this will not apply if there are any changes in personal circumstances – for example if someone moves to a new home – while the payments will not be uprated every year to take account of inflation. The transitional protection will also not apply to new claimants.
The report says 100,000 disabled children could lose up to £28 a week, with two-thirds of those surveyed who would be affected saying such cuts would mean they would have to reduce spending on food, while more than one in 10 said they could be forced to move home. Lone parents would be even more badly affected.
The report also concludes that up to 116,000 disabled people with jobs, who have been found “fit for work” by the government’s benefits assessors, could lose up to £40 a week, which could prevent many of them working because of the extra costs they face in the workplace.
And it warns that nearly a quarter of a million disabled people with high support needs who do not have a carer to assist them could eventually receive between £28 and £58 a week less due to the abolition of the severe disability premium, and that without this money “these disabled people would be unable to meet their most basic of needs”.
Baroness Grey-Thompson said the “clear message” of the report was that many disabled people were “already struggling to keep their heads above water” and that reducing support for them risks “driving many over the edge in future”.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, told the report’s parliamentary launch that she found it “astonishing” that the family of a disabled child born just one day after the cut-off point for transitional protection could find itself £1,300 a year worse off.
She said: “We are talking about significant losses to people who are already on the financial edge.”
But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has repeatedly told newspapers and broadcasters this week that the three charities were “scaremongering”.
A DWP spokeswoman told Disability News Service that the charities had used “extreme examples” and “worst case scenarios” while failing to stress the transitional protection available.
She said the figures recognised by the government were those in an equality impact assessment (EIA) on universal credit, published last November, which showed that “250,000 individuals in households with a disabled person” would be lifted out of poverty.
But the same EIA also states – without including any figures – that “some disabled people could be entitled to less under Universal Credit” although “the government believes this is justified as it is targeting funding at the most severely disabled”.
The DWP spokeswoman said there had been a long “consultative process” over universal credit and that Baroness Grey-Thompson had already raised her concerns in the Lords.
She said Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, had met with many stakeholder groups over the summer, and she added: “It has been very much a process of back and forth, with feedback, and that continues. To say we are not listening [to the concerns]is totally ludicrous. We have been listening from the very start of this process.”
McGuire told the packed launch event that the government had spent the entire day trying to “rubbish” what was an independent report, led by a crossbench peer.
She said the government should have shown “a lot more humility” and instead of “denying what is happening” should look at ways to fix universal credit.
She said: “We want simplification of the benefits system but what we cannot have is simplification on the backs of some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in society.”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, welcomed the “timely” report, and said: “The government’s view is that nobody loses out. >From this report and the research we have carried out, that is clearly not the case.”
She said it would be only “a matter of years” before no-one on universal credit was receiving any transitional protection.
And she said disabled people who live on their own – and probably value their independence more than most – seemed to be the group that would be hit hardest by the changes.
18 October 2012