A disabled mother-of-two has accused the government of “financial blackmail” and discriminating against claimants of legacy benefits*, after she was told she could only claim vital financial support for her baby’s nutrition if she agreed to transfer onto universal credit.
Allie Bennett-Cox, from Winchester, said this week that no parent should be left fearing that they will not be able to feed their baby.
The Healthy Start scheme provides vouchers for milk, fruit, vegetables, pulses and vitamins for pregnant women and those with children aged up to four if they are claiming certain income-related benefits.
But the scheme only applies to pregnant mums receiving income-related employment and support allowance (ESA) until the moment they give birth, at which point they are no longer eligible for the vouchers.
Disabled mums then have to migrate onto universal credit if they want to continue to receive financial support with their baby’s nutrition, a policy described by Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Vicky Foxcroft, as “immoral” and “deeply problematic”.
It appears to be part of the government’s continued push to force disabled people off legacy benefits such as ESA and onto universal credit, which could lead to them receiving a lower rate of benefits.
It follows the ongoing controversy over the government’s refusal to provide recipients of legacy benefits with the same £20-a-week uplift given to those on universal credit during the pandemic.
Four benefit claimants are waiting for the high court to rule on whether this policy was discriminatory under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Because of the Healthy Start rules, Bennett-Cox and her husband, her full-time carer, have now missed out on nearly four years-worth of vouchers for their first child, Elizabeth, and they have been told that the same rules apply to their newborn son, Oscar.
NHS Business Services Authority, which runs the scheme on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), has confirmed in a letter that she is not eligible for the vouchers, even though the Healthy Start website mistakenly states that she is.
Bennett-Cox, who also had to take the Department for Work and Pensions to a tribunal to establish her eligibility for personal independence payment, said she believes the Healthy Start policy is “very discriminatory” and “would especially affect parents like me who are also disabled and therefore struggling anyway”.
She said: “With the high court considering if it was unlawful discrimination to give the £20 pandemic uplift to those on universal credit but not to ESA claimants, it seems this situation is almost identical in nature.
“My financial situation is exactly the same and it amounts to financial blackmail to try and force people to switch over to universal credit.”
The letter from the Healthy Start scheme to Bennett-Cox’s MP, Steve Brine, who raised the concerns on her behalf, confirms that the vouchers are not payable after the child has been born if the claimant receives income-related ESA, but that they could start receiving them again if they move onto universal credit.
Those receiving income-based jobseeker’s allowance and income support, as well as some recipients of child tax credit, pension credit and working tax credit, are also eligible to receive the vouchers after their child is born.
The letter says that work is now “ongoing” to change the wording on the government website to ensure it is clear that if someone “receives income-related ESA and is no longer pregnant, they are not eligible for the Healthy Start scheme”.
Foxcroft said: “Once again, the government is showing complete contempt for people on legacy benefits, creating a two-tier system of support which disproportionately negatively impacts disabled people on legacy benefits.
“The Healthy Start scheme is purposely set up to provide new and expecting parents help in buying food, milk and vitamins.
“Crafting a policy where disabled parents on legacy benefits lose out on this support is immoral.
“This Tory government is now actively forcing new parents into a situation where they are having to move to universal credit, without knowing if they will be negatively financially impacted or not.
“Ministers need to correct this deeply problematic policy urgently. All parents deserve proper support, regardless of which benefit they are on.”
Bennett-Cox said: “The government and the NHS offer these vouchers for a reason, they know it is a massively vulnerable time for parent and child, with the financial struggle for the parents of raising young children and the emotional anxiety that is inherent in trying to give your baby the best start in life possible, but mostly of course in regards to the tangible health of young infants and their complex needs.
“Children have their own individual nutritional needs and many mothers have to rely on expensive formulas when breastfeeding does not work for their baby.
“Also, with energy costs soaring and grocery bills seemingly climbing higher each week, this lifeline is needed now more than ever.
“No parent should ever be made to fear that they cannot feed their baby.”
She said that not all disabled parents are as lucky as she is.
She said: “I have family that would never let my babies go hungry if it came to it and my parents will sometimes bring us baby formula, but it is still hard to manage a very stringent budget and there are more and more things we have to do without, shop around for or sacrifice nutritional quality on, as prices go up consistently.
“At a time when some families are forced to choose between heating or food, these things are very worrying to us all.
“I have often seen people online comment that poor or disabled people shouldn’t have children.
“This suggestion is patently disgusting but I have concerns that it is echoed in the ethos of many members of parliament, that poor people should be somehow punished for being in need.”
The Department of Health and Social Care had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday), despite being approached for a comment three days earlier.
*Legacy benefits are those that are gradually being replaced by the new universal credit system
Picture: Allie Bennett-Cox and her son Oscar
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