Disabled people have told MPs how they have been hit particularly hard by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the benefits system.
The Commons work and pensions committee carried out a survey of benefit claimants as part of an inquiry into the response of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to the crisis.
The committee said that more than 6,000 individuals and organisations responded to its survey.
Among the nine key findings of an analysis of those responses (PDF), part of its continuing inquiry, the committee said that people claiming sickness and disability benefits “feel particularly hard hit” by the impact of coronavirus, while “some people are still struggling to make ends meet” and others have been unable to claim universal credit.
Three-fifths (63 per cent) of those claiming the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance told the committee that their benefits would not cover their basic living costs, such as rent, food and electricity bills.
And another 23 per cent said they would be able to cover those bills but would have to cut back in other areas to do so.
One disabled person told the committee: “Food and other household goods have gone up in price or I can’t buy the cheaper options I normally get, so the money I get isn’t going far enough.
“I’m having to spend a lot of money on cleaning products and [personal protective equipment] for my carers as I’m in the extremely vulnerable category.”
The decision by ministers to suspend face-to-face assessments for disability benefits, as a result of the pandemic, has caused problems for disabled people whose assessments were cancelled and are now waiting to hear what will happen to their claim.
One said: “Atos have cancelled all face to face PIP assessments for the next three months and are saying they are going carry them out over the phone.
“I still have not heard when my assessment will be and was told by Atos customer service after I had called that they do not know when it will be as they are still ‘sorting it out’.”
Another said: “I sent off the paperwork, which is the precursor to having another assessment, but I have not heard anything back.
“I have read that DWP are stopping all benefits assessments for at least three months but I haven’t heard anything directly relating to my claim.”
Disabled claimants with mental health conditions described to the committee how the introduction of social distancing had made it impossible for them to access the support they needed to complete their benefit applications.
One said: “The DWP have stopped my PIP and my partner’s carers benefit, all because I am still waiting for my doctor to do a letter to them to tell them why I couldn’t go to my face to face medical with Atos health care.
“This is not fair as doctors cannot do letters [when] they are working on the front line with this virus.”
Another told the committee: “Unable to talk to anyone, I’m a veteran, have depression and anxiety and PTSD.
“How am I meant to complete my PIP [personal independence payment] review with no assistance?”
In a separate written submission to the inquiry, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) warns that the “overwhelming pressures” on the universal credit system due to the pandemic crisis means that contacting DWP is now “near impossible”.
DPAC says this is “causing considerable anxiety and distress” and exacerbating people’s pre-existing conditions.
It also says that advice organisations had been forced to restrict their operations, which means many disabled people are now finding it impossible to access the support they need to secure essential benefits.
And it calls for DWP to issue clear guidance to employers to prevent them pressuring disabled staff who are at higher risk from the virus.
DPAC says in its submission: “We have been made aware of numerous cases where disabled people in vulnerable categories have been pressured into putting their lives at risk by going into work during the coronavirus outbreak by employers ranging from construction sites to local authorities.”
It also says that disabled workers have reported problems securing access to workplace adjustments and equipment that would allow them to work from home during the pandemic crisis.
And it highlights the problems that disabled people receiving support through the Access to Work scheme have experienced in contacting DWP for advice on how to respond to the crisis.
Stephen Timms, the Labour MP who chairs the work and pensions committee, said: “Hearing from people with first-hand experience of the benefits system is a crucial part of our scrutiny of the DWP.
“It’s clear from what we’ve heard that DWP staff are working very hard and have made great strides in adapting to the unprecedented strain on the benefits system.
“But we’ve also heard from people who are still facing serious difficulties. Disabled people have been particularly hard hit: their living costs have gone up, but their benefits have stayed the same.
“We hope that ministers will look carefully at what people have told us, and make changes.”
*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
The Department of Health and Social Care
National Survivor User Network
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