Disabled activists are organising a national day of action to push for the government’s new universal credit benefit system to be scrapped.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) believes that the “punishing” universal credit (UC) regime, which is slowly replacing six working-age benefits, is “rotten to the core”.
DPAC says UC is too flawed to be simply “paused and fixed” – the “wimpish” policy that the Labour opposition has adopted – and that it is “an economic and political disaster bringing further distress and impoverishment to those forced to endure it”.
Part of the aim of the day of action on 1 March is to focus on Labour’s failure to adopt a “stop and scrap” policy, with the possibility that some protests could be aimed at the party.
The day of action will include a protest in Westminster, with activists meeting outside the visitors’ entrance of the House of Commons.
A DPAC spokesperson said: “No civilized government should impose this on its citizens and no opposition party should want to simply pause and fix it.”
Among the impacts of UC on disabled people that have alarmed DPAC are the introduction of mandatory health and work conversations for all disabled claimants; the difficulty of an online-only system that makes it “difficult or impossible” for some disabled people to claim; and the possibility that disabled people with part-time jobs that suit their support needs will be forced into unsuitable full-time jobs.
A key concern is over the scrapping of severe (£62.45 per week) and enhanced disability premiums (£15.90 per week), which are currently added to some means-tested disability benefits to help with the costs of disability.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) argued this week that it had “simplified and rationalised the various, complex disability premiums” that exist in the current system, but without explaining how it had done so and who would lose out.
DPAC also points to widespread problems faced by all UC claimants, such as the introduction of “harsh” sanctions for those who have jobs, as well as those who are out-of-work, if they fail to meet the terms of a “claimant commitment” (an agreement to look for work or increase earnings).
It also highlights the long delays faced by claimants before they receive their first UC payment; reported increases in rent arrears among UC claimants, caused by housing payments no longer being paid direct to landlords; and letting agents reportedly refusing to rent properties to UC claimants.
Campaigners have warned that the rollout has been leaving hundreds of thousands in debt, and forcing people – many of them disabled – to borrow from loan sharks, pawnbrokers and payday loan companies, while many have been left facing eviction because of the rollout.
Following these and other concerns, chancellor Philip Hammond announced in November’s budget a package of improvements to UC that will cost £1.5 billion over the next five years (£300 million in 2018-19), including removing the seven-day waiting period for new claimants so that entitlement starts on the day of the claim.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Universal credit lies at the heart of our reforms to transform the welfare system, so it supports those who can work and cares for those who can’t.
“And it’s working. Under universal credit people are finding a job faster and staying in it longer than under the old system, while having the right help in place for people who need it.
“We have listened to feedback and are bringing in a £1.5 billion package of improvements announced in the budget to make it easier for people moving onto universal credit.
“Continuing to roll out universal credit in a safe and controlled way will mean many more people will benefit from moving into employment.”
She said it had “always been part of the design of universal credit that we would simplify and reduce the number of different rates for sickness and disability” and that those currently claiming the severe and enhanced premiums would not see their benefits reduced in cash terms when moving onto universal credit, unless their circumstances changed.
But such claimants can see their benefits reduced if there is any change in their circumstances.
DWP argues that this “requirement to make a new claim to benefit where there has been a change of circumstance is not new”.
Despite requests from Disability News Service to clarify exactly how disabled people previously in receipt of the premiums will be affected by UC, DWP has so far been unable to do so.
But it claims that anyone who is in the ESA support group and only qualifies for the enhanced disability premium will be better off under UC by more than £90 per month.
The DWP spokeswoman said the health and work conversations would “help ensure that people are supported during the initial stages of claiming benefits” and that any actions agreed would be voluntary, while “safeguards will be put in place to ensure there are appropriate exemptions from attending”.
She said DWP understood that some people would need extra support in making a UC claim, including claims being able to be taken over the phone, or appointments made for visits to people’s homes.
Work coaches will provide “ongoing support for people who need it and that can be face-to-face, via text message, over the phone or through people’s online journals”, while there are computers and free wi-fi in all Jobcentre Plus offices for the public and claimants to use, and jobcentre staff can input claimant details for those who need support.
She said the claimant commitment sets out what is expected of claimants “in return for the support they will receive”, with claimants “encouraged to tell their work coach what they can manage and what is realistic and achievable for them”.
And she said that sanctions were “only ever used in a small minority of cases” and it was “right that we encourage claimants to do everything they can to prepare for, or find work in return for benefits”, while claimants can ask for a reconsideration of the sanction decision and then have a right to appeal to a tribunal.
She said that most claimants were “comfortable managing their money but advances are available for anyone who needs extra help, and arrangements can be made to pay rent direct to landlords if needed”, while anyone applying for UC can apply for a 100 per cent advance, while there was “budgeting support” for those who need it.