The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has breached freedom of information laws by refusing to explain how its new universal credit system of working-age benefits will affect disabled people.
Campaigners have been warning that the introduction of universal credit will see tens or even hundreds of thousands of disabled people with high support needs lose out on thousands of pounds a year because the new system will scrap the disability premiums that exist in the current system.
Both severe (£62.45 per week) and enhanced disability premiums (£15.90 per week) are currently added to some means-tested disability benefits to help with the costs of disability.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been insisting since 2012 that “transitional protection” would ensure that no-one moving onto universal credit would see their benefits cut in cash terms.
But campaigners have remained sceptical, while also pointing out that the transitional protections will not apply if there are any changes in the disabled person’s personal circumstances – for example if they move to a new home, or their relationship status changes – and will not apply to new claimants.
And last month, a terminally-ill man, TP, won permission for a judicial review of the financial impact of the introduction of universal credit on disabled people with high support needs, through the loss of the two premiums.
According to his lawyers, the removal of the premiums has seen TP lose £178 each month after he moved back to London to receive treatment and had to claim universal credit (UC) for the first time.
DWP argued last month that it had just “simplified and rationalised the various, complex disability premiums” that exist in the current system.
But it refused to explain exactly how it had done so and who would lose out under the new system.
Because of that refusal, Disability News Service (DNS) submitted a request on 18 January under the Freedom of Information Act, asking DWP to explain how the system of disability premiums was being replaced under universal credit, and the exact financial impact this would have on people who previously received each of the premiums, as well as on new claimants.
Such freedom of information requests are supposed to be answered within 20 working days, under the Freedom of Information Act, but the request was submitted 35 working days ago (as of 8 March) and DWP has yet to respond.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “It comes as no surprise to anyone who has submitted a freedom of information request to DWP that they have failed once more to supply an answer in the allotted time frame.
“As with everything linked to DWP it seems they feel they are above the law and can do whatever they want.
“This together with the numerous cases where DWP are failing to implement UC regulations fairly and consistently simply increases the concerns we have about how disabled people will survive this latest and most obscene welfare reform.”
DPAC had planned to hold a national day of action last week calling on the government to “stop and scrap” universal credit, which it said was “rotten to the core” and “an economic and political disaster bringing further distress and impoverishment to those forced to endure it”.
Many of the protests had to be called off because of snow and freezing temperatures across the country, but DPAC plans to re-organise the day of action.
Burnip said: “Although the weather and unsafe conditions forced most of the planned street protests calling for UC to be stopped and scrapped to be postponed, many of our local groups have been able to use the campaign materials sent to them to raise further awareness in their local areas and are eager to organise for a new date.”
DNS asked the DWP press office why the department had failed to respond to the freedom of information request within 20 working days, and whether this was because the department was trying to avoid providing clarity on how disabled people would be affected by the move to universal credit.
A DWP press officer declined to answer these questions but said in a statement: “If you have a freedom of information complaint you should submit a request for an internal review.
“At this time we will consider your previous email a request for an internal review, so you do not need to submit any addition (sic) information.
“The Information Commissioner’s Office recommends that public authorities carry out internal reviews within 20 working days and we will endeavor to get back to you in this time.”