The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) looks set to carry out a fourth major search through its records to find disabled people who have been unfairly deprived of benefits, following the latest in a series of damaging legal defeats.
Today (Thursday), the high court ruled that DWP had unlawfully discriminated against two disabled men who each lost disability premiums worth £178 per month when they moved to a new local authority area and were forced to transfer onto the new universal credit.
Both TP and AR had been receiving severe disability premium (SDP) and enhanced disability premium (EDP) to help with their additional care needs, but these premiums are not available under universal credit.
The drop in their income had a devastating impact on the two men, the court had heard.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Lewis announced this morning that the government had discriminated against the two men under the European Convention on Human Rights, saying that the impact of the policy on the two men was “manifestly without reasonable foundation and fails to strike a fair balance”.
Two other claims – that DWP had breached the Equality Act, and that regulations introduced in 2013 discriminated against disabled people with high support needs who live alone with no carer compared to other disabled people with high support needs – were rejected.
TP, who is terminally-ill, said he was “delighted” by the court’s decision and felt “vindicated” in bringing the judicial review.
He said the case “casts a dark shadow on the fairness of the universal credit system”.
He added: “In my 51st year my life was completely and suddenly thrown upside down with the diagnosis of a life-changing end stage non-Hodgkin Lymphoma cancer.
“Having had a successful career, I became reliant on financial support from the welfare system.
“To add to the stress of being seriously ill and undergoing very arduous treatments that have left me unable to work, I have had to take time off convalescing to fight in the courts for subsistence level benefits.
“In being compelled to migrate to universal credit, where I lost the severe disability premium, I was deprived of a key mainstay of support for a disabled person living alone with no carer.
“The financial strain from the cutting of the SDP has made it so much harder for me to cope as it has been an additional daily stress. It has been detrimental to my health.”
AR added: “I know a lot of people have been awaiting the outcome of this hearing as so many people have been badly affected by the roll out of universal credit.
“I know it is a time of austerity, but I do not understand why the government are trying to penny-pinch with what is a relatively small and very vulnerable group, namely, severely disabled people without a carer.
“I thought we lived in a society where as a vulnerable group we would be protected, not unlawfully discriminated against.”
Tessa Gregory, a partner at legal firm Leigh Day, who represented both claimants, said: “Today’s decision shows again that universal credit is not delivering what was promised at the outset.
“It is not working. It’s not working for [disabled people], it’s not working for parents, it’s not working for low-income and part-time employees and it’s not working for the self-employed.
“The government needs to halt the rollout and completely overhaul the system to meet people’s needs, not condemn them to destitution. If this doesn’t happen, further legal challenges will inevitably follow.”
Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, asked for permission to appeal but that was rejected by the court.
Disabled activists from grassroots groups including Disabled People Against Cuts and WinVisible were outside the high court this morning on behalf of claimants who have lost SDP and EDP after being forced onto universal credit.
Claire Glasman, from WinVisible, welcomed the court’s ruling.
She said: “[TP and AR] should never have been put through this in the first place.
“Universal credit as a whole is a disaster, a draconian system making people destitute, so we want it scrapped.”
The two premiums are currently added to some means-tested benefits to help with the extra costs of disability.
DWP had appeared to be in disarray this week, in advance of the court’s ruling, after its press office took nearly three days to provide answers – and secure clearance from officials – to a series of simple questions about the premiums that had been submitted by Disability News Service (DNS).
DNS has already been forced to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office about DWP’s refusal to offer a detailed description of how the introduction of universal credit – and the loss of the premiums – will impact disabled people financially.
Only last week, DWP refused to say how many disabled people who need support to take medication and monitor their health condition would be likely to receive backdated personal independence payment (PIP) following another serious legal error by the department.
That followed earlier errors relating to PIP claimants who experience mental distress when making or planning a journey, and the botched migration of former incapacity benefit claimants to the new employment and support allowance (ESA).
Today’s court ruling – following an announcement by McVey on 7 June – apparently now means DWP will have to embark on a fourth major trawl through its records to identify claimants of disability benefits who have lost out financially because of its legal errors.
McVey said in last week’s written statement that DWP would stop moving claimants of SDP onto universal credit until the introduction of so-called transitional protection, which will be introduced next year.
And she said that all those who have already lost out through such a move onto universal credit would receive backdated payments to compensate for that loss, until transitional protection is introduced.
But she did not mention EDP claimants in her statement.
Figures published by DWP this week suggest that, in February this year, there were 4,000 SDP claimants, and 14,000 EDP claimants (including 3,000 who received both EDP and SDP), who have moved onto universal credit.
A DWP spokesman refused to say why McVey failed to mention EDP claimants in her statement.
But he confirmed that DWP estimated that about 4,000 claimants would benefit from the SDP announcement.
Despite the court case, he denied that the decision to provide payments to 4,000 former SDP claimants was because of “a legal error” and appeared to suggest that McVey’s written statement was unconnected to today’s legal ruling.
He said: “We have always been clear that we are rolling [out]universal credit on a listen and learn approach, making changes along the way.
“This is part of that approach and comes on top of the £1.5 billion improvements to universal credit for people moving onto universal credit we announced at the budget.”
And he refused to say how DWP justified not providing equivalent levels of support to new disabled claimants of universal credit, who will not be entitled to the transitional protection next year and so will receive lower levels of support than those transferred onto universal credit from legacy benefits such as income-related ESA.
He said: “Transitional protection will be there for those with existing premiums who are moved over to universal credit as part of the managed migration process, whose overall universal credit entitlement would be less than under the old system, provided that their circumstances remain the same.
“This means at the time they move, their financial situation remains steady.”
He also refused to explain why DWP has still not been able to detail – in response to the freedom of information request – the exact financial impact universal credit will have on disabled people who would previously have received EDP and SDP.