The government is refusing to say how it justifies the continuing failure to provide vital support to many parents on disability benefits to help with their babies’ nutrition.
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last week how a disabled mother-of-two had accused the government of “financial blackmail” and discriminating against claimants of legacy benefits*, after she was told she could only claim vital support for her baby’s nutrition if she agreed to transfer onto universal credit.
The Healthy Start scheme provides vouchers for milk, fruit, vegetables, pulses and vitamins for pregnant women and those parents 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, despite inaccurate information about eligibility on the government’s Healthy Start web page.
Disabled mums must then migrate onto universal credit if they want to continue to receive support with their baby’s nutrition through the voucher scheme, even though this could lead to them receiving a lower rate of benefits.
The apparent push to force disabled people off a legacy benefit such as ESA and onto universal credit was heavily criticised this week by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
A DPAC spokesperson said: “When you’re weaponising people’s babies against them to force them to comply with a harmful failed policy, just to access basic necessities to keep that baby alive – you most definitely are in the wrong job. This is wrong.”
Meanwhile, Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, has attempted to find out how many new parents have been affected by the decision not to allow ESA claimants access to the Healthy Start scheme once their baby has been born.
But the junior health minister Maria Caulfield told her that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not have that information.
Foxcroft told DNS yesterday (Wednesday) that she would continue to push for the scheme to be extended and for ministers to explain why those on income-related ESA are not eligible for the vouchers once they have given birth, even though they are eligible if they move onto universal credit.
DHSC has now commented for the first time on the scheme, although it is so far refusing to explain the apparent discrimination embedded in the scheme.
A DHSC spokesperson said in a statement: “The Healthy Start scheme encourages a healthy diet for babies and young children under four from low-income households.
“As well as receiving free vitamins, vouchers can be used to buy fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables, fresh, dried and tinned pulses, plain cow’s milk and infant formula.
“Claimants on legacy benefits can make a claim for universal credit if they believe they will be better off.
“The government encourages everyone to check their benefit entitlement using a benefit calculator before making any changes which cannot be reversed.
“We are reviewing the information held on the government website to ensure this accurately reflects the current eligibility criteria for the scheme.”
DHSC suggested that the difference in treatment of ESA and universal credit claimants was due to historic legislation, and said that the department keeps the eligibility criteria under review.
Research by DNS shows that the scheme was introduced by the Labour government in 2006, to replace the Welfare Food Scheme that was brought in during the Second World War.
No changes in eligibility appear to have been made at the time, other than extending Healthy Start to all pregnant women under 18.
But the government’s legislation webpage also suggests that eligibility was extended by the Conservative government to many claimants of universal credit in 2016, although apparently not to those on income-related ESA.
A report on the scheme (PDF) by First Steps Nutrition Trust in 2018 found that eligibility, uptake and government spending on the scheme “rapidly declined” between 2013 and 2018.
*Legacy benefits are those that are gradually being replaced by the new universal credit system
Picture: Allie Bennett-Cox (left) who is ineligible for food vouchers for her son Oscar because she receives ESA; and Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft
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