The failure of ministers to make a key change to the way the government will move existing benefit claimants onto universal credit could see hundreds of thousands of disabled people left without any income at all, campaigners fear.
Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey (pictured) this week published the government’s draft regulations on the migration of millions of claimants of benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA) and jobseeker’s allowance onto the new benefit system.
According to government estimates, more than a third of those migrating will be sick and disabled people who currently receive ESA.
Some of the changes McVey announced to the draft regulations – including giving claimants at least three months, rather than just one, to make a successful claim before their existing benefits are cut off – have been welcomed.
The changes follow other concessions to critics of the universal credit regime – which has been blamed for driving many claimants into poverty – that were announced in last week’s budget.
The migration process is due to begin next summer, although only about 10,000 people are likely to be affected in 2019 while DWP tests the process, with larger numbers only beginning to be transferred from 2020 onwards.
McVey has agreed to publish an assessment of the equality impact of managed migration on different groups but said this would not be produced until after the testing phase so that ministers can take account of any changes they make.
But she has refused to allow all those on legacy benefits, including hundreds of thousands of ESA claimants, to be automatically transferred onto universal credit.
Instead, claimants will be responsible for submitting their own new universal credit claim after they receive notification from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that they need to do so.
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said there was “a very real threat that disabled people will not manage to make a new claim and end up without any source of income”.
She compared the government’s “tinkering around the edges of universal credit” with its efforts to improve the work capability assessment.
Instead of such tinkering, she said, universal credit “must be stopped and scrapped without further delay”.
She also pointed to concerns about the process disabled people will need to go through to make a claim.
She said: “Given the problems many disabled people face actually making a claim for universal credit and the fact that many cannot afford either a passport or driving license ID, which DWP sometimes say is needed to prove who they are when claiming, it is potentially disastrous that a new claim must be made when someone is migrated from legacy benefits.”
The mental health charity Mind said people risked losing their income – and even their homes – “in the process of re-applying for financial support they’re already entitled to”.
Mind said that many people struggle to read or understand DWP letters while others are “unable to negotiate the complex, labyrinthine process of applying”.
Vicky Nash, Mind’s head of policy and campaigns, said: “These regulations have confirmed what we have long feared and argued against – that in the move over to universal credit three million people, including hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems, will be forced to make a new claim.”
Despite McVey insisting in parliament this week that charities like Mind were praising DWP for listening to what they and other critics had been saying about universal credit, Nash said: “This risks many being left without income and pushed into poverty.
“We have repeatedly raised our concerns and are appalled to see them being ignored.”
The Child Poverty Action Group said McVey’s failure to act on the need to make a new claim could mean as many as 400,000 households would be at risk of losing all their social security payments.
One ESA claimant with a mental health condition has told Mind that previous problems with his ESA claim saw him lose nine months of benefits because of a DWP error, although he eventually received the money.
That and other factors had left him depressed and suicidal.
He said: “I live in Thurrock, the constituency of Jackie Doyle-Price who is the minister for mental health and has responsibility for suicide prevention.
“The government need to consider the role benefits play in people becoming suicidal.
“I dread the thought of having to apply for universal credit.
“Ever since I lost that money, I’m scared – every time a letter comes through the door with the letters ‘DWP’ on it.
“The DWP should take responsibility for transferring people onto this new benefit rather than expecting vulnerable people to shoulder it all themselves.”
The government’s advisers, the social security advisory committee, had called on ministers – in its report on the draft regulations – to analyse different claimant groups to find out how many of them could be automatically transferred onto universal credit.
But DWP in its response to the committee’s report said that it believed it was “crucial” for new claims to be made by all those migrating “because we need to ensure data is as accurate and as up-to-date as possible when claimants move to universal credit”.
It added: “This will ensure that any errors will not be migrated from the existing benefit system to universal credit.”
And it said that it might also not have “sufficient information to determine the full universal credit entitlement because some of this information is not available from the existing benefit data”, while it “cannot simply assume that all existing claimants will want to make a claim”.
Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the committee’s chair, said he and his colleagues were “pleased” that McVey had “largely” followed their advice on the changes that needed to be made to the managed migration process.
But he added: “We are disappointed that the DWP continue to expect that everyone must make a claim to universal credit in order to be migrated to it.”
Liz Sayce, the former chief executive of Disability Rights UK and vice-chair of the committee, said: “The sheer scale of the operational challenge facing DWP cannot be underestimated.
“Millions of individuals are relying on the government to get this right.
“We welcome the government’s commitment to ensure that disabled people are supported through the claims process, including taking claims during home visits and over the telephone, and we are keen to work with the department on the detail of these plans to ensure they work well for all disabled people.”
McVey also told MPs this week that one million disabled households would receive an extra £100 a month as a result of universal credit.
But Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said McVey had failed to tell MPs that about the same number would lose an average of £217 a month.
The publication of the draft regulations came as The Trussell Trust – which runs a national network of 400 foodbanks – said the number of emergency supplies it had provided had risen 13 per cent between April to September 2017 and the same period in 2018.
It said that one of the factors driving this increase was the minimum five-week wait for a claimant to receive their first universal credit payment.
The charity said that if this was not reduced, “the only way to prevent even more people being forced to foodbanks this winter is to pause all new claims to universal credit”.
It added: “Universal credit is not the only benefit people at foodbanks are experiencing problems with, but the new system is increasingly driving referrals due to benefit delays, which include waiting for a first payment or having problems with a new claim.”
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