Ministers have effectively admitted introducing a policy that will prevent many disabled students from entering higher education, without knowing how much money it would save or how many young disabled people would be affected.
The admission came in response to a freedom of information (FoI) request that sought to clarify the potential impact of the new universal credit rules.
In the response to the FoI request from Disability Rights UK (DR UK), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said it would be too expensive to produce the information requested.
A DWP spokesman later appeared to confirm to Disability News Service (DNS) that ministers did not know how the policy would affect young disabled people before they quietly introduced the new rules as part of the gradual rollout of universal credit.
Disabled full-time students who receive either personal independence payment (PIP) or disability living allowance (DLA) are automatically treated as having “limited capability for work” and so can often receive employment and support allowance (ESA) and housing benefit during their studies.
But the same rules that apply to ESA do not apply to universal credit, which is slowly replacing several means-tested benefits, including income-related ESA and housing benefit.
DWP has confirmed that only disabled students who receive DLA or PIP and have had their limited capability for work confirmed by a work capability assessment (WCA) are eligible for universal credit.
But DWP rules also bar disabled students in a universal credit area from undergoing a WCA to determine whether they have limited capability for work.
This means that if a student has not yet had a WCA – even if they are currently receiving ESA – and move to an area where universal credit has been introduced, they will not be able to receive support from universal credit at university.
DR UK asked DWP in the FoI request how many students were currently receiving income-related ESA on the grounds that they had limited capability for work because they were receiving PIP or DLA, and how many such awards had been made since ESA was introduced in October 2008.
But DWP said in its response that it would take more than three-and-a-half working days to produce these figures, and so was not obliged to do so by freedom of information legislation.
Ken Butler, DR UK’s welfare rights officer, said: “It is appalling that the government has restricted disabled people’s ability to study and claim universal credit seemingly without investigating how many will be affected and if the limited savings it produces could be objectively justified.
“If it had done so, surely the ESA statistics we asked for would be readily available.”
He added: “Only a very small minority of universal credit claimants would include disabled students if they were made eligible to claim it in the same way as ESA and housing benefit.
“Yet the effects on individual disabled people of not being able to take up higher education may affect their whole futures.”
A DWP spokesman had failed to say by noon today (Thursday) whether the department knew how much money the new policy would save, or how many full-time disabled students it would affect, and why ministers introduced the policy without having this information.
But he appeared to confirm that ministers had not answered these questions before introducing the policy, because he said it would take the department more than three-and-a-half days to produce those answers.
He said: “As we said in our response, we can confirm that we hold this information but the cost of complying with the FoI request would exceed the £600 limit set for central government.
“Therefore this information has not been released. The £600 limit represents the estimated cost of one person spending three-and-a-half working days in determining whether the department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting it.”
He added: “Most full-time students, including disabled students and those with health conditions, are not entitled to universal credit because financial support is available through various loans and grants.
“The design of universal credit is different to that of employment and support allowance.
“The rules are designed so that a person in receipt of universal credit because of disability or ill health is not discouraged from taking up education that may help them in the future.”
Last week, seven MPs and peers from the all-party parliamentary group for disability joined DR UK in writing to employment minister Damian Hinds to ask him to change the universal credit regulations.
They said the rules could make university unaffordable for many young disabled people.
DR UK has been campaigning to raise awareness of the issue for several months, and fears the current regulations will increase the gap between the proportion of non-disabled people (30 per cent) and disabled people (16 per cent) with a degree.
Because universal credit has only been introduced in some parts of the country, DR UK says the government has created “a postcode lottery where some disabled students can still claim ESA and housing benefit but others can only claim and be refused universal credit”.