The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted an “extraordinary” failure over nearly a decade to carry out any detailed calculations on how universal credit will affect different groups of disabled people.
DWP has always admitted there would be winners and losers among disabled people as it gradually introduced its delayed and much-criticised new system, while it claims that any savings would be reinvested into supporting those it calls “the most severely disabled”.
But it has repeatedly refused to provide clear details of how universal credit (UC) is likely to affect different groups of disabled people, particularly those currently receiving the various disability-related premiums.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying for nearly 18 months to obtain calculations showing exactly DWP believes different groups of disabled people will be financially affected by the introduction of UC.
When DWP failed to provide these figures, following a freedom of information request, DNS lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Now DWP has been forced to admit to the information commissioner that throughout the nine years since it announced its plans to replace six income-related benefits with the new UC, it has not once carried out and recorded any calculations to show how different groups of disabled people would be affected financially.
DWP told ICO: “We do not hold this information because the variables involved are too numerous to enable us to conduct an analysis with case comparisons.
“In addition, as the calculations and methodologies are different, no meaningful direct comparisons can be made between Universal Credit awards and awards of benefit from a legacy system.”
A spokesperson for the Benefits and Work website, which provides advice and information on benefits, said: “It seems extraordinary that such basic calculations weren’t carried out and shared with representative organisations before such a fundamental change in benefits for disabled people was imposed.”
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said DWP’s failure to make the calculations was either “callous and reckless or negligent”.
And Disability Rights UK said it was “disingenuous for the DWP to say that it could not provide case comparisons”.
Instead of providing DNS with the examples it requested, DWP sent ICO links to equality impact assessments it carried out in 2011, which include some figures showing the overall, generalised, predicted impact of UC.
An equality impact assessment in November 2011 (PDF, page 13) suggested that 27 per cent of “disabled households” would gain by an average of about £33 a week under UC, while 27 per cent would lose by about £37 a week, although it claimed that DWP intended to “reinvest all savings from the disability reforms back into support for the most severely disabled”.
Seven years later, in a report from January 2018, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) noted that “there will be winners and losers from changes in the way UC supports disabled people”.
OBR also noted (main report, page 135) that the net cost to disabled people on incapacity benefits such as employment and support allowance in the transition to UC would reach £0.8 billion by 2020-21.
In its decision notice on the complaint, ICO pointed out that DNS had argued that it would be “logical… that before embarking on such a major change [as the introduction of universal credit], the DWP would wish to have some understanding of how individuals and families might be affected”.
DNS had also said it was “implausible that the DWP had not carried out any indicative case studies to see how a ‘typical’ claimant might be affected”, said ICO.
DNS first asked DWP for information nearly 18 months ago, after its press office said the government had “simplified and rationalised the various, complex disability premiums that exist in the legacy system”, but was unable to say how this “rationalisation” would work and how disabled people would be impacted financially by the change to UC.
DNS asked DWP to describe the exact financial impact universal credit would have on disabled people who would previously have received these premiums.
DWP was asked to provide comparisons both for those making a new UC claim and for disabled people transferring across from legacy benefits such as employment and support allowance.
But after DNS complained that DWP was refusing to release this information, ICO has now ruled that, “on the balance of probabilities”, DWP “holds no further information within the scope of the request”, although it said it had breached the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to the DNS request within 20 working days.
The information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, added: “It is not the role of the Commissioner to determine what type of information a public authority should (or should not) hold within the scope of an information request – only what information is as a matter of fact, held.
“The Commissioner recognises that the DWP has put out, into the public domain, a great deal of information about its methodology for modelling the impacts of UC and that this has been highlighted to the complainant.
“Having pressed the DWP on this point, the Commissioner is satisfied that the data being used in the Model is not of the level of granularity that the complainant is seeking.”
Bob Ellard, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said: “Either the DWP did do these calculations and they are hiding it, or they didn’t do them at all.
“In the first instance, the results must be bad, or they would have published them.
“In which case the DWP have been negligent pressing ahead with a system they know will cause harm to disabled people
“In the second instance, pressing ahead without knowing what the effects would be is sheer callous recklessness.
“Callous and reckless or negligent. Take your pick.
“What is certain is that we need an independent public inquiry into what has been going on at the DWP all the way through welfare reform.
“We need people to sign the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition* which asks for that independent inquiry.”
The Benefits and Work spokesperson said: “Welfare benefit advisers up and down the country use widely available benefit check software every day to provide ‘better-off’ calculations to clients.
“You can input a set of circumstances to model a person’s entitlement to legacy benefits and then hit a single button to do a better-off calculation to look at the effect of universal credit.
“The DWP could very easily have done this before universal credit was introduced.
“It’s true that UC covers a myriad of individual circumstances too numerous to model in their entirety, but it would have been entirely possible and reasonable for an organisation with the data and resources of the DWP to broadly model some common scenarios using legacy benefits such as income-related ESA as a baseline, and then look at the same situation under UC.”
DNS has been reporting concerns about the impact of UC on disabled people for nearly nine years.
Inclusion London warned in October 2010 of “considerable concern” that UC would be a “means of reducing the amount people receive in benefits”, and said the following month that it could be used as a cover for cutting disability benefits.
DPAC believes UC has now reached a point where it is “unable to adapt to claimants’ complex circumstances, and is forcing people with the least resources into further poverty, homelessness, and hunger”.
It has called for UC to be scrapped because it has become a social security system “which not only does not offer security, but actively undermined people’s ability to cope with the hazards of life”.
A DPAC report released last month contained “harrowing stories of people forced into debt, rent arrears, homelessness, crime, prostitution, hunger, people unable to afford fares to get to food banks, parents unable to get essentials for their babies, child poverty, worsening mental health, ex-service people considering suicide and even cases of actual suicide”.
Disabled activists have repeatedly warned that UC is “toxic” and “rotten to the core”, with “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced, and repeated warnings about its impact on disabled people.
A DWP spokesperson declined to answer a series of questions about its past statements on universal credit because, he said, they “appear to be about clarifying aspects of [the DNS] Freedom of Information request to the Department”.
*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
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