Many disabled people who receive disability benefits have been unable to afford essential living costs such as rent, heating or food, even before the current cost-of-living crisis, according to a report that ministers had fought to keep secret.
A watered-down version of the report has now finally been published, after MPs on the work and pensions committee – led by Labour’s Stephen Timms – used their parliamentary powers to secure a copy from NatCen, the social research agency which prepared it.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey repeatedly told MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee that she had no intention of publishing the report, The Uses of Health and Disability Benefits.
The report was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to feed into its green paper on disability benefits, Shaping Future Support, which was published last July.
But the green paper made no mention of the report or its conclusions, even though it was handed to DWP in September 2020.
The report shows that researchers carried out in-depth interviews with 120 disabled people aged between 18 and 64 across England, Scotland and Wales who received at least one of disability living allowance, personal independence payment (PIP), employment and support allowance (ESA) and universal credit.
Some of them told the researchers how they were still unable to meet their essential living costs, such as food and utility bills, despite the benefits they received.
The researchers found that debt – including bank loans, credit cards, rent and utility arrears and doorstep lending – was “widespread” among those they spoke to, while “unmanageable” debt was found across both those in work and out-of-work.
One claimant they spoke to, who lives with her two young children, described how she spent 70-80 per cent of her income from PIP, income support, child benefit and child tax credits on paying off debts.
The report says it found a range of reasons why people had fallen into debt, including unexpected costs, such as paying for funerals and new white goods; job losses or periods of homelessness; problems with managing finances; and cuts to benefits through sanctions or reassessments.
Those with access to fewer resources often found it difficult to meet their impairment-related needs, such as clothing, transport, extra use of utilities such as heating, dietary requirements, independent living aids, personal care, and the need for personal assistance.
The disabled people who had problems with impairment-related needs often had unmanageable debt; low awareness or take-up of free entitlements and provision; fluctuating and less visible impairments; health conditions that affected their ability to work and manage money; were housed in the private rental sector; and had limited internet access.
Some of them reported “prioritising their essential day-to-day living costs” over their additional impairment-related needs.
The report also found that recipients of disability benefits “across the financial spectrum” experienced a “range of unmet needs” with social participation and mental health support.
Participants in the research called for higher benefit levels to help claimants meet their impairment-related needs and improve their overall wellbeing, while some ESA and universal credit claimants called for “more respectful and compassionate treatment” of disabled people by jobcentre staff.
A whistleblower told Disability News Service last year that DWP had ordered the report to be watered down because it did not like the analysis and reporting of disabled people’s “unmet needs” and the implications for future spending on benefits.
After being shown the first draft of the report, DWP told NatCen to reduce the number of references to “unmet needs” and to delete some of its analysis.
The whistleblower, who is close to the team that prepared the report, said this week that the publication of the report ended “a shameful chapter in the history of the DWP”.
They said: “The repeated refusals to publish the NatCen report and the attempts to justify suppressing it have been deceitful and dishonest.
“There is clearly something rotten at the heart of DWP and the select committee has done us all a service in invoking its rarely-used powers to get the report published.
“Despite the report being watered down there is still overwhelming evidence that many people struggle on inadequate benefits and have unmet needs, findings that cannot now be denied.
“The report provides a compelling argument for increasing benefits without delay.
“Disabled people have for too long been treated shabbily by DWP.
“Let’s hope that with the publication of this report they at last have a change of heart and produce policies that help disabled people rather than impoverishing them.”
Marsha de Cordova, a disabled Labour MP, described the report this week as “a shocking read that again highlights the hostile environment created by the department”.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said on Monday that it was now “crystal clear” what the government had been hiding.
She told Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people: “Disabled people are struggling on a day-to-day basis.
“Does she agree that the money disabled people receive is not enough to cover their additional living costs?
“If she does agree, why has her department not done anything to address it?”
But Smith suggested that there had been some “misreading” of the report and that it actually showed that “health and disability benefits, alongside other income streams, such as passporting and the Motability scheme, help to meet almost all identified areas of additional need”.
Timms said in a statement: “The report gives a valuable insight into the experiences of people claiming health and disability benefits.
“While the system is working for some, we now know that others reported that they are still unable to meet essential living costs such as food and utility bills.”
He added: “By persisting in its decision to hide away evidence of the struggles people are facing, the DWP will only have further harmed its reputation with disabled people at a time when – as its own officials have acknowledged – lack of trust is a major issue.
“In order to rebuild its relationship with disabled people, the DWP must stop trying to bury uncomfortable truths.”
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