Many disabled students could effectively be barred from higher education because of the introduction of the government’s new universal credit, according to MPs and peers who have written to the minister for employment.
The seven MPs and peers, all members of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, have joined the new chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), Kamran Mallick, in writing to Damian Hinds to ask him to change the universal credit regulations.
The seven – who include the new disabled Labour MP Jared O’Mara and disabled peers the Countess of Mar and Lord Addington (pictured) – say the move to universal credit, which is gradually being rolled out across the country, could make university unaffordable for many young disabled people.
At present, disabled full-time students who receive either PIP or DLA are automatically treated as having “limited capability for work” and so can receive both employment and support allowance (ESA) and housing benefit during their studies.
Although income-related ESA is often paid at low levels during term-time – as it can act as a means-tested top-up to student loans – it can be particularly useful during summer vacations, when disabled students are often unable to secure employment.
And claiming housing benefit is often the only way a disabled student can move away from home for the first time.
But the same rules that applied to ESA do not apply to universal credit, which is slowly replacing several means-tested benefits, including income-related ESA and housing benefit.
DR UK says that the Department for Work and Pensions (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 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”.
It wants all full-time disabled students who receive DLA or PIP to be eligible for universal credit.
Ken Butler, DR UK’s welfare rights adviser, said: “We are concerned that the UC system does not allow a disabled student to be assessed as to their limited capability for work.
“It puts them in a Catch 22 situation – they cannot be entitled to universal credit unless they have a WCA but they cannot have a WCA unless they are entitled to universal credit.”
He added: “The DWP’s belated confirmation that many existing disabled students legitimately being paid ESA are barred from universal credit makes an unfair situation even worse.
“Disabled students may have made their decisions on undertaking courses away from home partly on their ability to claim housing benefit.
“If their college or university is then included in a ‘full service’ [available to all types of claimant] universal credit area this may mean them abandoning a course before they even start it.”
DR UK also says the rules which prevent many young disabled people from claiming universal credit were not subject to an equality impact assessment, and were not referred to in extensive notes published alongside the universal credit regulations in 2013.
Most disabled students are also excluded from other ways of claiming universal credit, because they are not carers, are not lone parents with young children, and cannot actively seek work.
A DWP spokesman said: “I can confirm we have received the letter, and will respond to Disability Rights UK directly.”