DR UK response to the Welfare Safety Net Inquiry

Wed,13 February 2019

Disability Rights UK response to the Work and Pensions Welfare Safety Net Inquiry

More about the Welfare Safey Net Enquiry

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) is led by people with lived experience across the spectrum of disability and health conditions, including mental health conditions, learning disabilities, dementia and autism.

We are a pan disability membership organisation led by disabled people seeking change. Our membership includes individual disabled people and organisations working on their behalf including disabled people led organisations.

Among our membership are over three hundred organisations that give advice directly to disabled people, particularly in respect of benefit issues. DR UK run a second-tier advice line where we assist their front-line advice workers with supportive information and advice.

The following is our response in relation to disabled people to these five questions asked by the Committee’s Welfare Safety Net Inquiry.  We would be delighted to be called as a witness and give further evidence to what is produced in this submission.

Is our welfare safety net working to prevent people falling into deprivation?

In relation to disabled people, the answer to this question is a resounding no.

Since 2010, successive Governments have embarked on a programme of substantial social security reforms major elements of which have directly impacted on disabled people. These include the following.

The abolition of working age Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was announced in the emergency budget of 2010.There had been no prior consultation with disabled people. The stated aim of abolition was to reduce working-age DLA caseloads and expenditure by 20%. The later design of PIP was framed to ensure this. One in five DLA claimants of have been refused PIP since 2013 its introduction.

A major change has been the introduction of the 20-metre rule that has replaced the DLA 50-metre rule to award the highest level of mobility award. Only after a 2017 Disability Rights UK Freedom of Information request did the DWP admit that of those receiving the highest DLA mobility rate DLA only -

  • 50% were awarded the enhanced PIP mobility rate;
  • 25% had their benefit reduced to the lower PIP mobility rate; while
  • 25% lost their mobility rate entitlement altogether.

This means that 50% of DLA claimants have lost the right to be able to join the Motability scheme (as it is restricted to those receiving the higher mobility rate). The damaging effects of the 20 metre rule on disable people’s independence have been well documented by the MS Society in its recent report PIP: A step too far.

The poor and inaccurate standards of PIP (and ESA) assessments has been continually criticised from its introduction. No less than 84% of social security appeals relate to PIP and ESA.

While 84% of PIP new claim mandatory reconsiderations result in no change to the award, 71% PIP appeals are found in favour of the disabled claimant.

In its PIP and ESA Assessments report, the Work and Pensions Committee highlighted that failings in their assessment process - from application, to assessment, to decision-making and to challenge - have led to a “pervasive lack of trust” that undermines their entire operation.

Benefit sanctions remain a problem for disabled people. In his February 2018 report A Better WCA is Possible, academic Ben Baumberg Geiger found that more than 900,000 disabled claimants of the mainstream out-of-work benefit jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) have been sanctioned since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in May 2010.

Finally, figures obtained by Frank Field MP show that the amount spent on disabled people’s benefits has shrunk by £5 billion following a decade of austerity and cuts.

By 2021, £37 billion less will be spent on working-age social security compared with 2010, despite rising prices and living costs, according to estimates produced by the House of Commons library.

The figures, obtained by the Frank Field, show that just under half the total savings will come from the freezing of most working-age benefit levels since 2016, a policy which will deliver cuts of nearly £16bn.

However, there are also severe cuts are in disabled peoples benefits – PIP and ESA – which together will have shrunk by nearly 5 billion, or by 10%, since the start of the decade.

Other cuts include: tax credits (£4.6bn), universal credit (£3.6bn), child benefit (£3.4bn), disability benefits (£2.8bn), ESA and incapacity benefit (£2bn) and housing benefit (£2.3bn).

Field said the benefit cuts were behind increases in food bank use and destitution:

“A £37 billion attack has been mounted on the living standards of many of our fellow citizens to such an extent that possibly millions struggle to keep on top of their rent, pay the bills and buy adequate food.”

On average, disabled people face extra costs of £570 a month related to their impairment or condition.

What role does Universal Credit play in in relation to deprivation, or could it play in tackling it?

In relation this question, we will cite the UN’s Special Rapporteur’s visit statement on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK who found that -

“No single program embodies the combination of the benefits reforms and the promotion of austerity programs more than Universal Credit.  Although in its initial conception it represented a potentially major improvement in the system, it is fast falling into Universal Discredit.”

… The government says it is taking an experimental “test and learn” approach to Universal Credit, but there seems to be an unacknowledged risk that this approach could treat vulnerable people like guinea pigs and wreak havoc in real peoples’ lives. “Test and learn” cannot be a decade-long excuse for failing to properly design a system that is meant to guarantee the social security of so many, and it does not remedy the damage done to those who were thrown into debt or out of their houses, or made to rely on food banks before the improvements kicked in.”

The Special Rapporteur highlights several endemic problems with the new benefit, including its inbuilt delay in first payment (and delays even to this), its “advance payment” loan scheme, “draconian” sanctions (“even for infringements that seem minor”) and its digital-by-default nature.

All these problems have been confirmed by other research.

The Tressell Trust in a 7 November press release said that -

“… if the five-week minimum wait for a first Universal Credit payment is 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.

The inability of benefit levels to cover essential living costs and issues with payments remain the most common reasons for referral to a foodbank. 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.”

While welcoming changes to Universal Credit announced in Budget 2018 Budget, the charity stressed that much of the support will not come into force until July 2020. To protect people who will move onto Universal Credit before that point, it called for the DWP to be resourced to reduce the five-week minimum wait for a first payment.

November 2018 research commissioned by Gateshead Council “It’s hitting people that can least afford it the hardest” found that people claiming Universal Credit are being forced into debt, rent arrears and extreme hardship, with serious consequences for their health and wellbeing.

It says that people moving onto Universal Credit, especially those with disabilities, health problems or complicated lives, experienced an average delay of seven and a half weeks before receiving their first payment. In addition, once the payment is received, deductions for advance payments and rent arrears are leaving people without enough money to eat or pay bills.

In terms of rent arrears, the study found that very few claimants knew or were offered by the DWP ‘alternative payment arrangements’ whereby benefit could be paid direct to their landlord”. This contributed to this shocking situation -

“Gateshead Housing Company manage over 20,000 homes, including 19,000 council tenancies, and employed ten additional Advice and Support staff as the roll out of UC began in October 2017. A significant proportion of staff time is spent responding to UC related enquiries.

Gateshead Housing Company have seen an increase in average rent arrears of 114% per person,a dramatic increase in numbers of claimants presenting in a severely distressed state, requests for fuel poverty support increased by 144% and food bank support has increased by 274% since October 2017.

In one period of seven working days, five UC claimants attending GHC office advised staff they were planning suicide due to the financial situation in which they found themselves. Staff have received training in suicide prevention and promoting resilience since October 2017.”

The DWP’s Benefit sanctions statistics to April 2018 Universal Credit sanctions rates are more than double that for ESA and JSA and at 31 days, the average universal credit sanction lasts for longer than JSA and ESA sanctions

In its November 2018 Benefit Sanctions report, the Work and Pensions Committee itself has highlighted that lone parents, care leavers and people with a disability or health condition are disproportionately vulnerable to and affected by withdrawal of their benefit –

 “Until Government can show unequivocally that sanctions actually help to move these claimants into work, it cannot ‘justify these groups' continued inclusion in the sanctions regime’.  … Of all the evidence we received, none was more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work. Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive.

We recommend that the Government immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note (Fit Note) stating that they are unable to work, including those who present such a note while waiting for a Work Capability Assessment. Instead, it should work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support.”

Digital technology can be a boon to some disabled people and increase their opportunities and inclusion in society.

But statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2018) suggest the gap in internet usage between disabled and non-disabled people has continue to decrease but still persists -

“Overall, the proportion of recent internet users was lower for adults who were disabled compared with those who were not. Of the 0.85 million adults who had last used the internet over three months ago, 0.45 million were disabled.”

There are several factors for this that may restrict the digital inclusion of disabled people – for example training and skills, access to equipment or adjustments and poor finance. to understand and use the internet.

Yet Universal Credit is by need and design a digitally based benefit with nearly all claims being made online. July 2018 research by the DWP itself,  Universal credit full service claimant survey, found that almost half of universal credit claimants say that they needed help in registering their claim online -

“Three in ten (30%) of those who registered a claim online found this difficult, and the process of verifying their identity online was seen as particularly difficult. Overall, more than four in ten (43%) claimants said they needed more support registering their claim for universal credit. Three in ten (31%) said they need more ongoing support with using their universal credit digital account.”

The DWP research also found that it was quite common for the claim process to take more than one attempt and, even amongst those with experience of claiming other benefits, again nearly half found it more difficult to claim universal credit.

Citizens Advice published in July 2108, Universal Credit claims falter due to complicated application process and lack of support,  highlighted that a quarter of claimants it advised lost more than a week's universal credit entitlement because of difficulties finishing their claims, and that, of those advised who qualified for extra costs under universal credit 48% found it difficult to provide evidence for health conditions;

We would also raise the following problems with Universal Credit that particularly adversely impact on disabled people and those with a long-term health condition

Unlike ESA, Universal Credit claimants are expected to carry out any work-related activity before they have had their work capability assessment (WCA). This means decisions on work related activity that a person is to carry out is at the discretion of their individual DWP work coach, who has no medical training and likely to have access to little information about their disability or ill health.

Disabled people are therefore under a greater risk of possible sanction. 71% of universal credit sanction decisions relate to failing to attend or participate in a work-focused interview.

Again, unlike ESA where they are treated as having a limited capability for work, 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 Catch 22 DWP rules also bar disabled students in a UC area from undergoing a WCA to determine whether they have limited capability for work and so from UC eligibility.

Universal Credit also penalises young disabled people in the following way. Under 25-year olds who claim ESA are paid a basic rate of £58 per week until their capability for work is assessed. Assessed Once they are assessed and placed in the work-related activity group or the support group they are paid the paid adult basic rate £73 per week plus the relevant component

However, under Universal Credit under 25-year olds who found placed in the work-related activity group or the support group while being awarded the relevant component continue to be paid only £58 per week.

The severe disability premium is worth £64.30 per week and in brief, is payable to those who live alone, receive Attendance Allowance, the DLA care component at the middle or highest rate or the Personal Independence Payment daily living component.

Following the High Court’s decision in TP and AR, R, the Government has amended its draft Universal Credit Migration Regulations to defer the ‘natural migration’ and transitionally protect those who receive the severe disability premium. And award compensation to those who have lost out by already having to claim Universal Credit due to a change in circumstances.

However, this concession though welcome will not assist those whose disability is such that hey meet the qualifying conditions for the severe disability premium only after they claim Universal Credit or claim after managed migration to it has been completed.

This will be a loss of nearly £3,350 per year. Such a loss must add to the possible destitution of disabled people so that it is therefore essential that the severe disability premium is added to the applicable amount for Universal Credit.

In terms of managed migration in general, we would highlight our recommendations in our submission to the recent Social Security Advisory Committee consultation on the Government’s proposals to move claimants on 'legacy' benefits to Universal Credit.

We would also state our strong support for the Committee’s view that the despite the changes to universal credit announced in Budget 2018, that the DWP must set tests for readiness that must be met before the managed migration pilot begins.

How could our welfare safety net work to prevent people falling into deprivation?

In terms of how the UK government should mitigate the adverse impacts of social security reforms on disabled people, DRUK supports the recommendations of the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM).

In its October 2018 report, Progress on disability rights in the United Kingdom, UKIM - a collaboration between the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland - provides an update on the steps taken by the UK government to act on recommendations from the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD Committee) to improve the lives of disabled people in the UK. UKIM finds that – 

“... the UK has taken only limited steps to address the concerns and recommendations of the CRPD Committee. UKIM is disappointed that the UK governments have not seized on this important opportunity to reflect on and progress disability rights.

We are concerned by the lack of a prompt response to the CRPD Committee’s recommendations. 12 months on, there is no comprehensive UK-wide strategy demonstrating how the UK will implement the CRPD Committee’s recommendations.

There has also been continued reluctance from the UK Government to accept the conclusions of the CRPD Committee’s inquiry report on the impact of the UK Government’s policies on the rights of disabled people....

Without a clear and coordinated plan for how the UK and devolved governments will address the UN recommendations systematically, the limited steps taken so far are unlikely to be enough to address the concerns raised by the CRPD Committee.”

To mitigate some of the adverse impacts of social security reforms on disabled people, UKIM recommends that the UK government should -

  • uprate all benefits in line with inflation and review the level of benefits to ensure this meets adequate living standards;
  • reinstate the level of work allowances under universal credit to the 2012 level;
  • reinstate the severe and enhanced disability premiums under universal credit;
  • provide increased support to disabled people placed in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group that is equivalent to the support group and acknowledges the additional, unavoidable living costs relating to their condition;
  • provide for all full-time disabled students who receive disability living allowance or personal independence payment to be eligible for universal credit on the grounds of being treated as having a limited capability for work;
  • carry out an equality impact assessment of the conditionality and sanctions system on claimants to ensure that sanctions are not disproportionately applied, and that conditionality is reasonable and based on flexibility of easements, specifically for lone parent families, ethnic minority groups and disabled people. However, despite this recommendation, repeated studies demonstrate that there is insufficient evidence for the effectiveness of conditionality and therefore consideration should be given to the abolition of sanctions, particularly for the following groups of people: people with mental health conditions; people with learning difficulties; people on the autistic spectrum and people with barriers to communication;
  • introduce publicly available service standards for the social security system that set out the rights of claimants, are fair and accessible, and measured and reported on; and
  • ensure that work coaches are trained to deliver tailored employment support, providing evidence of the steps taken to ensure that the specific needs of lone parents and disabled people are being met.

Ken Butler

Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser

Disability Rights UK


30 November 2018