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Decades of failure leaves half of disabled benefit claimants in poverty

24 February 2021

Decades of reforms and political promises have failed to help disabled people and the current system of support for disabled people is “broken”, according to new analysis published today by The Social Market Foundation and Scope.

The analysis shows that:

  • almost half of all people in poverty are either disabled or live with someone who is disabled;
  • there are 1.8 million more people in poverty living in a family that includes a disabled person compared with 15 years ago;
  • the disability employment gap remains above 40 percentage points for many disabled people; and
  • over a million disabled people who are out of work say that they want to be in employment, the analysis shows.

Scope said the findings showed that repeated changes in disability policy have failed to provide either sufficient financial security for disabled people or help for those that can and want to work.

The new report comes as Ministers prepare a Disability and Health Green Paper and a wider cross-departmental national disability strategy.

These initiatives says the report, provide the Government with an opportunity to take much needed immediate action to support disabled people.

However, it should also commit to a wide-ranging rethink on disability support. 

Despite repeated promises of reform and improvement by politicians of all parties:

  • the number of people on a range of disability benefits is no lower than it than it was two decades ago; and
  • the cost of disability benefits has risen by almost half in the same period.

The report estimates that had the government met the 2015 Conservative manifesto target of halving the disability employment gap, nearly 1 million more disabled people would be in work today, boosting Exchequer benefits by around £17 billion a year.

The real-terms cost to taxpayers of providing disability benefits has risen by almost 50 per cent since 2000, costing an extra £16 billion. The SMF forecasts that spending on disability benefits will increase by another £4 billion up to 2024/25.

Disabled people’s views and experience must be at the heart of Government's plans, underpinning future system reform.

Scope stresses that the Green Paper should clearly set out:

  • the process of policy development, including setting reasonable expectations of when each of the steps will be completed;
  • how it will develop a clear articulation of the outcomes that we want the system to achieve and from there, how policy will be developed; and
  • how to ensure the process is led by and includes the views and experiences of disabled people.

Scope sets out a framework for reform which would better support disabled people into employment and ensure those that do need to rely on benefits can do so in a way which “delivers dignity, fairness and respect”.

Reforms could also aid the Government’s levelling-up agenda – with the most deprived areas likely to benefit the most from changes to the system - and boost UK output (GVA) by around £50 billion per year.

James Taylor, Executive Director of Strategy, Impact and Social Change at Scope, said:

“For a long time, too many disabled people have been trapped in poverty by a string of inflexible, bewildering and cruel rules and decisions that have focussed on trying to stop people claiming the very benefits that would help enable them to get out poverty in the first place. As a result, 1.5 million more disabled people are in poverty compared to 15 years ago.”

He added:

“It doesn’t have to be this way. A welfare system should be there to provide support to disabled people in and out of work, to help offset the financial penalty of being disabled, and ultimately to improve lives.

In the short term, we need urgent changes to make sure disabled people are getting the support they need.”  

Time to Think Again: Disability Benefits and Support after COVID-19 is available from scope.org.uk