The government may not increase benefits in line with rising inflation, chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Philp said on Wednesday, despite former Chancellor Rishi Sunak promising that benefits would be uprated in April 2023 to match the inflation rate for September 2021.
Failure to do so could be catastrophic for the millions of people struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living as inflation spirals out of control. Even before the current crisis, for instance, those with disabilities faced average additional costs of £583 per month, due to factors such as having to power specialist equipment (for example mobility scooters), according to analysis by disability equality charity Scope. But while energy prices have spiralled, disability benefits have not risen in line with inflation.
Disabled people are much less likely to be in employment – as of 2020, 23 per cent of UK working-age adults with a learning disability had a paid job, compared to 53 per cent of working age adults with any disability and 76 per cent of the general population, according to UK-based learning disability charity Mencap.
As such, many are heavily reliant on disability benefits such as Personal Independence Payments. However, disability benefits are only upgraded annually in April to match the CPI inflation rate of the previous September, meaning that while inflation has spiralled from 3.1 per cent to 9.9 per cent in the 12 months since August 2021, the rate for disability benefits has remained at the level of inflation for September last year.
It could be that disability benefits like PIP may be exempt from the existing government’s potential benefits freeze, as they were during the previous freeze introduced by George Osborne in 2015 during the austerity years.
Regardless, however, this six-month lag means people relying on disability benefits lack vital support to cope with rising costs.
According to Scope, the government’s failure to increase benefits in line with inflation will lead to a £1bn shortfall in financial support for disabled people by the end of the year. For individuals, this amounts to additional costs of between £367 to £505 annually.
By waiting till next April to uprate benefits, the government could set people back by much further than six months. According to recent analysis by think tank the Resolution Foundation, a 10 per cent hike in April 2023 will only return benefits to their real-terms value for October 2021 in April 2024, "following a projected further rise of 9.5 per cent".
Charities including Scope, Mencap and Disability Rights UK are urgently calling on the government to immediately increase benefits in line with inflation. However, on 9 September, the government rejected the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendations on changes to disability benefits, which included “more responsive benefit uprating”, in a move Disability Rights UK labelled “staggering”.
Instead, last week, by way of support, the government began dispersing one-off payments of £150 to six million people in receipt of disability benefits, though it appears that many are yet to receive the money.
This payment, specially targeted at disabled people, accompanies other measures, including a means-tested Cost of Living payment of £650 for people receiving benefits such as Universal Credit.
But with energy bills capped at £2,500 annually, many have argued that the payment “doesn’t touch the sides” of these costs. Some have pointed out that as 290,000 disabled people became ineligible for the £140 Warm Homes discount earlier this year, many will only receive a total of £10 of extra support.
In a statement released on Friday 23 September responding to the government’s so-called mini-Budget, James Taylor, director of strategy at Scope, lamented the lack of further aid for disabled people, describing how the charity has been “inundated with calls from disabled people who don’t know how they will keep warm this winter and many others who won’t be turning their heating on at all”.
He added: “For many, this will have a devastating impact on their health, and even put lives at risk. They are falling further into debt and arrears on bills.”
A report released this month by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust drives home the disproportionate impact of the energy crisis on disabled people. Using polling from YouGov, it shows that already, nearly half of disabled households (48 per cent) have struggled to keep their homes warm this year, compared with 30 per cent of non-disabled households.
Another major barrier facing people with learning disabilities in particular concerns communication. As Jackie O'Sullivan, director of communication, advocacy and activism at Mencap tells Spotlight, people with a learning disability “will often need extra help to support them with budgeting and planning”.
With energy markets “phenomenally complicated to navigate as it is and very little of the information provided in easy read”, people with intellectual impairments may rely on family to assist them, or support provided by social care, which is now limited due to the “erosion” of the social care sector in recent years.
O’Sullivan adds that Mencap has learnt anecdotally that a lot of people with learning disabilities have stopped consuming the news during Covid “because they’ve found it too difficult”, and as a result, they may be less aware of how the cost-of-living crisis will affect them.
The fact many people could be unaware of what’s to come is “almost more frightening”, and O’Sullivan argues that “there needs to be some strong messaging around what [the £150 payment] is for… you have to make sure that it goes on your heating bills”.
Scope offers advice to disabled people about the energy and cost of living crisis, and Mencap offers advice to people with learning disabilities.
[See also: How the cost-of-living crisis is pushing disabled people into poverty]