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Rising living costs will push more disabled people into destitution

Benefits are falling far behind the extra costs associated with disability, with some facing additional expenses of £1,000 per month.

By Sarah Dawood

The UK’s welfare system is “completely failing” disabled people, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Secretary has been told, with many at risk of being pushed into extreme poverty by the increased cost of living.

The work and pensions committee, a group of cross-party MPs who scrutinise the policymaking of the DWP, heard evidence from charities and citizen advisory services in parliament last week, before posing questions to Thérèse Coffey, the department’s Secretary of State.

More than half of food banks’ users are disabled

Rory Weal, senior policy and public affairs manager at food bank network The Trussell Trust, told MPs that disabled people are “hugely over-represented” in food poverty demographics, with over half – 60 per cent – of food bank users having a disability.

Disabled people are also more likely to be destitute, which is defined by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as going without the essentials needed to eat and stay warm, dry and clean. Of the 2.4 million people living in destitution in 2019, more than half were disabled or had long-term health conditions.

They are also far more likely to seek support around fuel and food poverty. Morgan Wild, head of policy at Citizens Advice, said that 60 per cent of people who receive advice from his organisation around daily bills and debts have a disability or long-term health condition. “Making sure social security is adequate and that we are protecting these people enough is crucial,” he said.

On top of the fuel, housing and food pinch that many will face this year as the energy cap lifts and inflation increases, disabled people face additional costs compared with other demographics.

The cost of disability

Disability charity Scope conducted research in 2019 that found that, on average, people with disabilities face extra costs of £583 per month – equivalent to almost half their average income – and that this goes up to more than £1,000 per month for one in five. This cost can be for specialist items and treatment, such as therapies and equipment, day-to-day services such as energy and transport, and insurance.

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Available benefits do not sufficiently tackle this additional expense, evidence shows. Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – which is intended to help cover extra living costs for those with disabilities and long-term health conditions – is currently split into daily living and mobility payments, and can be as little as £23.70 per week, going up to £152.15 per week for those who qualify for the highest amount for both types. This means that only those who receive the maximum can cover the average extra costs they face each month. For those whose extra costs are more than £1,000, it does not come close.

The pandemic has further widened the divide, both in terms of health and on a wider societal level. The Office for National Statistics found that disabled people were roughly three times more likely to die from Covid-19, while 60 per cent struggled to access essential supplies during the pandemic when support was in high demand across the board. Reduced access to health, social care and education for young people with disabilities was reported.

The government is “completely failing” disabled people

Debbie Abrahams, Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, told Coffey that the UK’s social security system was “completely failing the most vulnerable [group] in society” and that benefits were not sufficiently rising in line with the cost of living or mitigating the impact of extra disability costs.

Coffey responded that there was a “wide range of support” available via PIP depending on individual circumstances. “We’re spending more on benefits for people with long-term health conditions than ever before,” she said.

Abrahams said that Coffey’s words meant “nothing” and implored her to conduct more research on behalf of the DWP into the impact of benefits cuts on poverty, destitution and ill health.

The DWP published a National Disability Strategy last year and committed to a new Extra Costs Taskforce, which will be set up by the Cabinet Office and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) by summer 2022, to better understand the additional expense faced by disabled people.

Despite it featuring in DWP’s strategy, Coffey claimed she “wasn’t aware” of this taskforce but that she presumed both departments would “honour the commitment”, deferring to the minister for disabled people, health and work, Chloe Smith.

Subsidise childcare and scrap sanctions

MPs also pushed for subsidised childcare for parents of disabled children, as well as a better policy to support employers of such parents, who are often locked out of full-time work due to caring responsibilities.  

Concerns were raised around “sanctions” that can be placed on those who claim Universal Credit, employment support or jobseeker’s benefits if they fail to meet specific “work-related requirements” such as attending a job interview or leaving a job “without good reason”.

These sanctions can result in benefits being removed, but were temporarily stopped during the pandemic and have since returned. Government has previously trialled a “warning system”, whereby disabled benefit claimants would receive a two-week warning about a sanction, giving them a chance to challenge the decision. MPs have called on government to introduce this reform permanently, as well as non-financial sanctions and excluding some groups from sanctions altogether. Coffey could not confirm whether the system would be reformed.

Scope recently called on the government to rethink disability welfare, by uprating all “legacy” benefits in line with Universal Credit, permanently scrapping sanctioning and face-to-face assessments for disabled claimants, and getting rid of the five-week wait for Universal Credit, which pushes many disabled people into further financial hardship.

Watch the full parliament session here.

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