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COVID benefit cut leaves half a million disabled people £1,000 a year worse off

Sunak’s Budget sop to ‘reward work’ for worst hit by Universal Credit changes still hammers UK households unable to take jobs due to ill-health

Chaminda Jayanetti
29 October 2021, 12.01am
Disabled People Against Cuts protesting in London
Peter Marshall / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

More than 600,000 disabled people across the UK have lost more than £1,000 a year under this month’s Universal Credit cut, with at least half a million living in households where no one is considered able to work, openDemocracy can reveal.

In this week’s autumn Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a rise in the minimum wage and a cut in the rate at which Universal Credit is withdrawn for those in paid work.

The measures were designed to soften the impact of the withdrawal of the £20 weekly pandemic ‘uplift’ to Universal Credit – but they do nothing for most Universal Credit claimants, who are not in paid work, including many who are unable to work.

Sunak said in his Budget speech that the measures would “support working families” and “reward work”.

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However, openDemocracy’s analysis of government figures shows that in May this year – the most recent month for which data is available – 620,000 households on Universal Credit included at least one working age, disabled adult classified as having ‘limited capacity’ for employment. This means that they are not expected to try to find paid work due to the severity of their disability or illness.

Of these 620,000 households, 497,000 are single-adult households, meaning nobody in the household is expected to find paid work due to disability or illness – there is no prospect of another adult in the home taking on paid work in order to mitigate the loss of the Universal Credit uplift. Some 93,000 of these households include children.

Even where there is another adult in the household, paid work may be impossible – they may also be too ill or disabled to work, or act as full-time, unpaid carers, or have significant childcare commitments.

Christmas is cancelled

Ezra Stripe, who has fibromyalgia and a spinal cord injury, lives in Bolton with their wife and young son. Ezra has claimed disability benefits for around six years and was moved from the old Employment Support Allowance (ESA) benefit to Universal Credit shortly before the pandemic.

“[The £20 uplift] was really significant,” they told openDemocracy. “It meant we were actually able to save some money for the first time ever. And it also meant that we were able to do nice things with [our son] that we wouldn’t have been able to do before.”

They took their son to Chester Zoo’s light show last year. “That’s always been entirely out of our financial rein – but that was possible. And we didn’t have to worry about money quite as much, I think that was the big difference.”

This month they were hit by a double whammy – the Universal Credit uplift has gone and their gas bill has gone up by £40 a month. Combined, they are suddenly £125 a month worse off than before.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do Christmas. It’s a big difference now. Trying to work it out is difficult and I’m just trying to avoid it at the moment.” Stripe said that they were likely to stay with family “because we’re not going to be able to afford to make Christmas dinner”. And that there would be no presents for anyone but their son, “because I’m making sure that the child doesn’t know that we’ve not got any money”.

Peter Rogers, who lives in east London, had to leave paid work due to mental health issues. He said that the uplift made life easier and less stressful but wondered about the motives behind it.

“I thought it was being done because a lot of people were finding themselves on benefits for the first time, and a lot of them would have been Tory supporters, and they did it to cushion the blow – but for them,” he said. “After all the rhetoric of ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘work-shy layabouts’ and stuff, that they’ve been insidiously pumping out, it would soften the blow because they didn’t want all the newly unemployed Conservative voters thinking, ‘Oh actually, this is a bit rubbish’.

“So I thought it was a cynical, political ploy because they didn’t put it on any of the legacy benefits and none of the newly unemployed were going onto legacy benefits.”

Disabled people’s rights are being decimated; the government’s decisions are having a detrimental effect on the health and wellbeing of an already marginalised group

The uplift was not applied to people on the old ‘legacy’ benefit systems that predate Universal Credit, such as ESA and Jobseeker’s Allowance – people who stayed on these benefits have had to get by without any extra support during the pandemic.

Rogers is expecting to feel the pinch now that the uplift has gone. “It’s going to make it more difficult. I was recently in hospital with a kidney problem, and it’s quite serious – I was in hospital for ten days. And they gave me a whole list of things I need to eat, supplements that they recommend. And I tried to follow what they’d recommended but it’s simply out of my price range … some of the supplements you can’t get on prescription are like £10, £15. And I just can’t afford to follow what the hospital told me I should be doing.

“So I’m doing my best, but I’ve got to balance it between financial benefit and health benefit. Doubtless when I go back to see the GP, he’s going to want to know why I’m not deep into what they’ve told me to do. I can’t even afford to set foot in the shops where they sell the things that they recommend I eat. So it will impact my health even more.”

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As the UK reopens, people with disabilities reflect on the difficulties of the past year, from increased health risks to trouble accessing support

Linda Burnip, of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “DPAC are calling for the £20 cut to UC to be urgently reversed and for legacy benefits to also be uplifted. We know disabled people’s living costs have increased dramatically during the pandemic and now with inflation and fuel costs spiralling out of control, we are asking for disabled people to be given enough social security payments to meet their needs and allow them to both heat and eat.”

Jumoke Abdullahi, spokesperson for the disability charity, Inclusion London, condemned the government for leaving “hundreds of thousands of disabled people poorer during a global pandemic, as we are in the winter months with prices of utilities steadily increasing”. Abdullahi said that government decisions were continuing to have “a detrimental effect on the independence, health and wellbeing of an already marginalised group” and that their rights were being “decimated”. The group is calling for evidence from disabled people for an upcoming shadow report to the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (CRDP).

Abdullahi added that “disabled people, especially those who are ‘multiply marginalised’, need real and committed change from the government. One such place to start is by ensuring that disabled people are not having money taken from their already limited funds.”

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