Abby Jitendra, Policy and Research Manager
Every week foodbanks in our network meet people with health conditions or disabilities who, without emergency help from the local community, would have faced going hungry. Just as we all expect to be able to access free healthcare anywhere in the UK, we would expect that if you are struggling to get by because of a health condition, sufficient financial support would be available. But poor administration and continued reductions in disabled people’s benefit payments mean the welfare safety net, which should be freeing people from the restraints of poverty, is locking people in.
That’s why the Government’s announcement last week on disability benefits is such a positive step. The Secretary of State announced that people receiving the Severe Disability Premium, an additional payment given to people receiving benefits due to health conditions, would not be moved onto Universal Credit. The Government also announced that the people who had moved onto Universal Credit but had lost their Severe Disability Premium in the change would be backdated payments.
The Severe Disability Premium is, for half a million people in the UK, a lifeline which allows people with some of the most serious and life-altering disabilities, such as blindness or severe motor impairment, to support themselves more easily.
Weekly, it amounts to £64.30 for a single person and £128.60 for a couple, which pays for essentials like transport and shelter for people whose health conditions mean a significantly higher cost of living. And it can mean the difference between needing a foodbank and being able to feed yourself and your family.
We know that disabled people and people with long-term health conditions are more likely to need a foodbank than any other group – our research with the University of Oxford found that half of all households using foodbanks contained someone who was disabled, while three-quarters included someone with a long term health condition. A clear way to reduce destitution in the UK would be to ensure these people have enough to live on.
But research shows people with health conditions are increasingly more likely to find themselves in financial difficulty and debt, which makes top-up payments for disabled people essential.
Under the current system, people are arbitrarily losing this lifeline simply through the postcode lottery of living in an area with full Universal Credit service, and simply because they are a few months before ‘managed migration’. This is the manual migration of claimants onto the new system, for which there is ‘transitional protection’ (a guarantee that your Universal Credit award will be the same amount, or higher, than your current benefit payment if you are moving from legacy benefits). But this only applies to people who aren’t already on Universal Credit by the time the department start manually moving them to the new system.
Even more importantly, though, because benefit levels under the Universal Credit payment structure tend to be less generous, transitional protection provides a strong defence against the erosion of your benefit payments. There have been cuts to disability benefits more generally, as well as child benefits, and the benefits freeze means that all benefits have lost value over the last two years, and will continue to do so unless they are uprated in line with inflation.
Our Left Behind research looking at the experience of being on Universal Credit found that only 5% of respondents with a health condition said their full Universal Credit payment covered their cost of living, compared to 8% of respondents who did not state any health condition. As one respondent said:
‘Universal Credit is a lot less than Jobseeker’s Allowance with a disability premium which is what I used to be on.’
When the changes announced by the Secretary of State kick in, not only will people be able keep more of their money, they also won’t have to wait five or more weeks for their first payment, will continue to be paid more frequently, and won’t need to look for more hours if they are already in work. And it’ll mean that some of the most vulnerable people in our country will be less likely to need a foodbank in the future.
It’s not all good – people receiving disability premiums or enhanced disability premiums will not be helped by this change – they still stand to lose hundreds of pounds a year if they move onto Universal Credit before managed migration. Even with transitional protection, if they have a change of circumstances, such as moving to a new area, they will be reassessed and most likely lose out.
And last week the Department’s own commissioned research admitted that claimants with long-term health conditions were ‘faring less well’ under Universal Credit, with incomes and labour prospects in this group stagnating.
Our benefits system was created to protect people from destitution. Clearly, there is more that needs to be done to make sure disabled people don’t fall through the cracks and find themselves at a foodbank.
But this is a positive step towards recognising the key principle on which the welfare state was built: making sure people have enough money to live on is the best defence against poverty, and it’s a defence we all expect to be able to access when it’s most needed.