Universal credit is in full-blown crisis, from cross-party criticism of its inbuilt six-week delay to a symbolic government defeat in the Commons over pausing its rollout. But one of the policy’s most shameful parts is barely being noticed: the hidden cut being forced on some of Britain’s most severely disabled people.
Philip, 41, who has multiple mental and physical health problems – including severe anxiety and depression – knows it all too well. An injury in his 30s severely damaged his left foot and he can only move on crutches.
He medically retired as a roadsweeper in 2011 and before universal credit came in he was getting by on a patchwork of disability benefits. The titles – employment and support allowance (ESA), enhanced disability premium (EDP), and severe disability premium (SDP) – sound like government jargon, but to Philip they were his lifelines.
Under “welfare reform”, lifelines can be torn away fast: this summer, Philip moved flats across south London and found himself cross into universal credit territory. Although it will not be rolled out to ESA claimants until 2019, Philip’s change in circumstance by moving house meant he was transferred onto universal credit early. What he discovered was a reality that scores of disabled people across the UK will soon be facing: neither EDP nor SDP exist under universal credit.
Do the sums and changing to universal credit means Philip is losing £40 a week. That’s a cut of more than £2,000 a year. The result is brutal. Philip can no longer afford to eat properly. Instead, he’s skipping meals. “I’m feeling physically weaker now,” he says.
Philip no longer has enough money to pay for the taxis he needs to get to his hospital appointments. “I get very anxious on public transport and don’t feel very safe,” he explains.
The financial strain doesn’t stop there. When he moved his rent was not fully paid for three weeks. He is appealing, but is now in rent arrears of over £450.
Philip’s depression has led him to attempt suicide in the past and he tells me the transfer to universal credit has made him feel suicidal again. “I’m at my wits’ end now.”
Up to half a million disabled people like Philip and their families will be financially worse off under universal credit, according to disability charities, through the removal of the disability premiums, as well as cuts to child disability payments, which could affect 100,000 children at an annual loss of £1,000. Ask the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and it states that the support given by SDP is now provided through personal independence payments, (Pip) and social care from local councils, and that “transitional protection” will be available when disabled people are moved from ESA on to universal credit in 2019. But press further, and it turns out that cash-strapped local authorities have no obligation to provide support. And there is no help for disabled people like Philip who are transferred early.
And that’s not all. Under universal credit, disabled claimants will face a controversial mandatory “health and work conversation” (HWC) in which they must provide information to a work coach about what jobs they can undertake, or have their benefits sanctioned. This will mean people who are often too ill to get out of bed forced into a jobcentre meeting. The DWP says not all disabled people will be required to do a “face to face” interview in the jobcentre when it is unreasonable to expect it, but campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts tells me it has already seen a case of a woman with a life-threatening illness and insufficient mental capacity being asked to attend an HWC.
Expecting people with mental health problems, learning difficulties, or those battling illness to navigate a complex benefit system is particularly cruel – and early signs of universal credit are worrying. A study by two councils in London last week reported long delays for payments are worsening people’s anxiety and depression. Grimly, it’s also emerged that some universal credit claimants are being denied free prescriptions, as well as dental care, because of confusion about eligibility. Philip finds all this hard to talk about (the benefit system makes him anxious), but he wants to publicise what is happening to disabled people. His words should be a warning to politicians: “Universal credit is pushing people into poverty.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010