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The Universal Credit uplift and those of us left behind…

TLDR: The treatment of people on legacy benefits is yet one more case where disabled people have been left behind and forgotten about during (and before) the pandemic. Here Helen talks about why the £20 uplift to Universal Credit has been important, and the impact on those people in receipt of legacy benefits who have not received an uplift.

York Disability Rights Forum were recently invited to speak at a York and District People’s Assembly meeting, along with DPAC Sheffield about the £20 uplift in Universal Credit (UC).

To help people on UC during the pandemic, the Government increased the benefit by £20 a week. This has naturally been incredibly helpful to those people who are on UC. However, that has left many people on ‘legacy benefits’ who didn’t get any additional help. Legacy benefits are those which the Government are in the process of replacing with Universal Credit and include Employment and Support Allowance, a benefit that helps people who are unable to work due to sickness or disability. There was no uplift for people in receipt of these benefits.

You might be wondering why people don’t just change which benefits they get, but it’s not that easy. Firstly, there is invariably a period of waiting before you receive the benefit you’ve applied for, assuming that you don’t end up being deemed no longer eligible. This is always a threat for disabled people who routinely fight to be believed and listened to. You also have to keep in mind that around half of the claimants would lose out financially, with disabled people who are out of work particularly likely to lose out. Applying for Universal Credit is digital by default and during the pandemic it’s not been possible to get the same support or access to the internet, eg through the library, creating another barrier for disabled people who are disproportionately affected by digital exclusion.

An unequal starting point

Of course, Covid-19 has been difficult for everyone, but disabled people hadn’t started on an equal footing. We were already affected by the benefit cuts carried out in the name of austerity measures over the last ten years. Specifically, the Centre for Welfare Reform had identified that people in poverty bore the brunt of 39% of all the cuts, disabled people 29% of the cuts and people with severe disabilities, 15% of the cuts.

Further, living with a disability is also more expensive. On average, a disabled person faces additional costs of £583 a month compared to a non-disabled person and one in five disabled people face costs in excess of £1,000 a month.  It’s been calculated that it’s 43% more expensive for families to raise a disabled child compared to a non-disabled child.

The financial impact of covid and shielding

So we were already being impacted by the benefits system before covid. And then came shielding and I feel the additional costs that it can incur have been overlooked by many people. The Disability Benefits Consortium found that because of the Covid-19 crisis:

  • The majority (82%) of disabled people surveyed said they had spent more than they normally would – due to greater food shopping and utility bills, as well as having to pay for taxis to attend essential appointments.
  • Two thirds (66%) said they had to go without essentials like food, heating or medication as a result of increased costs since the pandemic started.
  • Nearly half (44%) said they had fallen behind on financial commitments like rent, mortgage payments, or household bills.

Locally, here in York, Universal Credit claimants almost doubled because of Covid. The average number of claimants between March and June 2020 was 10,363, almost double that of the same period in 2019. And unemployment had increased by 141% by June 2020. Inevitably, research has shown that people on legacy benefits are also most likely to have experienced food insecurity, and in York, foodbank use increased five-fold.

The mainstream media rarely covers the issue of disability, but when it does, there tends to be a framing of poverty with the catchy idea of ‘heat or eat’, but it’s so much more than that. People are living without food, or without heating, but also without medication and other essential healthcare products. As an example, we’ve heard of people using poor quality continence pads because they are the cheapest, and this has a real impact both on people’s dignity but also their health.

“I’m struggling because I live alone and my anxiety won’t let me go out much so I’ve been having half a tin of beans or spaghetti with 2 slices of toast every day because I couldn’t get access to home deliveries until today. I’ve spent 3 days in the dark because I couldn’t get out to get electric because of my mental health condition. COVID just adds to that anxiety” – respondent to the GM Big Disability Survey- Covid19

The treatment of people on legacy benefits is yet one more case where disabled people have been left behind and forgotten about during (and before) the pandemic.

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