Disabled people are being forced to go without food, heating and medication during the pandemic as ministers refuse to increase their benefits in line with other welfare support claimants, charities warn.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced in March that universal credit claimants would receive a weekly £20 uplift in their benefit payment to support them through the public health crisis.
However, about 1.9 million people on disability and sickness benefits – and a further 300,000 on the old benefits who have not yet moved over to universal credit – were not awarded the same increase.
New research now reveals that tens of thousands of disabled people have subsequently fallen into hardship, with many unable to afford basic essentials, such as food and heating, because of costs increasing as a result of the pandemic.
Campaigners have accused ministers of creating a “two-tier discriminatory welfare state” and urged the government to immediately increase legacy benefits in line with the universal credit uplift.
A survey carried out by the Disability Benefit Consortium (DBC), a network of more than 100 organisations, of 1,126 disability benefit claimants found that 82 per cent said they had spent more than they normally would – because of greater food shopping and utility bills, as well as having to pay for taxis to attend essential appointments – since the Covid-19 crisis began.
Two-thirds (66 per cent) said they had to go without such essentials as food, heating and medication as a result of increased costs since the pandemic started, while almost half (44 per cent) said they had fallen behind on financial commitments like rent, mortgage payments and household bills.
In one case, David Allen, 62, who was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1996 and has been receiving legacy benefits for over 10 years, was bedbound with the coronavirus in March and had no choice but to have food delivered.
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The Luton resident, who is still shielding as he is clinically vulnerable, subsequently had to spend more than usual on his weekly shopping because the minimum order is £25, plus the delivery fees – and has resorted to cutting down on his electricity use to make up for it.
“I’m constantly worrying about other costs – I find myself sitting in the dark more than I should so as not to turn the lights on for too long, as well as only switching the TV on when I’m watching a programme,” Mr Allen said.
“I live on my own, so it’s hard not to think your world is closing in around you. The harsh reality is that the pandemic has meant our bills are going up quicker than our income, and there’s just nowhere to go to make up for that. It’s meant we feel abandoned and left to sink.”
Asked in November why the universal credit uplift had not been applied to other benefit claimants, ministers and officials at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have repeatedly blamed the “old” IT systems on which legacy benefits are processed, which they say make it “more complex” to change the rates people receive.
Other reasons given by ministers include the fact that legacy benefit claimants will receive a 37p annual increase from April, and that they have the option to switch to universal credit – but charities say this ignores the fact that switching to the new benefit system could leave people worse off in the long run.
More than 120,000 people have signed a petition calling for the 2 million disabled people, lone parents and families who receive legacy benefits to stop being denied the £20 uplift, arguing that this cohort has faced “immense hardship” as a result of the public health crisis.
Ella Abraham, Z2K’s policy and campaigns officer and campaigns co-chair of the DBC, said the government’s “inaction” on the issue has created a “two-tier discriminatory welfare state” that has pushed a “huge number” of people into poverty.
“Forcing people on to universal credit, where many will not be better off, isn’t a solution. What we need is a social security system that ensures people are not having to survive on the bare minimum but have the income they need to live a stable and dignified life. The government must increase legacy benefits now.”
Anastasia Berry, policy manager at the MS Society and policy co-chair at the DBC, echoed her concerns, saying: “An unforgivable number of disabled people have been put in danger of falling into poverty because of the extra costs of the pandemic – and the government continues to ignore them.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting disabled people through every stage of this pandemic and have worked hard to provide uninterrupted access to disability benefits and further financial support – making £1.3bn available to local authorities to help address pressures on local services including adult social care.
“That’s in addition to wider support, including our £280bn investment to safeguard jobs, boost welfare support and help families through the winter.”