We are approaching a critical moment in our #KeepTheLifeline campaign to strengthen our social security system, which this pandemic has shown we may all need to keep us afloat.
Later this month, the Government is expected to deliver the Spending Review and announce its usual annual decision on benefit rates for next year. This is the obvious time for ministers to commit to keeping the £20 a week increase to Universal Credit and to finally extend the same support to those on legacy benefits.
We urge the Government to seize the initiative and not unnecessarily delay the decision when there is no doubt that families will need this support.
However, we are concerned that those remaining on legacy benefits – including Employment and Support Allowance, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support – will be excluded from this uplift for the second consecutive year, risking the establishment of a two-tier social security system. Consequently, many sick or disabled people and carers would receive a lower level of support that is not sufficient to cover living costs and risks further entrenching the disproportionate rate of poverty in these groups.
As it takes the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) a few months to implement changes to legacy benefits, decisions about benefit rates from April are made in November. To avoid the injustice of these families being excluded again, we need the Government to commit to extending this lifeline now as part of the benefits uprating review.
We know that the financial situation of disabled people and carers has been worsened by the pandemic. Many have had to shoulder the burden of additional costs to mitigate health risks, such as taking taxis to appointments to avoid public transport, purchasing more PPE for those with respiratory conditions, or using more heating to reduce the risk of complications from COVID-19. This means that less money is available for essentials: of the people whose finances had been affected by the pandemic in September 2020, 25% of disabled people reported that they have less money available for food compared with 12% of non-disabled people.
Care needs have increased for many people, due to the complexities around managing health risks and adapting to lockdown restrictions, or even dealing with a COVID-19 infection. We have heard accounts of people having to pay around £30 per hour for privately sourced care to make up for shortfalls, causing them to fall into debt or deplete already low levels of savings.
For those providing care, these increased care requirements along with the suspension of day centres and other respite opportunities have meant over a quarter of carers report their caring responsibilities have increased. In some cases this has meant that carers have had to give up paid employment, which will be extremely difficult to recover.
The economic impact of the pandemic has meant that opportunities to raise income through work are severely constrained - this is particularly acute for those seeking jobs that can accommodate a disability, illness, or caring requirements.
As a carer, it was already very hard to find a job which would provide flexibility around caring responsibilities. COVID-19 has made that so much worse, coupled with the additional threats to the person I care for's health.
Financial challenges for disabled people and carers are far from new. Earlier this year, JRF reported that nearly half of people in poverty in the UK are either themselves disabled or live in a household with someone who is. We also showed that before the pandemic, disabled people faced serious barriers to accessing work and even when in employment, on average worked fewer hours and earned less than non-disabled people.
Not everyone on legacy benefits can simply transfer to Universal Credit to benefit from the £20 uplift. For many people, a move to Universal Credit could mean very significant losses in income, outweighing the gains from the £20 uplift. By opting to move, rather than being moved by DWP via ‘managed migration’ (currently paused during the pandemic), they would miss out on ‘transitional protection’ payments provided if their Universal Credit ends up being less than they receive on legacy benefits.
Moving across also carries a huge risk: those who move across but find their entitlements lower, or who move across on the basis of the £20 uplift that could subsequently be withdrawn, will not be able to return to their previous benefit. All claimants will need to wait at least five weeks for their first payment or be forced to take an advance payment loan from DWP and face difficulties paying this back. People are also worried about delays in the application, differences in conditionality, or potentially having to go through another disability assessment that could result in their entitlement being cut.
It cannot be right that some of the most at-risk members of our society have not been thrown the same lifeline as those on Universal Credit. It would be operationally simple to extend the £20 uplift to legacy benefits as part of the usual annual uprating decision later this month.
The Government has an opportunity to right this injustice, strengthen social security and help many families stay afloat in these turbulent times. This would send a clear signal that they are committed to supporting everyone in our society.