A landmark legal challenge shows the cruel reality of Universal Credit for disabled people

Two disabled people have launched a case against the government. But none of us should ignore the impact Universal Credit has on people's lives

May 02, 2018
A landmark legal challenge has been launched against the high court. Photo: PA
A landmark legal challenge has been launched against the high court. Photo: PA

The Windrush scandal currently engulfing the government is evidence not only of the great damage ministers can inflict on marginalised people’s lives—but the revolt that can occur when it goes too far. Yet look to the High Court this week and you’ll see the same damage being inflicted by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), right at the centre of a flagship ‘welfare’ policy.

Two disabled people—aided by the law firm Leigh Day—have launched a landmark legal challenge against the government, arguing Universal Credit (UC) “unlawfully discriminates” against disabled benefit claimants.

It’s well established now that UC is creating financial misery, with those witnessing the fallout of the new benefit system describing it as “hell on earth.” Just last month, research by the Trussell Trust found food bank use is, on average, 52 per cent higher in areas where the full universal credit service has been in place for 12 months or more.

But like the Conservative’s ‘welfare reform’ generally, it’s disabled people who are taking the brunt. This is because two key disability benefits—the severe disability premium (SDP) and enhanced disability premium (EDP)—are being abolished under the new system. The move will see claimants lose as much as £395 a month, according to the disability charity Scope.

It’s estimated a staggering 230,000 disabled people will be affected.  

This is, by definition, taking support from the very people who need it most.

Severe disability premium, for example, is a benefit designed for severely disabled people living without a carer. Since 1988, it’s helped people pay for anything from taxis to hospital to a personal assistant to help them get dressed and washed. It’s often the safety net that stops their children from having to become child carers to fill in the gaps.

No one can say ministers didn’t know the harm this change would cause: a Citizen’s Advice Bureau report in 2012 found 80 per cent of disabled people said a cut this size would mean they’d have to skip meals or go without heating.

One of the disabled people taking the government to court, who has chosen to only be known as ‘TP’, is terminally ill. The 52-year-old has non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the lymph node condition Castleman disease. As he battles the DWP, is undergoing chemotherapy. His legal team describes him as being “beside himself with worry about money.”

Since going onto Universal Credit, ‘TP’ has been stretching his money to afford fruit and veg—a necessity for his health. He's had to stop his weekly cleaner and his home is getting increasingly dirty—not only undignified, but a danger, as doctors say he needs to stay germ-free during his chemo. Things have gotten so bad that the charity MacMillan support has given him over £500 to help him get by.

The government is doing its best to spin the situation. Ask the DWP and it says disabled people will be protected by “top-up payments” as they transfer to UC—but dig further and no such payments are planned until July 2019. And this protection also doesn’t apply to people with “changed circumstances.” That can be something as innocent as moving housing.

TP’s case exemplifies the cruelty of this: he moved to London to receive treatment in 2016 when he discovered he was dying, and because UC had already been rolled out in the capital, his benefits were promptly cut by £178 a month. The DWP say any unmet needs can be met by local authorities’ social care system and by personal independence payments (PIP)—knowing full well many are being unfairly turned down for PIP, and cash-strapped councils often can’t cover existing social care packages (no additional funds have been allocated to local councils to cover UC).  

Universal Credit has been hailed as the biggest transformation of the welfare state in sixty years—which would be laudable if it were not taking place at a time in which the government was simultaneously undertaking unprecedented cuts to the ‘welfare’ budget. Disabled people alone will collectively lose £2 billion in disability premium payments by the time UC fully rolls out (a particularly galling fact considering delays mean it is estimated to be costing taxpayers £16 billion by 2020).

‘Behavioural change’ is at the centre of these UC cuts. This is insulting enough for anyone—a single mum doesn’t need to be left hungry to ‘motivate’ her to look for work; she needs affordable childcare and flexible work opportunities. But with disabled people it’s particularly egregious; as if their disability will suddenly improve the moment they transfer to Universal Credit.

This travesty is a product of Conservative governments but opposition should come from all sides. By any political leaning, reform of the social security system that actively makes the lives of those experiencing illness and disability worse—rather than supporting them—is ultimately a failure. If this week’s court case goes in disabled people’s favour, the government could be forced to learn that lesson whether it likes it or not.