May Bulman writes:
The government's universal credit roll-out is unlawfully discriminating against people with disabilities by taking “essential benefits” from disabled claimants, the High Court has ruled.
In a landmark judgment, the court ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) unlawfully discriminated against two severely disabled men who both saw their benefits dramatically reduced when they claimed universal credit.
Lawyers representing the men said the ruling showed that the new benefit system was “not working” for the disabled or other claimants, and urged the government to halt the roll-out and overhaul the system to meet peoples’ needs and not “condemn them to destitution”.
The two claimants, known only as TP and AR, had both previously been in receipt of the Severe Disability Premium (SDP) and Enhanced Disability Premium (EDP), which were specifically aimed at meeting the additional care needs of severely disabled people living alone with no carer.
But they were required to make a claim for universal credit when they moved into new local authorities where the controversial new benefit was being rolled out. According to both the men, they were advised by DWP staff that their benefit entitlement would not change.
Despite repeated assurances from the government that “no one will experience a reduction in the benefit they are receiving at the point of migration to universal credit where circumstances remain the same”, both men saw an immediate drop in their income of around £178 a month when they were moved over.
When they asked for top up payments they were told that Government policy was that no such payments would be paid until July 2019 when managed migration would begin.
Universal credit – which rolls six major working-age benefits, including job seeker’s allowance, tax credit and housing benefit into one payment – has been beset with problems since the start of the roll-out.
As both claimants testified to the court, the sudden drop of income had a devastating impact on them, both physically and psychologically. TP, a former City banker who suffers from a terminal illness, has been struggling to address his care needs, and AR, who suffers from severe mental health issues, has been unable to afford basic necessities.
The DWP last week committed the government to ensuring that no severely disabled person in receipt of the SDP will be made to move onto universal credit until transitional protection is in place and committing to compensating those like the claimants who have lost out.
Despite this, following hand down of the judgment on Thursday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has sought permission to appeal, maintaining that there was nothing unlawful with the way the claimants were treated.
Their lawyer, Tessa Gregory from the human rights team at Leigh Day, told the Court: “Nothing about either of the claimants’ disability or care needs changed, they were simply unfortunate enough to need to move local authorities into a Universal Credit full service area.”
The judge said the impact on the individuals was “clear”, and said the way they were transferred onto universal credit was “manifestly without reasonable foundation” and “failed to strike a fair balance”.
Following the ruling, Ms Gregory said: “This is the first legal test of the roll out of Universal Credit and the system has been found to be unlawfully discriminating against some of society’s most vulnerable.
“Whilst we welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that no one in our client’s position will now be moved onto Universal Credit until top up payments are in place, it comes too late as it cannot make up for the months of suffering and grinding poverty our clients and many others like them have already had to endure.
“We call upon Esther McVey to compensate our clients and all those affected without any further delay, and urge her to focus on fixing Universal Credit rather than wasting more public funds appealing this court decision.
“Today’s decision shows again that Universal Credit is not delivering what was promised at the outset. It is not working. It’s not working for the disabled, it’s not working for parents, it’s not working for low-income and part-time employees and it’s not working for the self-employed.
“The government needs to halt the rollout and completely overhaul the system to meet peoples’ needs, not condemn them to destitution. If this doesn’t happen further legal challenges will inevitably follow.
Responding to the ruling, James Taylor, head of policy and public affairs at disability charity Scope, said:
“The judge’s comments spell out what many disabled people tell us week in and week out – that the move to universal credit can have a detrimental effect on their lives.
“Disability premiums are not a luxury. They play a crucial role in helping disabled people pay for essentials like food, clothing and bills. The needs of the people involved in this case haven’t changed, and yet they have lost more than £170 per month in support. This isn’t fair.
“Until the Government fully addresses these issues, it will unfairly penalise disabled people for moving over to universal credit.”
A DWP spokesperson said:
“The court found in our favour on three of the four points raised by the claimant. We will be applying to appeal on the one point the court found against the Department. This government is committed to ensuring a strong system of support is in place for vulnerable people who are unable to work.
“Last week, the Secretary of State announced that we will be providing greater support for severely disabled people as they move onto universal credit. And we have gone even further, by providing an additional payment to those who have already moved onto the benefit.”