Social Justice

DWP accused of ‘hiding evidence’ that disabled people can’t afford food

A group of MPs obtained and published a report on disability benefits themselves after the DWP refused to do so, despite having it since 2020.

legacy benefits

Campaigners outside the High Court in November 2021 ahead of the hearing. Image: @BenClaimant

MPs have published research showing disabled people on benefits struggle to afford food and bills.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has had the report since 2020 but refused to publish it. Instead, members of the Work and Pensions Committee have obtained it and published it themselves.

“By persisting in its decision to hide away evidence of the struggles people are facing, the DWP will only have further harmed its reputation with disabled people,” said committee chair Stephen Timms.

The committee was granted powers from parliament to bypass the DWP – instead getting the 80-page report straight from the NatCen researchers commissioned to carry out the investigation by the DWP. 

It came after work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey repeatedly rejected calls to publish the evidence, which includes first-hand testimony from people claiming health and disability benefits.

The report revealed that while benefits including universal credit, employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment (PIP) helped some claimants stay afloat, those with smaller incomes – mostly people in privately rented or social housing, in low-paid jobs or with no extra income on top of disability benefits – struggled to afford essentials like food, utility payments and housing costs.

It resulted in “widespread” debt as people fell into rent and energy arrears, turned to credit or had to cover budgeting loans and overpayments from the DWP.

Some also had to choose between essentials and their own health, paying for food instead of transport to appointments and equipment to help with their conditions. Many were forced to borrow from friends and family or use food banks.

The DWP’s refusal to publish the report themselves can only have worsened the “lack of trust” disabled people have in the government, “as its own officials have acknowledged”, Timms said.

“In order to rebuild its relationship with disabled people, the DWP must stop trying to bury uncomfortable truths.”

Researchers interviewed 120 people across England, Scotland and Wales who relied on health and disability benefits. One participant, a single mother with daughters aged three and 10, has experienced anxiety and depression all her life and started having epileptic seizures nine years ago.

She receives PIP, income support, child benefit and child tax credits, but is £8,000 in debt and spends up to 80 per cent of her monthly income on debt repayments.

The research was commissioned in 2019 and concluded in 2020, meaning the cost of living had not yet started to increase.

“With the energy crisis news, and social security set to increase by a mere three per cent, it is essential [the government] acts to ensure people receive adequate income which truly covers the cost of living,” a spokesperson for anti-poverty organisation Z2K said. “It is not enough to offer loans, which will push people further into poverty.”

A DWP spokesperson said the government was providing “extensive support to millions of disabled people and those with a health condition to help them live independent lives”.

“As the research shows, health and disability benefits, alongside other income streams, helped to meet almost all identified areas of additional need,” they added.

“We are currently considering a range of policy options, drawing on wide evidence, research and analysis as part of the upcoming health and disability whitepaper.

“Protecting a private space for policy development is important and we had committed to publish this report as soon as this policy work concluded.”

But the report unveiled the “inadequacy of these benefits for many disabled people,” said Anastasia Berry, policy manager at the MS Society.

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“Despite the DWP’s relentless attempts to bury this research, we can finally see what they’ve been so desperate to hide,” she added.

“For years, disabled people have been subjected to a benefits system which is stressful, confusing, and fails to provide the basic support they need.

“Now, with the cost of living crisis erupting, many are reaching breaking point.

“They must urgently increase benefits by six per cent in April, in line with current inflation, and create a social security system that puts disabled people first.”

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