Social Justice

DWP discriminated against disabled people in switch to universal credit, says court

The government's refusal to cover the cash shortfall for people who moved from legacy benefits to universal credit affected 50,000 people.

universal credit

The lawyers argued that the decision breached the European Convention on Human Rights. Image: Anthony Majanlahti

The government discriminated against people who lost money when moved onto universal credit, the High Court said today.

Two severely disabled men brought a challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after the switch from the old system – known as legacy benefits – to universal credit cost them £180 a month each.

Speaking in court ahead of the judgement, DWP representatives argued a ruling in favour of the claimants could affect around 50,000 people in similar circumstances – costing the government £150m in payouts over a six-year period.

After the government launched universal credit in 2013, it started moving people from the legacy benefits system through “managed migration”, which ensured they would not receive less money on the new system.

But those forced to switch to universal credit via a trigger event, such as moving house or newly claiming housing benefit – which is now exclusive to universal credit – are not entitled to the same cash protection, meaning thousands saw their incomes drop overnight.

One of the claimants who brought the judicial review – who wishes to be known as TP – said: “I am relieved that the judge agrees that the DWP treated us differently than other severely disabled benefits claimants and that it was wrong to do so.

“The past six years have been immensely stressful as I have struggled to get by on a lower income. I just hope that the DWP will put all of this right as soon as possible so that those of us who have been badly affected by this unfair policy can get on with our lives.”

TP and the other claimant, AR, were receiving severe disability premium (SDP) and enhanced disability premium (EDP) payments. But when they moved to areas where universal credit had been rolled out, they were switched to the new system and lost out on a significant chunk of income.

The DWP was previously challenged on this in the High Court and Court of Appeal, resulting in extra payments to cover the loss of SDP, but not to cover the full monthly loss of roughly £180.

Today marks the fourth time the DWP has been taken to court over human rights concerns for severely disabled people who “naturally” migrated to universal credit.

The judge said the £20-per-week universal credit increase introduced during the pandemic – and since reversed – did not make up for the disadvantage disabled claimants experienced, and said refusing to cover the cash shortfall for vulnerable people was not a proportionate way to to minimise public spending.

“It should never have been the case that disabled people entitled to the severe and enhanced disability premiums were suddenly deprived of the equivalent sum when they found themselves transferred onto universal credit,” said claimant AR.

“The policy has caused me and others serious hardship and I am glad that the court has seen the sense in our argument. Hopefully we will be fourth time lucky and finally have reached the end of the road fighting this unfair policy.”

Despite the ruling, the court cannot compel the DWP to pay out to anyone else affected by the same issue unless they bring their own judicial reviews.

“After each [of the three previous] judgement[s], the DWP has made further attempts to short-change this group of highly vulnerable claimants who faced a cliff-edge loss of income when none of their disability needs has changed,” said Tessa Gregory, partner at law firm Leigh Day which represented the claimants.

“Our clients hope that this judgement marks the end of the road and that the DWP will stop wasting money on legal fees and get on with protecting the vulnerable.”

The DWP has been contacted for comment.

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