Social Justice

‘A national scandal’: High court rejects appeal to keep disability benefits in line with universal credit

A judge ruled that government refusal to give people on legacy benefits the £20-per-week increase in lockdown was not discriminatory

legacy benefits

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

A High Court decision not to keep so-called legacy benefits in line with universal credit has been described as a “national scandal” and “direct discrimination against disabled people”.

A team of lawyers, along with four people who receive the disability benefits, took the government to court last year over its refusal to give them the same £20-per-week increase given to universal credit claimants between April 2020 and October 2021.

But the High Court has rejected the appeal, backing the original decision which will “pile misery upon misery for hundreds of thousands of people”, said Jamie Burton QC of Doughty Street Chambers, who led the case and believes the judge didn’t “properly grapple” with the arguments or evidence.

“This is a national scandal,” he added. “Let it never be ignored again that our social security system is purposely ungenerous to the point of being unfit for purpose. Extreme poverty is baked into the system and during the pandemic it got even worse.”

While Mr Justice Swift admitted that legacy benefits were “low” – and said it was “obvious that any person required to rely only on that level of income [would] suffer hardship” – the court denied arguments that the policy had been discriminatory and ruled in favour of the government in February.

The legal team representing the claimants confirmed to The Big Issue that a subsequent appeal has since been denied by the court, and that they have now submitted to the Court of Appeal in efforts to have the original decision overturned. 

The government policy not to increase legacy benefits in line with universal credit was “basically direct discrimination against disabled people”, Burton said.

“This has to change. It contravenes our international human rights obligations and reflects a broken system. Poverty is both pointless and a travesty of justice.”

Were the claimants to win their case, the government would have the option of giving back-dated payments worth £1,500 to around two million people on legacy benefits.

But the court does not have powers to compel the government to do so, even if it ruled in favour of the claimants.

A DWP spokesperson said: “The government introduced a temporary £20 uplift to universal credit, to ensure that vital support was given to those facing the most financial disruption due to the pandemic.

“The decision not to include the £20 uplift in legacy benefits was recently unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court on the basis of discrimination, with the court concluding the regulations were justified in all circumstances.

“Universal credit provided a vital safety net for six million people during the pandemic, and we announced the temporary uplift as part of a Covid support package, worth a total of £407bn in 2020-21 and 2021-22.”

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