Social Justice

'We matter less than others': Disabled people protest after missing out on Covid support

Ignoring legacy benefit claimants as universal credit increased in lockdown shows how the government views disabled people, say campaigners ahead of Whitehall protest.

Disabled activists march on Euston Road to protest against legacy benefits decision

Disabled People Against Cuts activists on Euston Road earlier this year. Image: Paula Peters

Activists will gather on the prime minister’s doorstep this week to demand he cancels the universal credit cut. But on Thursday they’ll also be ensuring the public does not forget the disabled people whose benefits have stagnated during the pandemic in a welfare system “designed to be punitive and exploitative”.

Ministers increased universal credit and working tax credit payments by £20 per week at the start of the Covid-19 crisis to support people through lockdowns. But payments to those on legacy benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA) and income support – mostly claimed by disabled people – stayed the same.

“We matter less than others,” said Andy Greene, a member of the national steering group for grassroots organisation Disabled People Against Cuts, which has organised the protest on Thursday. “This is the daily lived experience for disabled people.

“When we’re considered, it’s only for what can be taken away from us. It’s not about how we can be supported or given more resources to live independent lives on the same terms as other people.”

A disabled person pays out nearly £600 pounds extra per month in unavoidable costs linked to their impairments, according to research by Scope. 

“It’s transport, extra energy if you need to wash sheets and little bits of equipment more often, expensive delivery costs for food, the list goes on,” Greene said. 

“Disabled people were already at an economic disadvantage before Brexit and Covid. The percentage of accessible homes is in single figures. Disabled people are far less likely to be able to go to university or own their home or have a job. If you do have a job, you’re paid about 30 per cent less

“When you’re already highly dependent on public services and state support, and that’s dismantled pillar by pillar, you find you are left on the margins,” Greene added. “Hungry, isolated and without support. 

“But any acknowledgement that government policy is doing harm to disabled people would buck the trend of the last 10 years.”

In February, Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey told MPs she did not believe the 2.2 million people on legacy benefits had been treated badly during the pandemic.

Coffey added that she was “not aware specifically of extra costs that would have been unduly incurred” by disabled people crisis throughout the Covid-19 crisis. But research showed 82 per cent were spending more in lockdown than they normally would due to higher food and fuel bills plus other expenses such as taxis to get to essential appointments.

Greene, a wheelchair user in Islington, receives employment and support allowance. His experience of the welfare system has been “absolutely shocking”, he told The Big Issue. He described the “debasement” of “jumping through eligiblity hoops” and struggling to stay afloat on an income which fails to cover the cost of living.

“You’re dragged through a system that is so demoralising that by the end of it, you don’t want to engage and you’re prepared to do anything including work in inaccessible spaces and put yourself through pain,” he said. 

“We’re already having to deal with the barriers constructed in our society – whether they’re physical or in employment, education and housing – before trying to get money for food, clothes and electricity for the week. It’s a traumatising, drawn out and humiliating experience.”

This week, two legacy benefit claimants were set to bring a legal challenge against the government’s refusal to increase payments for disabled people during the pandemic. But the court date was postponed until November.

A government spokesperson said: “It has always been the case that claimants on legacy benefits can make a claim for universal credit if they believe that they will be better off.”

Every part of the UK’s social security system needs total reform, according to DPAC, which is staging a week of action to fight against plans to cut universal credit on October 6.

Ministers will take £1,040 from the annual incomes of around 5.5 million people, including many who are disabled and were moved over from the legacy benefits system. The cut will push half a million people into poverty, analysts estimated in research published before the country was gripped by a fuel crisis and supply chain chaos.

“Universal credit isn’t fit for purpose and never was,” Greene said. “I believe it’s a system which is designed to be punitive and exploitative.”

Between redundancies, income cuts and soaring living costs, the Covid-19 crisis caused the number of people claiming universal credit to double. It meant “a system which was never a safety net suddenly had to catch millions of people”, said Greene. 

That the government “adjusted it at the edges” by increasing payments by £20 per week showed payments were already failing to keep people out of poverty, he added. “But that marginal adjustment has become so critical in a huge number of people’s lives. It might not be a lot of money to some people, but for others it is life-saving.”

Disabled People Against Cuts will hold a protest in Whitehall at 5.30pm on Thursday September 30.

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