The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP/The Department) provides vital financial support to approximately 2 million disabled people claiming out of work benefits. Through Universal Credit (UC), DWP aims to make it easier for disabled people to move into work or increase their hours, and to provide more support to some of the most severely disabled people amongst its caseload. Those aims are laudable. But whether the Department can deliver them—and the impact on people who do not fit the Department’s definition of “severely disabled”—is much less certain.
The Department should start by getting the basics right. It has made progress in paying UC on time. But still just a third of new claimants whose award includes a payment for disability receive their UC on time and in full. The Department says that these delays are down to long waits for Work Capability Assessments—tests of claimants’ capacity to work, carried out by the Department’s contractors. DWP therefore has a choice. It can either take steps to reduce the wait for an assessment—for example, by introducing new targets for its contractors or conducting assessments in house—or find a way for claimants to receive disability support while they wait for an assessment. One interim solution, ensuring claimants are not left without vital income while awaiting an assessment, would be to allow disability amounts of UC to be paid on production of a valid Fit Note stating that the claimant is unable to work.
Under the benefit system UC replaces (the “legacy system”), disabled people without an adult carer could, in some circumstances, claim top-ups to their benefits to help them meet additional costs resulting from their health conditions. These are called “disability premia”. They do not exist under UC, meaning new claimants cannot receive them. The Department argues it is, instead, making support for the most “severely disabled” UC claimants more generous than under the legacy system. This is true, but it still does not match what those claimants could have received under the legacy system, with the premia in place. And it leaves those who are not designated “severely disabled”—but who the Department itself has nonetheless assessed as unable to work—substantially worse off than they would otherwise have been.
The Department has taken some steps to protect people already receiving the premia. It announced in June 2018 that it would provide “transitional protection” for claimants receiving them who move to UC without a change in their circumstances—a process it calls “managed migration”. But new claimants will not receive this protection, and the protection will lose value over time. This risks disabled people living more isolated lives, relying more on unpaid care (including from their own young children), or simply being unable to gain support to complete basic daily tasks. The Department has carried out no analysis of its own to assess the effect of removing the premia. It must do so urgently. It should include in this an assessment of the costs and benefits of introducing a new “self-care” payment in UC for claimants who would have received the disability premia. This would help disabled people who have opted not to have a paid for carer to meet ad hoc care and living expenses.
Changes to support for disabled children under UC similarly mean that some families with severely disabled children, who are in receipt of higher-rate Disability Living Allowance, will receive more than they would have under the legacy system. And households already receiving this support who move via “managed migration” will receive transitional protection. But this comes at a price for other families. Households who migrate “naturally” due to changed circumstances, and new claimants, will receive no such protection. The result is that once UC is fully rolled out, 100,000 families with a disabled child will be entitled to less money than they would have been under the legacy system. Those receiving the middle rate care component of Disability Living Allowance, in particular, are likely to struggle to make up the shortfall through work due to caring responsibilities. The Department must urgently reinstate support for new claimant households with children receiving the middle rate care component of Disability Living Allowance.
The Government is committed to a digital by default process for Universal Credit claims. Digital cannot work for everyone, however. Some disabled people—for example, people with severe learning disabilities—will never be able to use all online systems independently. The Department must ensure Universal Credit’s systems meet their needs. It should enable providers of its Universal Support provision—including Citizens Advice—to offer proactively on-going support to claimants who cannot use the online system, and ensure they have the funding necessary to deliver this. The support on offer must reflect the differing needs of disabled people, with home visits and telephone support available where necessary at no additional cost to the claimant.
Certain people can apply for UC under the Department’s Special Rules for Terminal Illness (SRTI): a simplified process that allows them to receive their benefit more quickly. To do so they need to supply a form stating that they have less than six months to live. But this process is failing claimants with terminal, progressive illnesses when they need support most. The strict six month requirement is too restrictive, and can exacerbate what is already a difficult and distressing time. The Department must introduce a more humane approach. This should make access to the SRTI dependent only on medical professionals’ judgement about whether an individual has a progressive illness that is likely to cause their death; not whether that is expected to occur within six months. This reflects the approach taken in the Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill, which is scheduled for its second reading in January 2019.
Jobcentre Plus (JCP) Work Coaches—front line support staff—have two key roles in supporting UC claimants. They agree with claimants the conditions attached to their receipt of benefit, called “conditionality”, and ensure they are meeting them. They also refer claimants to additional, external employment support.
Work Coaches are generalists. They undergo basic training on disability, but they do not specialise in working with disabled claimants. Many of the roles they have to perform, however, require specialist knowledge. The Department is confident that its Disability Employment Advisers and Community Partners—specialist JCP staff who advise front-line Work Coaches—are the best way of delivering this. Yet funding for all 200 Community Partners, and 300 of JCP’s 500 DEAs, is due to expire in 2019—just as the Department plans to begin moving existing benefit claimants onto Universal Credit. The lack of a concrete plan or funding beyond that point is deeply worrying. The Department should commit to funding Community Partners and the additional Disability Employment Advisers throughout the process of moving legacy benefit claimants to Universal Credit.
Published: 19 December 2018