Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) submission to Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into how coronavirus is affecting people who need to rely on the benefits system.

Disabled People Against Cuts is a national network of grassroots disabled people and our allies. We have a formal membership of 3,800 covering England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and as well as 21,000 social media followers.

This submission covers three areas we want to highlight concerning the effects of the pandemic on disabled people: - additional barriers to accessing benefits; disproportionate impacts on disabled workers trying to retain employment; and, long-term improvements needed in the benefits system.

Our most immediate recommendations include that additional resources be invested in DWP operations beyond what has already been announced. This is needed to cope with the influx of applications for UC and to ensure timely responses when claimants make contact.             

We would also urge clear guidance to employers to prevent disabled workers in any vulnerable category from being pressured into putting their lives at risk by going in to work.

In the longer-term we urge that temporary measures brought into UC be made permanent, also that improvements are made to the government’s Access to Work scheme and employers supported to prepare for future lockdown scenarios so that disabled workers are not disadvantaged.

-          Additional barriers to accessing benefits. There are a number of particular issues negatively affecting disabled people’s access to social security.

The overwhelming pressures now on the UC system have made contacting the DWP near impossible. This has impacted negatively on the availability of accessible communication options while causing considerable anxiety and distress which is then exacerbating pre-existing conditions.

Welfare advice agencies and charities have had to restrict their operations under social distancing with cancellation of face to face appointments and furloughing of staff. Remote working is adding to delays in processing requests for advice. A key service provided by such organisations was face to face support for disabled people to whom digital by default systems are inaccessible. Options to contact organisations remotely are similarly inaccessible to this group of people and thus they are currently left without the support they need to access essential income.

Disabled people are among those formerly in employment before the pandemic and now needing to access to social security system. Difficulties are compounded for disabled claimants in that benefit eligibility is more complicated for people whose impairments impact on their ability to find and retain employment.

Disabled people are over-represented among self-employed workers.[1] This is for a number of reasons including the need for flexible working conditions and workplace discrimination. Freelancers whose work has been negatively impacted by the pandemic cannot benefit from the government’s job retention scheme yet it is also unclear whether they will be able to apply for the self-employment scheme when HMRC starts to contact those eligible. In the meantime, they have no choice but to try to claim UC. Those with impairments that impact on their ability to find and retain employment may be eligible to be in the Limited Capability for Work category yet are unable to obtain advice on this with callers to the UC helpline left waiting for hours without getting through. Many disabled people in self employment are on low incomes[2] so the five week wait until UC payments start is a significant problem.

-          Employment. Given the government’s long-term policy aim of getting more disabled people off benefits and into employment, it is relevant to consider the implications of the pandemic on disabled people’s employment opportunities. The significant difficulties experienced by many workers have highlighted the major risks that employment can pose to disabled people.

We have been made aware of numerous cases where disabled people in vulnerable categories have been pressured into putting their lives at risk by going into work during the coronavirus outbreak by employers ranging from construction sites to local authorities. 

Disabled workers have reported difficulties getting access to workplace adjustments and equipment to enable them to work from home. Employers have been ill-prepared for this situation, placing disabled workers at a considerable disadvantage compared to their non-disabled colleagues. We have also heard about problems contacting Access to Work experienced by existing customers in urgent need of advice and support on how to respond to the current situation. This all has the potential to aggravate existing negative perceptions concerning disabled people’s employability.

Under welfare reform, the DWP have promoted self-employment to disabled benefit claimants. The above described difficulties have highlighted the precariousness and the serious risks that this option entails for disabled people, particularly as society looks forward to a future where pandemic and lockdown could become a recurrent feature.

-          Long-term improvements in the benefits system. Emergency measures introduced into the benefits system for the duration of the coronavirus are very welcome. These include:

We would urge that they be made permanent. 

It is not tenable to argue that lower benefit rates are acceptable for disabled people who are out of work and yet not for the general population when they require a social security safety net. The level that Job Seekers’ Allowance is paid has been justified on the basis that it is intended as a temporary measure, yet following the cut to the Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity component, disabled people who are likely to remain out of employment for long periods of time have been subjected to this same rate.

There is now overwhelming evidence that conditionality and sanctions are counter-productive and widespread support for exemption from them for disabled benefit claimants.

 

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For more information contact: mail@dpac.uk.net

Disabled People Against Cuts                            April 2020


[1] According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the number of disabled people in self-employment increased by more than 22 per cent between 2013-14 and 2017-18, when the number of non-disabled people who were self-employed rose by just nine per cent.

[2] Analysis published by the TUC in August 2019 showed that almost half of self-employed adults aged over 25 are earning less than the minimum wage.