Disabled people are being denied extra money that other benefit claimants have received during the pandemic because the government has said it would be too complicated for its computer system to process.
Rishi Sunak announced in March that universal credit claimants would receive a weekly £20 uplift in their benefit payment to support them through the public health crisis. People on disability and sickness benefits – and those on the old benefits who have not yet moved onto universal credit – were not awarded the same increase.
When asked why the same uplift had not been applied to other benefit claimants, ministers and officials at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have repeatedly blamed the “old” IT systems legacy benefits are processed on, which they say makes it “more complex” to change the rates people receive.
More than 119,000 people have signed a petition calling for the two million disabled people, lone parents and families who receive legacy benefits to stop being denied the £20 uplift, arguing that this cohort has faced “immense hardship” as a result of the public health crisis.
Disabled people have told The Independent they are struggling to eat properly due to additional financial pressures brought on by the pandemic, such as paying for grocery deliveries and dog walkers.
Karen Pickering, 38, who lives on the west coast of Scotland and claims employment allowance (ESA) support due to having relapsing multiple sclerosis (MS), said the financial impact of the pandemic had been a lot worse for her than she had initially expected.
Because Ms Pickering has been unable to go out she has had to pay for online deliveries, which she said were not cheap, as well as paying for dog walkers at a rate of around £10 an hour.
“I’ve had to be more careful with my shopping so it’s cheaper, sometimes not getting things I need,” she told The Independent.
“I have difficulty with my hands and can’t really make big meals, so cream cheese on some oat cakes or fresh bread is something I like to eat. But I haven’t had that in a long time because I can’t afford it.
“It seems minor, but because I can’t go out the small things matter more, and the financial problems add to the anxiety. £20 probably doesn’t sound a lot to others, but it would make the world of difference.”
In another case, Kevin Whitworth, who has lived with brain damage following a fall just over 10 years ago and receives ESA, said that for the last seven months he has not been able to afford food to make a cooked meal.
The 45-year-old, who lives on the Isle of Lewis, said: “Money is tight, and I’m living off of cereal. Having an extra £20 would mean that I could eat proper meals again.
“It’s really unfair that people like me on older legacy benefits aren’t getting the same help those on universal credit are getting – we need money as well.”
It comes after a recent survey of 244 disabled people in the UK, carried out by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), found that 95 per cent of respondents said their costs had increased as a result of the pandemic.
During a Commons debate shortly after the universal credit uplift was announced in March, Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said the reason it had not been applied to legacy benefits was because the universal credit system was “far more straightforward and quick to be able to change”.
She added: “Our older systems, the legacy benefit systems [would take] quite some time, and I’m talking about several months, to get this to change.”
Separately, universal credit director general Neil Couling said in May that the legacy benefit systems were “very old IT platforms” that “just are not amenable” to uprating benefits.
Speaking at a live event with the Resolution Foundation, he added: “We’ve got a logistical problem there, notwithstanding the policy choice which was to help people affected by the pandemic.”
And when DWP minister Justin Tomlinson was asked in a written parliamentary question in June why other benefits were not included in the universal credit uplift, he said the department “had to prioritise the safety and stability of the benefits system overall”.
He added: “The IT system which supports universal credit has more capacity to make the necessary changes than the systems that support legacy benefits. It also uses different technology from other DWP systems and these older systems have complex interactions and interdependencies.”
The Social Security Advisory Committee wrote to Ms Coffey in July saying that while it understood her department had “IT challenges to overcome”, it was “increasingly untenable” for people on legacy benefits to be excluded and to continue to have a lower level of income than those in receipt of universal credit.
The letter read: “We recommend that the government finds a way to ensure that this group of claimants, that includes some of the least well off, are brought up to the same level as those in receipt of universal credit as soon as it is possible to do so. On grounds of equity, consideration should be given to backdating that uplift to 6 April 2020.”
Anastasia Berry, policy manager at the MS Society and co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, which coordinated the letter, said it was a “disgrace” that the government had “ignored” the needs of disabled people for over eight months.
“Time and time again they have been asked to provide extra financial support for a group of people who, through no fault of their own, happen to be on a different benefit to others,” she said.
“The poor excuse of an outdated and archaic computer system is no longer valid as we approach the announcement of the annual benefit uprating. The government must act now, and stop discriminating against disabled people.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are wholly committed to supporting disabled people through the pandemic, boosting welfare support by £9.3bn to help those most in need, introducing the Covid winter support package for those on low incomes and making £3.7bn available to local authorities to help address pressures on local services including adult social care.”
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