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House of Commons Hansard
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Severe Disability Premium
07 May 2019
Volume 659

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if she will make a statement on support for people formerly receiving severe disability premium who have transferred to universal credit.

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Universal credit is the biggest change in the welfare system since it was created. It is a modern, flexible, personalised benefit reflecting the rapidly changing world of work. When designing universal credit, a choice was made not to replicate every aspect of the disability provision in the legacy system.

However, I want to make it very clear that our intention was that no money from this area would be taken out of the system. Universal credit was therefore designed with all the money from the old disability premium recycled to target support on the most severely disabled. Disabled people are some of the biggest beneficiaries of universal credit, with around 1 million disabled households having on average around £100 a month more on universal credit than they would have had on the legacy benefits.

On Friday, the High Court handed down a judgment in relation to universal credit and the severe disability premium. The severe disability premium is an additional premium payable with mean-tested benefits such as employment and support allowance. Universal credit is more targeted, and support is focused on those who need it most. Transitional protection will be available for people who are moved on to universal credit from other benefits, provided that their circumstances stay the same.

We are pleased that the court recognises that it is for Ministers to frame the appropriate transitional arrangements for moving claimants on to UC, and we will consider all our options. The Government are committed to delivering a welfare system that supports disabled people.

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On 7 June, the Government pledged that severe disability premium claimants would no longer have to transfer to universal credit until managed migration started. Yet for months afterwards, the claimants were still required to do so—until the Government finally introduced a statutory instrument, which came into force on 16 January.

Severe disability premium does not exist in universal credit so, in transferring, those claimants lost about £180 a month. Often, that was just because they moved home; their postcode changed, but their needs did not. Yet the Government planned to pay them only £80 a month in compensation—far less than they would have received if they were to transfer under managed migration. It is little wonder that the High Court said in its damning judgment on Friday that the Government’s decision had no logical foundation! Payments to former SDP claimants are part of the regulations for the managed migration pilot. The Government have still not scheduled these for debate, so no payments at all have been made; the judgment throws the Government’s plans for the pilot into question, too.

Will the Government ensure that payments to former SDP claimants who have transferred to universal credit fully reflect the loss they have suffered? How many SDP claimants in total transferred to universal credit before 16 January? What assessment have the Government made of the hardship that former SDP claimants who have transferred to universal credit are suffering, and of the impact on children who have had to take on additional care responsibilities as a result of their families’ loss of income? Will the Government publish a clear timeframe to identify and compensate disabled people for the losses that they have incurred? Will the Government separate regulations for the payments to former SDP claimants from those for the pilot for managed migration, so that Members of this House can vote on each separately?

By definition, these people are already having to cope with some of the most severe medical conditions and with disabilities. They should not have to fight through the courts for the support to which they should be entitled. They deserve better.

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To reiterate, we have not taken any money out of the system. We are, rightly, targeting support at those who need it the most. For example, under legacy benefits, those on employment and support allowance would have expected to get £160.05 a month, but under universal credit it is significantly higher, in fact more than double, at £336.20 a month. That is why over 1 million households with disabled people will on average be over £100 a month better off. That goes hand in hand with our attempts to simplify the system. We are taking seven disability premiums down to two. The legacy system was difficult to deliver, prone to error and often confusing. Under the legacy system, over £2.4 billion of benefits went unclaimed every year. Some 700,000 of the most vulnerable people were, on average, missing out on £280 a month.

In addition to this support, many claimants will be entitled to support with personal independence payment, disability living allowance, attendance allowance or adult social care. Those going through the managed migration will get full transitional protection. We went further with good intentions by introducing the gateway on 16 January, including for those with changed circumstances. We will be considering all options in the light of the judgment and we will update the House in due course.

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I welcomed the introduction of the gateway back in January. Will my hon. Friend confirm that this means that existing recipients of severe disability payments will be moved on to universal credit with transitional protections, so that they are fully protected as they move across?

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I pay tribute to the former Minister, who did a huge amount of work in this area to ensure suitable transitional protection for some of the most vulnerable people in the system. It is absolutely the case that those who are part of the managed migration will get full transitional protection.

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We welcome the High Court decision and commend the individuals who brought their case for their perseverance. It is absolutely extraordinary that the Department for Work and Pensions thought it could get away with short-changing claimants who had already been made worse off by being moved on to universal credit. Because of the entirely arbitrary cut-off point where the DWP decided to stop naturally migrating SDP claimants, many thousands will miss out on £1,000 a month. That is completely unacceptable.

The ruling acknowledges what the SNP has been arguing since December: the Tories in Westminster are short-changing claimants who are owed back payments as a result of having their severe disability payments stopped. It is not only appalling that the DWP is short-changing claimants; it is appalling that people will now have to wait for those back payments until managed migration regulations are put through. Even then, it might take months to administrate them. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) has twice written to the Secretary of State asking for her to immediately initiate back payments, so that people do not have to wait. Will the Minister tell the House why the payment of that money has been pegged to the managed migration regulations? Now that the ruling has allowed him to take stock, will he sort out this issue once and for all, and immediately put together regulations that legislate for the full back payments as a matter of urgency? There are now not one, not two but three ongoing cases where the DWP needed to investigate and initiate back payments of disability benefits on an enormous scale owing to error or to their policies being deemed unlawful. Will he ensure that no cuts to other areas of Government spending are being made to cover the cost of clearing up his Department’s mess? Does he really believe that, after all this, disabled people who require support can have any confidence whatever that the DWP has their best interests at heart?

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I thank the hon. Member for the points she raises. To be absolutely clear, those who are part of the managed migration will get the full transitional support. The whole point of the gateway was to provide additional support for those who had changed circumstances that would not have been entitled to the full transitional protection. I absolutely understand the point about the urgency of bringing forward the regulations, but we want to ensure they are done in the correct manner so we do not replicate the errors of the difficult and complex legacy benefit, which we see in our surgeries as individual constituency MPs, whereby some of the most vulnerable people in society are missing out on the benefits to which we all agree they are entitled.

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Of course people with disabilities must be properly served by our benefits system; I know the Minister well, so I know that he will be working extraordinarily hard to ensure that that happens in his Department. Is it not a fact that universal credit is targeted far more effectively at ensuring that help is given to those who most need it?

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I know that my hon. Friend works extremely hard in this area; I have made several visits to his constituency, where I have seen him championing local organisations that make a difference to disabled people in his community. Universal credit targets support at those who most need it, which is why, on average, more than a million disabled households will be £100 a month better off.

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The severe disability premium does what it says on the tin: it goes to those with the most severe disabilities. Why, then, is the Minister claiming that people who most need support are gaining, when more than 10,000 people entitled to the severe disability premium are now waiting for back payments—like my constituent who is owed nearly £1,000 by the DWP? People are building up rent arrears and are in danger of eviction. Why are the Government not treating them properly by bringing forward this legislation and paying them what they are due?

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We are all keen to bring forward those regulations, but I remind the hon. Lady that where under the legacy benefit an ESA claimant would expect £167.05, the equivalent under universal credit will be more than twice that: £336.20 a month.

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Hon. Members of all parties have had experience of the problems that our constituents, particularly our disabled constituents, face with the transfer to universal credit. However, we must not lose sight of the successes. Yesterday, the Grimsby Telegraph carried a report in which Mr Mark Coad said that, following the death of his partner,

“I signed up for Universal Credit, and it has been one of the best things that I have ever done, because it not only got me back into work, but provided me with some support mentally, as it forced me to get out of the house and stop wallowing in my grief.”

Does the Minister agree that we must focus on the successes and ensure that all cases have an equally successful result?

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My hon. Friend raises an important broad point: universal credit offers personalised, tailored, bespoke support, for the first time. If hon. Members visit their local jobcentre and talk to staff, particularly to experienced staff, they will hear how for the first time they feel empowered to make a real difference to people’s lives.

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Does this latest botched attempt not underline that one reason why the Government are having trouble with universal credit is that it was primarily designed as a work-related benefit and that it continually misses out the people who need it most? Will the Government now re-table the managed migration regulations without the hard stop?

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I do not recognise that point. As a Government, we are spending £5 billion more a year on supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions through the main disability benefits. We are rightly targeting support at those most in need in society. Through universal credit, that is coupled with a personalised, tailored and bespoke service.

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The loss of the severe disability premium continues to cause hardship to people in my constituency and throughout the country. In some cases, it has forced people into rent arrears and extreme poverty. What are the Minister and the Department doing specifically to support people in those situations?

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Through the universal credit system, for the first time, they will have a named work coach who can help them to navigate not only any individual challenges that they face, but the additional support that they can get. Rightly, we are making sure that the most vulnerable people in society get both the financial support and the time from their named work coach to make sure that they are in their best position.

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What steps is the Minister taking to cascade the detail of this policy to advice services so that they can best help and support those who come to them seeking help?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. Not only do stakeholders and those with real, genuine frontline experience work closely with us and help to shape our policies, but we recognise that they can play a key part on the frontline. I therefore very much welcome the announcement that Citizens Advice will be present across the jobcentre network to provide additional support for claimants above and beyond what our frontline staff do.

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We know that approximately 20,000 people died before the Department was able to review their backdated ESA payments. That must not happen with the severe disability premium payments. Has the Department investigated whether it has happened to claimants who were owed such payments? If so, how many? In the event of death, who will receive the back payments?

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The key priority is to make sure that we get money to the most vulnerable in society as quickly as possible. That is why our commitment remains that we will bring forward the regulations at the earliest opportunity.

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In March, I raised with the Minister the case of a constituent with a severe brain injury who applied for universal credit in August 2018 and immediately lost his severe disability premium. The Minister requested that I write to him. As yet, I have received no response. My constituent has now been without his severe disability premium for almost nine months. This vulnerable individual needs action. Will the Minister get a grip on this?

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I apologise to the hon. Lady that I have not seen the letter yet. I will make sure that I do as a matter of urgency and will respond personally.

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My constituent suffered severe trauma and mental illness. When he filled in his form four years ago, some mistakes were made, but those mistakes could and should have been picked up. However, he has had to wait years for money he was owed in back payments.

The problem I want to raise with the Minister is that our local Money Advice Service was not able to get a response from the DWP. It was only when my caseworkers got involved that the £15,000 my constituent was owed was repaid. What will the Minister do to ensure that DWP staff are responding in a timely manner to Money Advice staff?

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I am very sorry to hear about that, because what we would like to see—there are many, many cases of best practice—is local support organisations working hand in hand with local jobcentres, so that the most vulnerable claimants in particular get additional support as they go through the system.

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Despite the Minister’s words about paying more money, I am afraid it seems to me that he is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Given the weakness of local advice services, particularly in rural areas such as mine, will the Minister provide hon. Members with a breakdown of the geographical distribution of the 10,000 or so cases so that we can reach out properly?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman, whom I have worked with closely on other issues. To be absolutely clear, in going from the legacy benefit to universal benefit, we have not taken money out but are targeting it at the most vulnerable people. Overall, our spending on those with disabilities and long-term health conditions has increased by £5 billion per year. The key is that all jobcentres will have the support of Citizens Advice to provide additional support for claimants who want it.

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A constituent of mine who was forced on to universal credit with no protections lost a considerable amount of money to help with her living costs when her severe disability premium stopped. Now we learn that she may have to wait six months to see any money, even when the regulations are passed. How on earth are disabled people supposed to cope in the meantime?

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The priority in our reforms is make sure that the most vulnerable get the most support within the system. Without knowing all the details of that case, it is difficult to comment, but I am happy to look at the details.

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Has the Department contacted all those who have lost out on payments? If not, when will the Department do so? Will the Minister commit to ensuring that absolutely no burden is placed on claimants in applying for back payments of the severe disability premium, and that his Department will take on the burden of gathering the available evidence to ensure that payments are made as soon as possible?

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The judgment was only given on Friday, but we are urgently considering all the options available to us. Once we are in a position to do so, we absolutely will make sure that we communicate with all claimants.

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Has the Minister not got the message that this system is not working? As has been pointed out repeatedly, it is not working. About a fortnight ago, I visited one of the biggest food banks in the west midlands. They are the ones helping people who cannot claim their benefits. Why do the Government not scrap it and start again?

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I could not disagree more. Under the legacy benefits—the benefits the hon. Gentleman is seemingly advocating that we go back to—700,000 of the most vulnerable people, many of whom are those using the food banks, are missing out on £2.4 billion of support.

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indicated dissent.

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The hon. Gentleman can shake his head, but these are some of the most vulnerable people. We are creating a simpler, clearer system so that those vulnerable people do not miss out on the support they are entitled to.

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It is rather frustrating that, yet again with this Government, people have had to go to court before they get some change and acknowledgement. I know and respect the Minister, as he has been very helpful to me on a number of issues. Will he just give a commitment on the Floor of the House that the DWP will ensure that anyone who has missed out on severe disability premium will have retrospective payments so that, ultimately, they get what they are entitled to?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I have enjoyed working with him on a number of issues. Obviously we only saw the judgment on Friday, and we must consider the options. The issue was additional support through the gateway, and we will have to look at that, but we remain committed to ensuring that those who are part of the full transition will receive the full support.