The chancellor is under pressure to increase benefit payments to more than two million vulnerable people who missed out on last year’s £20 per week boost to Universal Credit, with one Conservative MP saying it was “vital we don’t forget them and leave them behind”.
A new report has found additional costs created by the pandemic have left significant numbers of disabled people unable to pay for rent, food and heating because the legacy benefits they receive, such as ESA and Jobseeker’s Allowance, were not included in the uplift.
The £20 increase to Universal Credit, introduced as part of the government’s COVID-19 support package last year, is currently due to expire at the end of April.
But Conservative MPs are now among those calling for Rishi Sunak to use next month’s budget to extend the uplift and apply it to legacy benefits at the same time.
A survey carried out by the Disability Benefits Consortium, a network of over 100 charities and organisations, asked 1,126 people receiving legacy benefits how the pandemic had compounded the pressures they were already facing.
It found 82% had been forced to spend more than usual due to increased costs of shopping deliveries, higher utility bills and having to take taxis to attend essential medical appointments to avoid the risk posed by taking public transport.
Two thirds of those surveyed said they had gone without essentials like food, heating or medication, while nearly half said they had fallen behind on rent and other household bills.
In testimony given to the Pandemic Poverty report, David Allen, who is 62 and lives alone in Luton, said he felt “abandoned and left to sink”.
Mr Allen, who was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in 1996, said he had been receiving legacy benefits for more than a decade, but that the need to shield has pushed bills up quicker than his income allows.
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“My shopping bill usually comes to £20 to 35 per week, but as I don’t feel safe going to the supermarket I’m having to rely on deliveries. The minimum order is £25, but if your order is less than £40 you get hit with a delivery charge”, he said.
“I’m constantly worrying about other costs – I find myself sitting in the dark more than I should so as not to turn the lights on for too long, as well as only switching the TV on when I’m watching a programme.
“I live on my own so it’s hard not to think your world is closing in around you.
“The harsh reality is that the pandemic has meant our bills are going up quicker than our income, and there’s just nowhere to go to make up for that. It has meant we feel abandoned and left to sink.”
Ella Abraham, co-chair of the Disability Benefit Consortium and policy officer at Z2k, said: “The chancellor’s inaction on this has created a two-tier discriminatory welfare state which has pushed a huge number of people into poverty.
“Forcing people onto Universal Credit where many will not be better off isn’t a solution, what we need is a social security system that ensures people are not having to survive on the bare minimum but have the income they need to live a stable and dignified life. The government must increase legacy benefits now.”
Peter Aldous, the Conservative MP for Waveney, told Sky News he believes there are Tory backbenchers “from right across the board” who are privately making clear to the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions their support for extending the uplift to legacy benefits.
“A lot of those people on legacy benefits who have not yet moved over to UC are some of the most vulnerable in society – the disabled, carers, those with young families – and they are really struggling at the moment – that’s the feedback I’m getting in my constituency, and this should apply to them as well,” Mr Aldous said.
“You need to think outside the box, recovering from this pandemic involves revitalising the economy, but hand in hand with that is supporting, looking after and putting back on their feet those people who are really struggling – and as a caring, compassionate Conservative party, it is vital we don’t forget them and leave them behind.”
Yesterday the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, chaired by Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, also published a report calling for the £20 Universal Credit uplift to be extended to legacy benefits.
“Rates of social security were already low even with the uplift in place, meaning the rates of legacy and other benefits are in great need of increasing,” the APPG report concluded.
In a response to the report from Disability Benefits Consortium, a government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting disabled people through every stage of this pandemic and have worked hard to provide uninterrupted access to disability benefits and further financial support – making £1.3bn available to local authorities to help address pressures on local services including adult social care.
“That’s in addition to wider support including our £280bn investment to safeguard jobs, boost welfare support and help families through the winter.”
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