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Social Justice

Legacy benefits freeze left disabled people living on ‘historically’ low payments, court hears

Ministers refused to give disabled people on legacy benefits the same £20 per week increase universal credit claimants got during lockdown.

The government went against the European Convention on Human Rights when it refused to increase legacy benefits in line with universal credit, the High Court has heard.

Four people on legacy benefits – welfare payments such as employment and support allowance, which are mostly claimed by sick and disabled people who cannot work – brought a legal challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after it failed to give them the same £20-per-week increase in lockdown.

Solicitors for Osbornes Law, which is representing the claimants, called it a “straightforward failure to treat like cases alike” which was “profoundly unfair, arbitrary and unjustified”.

It was a “radical and unprecedented departure” from decades of benefits policy, barrister Jamie Burton told the court.

Solicitors are arguing that giving the financial lifeline to universal claimants during the pandemic, but not the two million people on legacy benefits, was unlawful discrimination and went against the European Human Rights Convention.

Ministers acted “with almost no democratic scrutiny and limited analysis of the consequences,” Burton said, meaning “hundreds of thousands of seriously disabled people, already disproportionately affected by poverty, have had to get by on historically low rates” of welfare payments.

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This was despite the pandemic causing a significant rise in the cost of living for low-income families and disabled people in particular, he added.

Lynn Pinfield, from West Lothian, is one of the four claimants. “They have made me feel like disabled people don’t matter,” said the 51-year-old, who is unable to work due to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

“During the pandemic, prices were steadily increasing but benefits remained the same, which was a struggle. With everyone at home all the time, our bills soared – our electricity bill doubled – and I’ve had to pay it all myself with no extra support.

“I had to buy a laptop for my daughter to do her online learning, so could have saved that £20 a week to pay for it instead of getting into debt to buy it.”

The hearing began on Wednesday at the Royal Courts of Justice in London and is due to wrap up on Friday. It could take up to six weeks for the court to deliver a decision.

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But even if it goes in favour of the legacy benefits claimants, it cannot compel the government to give them backdated payments.

“It is utterly disgraceful that at the height of the pandemic, when disabled people needed help the most, the government turned their backs,” said Anastasia Berry, policy co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium and policy manager for the MS Society.

“Seventy-eight per cent of disabled claimants told us their financial situation worsened during the pandemic, with some forced to skip meals, fall behind on rent, or miss vital medical appointments as they could not afford to travel.

“Not only was this decision cruel, but it is clear that denying one group of people extra financial support is discriminatory and creates a two tier social security system.”

But the DWP denied there was any “differential treatment on the grounds of disability”.

Edward Brown, the barrister acting for the government, told the court that “careful consideration has been given to the specific issue, namely whether or not to uplift legacy benefits.

“The reasons why the government has decided not to uplift legacy benefits are because it would be contrary to the specific fiscal and social policy goals” and it would be “inefficient and not capable of delivery via legacy payment systems,” he added.

But increasing universal credit – before cutting it back to pre-Covid levels early last month – was “an appropriate and effective response to the emergency facing society in the period since March 2020,” Brown said.

Opposition MPs including Labour’s John McDonnell, Marsha de Cordova and Debbie Abrahams – as well as Liberal Democrat Wendy Chamberlain and SNP MPs Marion Fellows and David Linden – attended a vigil held outside the court by campaign groups in support of the claimants.

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