Over the past few weeks, experts have repeatedly warned that ‘the worst is still to come’ in the cost of living crisis. Measures already announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, that aim to alleviate this crisis offer no real support to millions of disabled people in the UK, particularly those on benefits.
Disabled people are already at disproportionate risk of poverty. A 2019/2020 report on UK poverty from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found;
In 2017/18, 31% of the 13 million people with disabilities in the UK lived in poverty – around 4 million people. By contrast, the poverty rate among the non-disabled population was 20% in 2017/18. This gap in poverty rates has persisted over time.
Since 2020 and the Covid19 pandemic, these existing inequalities have been exacerbated, not just along lines of disability, but also race and class. As well as being at a higher risk of mortality from Covid19, evidence shows that BAME people and low-income families were also more likely to face increased costs during lockdowns and are most likely to be hardest hit by the long term economic fallout of the pandemic.
As food and energy prices continue to rise, many people are already struggling to meet the basic cost of living with their disability, as ‘Anna’ told us:
“I’m lucky enough to receive PIP (Personal Independence Payment), which was helping towards things like the gym and working less hours so I can manage my mental health better. PIP is described by the government as ‘extra money to help you with everyday life if you have an illness, disability or mental health condition’. For disabled people, that now means ‘PIP can help you with the extortionate costs of having a shower’. And I know a lot of others are now having to prioritise water, heating and cooking over basic living needs such as fresh food and overall wellbeing.”
The lack of decent support packages to help disabled people with spiralling costs, particularly energy costs, means that Anna, like many others, faces rising debts:
“I am currently in £627 worth of debt which has accrued over the last 5 months, even though I make regular monthly payments of £91. This is still very expensive for me as I live on universal credit, however I thought over the summer the debt may begin getting paid off as the energy usage goes down. It’s looking like £91 still isn’t even going to cover my summer usage”.
Anna described how she now arranges her day around energy saving measures, for example setting alarms in the middle of the night to heat some water at the most cost efficient time. The additional planning, effort, concentration and energy this takes means she has less energy to manage her mental health, or deal with the added stress of rising bills, which she describes as a ‘weight over her head’. She shares that she has been suffering from Insomnia for the past fortnight.
“So much of my day and mental energy is taken up around planning just to function as a ‘normal’ person and mother, I don’t think people without disability can quite comprehend this” Despite the lengths that she is going to to try and manage her financial situation, questions hang over Anna: “How much debt am I going to be in for the rest of the year? Can they cut off my supply? What if I can’t move by Autumn due to being on benefits? How else can I cut back? What kind of Mother can’t even provide a warm home for her child? Will the debt affect my credit rating when I’m trying to get another place to rent?”
Come October, households are set to face an average price increase to energy bills of £69 a month, further to the £58 average increase in April. The chief executive of Scottish Power, Keith Anderson, told the House of Commons’ energy select committee that the situation will be “truly horrific” for millions of people. The truth of it is that many people are already in a horrific situation. For disabled people who rely on electronic home equipment such as wheelchairs, respirators and hoists, or who require to stay warm, these increases are life threatening.
According to the charities Scope and National Energy Action, the number of disabled people considered to be in fuel poverty in March 2022 was 900,000. Should energy prices rise as predicted, this number is expected to increase to 2.1 million before the end of the year.
While plans to extend the Warm Homes Discount* by £10 for households in England and Wales this winter (from £140 to £150) are talked up by government ministers, they have been less vocal about their decision to remove the right for people on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) to claim this support. Under the new rules, the Warm Homes Discount will only be available to those on means tested benefits. It’s stated that this change will mean 290,000 disabled people who currently receive the Warm Homes Discount will no longer be eligible for this vital support.
Disabled people are already being forced to make ‘cut-backs’ and changes that compromise their wellbeing. The people we spoke to highlighted difficulty accessing therapy and/or face-to-face support (primarily due to travel and fuel costs), as well as having to budget for medication using a Prescription Pre-payment Card (PPCs)**, and in one case increasing medication to deal with the stress.
Difficulties in accessing face-to-face support poses particular risks for people who are unable to safely or regularly access digital support, including people with No Recourse to Public Funds***, Traveller and Roma communities, people experiencing domestic violence or living in otherwise unsafe environments, those experiencing digital poverty, older people without the support to use technology, and more besides.
One person we spoke to, ‘B’, explained how they have been looking to move away from their family, who are transphobic and supportive of their mental health, for more than 2 years, however this hasn’t been possible because of the cost of living. ‘B’ explained how living in this environment prevents them from accessing digital support, and how the cost of living makes it difficult to regularly access face-to-face support;
“I can’t use public transport unless with someone else so [I] mostly drive or take a taxi, but now [I’m] having to be calculated about how/where I can go as it can quickly get expensive. This means it’s hard for me to regularly attend face to face support groups. [I] also can’t access online ones due to being in an unsafe environment and fear of my siblings overhearing things. Private therapy is also mostly via zoom/phone calls which, again, due to my environment, is inaccessible. It’s a very lonely, isolating experience.”
In addition to the cost of living crisis, in February of this year, Cheshire Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London revealed that 6 local authorities in the North-west of England had debt management procedures against thousands of individuals for non-residential care charges (social care in their own homes) in 2020-2021. In the same month, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman linked failings by Essex County Council to the suicide of a woman, named as Mrs C, after ‘hounding’ her for thousands of pounds in care charges that she did not owe.
There are simple measures that the government could, and should, take immediately to protect disabled people against the cost of living crisis, which opposition parties should also be pushing for urgently.
- The decision not to increase benefits in line with inflation represents £11 billion in real term cuts to benefits in 2022-2023. Government should increase benefits to match inflation as a matter of priority,
- Ensure that the Warm Homes Discount remains available to those on PIP and DLA,
- End all care charges,
- Pause the ‘managed migration’ from legacy benefits to ESA, which will leave at least 1 million people on ESA worse off. The Deptartment for Work and Pension’s own report shows that those most likely to lose out are those receiving ESA, severe disability premium and enhanced disability premium. Remove the whip from ministers who misled parliament on this issue,
- Order an independent inquiry into deaths linked to failings by the DWP and senior civil servants,
- London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, should ensure that all disabled people with a blue parking badge are exempt from the ULEZ charge, which is a minimum of £12.50 a day.
*The Warms Homes Discount is a scheme that offers households at risk of fuel poverty cuts to their energy bills. It first started in 2011.
**Prescription Pre-payment cards cost between £9.00 – 10.08 a month, and can be used to collect as many prescriptions as needed (without paying).
***A person will have No Recourse To Public Funds when they are ‘subject to immigration control’. This include asylum seekers, international students and adult dependants with indefinite leave to remain as the relative of someone with settled status, among others.