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We cannot accept a system which allows disabled people to live trapped in poverty

Over the past two decades, billions have been spent on attempts to create a modern and fair welfare system.

Despite this, all have failed in their ambitions.

Not only has the system not lifted people out of poverty - it’s pushed even more disabled people into poverty.

There are now 1.8 million more disabled families living in poverty compared to 15 years ago, analysis published by the Social Market Foundation, supported by Scope, shows.

Despite decades of reforms and political promises, 42 per cent of all people in homes relying on disability benefits are living in poverty.

Millions are being pushed to breaking point by a system which does not and cannot meet their needs.

Over the past 12 months, many commentators have shared their thoughts on how the Coronavirus pandemic could ultimately change our society for the better. Some have suggested this experience will ultimately make us a more compassionate, fair and inclusive society.

The devastation of our economy has meant more people than ever are having to interact with the welfare system.

Could this reduce the stigma which still persists around benefits, and finally end the enormously damaging and perpetual “scrounger” rhetoric which so many disabled people have had to endure?

The SMF’s report suggests there is public appetite for a fairer welfare system, with 92 per cent of the public believing the welfare system should make sure disabled people who cannot work are not in poverty.

A compassionate society cannot stand idly by and accept a system which allows huge numbers of disabled people to live trapped in poverty, having to battle with a stressful, bewildering and sometimes cruel system just to make ends meet.

Just seven years after the introduction of Universal Credit, it’s understandable there are some corners of government who are reluctant to consider wholesale reform.

But the numbers speak for themselves. The current welfare system does not work for disabled people.

Scope’s helpline is contacted by hundreds of disabled people every week who are in distress, frustrated or just completely drained by having to battle with a tortuous system which seems to make it purposely difficult or impossible for them to get the support they need and are entitled to.

There is so much distrust in the assessment system, and it’s understandable. Appeal success rates for both Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) stand at more than 70 per cent. Scope regularly hears from people whose assessment reports are wildly inaccurate. One person describing a recent PIP assessment told us: “They said I can prepare food, despite my carer in the assessment with me stating that I cut the top of my thumb off with a knife when trying to make food.”

This is just one of a number of fundamental issues with the system.

The welfare system doesn’t accurately reflect the extra costs disabled people face, and it doesn’t support disabled people who can and want to work to find suitable jobs. And for disabled people who aren’t able to work, it doesn’t provide enough support to be able to live on.

On average, disabled people face extra costs of more than £580 a month. Years of freezes and cuts to welfare payments mean the system simply doesn’t provide enough money to live on, meaning more and more disabled people and their families are living in poverty.

The pandemic has exacerbated these existing issues and created new problems.

The jobs market has been decimated, and spiralling energy costs have pushed even more disabled people into poverty. Scope’s research found more than a quarter (28 per cent) of disabled people said their finances had worsened during the pandemic.

Scope has heard from people having to make really difficult choices like going without food, and not being able to get out of bed because they can’t afford to heat their homes. Thousands upon thousands of disabled people have lost their jobs, while many of those who are most at-risk from Covid-19 have had to risk their lives by continuing to go to workplaces because their employer won’t offer them furlough and they’ve had no other viable option.

In the short term, it’s vital Government continue the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, but crucially extend it to so-called ‘legacy benefits’ so that disabled people are given some protection.

Long term, we need to go back to the drawing board. Tinkering at the edges will not fix the fundamental problems trapping disabled people in poverty.

The Green Paper must set out a longer-term vision for how the welfare system can improve disabled people’s lives.

If it doesn’t, we will judge it to have failed.

At the same time, the current crisis cannot be ignored. We need immediate support – next week’s Budget must make the £20 uplift to Universal Credit permanent and extend it to legacy benefits, so disabled people aren’t losing out. Research by the Fabian Society found dropping the uplift would overwhelmingly affect disabled people, with 57 per cent of the cuts affecting households with a disabled adult.

When successive welfare reforms have failed in their ambitions, how can the government avoid repeating the same mistakes again with future reform?

It’s simple. Work with disabled people to design a welfare system which works for them, not against them. Put disabled people at the heart of its thinking into what a successful welfare system needs to look like, not just now but in the long term.

The pandemic has been a catastrophe for disabled people and for disability equality. Almost two thirds of all those who’ve died from coronavirus have been disabled people. Disabled people feel like they have been forgotten by Government.

The green paper can be a momentous opportunity to reset our unequal society.

Let that be the legacy of this pandemic, and this government.

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