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‘Benefits need reform to save at-risk groups’

100 organisations call for reshaping of universal credit for the disabled as Labour demands boost to C-19 safety net

URGENT changes should be made to the benefits system to protect disabled people and those who are seriously ill during the coronavirus pandemic, the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) says.

In a letter to Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey published today, the consortium of more than 100 organisations says that these groups are among those most at risk financially during the crisis.

Disabled people in work and parents of disabled children could lose out financially as a result of the state of emergency, it also warns.

The DBC says benefit sanctions and debt repayment deductions from universal credit (UC) payments should be suspended for the duration of the crisis.

The benefit cap and the “two-child limit” for benefits should be suspended, it adds, while UC advances for disabled people be turned into non-repayable grants.

It also suggests that the government give higher priority to resolving technical and capacity issues in the benefits system as well as providing clear guidance for making digital and non-digital claims for UC.

Yesterday the government failed to rule out the possibility of the nationwide lockdown continuing until June.

All parts of Britain are now on an unprecedented peacetime “emergency footing” that has not been seen “since the second world war,” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said.

He told a press conference that armed forces would be “embedded” in “strategic co-ordination centres across the whole country.”

More than 19,500 people in Britain have so far tested positive for the virus, and 1,228 people have died, as of yesterday afternoon. Numbers are increasing at an exponential rate.

DBC campaigns co-chairwoman Ella Abraham said: “These are unprecedented and extremely worrying times for so many people; across all of our organisations we are seeing the detrimental impact this is having on disabled and unwell people’s physical and mental health.

“It is therefore crucial the Department for Work and Pensions implement these changes with immediate effect to ensure people are not pushed further into poverty.”

Labour called for government action to boost benefits yesterday as well as reforming statutory sick pay, suspending rents and utility disconnections and a more flexible furloughing scheme in its new report, Protecting People in and out of Work.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “We have to build into our social protection system the resilience we need to deal with the growing strain on our economy and public services in the coming days.”

Labour leadership hopeful Rebecca Long Bailey said that it was unacceptable that self-employed workers have to wait until June on just £94 a week before the government will pay them 80 per cent of their average earnings over three years.

“That is not acceptable when we see other countries, such as New Zealand, who will have similar schemes far quicker,” she said.

“We need the government to really, really make sure that resources are deployed into HMRC [revenue and customs], so that those self-employed people who are eligible can access that cash as quickly as possible and aren’t forced to go to work.”

The shadow business secretary also called on the government to be “very clear” about what is classed as essential work.

She said: “There are workers right across the country this week who have been going to construction sites, warehouses, call centres, where their health is being put at significant risk.”

Ms Long Bailey said that there was no excuse for bosses at non-essential firms not to furlough their staff when the government scheme is being made available to provide 80 per cent of wages.

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