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THE coronavirus crisis has not just been a public health emergency but a social emergency too. So it should have been a moment to bring society together — to rebuild our social security system to ensure that everyone had the support needed to get through this crisis and beyond.
Yet many have been thrown into even greater hardship while the government has chosen to simply wash its hands of its responsibility to support them.
Take the benefits that millions survive on. This week those benefits were increased by just 37p a week for those on so-called “legacy benefits.”
Behind the confusing language of legacy benefits lies real human suffering. Over two million people, the majority of whom are sick or disabled, rely on these benefits like Jobseekers’ Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance.
They are meant to somehow get by on just a £74 per week standard payment. The pathetic 37p increase, apparently to meet rising costs, isn’t enough to even buy a pint of milk.
At the recent budget, following strong grassroots campaigning, the government was forced to extend the £20 per week increase in universal credit for another six months. This temporary increase is of course simply not good enough and should be made permanent.
Yet many other benefits aren’t even getting that. When Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak increased universal credit by £20 a week last year he excluded any such increase to those on legacy benefits. An estimated 1.9 million disabled people are missing out on a much needed extra £20 per week. Minister Therese Coffey even claimed that extending the uplift would risk the “safety and the stability of the benefits system.”
This is simply appalling. There are billions more being found for increases in the military budget and many billions more for a big increase in the number of nuclear weapons. There will be huge tax breaks for businesses over the next two years. Yet those on benefits are expected to struggle on.
And for many, it is a real struggle. The Disability Benefits Consortium’s report Pandemic Poverty outlines the desperate situation facing disabled people. It makes for grim but essential reading.
Two-thirds of disabled claimants have had to go without essential items at some point during the pandemic, while nearly half of disabled claimants are reporting being unable to meet financial commitments such as rent and household bills.
On budget day last month campaigners delivered testimonies from claimants of legacy benefits to the Treasury, Downing Street and the Department for Work and Pensions. Powerful human stories showed why the uplift was needed. One said: “I would be able to bathe more and have my heating on. And be able to eat three times a day instead of two times.” Another said that “I would be able to afford all the toiletries and cleaning products that I need and buy second-hand clothes to replace the ones I have with holes in them.”
Disabled people have been hit especially hard by this pandemic, with six in 10 of all deaths involving Covid-19 being disabled people.
And we know that even before the pandemic, disabled people were far more likely to be in financial difficulty. Figures suggest that almost half of all people in poverty were disabled or lived with a disabled person.
Of course, this failure goes well beyond the pandemic response. As Dr Frances Ryan recently wrote “a decade of austerity has stripped £37 billion from benefits support, as a mixture of squeezed rates and Kafkaesque tests built a system more interested in punishment than help.”
In recent years groups like Disabled People Against the Cuts have been at the forefront of the fight against austerity. Over 120,000 people have signed a petition started by the Disability Benefits Consortium of over 100 disability organisations calling for Tory government to immediately give all out of work benefits the same £20 increase that universal credit has seen.
This wouldn’t be enough to undo the damage of the last decade but it would be a big step forward and it would be just.
The recent budget was a blatant attempt to make the vast majority pay for one of the world’s deepest economic collapses, made much worse by the government’s disastrous handling of this virus. And disabled people have been especially targeted.
The 37p increase was a deliberate insult. Our response should be to step up the fight for the £20 per week increase to go to everyone on benefits as a starting point to building a social security system fit for the 21st century.
Richard Burgon is MP for Leeds East.
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