We all believe that everyone should have the chance to live a dignified life, but our social security system often makes that impossible. We must seize this moment to redesign this vital public service.
I’m visually impaired and I spent my career as a disability activist until the age of 49 when I suffered a brain injury which ultimately resulted in me being made redundant. Since then I’ve not been able to find work that can accommodate my disability. Two years ago I had to go through the process of moving from Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to Universal Credit.
I was a complete novice and totally at the mercy of this new benefit, which was supposed to revolutionise social security. I’m sad to say that the practical barriers I faced and the attitudes from staff were not consistent with the values of justice and compassion that inspired the original creation of our social protection system.
From the outset, the system was weighted against unemployed visually impaired people like me because the application had to be made online. I couldn’t afford a computer, let alone the assistive technology that would enable me to complete the application. Assistive technology makes it fairly straightforward to use phones and computers if you’re visually impaired, but it costs thousands.
I was caught in a trap. I had no other choice but to try using my dilapidated old phone. It took me nearly 12 hours to complete the online form. Visually impaired people need to hit the keyboard at least three times to enter a letter on the form - once to pick the letter or word and twice more to put it in the document.
After I made my application, I had to wait nearly eight weeks to be notified of my payment which added significantly to my poverty and stress levels at this already difficult time. Ever since its introduction, there have been widespread calls to end the “five-week wait” for first payments of Universal Credit, which has been linked to increased demand for foodbanks and caused people to fall behind on rent. I don’t know what I’d have done if my brother wasn’t there to help me out with money.
Shortly after I started receiving payments, just when I thought that everything was finally sorted, I was unexpectedly contacted to say there had been an administrative error and that I had been overpaid by more than £1,400. This would have to be paid back in full ASAP. The benefits system should have been a lifeline to keep me afloat, but it was actually pulling me under.
I was shocked and stressed to learn this and sought an advocate to advise me on how best to proceed with this situation. It subsequently transpired that the error was theirs and not mine and the situation was quickly resolved thanks to them conceding the mistake.
I know from my disability and poverty activism just how many people are affected by the failings of Universal Credit. In addition to the design, which fails to take into account disabled people and the punitive five-week wait, the amount you receive is barely enough to live on.
Recognising this, at the start of lockdown, the UK Government temporarily increased the basic allowance by £20 a week. Last week, 50 children’s charities, food bank providers, housing organisations, benefit and debt advisors, disability groups, and others wrote to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, urging him not to withdraw this essential lifeline.
Modelling by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that scrapping the temporary increase would drive 700,000 more people into poverty across the UK, while a further 500,000 of those already living in poverty would be living below 50 per cent of the poverty line.
For disabled people like me, getting by on social security payments is a particular challenge. If payments were increased we could more easily access the technology we need to take part in society – not only to access benefits, but to meet people online and access work and training.
I’ve been impressed by the consistency with which the Scottish Government has consulted disabled people in designing our new social security system. Over the next few years, the new Disability Assistance will be introduced in Scotland. The Scottish Government has committed to correcting some of the mistakes in the UK approach, for example by changing the way assessments are carried out, which I and many others have often found dehumanising. I hope that this consultation will continue and that when Disability Assistance is launched in Scotland, the payments people receive will be enough to allow us to fully live.
The pandemic has shown us just how much we care about our neighbours and communities. But it’s also highlighted how this care is not reflected in the UK’s social security system and, in particular, Universal Credit. It’s high time we right this wrong, for the sake of disabled people like me, as well as the one in four children who are growing up in poverty in Scotland today. As a society, we must also ensure that disabled people are factored into the design of social security and all other public services.
Derek Kelter is a community activist with Poverty Alliance and Glasgow Disability Alliance