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Opinion

The High Court ruling on legacy benefits is a bitter blow for disabled people

The high court ruling on legacy benefits proves disabled people who suffered through the pandemic are being ignored, argues Rachel Charlton-Dailey.

This month marks three years since Covid-19 first came to the UK. It’s been a tough time, but even more so for disabled people.

I started shielding about a week before Boris Johnson ordered lockdown. I was on holiday in Filey, North Yorkshire, when the news started getting all the scarier as the days ticked on. By Wednesday I was a shaking crying mess and my husband made the call that we were coming home. 

As someone with lupus and arthritis, I was classed as clinically extremely vulnerable and shielded for most of 2020 and 2021. I barely left the house except to cautiously walk my dog. During that time, shielding people were given no support from the government. In fact, while we still cowered indoors, non-vulnerable were encouraged to eat in restaurants and pubs. 

This is why it always stung that only those on universal credit got a £20 uplift between April 2020 and October 2021 and not everyone on disability benefits including personal independence payment and disability living allowance. 

As a PIP recipient, being at home for nearly two years was awful. There are no two ways about it. My income also dwindled during that time, as typically mainstream media didn’t deem stories about disabled people struggling or dying in the pandemic “newsworthy”.

The bulk of bills and food shopping – which of course rose because we were both at home all the time – had to come from my husband’s income.

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This is why I was pleased to see that a group of legacy benefits claimants had taken the Department for Work and Pensions to the High Court in November 2021 over the exclusion of legacy benefit claimants from the £20 universal credit uplift during the early years of Covid-19 pandemic. 

They lost that case but it was appealed in December 2022. The appeal saw claimants drop their ask for back payments down from 18 months to nine, from £1,560 to £720. It would still make a difference to many disabled people. 

This week the appeal was overturned. Nobody who suffered for those long 18 months (and longer) will receive any compensation.

Edward Brown, the lawyer representing the DWP acknowledged the pandemic impacted “individuals who are most vulnerable in society” the hardest, however he argued that universal credit claimants were in a “fundamentally quite different” position to legacy benefits claimants.

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This rhetoric is used too often when comparing means-tested support to legacy benefits as a way to stop legacy benefits claimants from receiving extra support. What it forgets, though, is just how hard and inhumane the means-tested benefits process is, so many miss out on universal credit or its predecessor employment support allowance.

I was denied ESA and declared fit for work when I couldn’t leave the house alone, as if they expected my mother to go to work with me. 

This argument also forgets that means-tested benefits take into account your whole household’s income. If that is over £16k a year you don’t qualify. That’s unreasonably low for one household and can stop a lot of disabled people from having their own independence. 

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The extra £20 wasn’t there to help us during the worst part of the pandemic and the government’s policies led to six in 10 of England’s covid deaths being disabled people.

Now we deserve reparations, for all the times we were forced to stay inside, watching in horror and fearing we’d be given “do not resuscitate” orders if we went into hospital. For all the months after furlough ended when we had to choose between our work or our health. For all the times we watched our leaders callously party while our community was decimated.

But if they did that they would have to admit that they failed to protect thousands of disabled people. That they “let the bodies pile high”. It’s not something I’d want to admit to in a hurry.

Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a freelance writer and disability activist. They are the founding editor of The Unwritten, a publication for disabled people to share their authentic experiences.

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