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MPs Force Publication Of Report Into Struggles Of Poorer Disabled Britons

February 7, 2022

MPs have forced the publication of a government-commissioned research report that found low-income people reliant on disability benefits are struggling to meet essential living costs such as food, rent and energy bills.

The report has been kept under wraps for over a year, with the work and pensions secretary, Theresa Coffey, repeatedly refusing to release it on the grounds it was necessary to “protect the private space” in which ministers develop policy.

The report was finally published on Thursday morning after the cross-party work and pensions select committee invoked rarely-used parliamentary powers to force its release, and accused ministers of “trying to bury uncomfortable truths”.

Stephen Timms, the chair of the work and pensions committee, said the report gave “valuable insights” into the experiences of people on disability benefits: “While the system is working for some, we now know that others reported that they are still unable to meet essential living costs such as food and utility bills.”

Theresa Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, had not wanted the report released. Photograph: James McCauley/Rex/Shutterstock

He added: “By persisting in its decision to hide away evidence of the struggles people are facing, the DWP will only have further harmed its reputation with disabled people at a time when – as its own officials have acknowledged – lack of trust is a major issue. In order to rebuild its relationship with disabled people, the DWP must stop trying to bury uncomfortable truths.”

Anastasia Berry of the MS Society charity said the report highlighted the inadequacy of benefits for many disabled people: “Despite the DWP’s relentless attempts to bury this research, we can finally see what they’ve been so desperate to hide … It shows some are struggling to pay for essential day-to-day expenses, such as food, heating and medications, let alone these extra costs.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has already faced allegations from a whistleblower close to the research team that it intervened to reduce the number of references to unmet needs and the adequacy of benefits in the report.

Separately, last week it emerged that Coffey had blocked the publication of an internal DWP research report into the effectiveness of benefit sanctions, arguing its release was not in the public interest. This is despite promises made to MPs three years ago that it would publish its findings.

Under government social research protocols, the completed disability benefits report should have been released no later than 12 weeks after it was handed to the DWP in September 2020. Participants in the research – 120 people with a health condition or disability were interviewed in depth – were reportedly promised the report would be published, according to the Disability News Service.

At the time, the adequacy of benefit levels was a major political issue amid a fiery debate over whether ministers should scrap or maintain the £20 universal credit Covid top-up, or extend the top-up to people on “legacy” disability benefits who were not in receipt of universal credit.

The government announced last June that it would withdraw the £20 top-up in October, brushing off criticism that this would put the living standards of low-income households at risk. This amounted to the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since the second world war, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The disability benefits research, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, found that for claimants with “restricted financial circumstances”, benefits offered the prospect of a regular income vital to enable them to meet basic day-to-day living costs.

Despite this, some of the cohort of disabled claimants interviewed by researchers reported that the low value of benefits meant they “were still unable to meet essential living costs such as food and utility bills”.

The DWP said: “We’re providing extensive support to millions of disabled people and those with a health condition to help them live independent lives. As the research shows, health and disability benefits, alongside other income streams, helped to meet almost all identified areas of additional need.

“We are currently considering a range of policy options, drawing on wide evidence, research and analysis as part of the upcoming health and disability white paper.

“Protecting a private space for policy development is important and we had committed to publish this report as soon as this policy work concluded.”

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