Universal credit could push disabled families into crisis

Bob Reitemeier
Friday, May 27, 2011

The Children's Society works with many of the country's poorest and most socially excluded children.

As a result I am deeply concerned by changes to be provided under the new universal credit benefit system, to be introduced from 2013. The changes could leave disabled children in low income families considerably worse off, and more likely to fall into poverty.

At the moment, families with children with disabilities are entitled to a supplement to their Child Tax Credit entitlement worth around £54 a week. However, the Department for Work and Pensions has announced that under the universal credit, this supplement will be reduced to match the adult rates - currently £26.75. It wants to simplify the system by having a single rate for adults and children alike.

The result for disabled children would be a loss of around £1,400 of support a year. Over a full childhood, this could amount to more than £20,000. The poorest families with disabled children are likely to lose this full amount.

Leaving aside support through disability living allowance (which is unaffected by this change), this effectively halves the additional financial support for disabled children.

The most severely disabled children will not be affected by this change. In fact, they may gain very slightly under the universal credit. However, around 100,000 families with disabled children could be at risk of losing out.

Many families with disabled children are already living in poverty. These changes can only make this situation worse, making it harder for parents to support their children in the way they would best like. It could mean that families are unable to afford healthy meals, to heat their homes properly, or provide adaptations that their children need. It could make it harder for them to afford to take their children to school or be involved in social activities. We know that poverty is a major cause of strain and tension within families, and can be a frequent reason for referral to social services. These changes will make it harder for social workers to deliver successful interventions for the affected families.

If the change does go through, social workers will need to be aware of the reductions in support under the new system. Social workers must be able to prepare families for the change. They will also need to consider whether families could be entitled to transitional protection against income loss within the new benefit system. Some families will need advice as to what particular changes in their situation could lead to a loss of transitional protection.

This is a poorly thought through policy that needs a rethink from the government in order to avoid impoverishing disabled children and their families. Social workers need to speak out against this proposed policy change, so that disabled children do not end up being the losers in the creation of a simplified benefit system - a system that should be designed to protect the most vulnerable.

Bob Reitemeier is chief executive of The Children's Society

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