The claim

The money that is going into disability benefits will not go down under universal credit, it will go up…under the plans, no recipients will lose out unless their circumstances change.”
David Cameron, 17 October 2012

The background

The row over government plans to cut benefits for some disabled people returned to the headlines today with the publication of this highly critical report by the Children’s Society.

The charity said around 450,000 disabled claimants could lose out under changes to the benefits system with the introduction of “universal credit”.

But David Cameron defended the reforms at Prime Minister’s Questions, saying: “The money that is going into disability benefits will not go down under universal credit, it will go up…under the plans, no recipients will lose out unless their circumstances change.

“The current recipients are fully cash-protected by a transitional scheme.”

“For future recipients, we are going to increase the amount that we give to the most severely disabled children and there will be a new lower amount for the less disabled people.”

The analysis

Claim and counter-claim have rebounded around the Commons ever since the shake-up of disabled benefits was first announced.

In a nutshell, benefits for many disabled people will be substantially less generous in the future than they are now, so in that sense this is a “cut”  – of just over £2bn, according to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

The Children’s Society estimates that around 100,000 children will get about £28 a week less, about 230,000 severely disabled people who do not an adult carer could lose between £28 and £58 a week, and around 116,000 disabled people who work could less about £40 per week.

All these numbers are based on parliamentary answers, and the government does not dispute that there will be a significant number of losers under the new system.

But it’s important to note that it will be future claimants who lose out. The government has made a commitment to top up the income of exisiting claimants’ who would otherwise be penalised by the switch. People who claim now should not be worse off in the short term.

That is an important point that charities have sometimes been guilty of failing to spell out been slow to acknowledge – although there are serious caveats.

As the Prime Minister said, there will be a transitional protection scheme to ensure there are no cash losers from the changeover. But that only applies “unless their circumstances change”.

The Department of Work and Pensions says a change in circumstances could include moving in with a new partner, losing your job or an increase in earnings – in other words, pretty common life changes that are likely to happen to quite a few people.

Most importantly, the cash protection will not rise with inflation, so the value will dwindle over time. As the Universal Credit award is uprated, the cash to-up will be eaten away so you will be getting less in real terms.

Mr Cameron is right to say that the total spend on disabled benefits is set to rise not fall. He quoted some figures today that we don’t recognise, but the spending forecasts we FactChecked in detail last month suggest he is right in principle.

And it is true that payments for the most severely disabled children will go up, albeit slightly. They will get about £77 a week instead of £75, and children who are registered as blind will count as “severely disabled” for the first time.

The verdict

Mr Cameron has erred on this topic before, but we can’t fault the words he used at the despatch box today.

The total amount of money the state spends on benefits for the disabled is actually predicted to rise slightly despite these reforms – it’s just that spending will rise far more slowly than if we had done nothing.

The Prime Minister is also right to remind viewers – especially people who may be worried about immediate cuts to their household income – that there is a promise in place to protect existing claimants in the short term.

Critics are equally correct to point out that hundreds of thousands of future claimants will find that they receive a much less generous helping hand from the government.

By Patrick Worrall