Lawyers for two severely disabled men who won a High Court declaration that they had been unlawfully discriminated against have called on the Government to halt the roll-out of the controversial Universal Credit benefits scheme.
Although a judge in London rejected a challenge against the legality of regulations setting up the scheme, he ruled that the men, who both suffered a “dramatic” drop in benefits when they moved to a different local authority area and were required to claim Universal Credit, were discriminated against under human rights laws.
Mr Justice Lewis announced on Thursday that he had dismissed a judicial review challenge against the Work and Pensions Secretary relating to the 2013 regulations establishing Universal Credit, which replaced a range of means-tested welfare benefits with one single benefit.
He ruled that they “do not involve discrimination … in so far as they do not include any element which corresponds to the additional disability premiums payable under the previous regime”.
But he declared that the “implementing arrangements do at present give rise to unlawful discrimination”, and that the two men, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were entitled to a declaration to that effect.
The judge pointed out that unlawful discrimination arose under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights between two groups of people, and that the “differential treatment has not been objectively justified at present”.
The difference centred on those who remained in receipt of additional disability premiums, Severe Disability Premium (SDP) and Enhanced Disability Premium (EDP), when they moved home within the same local authority area and suffered no loss of income, and those who had to transfer to Universal Credit when moving to a different local housing area “and so receive less money by way of income-related support” than previously.
Mr Justice Lewis said the material before the court did not establish that the “transitional” regulations as they stand “strike a fair balance between the interests of the individual and the interests of the community in bringing about a phased transition” to Universal Credit.
He was told by the men’s barrister Zoe Leventhal that a drop in monthly income of £178 was having “seriously detrimental impacts on their health and well-being” and they were unable to meet many of their basic needs.
One of the claimants, referred to as TP, is a 52-year-old terminally ill man who worked in the financial sector, while AR is aged 36 and suffers from severe mental health issues.
Tessa Gregory, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, who represented them both, said after the ruling: “This is the first legal test of the roll-out of Universal Credit and the system has been found to be unlawfully discriminating against some of society’s most vulnerable.
“Whilst we welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that no one in our clients’ position will now be moved onto Universal Credit until top-up payments are in place, it comes too late as it cannot make up for the months of suffering and grinding poverty our clients and many others like them have already had to endure.
“We call upon Esther McVey to compensate our clients and all those affected without any further delay, and urge her to focus on fixing Universal Credit rather than wasting more public funds appealing this court decision.”
She said: “The Government needs to halt the roll-out and completely overhaul the system to meet people’s needs, not condemn them to destitution.
“If this doesn’t happen further legal challenges will inevitably follow.”
TP said in a statement: “I feel vindicated in bringing this important judicial review of the DWP’s stance towards me, which also affects numerous others of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “The court found in our favour on three of the four points raised by the claimant.
“We will be applying to appeal on the one point the court found against the department.
“This Government is committed to ensuring a strong system of support is in place for vulnerable people who are unable to work.
“Last week, the Secretary of State announced that we will be providing greater support for severely disabled people as they move onto Universal Credit.
“And we have gone even further, by providing an additional payment to those who have already moved onto the benefit.”