Benefits changes ‘could have discriminatory impact’

12 Dec 11
The government’s planned welfare changes could breach human rights law, a parliamentary committee warned today.
By Richard Johnstone | 12 December 2011

The government’s planned welfare changes could breach human rights law, a parliamentary committee warned today.
In a report on the Welfare Reform Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said that the plans, which include introducing more conditions for benefits, might lead to destitution. This would contravene Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although the law does not preclude conditions on benefits, the government should ‘give careful consideration’ to the risk that the proposals could have ‘a discriminatory impact’, the committee of six peers and six MPs said. They highlighted planned limits on the Employment Support Allowance, which has replaced Incapacity Benefit, as potentially discriminatory.

The Department for Work & Pensions proposes to limit the contribution-based element of the ESA to 12 months if the recipient has a working partner.

As many as 40% of those who will lose this benefit will not be compensated by the second element of ESA, which is based on income, the report found. It also noted the government had acknowledged that the decision to introduce a 12-month limit was not based on evidence that this was reasonable.

Another potential discrimination in the Bill is the proposal to cap the maximum benefits received by any household at the average weekly wage of working households. The committee warns that this would have a ‘disproportionate impact’ on large families with several children who might live in larger family homes and so be entitled to high levels of Housing Benefit.

The committee also raised specific concerns about the impact of the welfare reforms on some disabled people. It recommends that the government allow additional discretion to exempt those facing exceptional hardship from the benefits cap.

Committee chair Hywel Francis said: ‘This is an important Bill and it is vital that the government take on board the committee's concerns, not least since there is still a lack of available detail about the substance of some of the changes proposed. 

‘We welcome the government's recent decision to retain the mobility component of the Disability Living Allowance for residents of residential care homes as a sign that it is indeed willing to think carefully, in human rights terms, about exactly what it is proposing.’

Responding to the report, a DWP spokesman said that the changes would ‘protect those who need the most help’, while encouraging others to take responsibility for their own lives.

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