Government figures show about 450,000 disabled people will see their incomes cut under one of the changes planned to housing benefit. Campaigners fear thousands will be forced from their homes. From April 2013, housing benefit for working age people in social rented homes will be linked to the size of property councils believe they need. Ministers say they want housing benefit claimants to choose to rent properties they can afford when in work.
An assessment from the Department for Work and Pensions shows the change will leave 450,000 disabled people an average of £13 a week worse off. Ministers want to encourage housing benefit claimants to move out of council and housing association properties that are too big for their needs, and to make savings in a housing benefit bill that has almost doubled to £21.5bn in a decade.
But Labour's work and pensions spokeswoman Karen Buck said the changes would unfairly affect disabled people. She said: "If you are going to try and force them out with really proportionately swingeing cuts to their weekly income but you can't even guarantee that you're going to be able to offer them an alternative, then we are looking at a recipe for chaos."
The government has already delayed a proposal to remove money designed to fund travel for disabled people in residential care from the existing Disability Living Allowance. The DLA is to be replaced with a new benefit under plans set out in the Welfare Reform Bill. One disability campaigner said some had told his organisation they were left suicidal about changes to their benefits.
Disability Alliance policy director Neil Coyle said: "We've been contacted by people who've said that if they lose the kind of support that helps them get to work for example, if they're no longer entitled to that support, they'll lose the ability to be independent and they may take their own lives." Anyone forced to move house will be able to apply for money from a discretionary payments scheme into which the government has put an extra £130m to help deal with Housing Benefit changes.
Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud said: "We want people to make choices about size and location of their accommodation based on what they can afford when in work, and this measure will bring the social rented sector in line with those claiming housing benefit in the private rented sector. However, the government is committed to supporting the needs of disabled people, including, for the first time, providing a bedroom for a non-resident carer if someone needs overnight care for themselves or their partner."
Councils are legally required to consider the needs of disabled people. But the Communities department has been criticised for announcing a review of all councils' statutory duties. A spokesman for the charity Scope said : "Under these proposals councils could decide not to provide any services to disabled people, including residential care and respite for families and carers. This is a very real threat to the lives, security and future of disabled people."
A spokesman for the Department of Communities and Local Government said: "The department is reviewing the overall burden of statutory duties. Some duties will clearly remain vital, others may no longer be needed or may create unnecessary burdens or restrictions on local authorities."