Spring Budget 2023: what it means for those with disabilities

Charities and the FSB react to the support laid out for energy usage and those with disabilities in the Spring Budget

blind person
Pexels/Eren Li

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveiled a Spring Budget with the theme of ‘education, employment, enterprise, everywhere’ on Thursday (15 March).

During his speech, the Chancellor revealed that the UK will not fall into recession in 2023 as had previously been expected.

He also laid out measures that he said will help to ‘level up,’ decreasing economic inactivity and encouraging investment.

One of Hunt’s plans is to overhaul disability support, with the aim of making it easier for those with disabilities who want to work to do so.

He also offered further, albeit limited, support for household energy bills.

Here, OT lays out the key points and assesses the reaction from charities within the eye care sector.

Disability support

There are currently two million economically inactive disabled people, Hunt said, adding that flexible working models that have emerged since the pandemic (such as remote working) should be utilised to get people with disabilities working “if they want to.”

He revealed that the Work Capability Assessment is to be scrapped, and that people with disabilities will now be able to seek work without fear of losing financial support. 

A Disability Benefits Reform white paper, promising “extensive reforms so more disabled people and people with health conditions live the independent and fulfilling lives they deserve,” was published to coincide with the Spring Budget.

The paper promises to:

  • Change the emphasis of the benefits system from “what people can’t do, to what they can,” removing the Work Capability Assessment and leaving the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) assessment as the one assessment that claimants will need to go through
  • Extend the amount of time those with disabilities can spend with work coaches in Jobcentres
  • Create a new ‘In-Work Progression Offer,’ to “help people in work on Universal Credit, including disabled people, to increase their earnings and move into better-paid jobs”
  • Extend the Work and Health programme to September 2024.

Hunt also announced the creation of ‘Universal Support,’ which he described as a voluntary employment scheme for people with disabilities, offering support to the value of £4000 for 50,000 people per year.

Reacting to the announcements, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said that his party had previously called for a welfare system that would help people with disabilities at work thrive, and that they would be looking closely at the detail of what Hunt has promised.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) advised caution.

Sophie Dodgeon, the charity’s head of policy and public affairs, said: “The employment rate of blind and partially sighted people is unacceptably low, with 11,000 currently looking for work in the UK. We’ll need to wait and see if today’s announced measures will genuinely address the specific challenges faced by people with sight loss in finding and staying in work.”

Dodgeon also noted that failures in the Access to Work scheme are still causing a significant barrier for those who want to work.

In January, OT reported that over 25,000 people were on the scheme’s waiting list – something the RNIB called “so significant as to risk being unlawful.”

“Any drive to support blind and partially sighted people in employment must include the Department of Work and Pensions making drastic improvements to the existing Access to Work scheme it runs to support disabled people to stay in work,” Dodgeon said. “We need to see comprehensive action to finally reduce the appalling delays that thousands are experiencing, and help, as they have said today, to get people working.”

She added: “Too many blind and partially sighted people experience frustrating and humiliating benefit assessments where assessors simply don’t know enough about sight loss, resulting in people being unfairly rejected for support. Changes to assessment processes for benefits are long overdue. It’s absolutely critical.”

Speaking from an employer perspective, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Martin McTague, called the plans “ill-designed.” 

“Proposals to help people with health conditions are ill-designed and won’t help people get back to work, and we fear the work capability assessment changes won’t happen for years,” he said.

McTague added: “The Chancellor has failed to take any action to make it easier for small firms to recruit people locked out of the labour market. Those with health conditions and disability have been let down by a government that does nothing to work with small employers and is continuing with its failing Jobcentre-focused approach. Small measures on subsidising occupational health are welcome but not the big bang needed.”

Jacquie Winning, chief executive of Forth Valley Sensory Centre, which supports people with sensory impairment in Stirling, Falkirk, and Clackmannanshire, Scotland, noted that the cost-of-living will remain a challenge for the charity’s service users.

Winning said: “It is welcome that the Chancellor confirmed a series of extra cost-of-living payments for those on eligible low-income benefits and disability benefits, and for pensioners. However, we know that the higher cost-of-living – driven by the steep rise in energy bills and inflation – means our service users are facing challenges when it comes to their household finances.

“This could have a knock-on effect on their independence if they have to cut down on paying for ‘non-essential’ social activities and transport, which sadly risks increasing isolation.”

Energy support and fuel costs

Energy bill support for households will remain in place until the end of June, Hunt confirmed. It had previously been expected to end in April. 

It is expected that this measure will save households an average of £160 per month.

The Chancellor also announced that charges for pre-payment meters, which are often used by poorest households, are to be brought in line with direct debits.

Fuel duty will also be frozen until March 2024, providing some respite for those who rely on their cars to travel to work and maintain their independence.

Winning said: “While the Energy Price Guarantee will remain at its current level for an extra three months, the £400 discount provided through the Energy Bills Support Scheme has now come to an end with no further support announced in the Budget.
This means people will see their energy bills rise from next month.”

Winning emphasised that the Forth Valley Sensory Centre’s Energy Redress Scheme is available to assist those with sight or hearing loss in the region to “understand their energy bills, offer tips on saving energy and food waste, and signpost sources of support.” 

Hunt also committed £100 million to supporting local charities and community organisations, a quarter of which will be used to support the energy needs of small charities and voluntary organisations in England.

The culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, said that the measures “mean charities can support organisations whose services are in demand and provide assistance at this challenging time, while also providing funding for energy efficiency measures to reduce their future operating costs.”

In its statement, the FSB noted that no support has been offered for small businesses when it comes to energy tariffs.

More widely, the Chancellor noted that his aim is to reduce overall energy usage by 15%.

Secure housing: left out of the Budget

Charities working with vulnerable people have emphasised the lack of attention given to housing in the Spring Budget, with David Brown, general manager at Vision Care for Homeless People, calling the unaffordability of maintaining accommodation “a driver of homelessness.”

Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, said that the Budget “missed a crucial opportunity to pull thousands of people back from the brink of homelessness by investing in housing benefit.”

“This will be nothing short of crushing for people who rely on this vital lifeline and are continuing to feel the crippling impact of the cost of living crisis,” Downie said.

He added: “Rents are rising at their fastest rate in 16 years, incomes are not keeping pace and yet housing benefit remains frozen, last increased nearly three years ago. It simply does not make sense.

“The Government must urgently reconsider their approach and uprate housing benefit in line with the true cost of rents – otherwise we will see thousands more people forced out of their homes with nowhere to go.”