The Federal Conference Committee has published its Conference Extra which lists last minute changes to the agenda and
If I could choose just one amendment and motion to pass from this year's Conference, it would be the one which, if enacted, would make a huge difference to the seriously sick people who are currently being forced to undergo assessment for Employment and Support Allowance and who face the removal of their benefit after one year.
Glasgow North local party have submitted an amendment to Liberal Youth's motion which really tightens it up and improves it. The text in full is:
After C. (line 25), insert:
D. That vulnerable cases like this, where a welfare recipient’s income is threatened ,should qualify
for free legal representation.
Delete 2 (line 35) and insert:
2. Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can
claim contributory ESA.
In 3. (line 36), after ‘representation’ insert: ‘and expert advice, and for Government to reconsider
the exclusion of welfare benefits casework such as this from the scope of legal aid.
After 3. (line 36), add:
4. A presumption that ESA claimants with serious and uncontrollable life-threatening conditions
should be allocated to the support group rather than the work related activity group.
5 A review of ATOS performance in delivering the Medical Services Agreement contract with
DWP in respect of the quality of medical assessments.
6. Effective contract compliance for contractors carrying out ESA eligibility assessments to avoid
poor performance, and a presumption that in future ESA eligibility will be carried out by the
public sector or non-profit organisations.
For me, the crucial improvements this amendment makes are:
"Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA" is much tighter wording and would send a very strong message to our ministers about what we expect of them. If we really are a compassionate society, we do have to ensure that people who are sick are properly supported.
Free legal representation for claimants who are turned down and can't afford to challenge decisions is absolutely vital. I learned in 4 years as an MP's caseworker that Government agencies make mistakes. They are run by humans, after all, so it happens. That's a given. What they do often, though, is dig their heels in and refuse to admit or rectify their mistakes because they know that in the vast majority of cases, they won't be challenged. Often we had to present them with the evidence and be quite robust on several occasions before they would put things right. It's not a coincidence that the percentage of appeals granted goes up to 70% when people have proper representation. You really have to understand some pretty complex stuff and if you are already struggling with a long term condition, that can be very difficult, if not impossible to do. People are being consigned to a life of poverty, unable to work, yet with no support and unable to fight the bad decision that denied them their benefit. That is wrong and we as Liberal Democrats should stop it happening.
A presumption that people with long term conditions will be put in the support group - you do have to look at people as individuals, of course, but there are some people who are clearly never going to get better. It is cruel to keep dragging them in for assessments. I know of a fair few people who were denied Incapacity Benefit (as it was), went through the stressful and lengthy appeals process, got their benefits back and almost immediately were plunged into the whole process again. Putting people under this sort of stress exacerbates their condition and makes recovery less likely. Give them a break.
Finally, the last part, about keeping tabs on ATOS, who, in my opinion, treat people appallingly and make bad recommendations with a flawed assesment tool, is vital. I am very nervous about having such a sensitive system run by a private company anyway. We don't have private companies running courts and the judiciary for a reason. The benefits system should be no different.
I would hope that Liberal Youth, who submitted the original motion, would accept this amendment in its entirety.I think to do so would really strengthen our ministers' position within the Government.
Remember Spring Conference, when Conference put a stop to the unacceptable Tory health reforms? Well, this is just as vital. Much of the Government's welfare reform programme is to be welcomed, but I can't support and will never even attempt to justify their proposals on ESA. They are unacceptable, pure and simple.
I am really impressed with George Potter who has pushed hard on this issue from the start and is responsible for it being on the Conference agenda. I think the Glasgow North amendment really enhances the motion and I urge every single voting rep to support it.