At the moment, if you have Cancer and are undergoing IV chemo, you don't have to undergo the assessments, but if you're on oral chemo, you do. Macmillan Cancer Support and others highlighted this discrepancy and the Government decided to make the system the same for both groups. Unfortunately, they've done it the wrong way round. Instead of extending the exemption to the people on oral chemo, they've taken it away from those on iv chemo.
Now, both types of treatment are pretty hardcore. Cancer cells respond only to the most heavy duty of toxins. Anyone undergoing chemo is unlikely to be able to work while they're having the treatment because of the nasty, debilitating, dramatic side effects which can range from ulcers to vomiting to exhaustion and just about everything in between.
Just after I launched the petition, John Barrett, our former MP for Edinburgh West contacted me and said that he supported what we were trying to do and said he was happy for us tell that to the world, or at least the small part of it which reads our blogs.
Many of us in Scotland knew at the time that John had just undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his colon and was waiting to hear whether he'd have to undergo chemotherapy himself. It turns out that he does and will be starting this next month. Two weeks ago, he told the Scotsman about what he'd been through and how he wanted to tell everyone to use the NHS bowel cancer screening kit and not leave it gathering dust.
John has now told the Edinburgh Evening News that he wants the Government to rethink its plans for ESA. After objections from Macmillan, they were already undertaking a further consultation which will hopefully lead to them issuing an automatic exemption to everyone while they are undergoing treatment for Cancer.
“I’m speaking to my former parliamentary colleagues to say when this comes up they need to stop it.
“Macmillan are the experts. We should listen to what they and other charities are saying.”
I was not encouraged by the response from the DWP spokeswoman, however. She said:
“However, we do believe that assuming work is not an option for all cancer sufferers is not the right way ahead.”Let's be realistic here. Cancer sufferers in the middle of treatment are unlikely to be able to work. They have enough to do dealing with the effects of the treatment. A medical certificate from a GP saying they're undergoing Chemo or Radiotherapy at the moment is all that should be needed for them to claim ESA. Once that treatment has finished, then, ok, resume the normal assessment system, but for goodness sake leave them alone while the toxins are doing their thing.
It bothers me that failure to return an ATOS form on time could mean that people lose their benefits. If that deadline falls at the wrong time in the treatment cycle and someone's too ill to complete the form, they will get a nasty shock next benefit day and they shouldn't have to go through that stress, and the stress of having to sort it all out, when they are so sick.
We also know that ATOS make mistakes. There's every possibility that they could decide that someone in the midst of chemo is fit for work and make them lose their benefit. Appealing that takes a long time and is also very stressful - not to mention they'll be expected to show evidence of job hunting if they're put back onto Job Seekers' Allowance or lose their benefit completely.
Asking for an exemption is not about writing people off forever, it's about recognising the debilitating effects of Cancer treatment while it's happening. Hopefully most people, once their treatment is over, will be fit enough to resume work and get on with their lives. If you agree with us that Cancer patients undergoing Chemo or Radiotherapy should be automatically exempt from these extra assessments, please sign our petition here and if you're a Lib Dem member, write to Party President Tim Farron (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell him how you feel. I know he's already looking into this, but I want him to be able to go to Nick Clegg and say he's had thousands of e-mails from party members who want us to stop the Government's proposals.
Can you do that today, please? Also please spread the word as widely as you can. I'm hoping that this should be winnable because there is literally no sense in wasting time and energy putting people through assessments when they're clearly too ill to work by the very nature of what's happening to them. It's the right thing to do.