Saturday nights at this time of year are usually pretty predictable - Strictly, X Factor, I'm a Celebrity, punctuated by the occasional glass of red wine. Last night the annual Race of Champions was also added into the mix and I watched excitedly as Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel claimed their fifth Nations Cup in succession for Germany.
While idly going through Facebook to see how my friends were doing, I came back down to earth with a sudden bump when I read this from Macmillan Cancer Support.
Now, I knew there had been issues with people recovering from Cancer being marked as fit for work with the iniquitous Work Capability Assessment. That was bad enough. I had rather naively assumed that those in active treatment would be spared such things. No, those taking oral chemotherapy or radiation could be assessed at any time. Those on intravenous chemotherapy were exempt. Macmillan and other organisations presented evidence to the Government that oral chemo and radiotherapy could be every bit as horrendous as iv chemo in the hope that the exemption would be extended to them.
Well, it appears that the Government have accepted that there must be equality in how the groups are treated, so both groups will be subjected to the assessment.
Most of us will know somebody who has been through Cancer treatment. It's pretty hardcore. With chemo, your body is assaulted with assorted heavy duty poisons at the maximum possible dose. It doesn't just find the Cancer cells and kill them, it damages everything else in its path and for most of the time you feel pretty bloody awful. There may, if you're lucky, be a few days in the cycle between treatments where you feel almost human, but as the treatment continues and the toxins in your body build up, this becomes less likely. In fact, how many times have you heard that someone's too sick to even get their next dose of chemo - they haven't recovered properly from the last one and it has to be postponed. The side effects of most Cancer treatments are deeply unpleasant, often dramatic and they take up every ounce of your energy. The last thing you need is having to fight bureaucracy from the Department of Work and Pensions on pain of losing your benefits.
You have to submit medical certs every few weeks to claim ESA anyway. It is pretty simple to automatically put anyone whose certificate says "Cancer - continuing treatment" into the support group so that they are pretty much left alone and not hassled. That would be the obvious way to deal with this. But, no. Rather than extend the exemption to those on oral chemos etc, the Government is removing it from those on iv Chemo? That is so, so cruel. You miss a deadline cos you're too busy throwing up or sleeping and you end up losing your benefits. And when that happens, it can take a wee while to sort it all out. How do you feed yourself or heat your house in that circumstance. And if you lose your income based ESA, you end up losing Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and the like and it shouldn't, but you then have to deal with the Council as well as the DWP to sort it all out. And all the while your next chemo appointment beckons.
Now, the Government says, in its proposals that more people will end up in the support group.
That's as may be, but they'll be forced to get extra evidence and fill in extra forms when there is just no need. Not everyone has a family who can do all that for them. People literally fighting to stay alive should not be put through this.
While the Government's intention may be to put more in the support group, the method of getting them there is deeply flawed, cruel and a waste of time.
There will be a consultation starting this month so that they can think again. I think we need to concentrate the minds of Liberal Democrat ministers particularly and get them to use their influence to ensure that Cancer patients in active treatment are exempted from the rather icy and inaccurate grip of ATOS and their flawed Work Capability Assessments. We just can't have people struggling with brutal therapies put through them.
Last night young Mr Potter and I cooked up this petition asking the Government to withdraw its proposals and make sure that anyone going through this treatment should be exempted as a matter of course. Please circulate widely. Without much effort, it's already attracted a fair number of signatures - but please do what you can to draw attention to it and sign it yourself.
I want our ministers to be absolutely sure that Liberal Democrat members in particular will not tolerate anything less than full exemption for Cancer patients going through treatment. The quick way to do that is for us all to write to Tim Farron, our Party President at firstname.lastname@example.org. He does take contact from members very seriously. You could tweet him as well @timfarron. He will take our concerns to our ministers quickly. Also get in touch with Jenny Willott MP (email@example.com).
The Government has at least stopped what it was planning to do for the moment - so we mustn't miss this opportunity to push them in the right direction.