Friday, January 27, 2012

Leadership programme hopefuls and new MEP among signatories of candidates' plea to Clegg on Welfare Reform

Today's Guardian carries a report that more than 50 Liberal Democrat candidates at the last election have written to Nick Clegg to ask for a rethink on welfare reform.

This shows that many within the Party are unhappy with measures like the withdrawal of contributory Employment and Support Allowance after one year, something I've written about many times.

And this is not just Gareth Epps being awkward, either. Among the signatories to the letter are Greg Judge, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Shas Sheehan and Layla Moran, four of the  participants in the much vaunted Leadership Programme as well as Daisy Benson, who darned well should be on it. We also have our newest MEP Rebecca Taylor who takes over Diana Wallis' seat after Stewart Arnold decided against succeeding his wife.  Stephen Glenn also told me where to find the actual letter rather than just the Guardian report so thanks to him.

The letter says:

Dear Nick
As you are aware the House of Lords voted in favour of 3 amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill, protecting important benefits for sick and disabled people.
The amendments, regarding contributory Employment and Support Allowance (cESA), were:
  • The amount of time a person can receive cESA will be extended to at least 24 months, instead of the Government’s proposed 12 month limit.
  • Cancer patients will be exempted from the time limit.
  • The ‘youth provision’ of the benefit will be protected, meaning that young disabled people who cannot work will still be entitled to cESA without having made National Insurance contributions.
The amendments were passed with significant majorities, but they must still be approved by the House of Commons.
Contributory Employment and Support Allowance is a benefit given to people who have had to stop work due to ill health or disability, but who are well enough to return to work at some point. It is only given to those who have paid sufficient National Insurance Contributions during their working life.
Some disabled people will be able to return to work, but many will need more time and support to do so. The Department for Work and Pensions estimate that 94 per cent of disabled people will take longer than a year to find work. This means that many who remain unemployed after these 12 months will lose all benefit support. That would mean that, by 2015/16, 700,000 people would be affected and 280,000 would lose their entire benefit payment – currently £94.25 per week.
We are deeply concerned that the Minister, Chris Grayling, has already indicated he intends the Welfare Reform Bill to pass without the amendments on cESA when the Bill returns to the commons.
At Federal Conference we passed a motion which said we should not have an arbitrary time limit on cESA. Although the amendment extends the current proposal from one to at least two years, we do not believe we should let the best be the enemy of the good.
We, including many who stood as Liberal Democrat candidates at the last election, some who have been selected on the Lib Dem leadership programme, councillors and selected 2012 London candidates believe you and Lib Dem Parliamentarians should uphold party policy and principle and only support the Welfare Reform Bill with the amendments passed in the House of Lords.

It's clear that this isn't a north south thing either - this letter has the support of candidates from Linlithgow to Poole, from Coastal Suffolk to Wirral West.

I had precious few replies from my e-mails to our Peers, but Shirley Williams told me she had had over 500 e-mails on the subject of the ESA time limit.

This isn't enough, though. A letter from candidates trailed in the media won't make the difference. Our MPs need to hear that we want them to get the Government to pull back from the brink and not to overturn the Lords Amendments.

It's time for Liberal Democrat members to start contacting MPs in much larger numbers. The crucial votes take place next Wednesday. Will you do your bit in trying to persuade our MPs to oppose the measures that our Conference voted so strongly against? In fact, if you have a Lib Dem MP, tell them how strongly you feel about these changes. They will take notice if their inboxes and mailbags are full of correspondence on this issue.

Please contact our MPs yourself and spread the word to ask others to do the same if you feel that these reforms are way too harsh on sick and disabled people.

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