Thursday, January 05, 2012

Six days to get rid of the 12 month time limit to ESA

Next Wednesday, 11th January, the House of Lords will be debating the Welfare Reform Bill. It's expected that the controversial clause time limiting contributory Employment and Support Allowance to one year for those in the Work Related Activity Group, those people who are judged to have a limited capacity to work. This change does not affect the sickest and most disabled people in the Support Group.

At the moment, if you receive contributory ESA (based on your NI contributions), you get around £90 a week and are eligible for that until you reach State Pension age. Now, you will lose your entitlement to it after a year. So, if you work for 40 years and pay tax and NI for all that time, you will only, when you need it most, get a year's support if the Government plans become law. This will take effect in just 3 months' time.

That means that people who are too ill to work will effectively have to rely on their families to support them. Being ill is a pretty expensive business - if you need to have regular medical treatment there's transport costs affected with that. Also if your mobility is affected, you will need  your house to be warmer. Not want. Need. 

I think depriving sick people of the support they get from the State based on an arbitrary time limit is wrong. It flies in the face of everything I believe as a liberal in terms of looking at the person and what they need. 

Most people, thankfully, do recover from illness within a year but some don't. It certainly took me two years after contracting Glandular Fever to feel remotely human again and it's left me with continuing health problems. Luckily I didn't need to claim ESA, but if I had, I am fairly sure I'd have had problems proving eligibility because of the fluctuating nature of the condition. If Sue Marsh, who suffers from really severe bowel disease, has trouble convincing the authorities that she's ill, then we have to suspect that the system is very flawed. Sue isn't my only example. Four years of working as an MP's caseworker provided me with many examples of the wrong decisions being taken and overturned after a lengthy and stressful appeals process.

The best argument I've heard against the time limit was put forward by Ken Reed, the new Chair of RNIB Scotland. He and I were speakers at a fringe meeting on welfare reform chaired by Secretary of State for Scotland Mike Moore at the Scottish Lib Dems' Autumn conference. Ken said that if you became blind as the result of an accident today, it would take a year just to get used to being blind, let alone being ready to get back into the labour market.

At our Federal Conference last Autumn, we passed a motion which called upon ""Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim Contributory ESA". To me, that means that our people in the Lords should vote against the time limit. The views of Conference are pretty unequivocal and the motion was passed with very little opposition.

If you haven't done so already, please get in touch with Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords. A full list is here.  Tell them briefly why you think this time limit needs to go. 

Bear in mind that previous votes on the Welfare Reform Bill, including the one where 14 Lib Dem peers defeated an element of the Housing Benefit proposals, have been very, very close. It is possible for this vote to be won. We members can encourage that process so I would urge you all, again, to write to as many peers as you can, to give them an indication of the strength of feeling in the party. Please feel free to copy and paste this post into e-mails, tweet it, share on Facebook and spread the word in as many ways as you can think. 

We don't have long, but if we don't get rid of this time limit, sick people will start to suffer in less than 3 months' time. That should be enough motivation for us to devote some time to this today.

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