Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Welfare Reform Bill - a response to the concerns of Macmillan Cancer Support

This blog post details my response to concerns expressed to me by Macmillan Cancer Support, in my capacity as a member of the Welfare Reform Bill Committe.

The concerns of Macmillan Cancer Support are outlined in the below news article:

My response those concerns is as follows:

The Welfare Reform Bill Committee is like a mini Parliament, where 26 members scrutinise and debate each aspect of the Bill.  Public Bill Committees meet after the Bill is introduced and debated in the House of Commons and before it goes to the House of Lords for further debate and amendment.  Finally, it comes back to the House of Commons for further debate and amendment.  It is impossible to say when the Bill will become law but I estimate before the end of this year.

Because our current welfare system is so complex and provides vital support to many people, it is essential to get the reforms right.  Most of the actions within the Bill if they make it into law won’t start to happen until 2013 or later as a great deal of work needs to be done to develop the systems that will enable the changes.

Many interested groups lobby members of the Committee with their concerns and ‘wish lists’ of improvements to benefits for the various groups they represent.  Macmillan is one such group.

I have raised funds for Macmillan in Cornwall and very much value their work supporting people and their families with cancer.  Like every family, I have lost a close relative to cancer, in my case my mum, as well as some good friends.  Any diagnosis of cancer is a blow.  Everyone with cancer is unique and is affected in many different ways.  It is a challenge to develop welfare support that respects each individual, their unique circumstances while providing some financial assistance to those that need it in a way that is both fair to them and affordable to the taxpayer.

I am always happy to meet with local organisations and people involved with the welfare system.  I have regular meetings with CAB in Truro to inform my work in Parliament.

Here is my response to the campaign goals of Macmillan put to the West Briton.

1. End the current unjust system where the type of cancer treatment someone receives affects how they are treated in the welfare system.

I agree that the system inherited from the Labour Government is unfair.  The Coalition Government asked Professor Harrington to undertake a review of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).  His recommendations are being implemented.  The Government is committed to continuously improving the WCA so that it is fair and effective.
Individuals undergoing certain chemotherapy (e.g. oral chemotherapy) who are not automatically placed in the Support Group may, because of the impact of their condition and/or treatment, be allowed Employment Support Allowance following assessment.
Parliament has recently amended legislation so that individuals awaiting or between courses of certain types of chemotherapy will automatically be placed in the Support Group.
Professor Harrington is also reviewing the assessment process to see if it can be further improved for cancer patients.  He has asked Macmillan and other cancer charities for their input to this.  I look forward to his recommendations.

2. Make sure that people continue to receive critical financial support for as long as their disability or long term condition limits their ability to work (ends after 12 months).

Welfare payments are usually related to income.  There are exceptions such as the state pension which relates to age and NI contributions that people have made while working.  There are others that depend on minimal levels of NI contributions such as contributory Job Seekers Allowance and contributory Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

The Bill proposes introducing a one year time limit in contributory ESA for those in the Work Related Activity Group.  These are people who are able, with support to prepare for and seek employment.  This is consistent with contributory Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) which has a six month time limit.  However, the Government recognises the different nature of ESA recipients and the purpose of the benefit hence the doubling of the time limit.

People receiving income-related ESA will not have their benefit time limited and nor will people in the Support Group.  People moving off contributory ESA as a result of the time limit will be able to apply for income-related ESA if they are eligible.  In this way those with the lowest incomes will be most supported.

The introduction of Work Choice last October (which replaced a suite of specialist disability employment programmes) is designed to ensure that disabled people with more complex support needs, that cannot be met through other employment support, have access to the right support to help them prepare for, enter and retain employment (including self-employment).

Later this year, the Work Programme will be introduced which will provide more personalised back-to-work support for unemployed people, including people living with illnesses and disabled people.  Contributory ESA claimants will be able to volunteer for the Work Programme, and if they wish, remain on the Programme after their benefit has come to an end, ensuring that they receive all the support they need to help them return to work.

3. Make sure that people with cancer can apply for financial support to help with the extra costs of being disabled as soon as their support needs arise.

I am concerned that people do receive the help they need as soon as possible and have spoken-up at the Bill Committee about qualifying periods. Those diagnosed with cancer will have very diverse needs at the point of diagnosis.  Depending on their circumstances individuals may be entitled to a range of benefits, including automatic entitlement to the support component of Employment and Support Allowance.  For those that do face additional costs during their period of treatment or beyond they may be able to access other schemes such as healthcare travel costs, free prescriptions or aids and adaptations provided by the NHS or the Local Authority.

People who have very sadly been diagnosed with terminal cancer will be able to receive the enhanced rate of the daily living component without having to satisfy the normal entitlement conditions, including the Required Period Condition.  They will also be able receive the mobility component immediately if they have any mobility needs when they claim Personal Independence Payment.

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