Debate was heated today as the House of Commons debated the Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill with Ian Lavery, MP for Wansbeck, pointing to the similarity between the Tory party and the Nazis. Opposition MPs supported the Lords amendments while conceding the sad reality that the ConDems would likely carry the day. ConDem contributions to the debate exposed ignorance and failure to understand the day-to-day lives of disabled people and the barriers we face.
The Lords amendments rejected the 12-month limit for ESA claimants who are judged capable of working at some stage in the future, Peers voted down plans that would have meant some cancer patients receiving contributory ESA would have been means tested for the benefit after 12 months and they rejected moves to stop disabled young people who have never worked, due to illness or disability, from receiving contributory ESA. The Government was nevertheless determined to push these measures through.
There was much discussion about the arbitrary nature of the 12 month limit and Stephen Timms, Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, reminded Libdem MPs that their party conference had voted against time-limiting ESA. ConDems defended their position by citing that a 2 year time limit was equally arbitrary. For every example given of individual circumstances where a person in need would potentially be thrown into poverty by the Government’s proposed measures, ConDems explained that such an individual would be placed in the support group of ESA and was therefore irrelevant to the debate on time-limiting for the work related group. Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central, said that assessments were important for getting people into the right ESA groups. When Opposition MPs raised the issue of the notorious inaccuracy of the Work Capability Assessments, the Government Front Bench blamed the WCA system on New Labour, saying that the impact of the changes to the WCA following the Harrington review is not yet measurable and that the accuracy of the current WCA cannot be commented upon.
However we know that the aim of the time-limiting is to get people off benefits. We know that the application of a policy with such an aim is that people are found fit for work when they are not. For the Government to make the savings it wants there will continue to be cases of individuals who are in need and who are denied access to the ESA support group. Stephen Timms quoted figures to show that although 90% of people on contributory Job Seekers Allowance find work within 6 months, only 6% of those on ESA find work within 12 months. Inevitably therefore time-limiting will mean people being denied an income when their inability to find work is due to disability or ill health.
The question of the need to set the 12 month time limit in statute by an Act of Parliament was also questioned. Willott weakly defended this explaining that benefit claimants would welcome the stability to the benefits system that such an Act would ensure. In reality benefit claimants would be better reassured by such an arbitrary and unfair time-limit not being set in stone in legislation in this way. Willott did seek assurances from her front bench colleagues that those affected by the change to ESA would be among the first to be moved onto a universal credit system which aclnowledged that these measures will have a serious detrimental impact on high numbers of disabled people.
Anne Begg expressed exasperation at the inability of the ConDem benches to understand the fundamental difference between being out of work due to being unemployed and due to long term disability or ill health. As a Tory back-bencher cited his own past circumstance of being made redundant with no access to benefits to help him out, Begg explained that there is a clear difference when a person has no prospect of improving their financial circumstances themselves. She went on to have to explain to Jenny Willott what different benefits payments are for after the MP for Cardiff Central commented that an individual denied ESA would still have access to non means-tested benefits: Begg explained that housing benefit pays for rent, DLA pays for the extra costs that arise from being disabled and that still leaves no income, nothing for clothes or heating or the everyday things we take for granted. The Tories continued to fail to understand the barriers that disabled people face as David Nuttall got close to describing disabled people as benefit scroungers when he commented that his constituents are sick and tired of people making a lifestyle choice of being on benefits.
David Winnick, MP for Walsall North was vehement in his opposition to the Government proposals. He said: “This is indeed a grubby and obnoxious measure” and called on LibDem MPs to vote against the Government, as he would have done had his Government ever tried to introduce such a thing. Winnick quoted the Prime Minister, who said: “People who are sick, who are vulnerable, I want you to know we will always look after you. That is a sign of a civilised society. That is what I believe in”. The Welfare Reform Bill exposes this as a lie.