If any of you are wondering how we can improve our situation in the polls then I’ve got a suggestion for you: back the Liberal Youth sponsored ESA Motion.
Now there are all sorts of compassionate, liberal and financial reasons to back this motion. The current system is unfair, inhumane, inaccurate and expensive. But, putting all that to one side for a moment, there are sound political reasons to back it.
At the moment the treatment of people with long term illnesses and disabilities is appalling. The media are starting to wake up to the issue, the government is facing a legal challenge from disability charities and the impression that several campaigners have is that the entire issue will be erupting quite soon – rather similarly to the way the NHS issue exploded last spring.
The situation we have at the moment, which any decent human being would consider a national disgrace, is one which was introduced by Labour with complete disregard for all common sense and evidence. They have a track record on this issue which is despicable. Similarly, we have a Tory minister, Ian Duncan-Smith, who was told by the Chancellor that, if he wanted to introduce the Universal Credit, he would have to find the £3 billion to fund it by cutting the welfare budget. So IDS’s response was to introduce a time limit of 12 months on contributory ESA. After this period has elapsed, claimants have all support taken away and they are left facing destitution.
And I’d like to emphasise that this time limit only applies to contributory ESA e.g. payments to people who have made a National Insurance contribution at some point in the past. This, coupled with the fact that the time limit often forces partners of claimants to give up work to look after them, has the overall effect of actively disincentivising work, in addition to all the other issues such as being a purely money saving exercise.
The current system has been condemned time and time again by parliamentary committees, enquiries and independent tribunals.
One committee produced a report on the issue which debated whether it would be better if the Work Capability Assesments took into account “real-life context”, that is the ability of claimants to do actual jobs in the real world rather than their ability to, say, pick up a pen once during an assessment. However, employment minister Chris Grayling responded that he was “absolutely unreservedly and implacably opposed” to a real-world test.
You quite literally cannot make stuff like that up. Labour and the Conservatives have given us a very big political stick to beat both of them round the head with. You could not have imagined a more potentially damaging scenario for either of them or a more potentially beneficial one for us. Potentially, in addition to helping some of the most vulnerable in society, this issue could bring the same political dividends that our opposition to Lansley’s health proposals were supposed to bring.
But if we wish to reap those political dividends then it cannot be done half-heartedly as we tackled the NHS. On the NHS our ministers woke up too late to what the party was saying and, though they challenged the Tories over it, it came too late for the public or the media to give us any credit on the issue. But if we were to take the initiative on this, and if our ministers were to take the lead right from the start, then it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that we could see a significant result in terms of winning back some of the voters who have deserted us since the election. Admittedly the 3% figure is just a complete guess but it is far from impossible.
So, even if you aren’t prepared to back the motion on compassionate ground then you should do so out of self-interest. From a political and a compassionate perspective, this really could be a win-win situation.