A few weeks ago, our autumn conference passed a motion on the Employment Support Allowance (ESA). This motion was passed near unanimously and party policy is now for us to push for significant changes to the government’s welfare reforms.
The reason behind the new policy is that the government’s changes, as currently formatted, would put two million long term sick and disabled people through a system which treats them like scroungers and cheats rather than vulnerable people in need of support. At present, 11,000 people a day are being put through a deeply flawed assessment process, which gets the decision as to whether someone needs support wrong about 40% of the time with a byzantine appeals process of which the highest tier is utterly opaque and lacking in any kind of public scrutiny or accountability.
These changes are wrong for two main reasons. They fail to give sick and disabled people the support they need and they fail to save the taxpayer money. The most damaging of the several changes is a switch to an arbitrary one month time limit on the receipt of contributory ESA. What this means is that anyone who made a National Insurance payment in the three years before claiming (i.e. someone who was in work once but has become sick and disabled) will only be paid ESA for 12 months and then it will be cut off regardless of whether they are well enough to work again or not. This limit is completely lacking in any sort of medical reasoning. I’ve read the DWP white paper proposing the change and I can tell you now that the only considerations made in the document were costs. This time limit is one of the biggest things that Lib Dem policy now opposes but it is far from the only damaging change.
When we passed the motion at conference, it was a big boost to the sick and disabled community. They’ve been arguing against the system for years, pointing out how flawed it is and the impact is has on people but, until now, almost no one has listened to them. The Conservatives are nearly all signed up to the changes as they see it as a way of saving money, regardless of the human costs of the changes.
Labour, having introduced much of the deeply flawed system, have made some objections to it. That is to say that their shadow DWP minister, Liam Byrne, has said that he thinks that an arbitrary one year time limit might have a negative impact on recovering cancer patients and should therefore be increased to an arbitrary two years. The impact that it will have on people with Crohn’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, paralysis, clinical depression and all sorts of other unglamorous but devastating conditions didn’t even occur to Liam Byrne to mention. And, in fact, the Labour party recently blocked their conference from even being allowed to debate a purely symbolic motion on the issue.
At the moment the Welfare Reform Bill, which will make these changes law, is going through the House of Lords (though the changes are backdated and are thousands of people have already been affected by them). Liberal Youth (who sponsored the motion at conference) and disability organisations have been putting pressure on peers of all stripes to persuade them to alter the Bill to prevent it devastating the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society. But we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball – that the motion was passed is no grounds for complacency.
Unless all of us contact our peers and MPs, unless the party leadership start speaking out on this issue, our party policy will not be implemented and we will let down hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people. And, bear in mind, pretty much everyone knows someone being affected by these changes and each of the three million severely sick and disabled people in the country has family and friends. At present, this huge segment of society is being ignored and it is highly likely that the first party to actually connect with them will benefit from it considerably.
If we speak up now, we can protect almost three million people from unnecessary hardship. We can prevent them from being enslaved by poverty and by an ignorant system which would force them into poverty. The Conservatives don’t care and Labour have proven beyond doubt that, despite their words, they do not care either. If we stick to our policy on this issue, not only will we have manifestly done something right and good, we might even get substantial electoral credit for it as well.
So please, write to your representatives, talk to your colleagues, get them to stand up for this vital Lib Dem policy. We must not and cannot take our eyes of the ball on this issue.