Opinion: Government must not force work activities on Cancer patients

The main form of financial support for the long term sick and disabled is the Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

Once upon a time, cancer patients undergoing radio or chemotherapy intravenously were placed in the support group of ESA where they received unconditional support. However, those receiving radio or chemotherapy orally were placed in the Work Related Activity Group of ESA where they were forced to attend work related interviews and complete other work related activity or face having part or all of their support withdrawn.

My mother died of cancer. A large part of her treatment consisted of oral chemotherapy. Oral because it was slightly less invasive than intravenous chemotherapy. And, as anyone who has known a cancer patient can tell you, it doesn’t matter whether radio or chemo is delivered orally or intravenously as it’s still incredibly debilitating. These treatments work by poisoning the body and destroying its immune system in the hope of halting or killing off the Cancer cells at the same time. People undergoing treatment spend most of the time between treatments  feeling incredibly ill and are lucky if they even have a couple of days in the cycle where they feel something approaching normal. Each day they are forced to swallow sometimes up to a dozen of the same pills that are making them feel so terrible just in the hope that it might save their life. It’s a horrific thing to go through, and traumatic for those around a cancer patient to witness. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Macmillan Cancer Support objected to the situation as being unfair on those cancer patients undergoing this oral treatment because of its debilitating effects being equal to those of intravenous chemotherapy.

The Government agreed, in its response to the Harrington Review,  that this discrepancy should not exist. However, they chose to deal with it by putting all Cancer patients undergoing therapy liable for ongoing assessments by ATOS.  Now both groups of cancer patients will have to jump through the work related activity hoops or face the financial sanctions. This is a slight improvement only because they have now conceded that cancer patients might not be well enough to physically intend interviews in person and so will only have to worry about completing paper ‘work related activity’. This is not the change Macmillan wanted to see.

In my opinion, it’s still absolutely wrong that cancer patients, some of them with no hope of recovery, should be expected to fill in forms and jump through bureaucratic hoops  while fighting for their lives. The Government has suspended the change pending further consultation, so this gives us an opportunity to try to persuade them to do the right thing.

That’s why this petition to get the government to change its mind was started. Please go and sign it and please write to our ministers and MPs about it. This decision is wrong and  we owe it to cancer patients to do all we can to reverse it.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • George, there’s been absolutely no change to the WCA/ESA for cancer patients. These are *proposals* which are going to be consulted on this month. In fact, they were proposals which Macmillan helped develop and provided the evidence for. Save your petition, and respond to the consultation when it’s launched.

    Atos are unlikely to come into it at all even under the proposals in their current form. The DWP’s response to Harrington says of its proposed reforms on cancer: “If introduced, these proposals would increase the number of individuals being treated for cancer going into the Support Group. They would also reduce the number of face-to-face assessments for people being treated for cancer as most assessments could be done on a paper basis, based on evidence presented by a GP or treating healthcare professional”

    I do hope you’ve read the Review and the response, and not just relied on a pressure group’s press release? You can find them here: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/wca-review

  • I don’t think this article is accurate. The government’s comments in response to Macmillan’s earlier representation seems to be to acknowledge that oral chemotherapy can be as debilitating as other forms of therapy and to state that in most cases an interview won’t be needed as the paperwork from the GP will be sufficient. On this an oncologist is clearly better qualified than ATOS to decide this.

    I understand that the government is now consulting more widely on this point.

    Incidentally, I have known people with cancer who have been very pleased to keep working throughout the treatment. They have found it gives a sense of normality and purpose. However, their employers have been very understanding and flexible in allowing employees to work at home during treatment, work reduced hours etc. And perhaps this would be a creative way of helping people into work while understanding how difficult the treatment is.

  • George – how are the Government to know who to give financial support to without some form of paperwork?

    Macmillan is a charity that campaigns on behalf of people with cancer (as well as performing excellent other functions that support people with cancer). This could be classed as a pressure group. Many charities have changed to campaign in areas that are related to their mission.

  • @Maria M
    I don’t think its correct or sensible to characterise Macmillan Cancer Support as a pressure group. They do campaign, but their primary role as a charity is providing practical help to cancer patients, typically in the form of hands on nursing. When I was a teenager and Macmillan nurses were caring for my mum, I was quite suprised that such a service was not part of the NHS.

  • George, the main point is that these are *proposals* which will be consulted on. They are not being implemented yet. So when you say what the Government “now expects”, you are wrong. There has been no change.

    But in terms of what the change would be if the proposals (which Macmillan helped write) were implemented, there is not a meaningful difference between getting a piece of paper from the hospital to say someone is receiving intravenous chemo under the existing system, and getting a piece of paper from the hospital to say someone is receiving intravenous chemo under the proposed system. Don’t join in the fear mongering – those who need support will get it.

  • mike cobley 7th Dec '11 - 1:40pm

    The very fact that the dignity of cancer sufferers has to be defended is proof of the coalition’s moral bankruptcy. When health care and social provision of every kind become commodities, the means of their disbursement becomes a heartless, dead-eyed process, a form-filling Procrustean system that treats claimants with a banal cruelty while the greek choir of the media croons over and over its chants about fraudsters and work-shy scroungers.

    I’ve said it before and I`ll say it again – the party leadership should be ashamed of their collusion with these despicable policies.

  • This is the next step in the government’s grand scheme. They have already moved thousands of disabled people off incapacity benefit on to job seekers allowance, people who have been deemed fit enough to work, who clearly aren’t. These individuals are now forced to compete with fit and healthy individuals, in a dire jobs market. They are also forced to take unpaid ‘work experience’ placements in companies such as Poundland in exchange for their benefits. The next step is to have seriously ill people moved off ESA and on to job seekers allowance. This includes cancer patients who will be forced to work in Poundland or lose their benefits, even whilst undergoing chemotherapy.

  • Simon Bamonte 7th Dec '11 - 4:30pm

    More news that confirms I am right to give up support for this bastard coalition. Ever since we signed the Coalition Agreement, we have, with the Tories, been attacking sick and disabled people more than any group in society. I am guilty of thinking nothing of it, at first, because I am not disabled. But one day I might be.

    I’ve read up on this whole debacle. People who have less than a year to live are being found “fit for work” and the record of ATOS, where 40% of appeals are granted (70% with representation like the CAB!), would be unacceptable in the public sector, but our government doesn’t seem to mind giving them billions of pounds to harass disabled people with cruel and unscientific tests when that money could be going to the disabled themselves!

    The silence from Lib Dem MPs and the defense of horrendous “proposals” like this, on this site, shows how many Lib Dems have decided the government must survive at all costs, even at the cost of the several ill people who have taken their lives after being found “fit for work” by ATOS. All Lib Dems, and anyone with a heart, should be disgusted by this government’s treatment, smearing and attacks on our sick and disabled people. After all, all of us with good health are simply the “not-yet disabled”. Most of us will have a serious illness or disability as we age.

    It is always telling who governments attack in rough times. Like other nasty regimes in the past, this government has decided it is open season on those least able to defend themselves. Yes, we know the Nasty Party loves these kind of attacks, but to see Lib Dems in government (and some on this blog) defending the treatment of our most vulnerable members in society sickens me to the core.

  • Simon Bamonte 7th Dec '11 - 4:31pm

    Oops…”People who have less than a year to live are being found “fit for work” and the record of ATOS, where 40% of appeals are granted (70% with representation like the CAB!), would be unacceptable in the public sector”

    I meant to say private sector rather than public sector.

  • Philip Rolle 7th Dec '11 - 5:09pm


    Here is another petition worthy of support on the benefits for disabled people issue.

    It could be any of us. For some, it already is.

  • George Potter Caron Lindsay 7th Dec '11 - 5:13pm

    George’s article clearly states that the aim is to get more people in the support group and we obviously welcome that – but it’s the mechanism of doing that that’s the problem.

    Yes, less people will have to have face to face interviews – a good thing when chemo patients are generally immuno-suppressed and extremely vulnerable to infections – but some will under this system. We know that the assessment process is still flawed and the jury is out on whether it’s improving. There is every possibility that someone could not get enough points on the paper assessment and lose benefit accordingly. What I think should happen, and I think George agrees, is that a one off declaration of the therapy and its duration is all that should be required. There is also the possibility that someone will simply be too ill to fill in the forms. The side effects of chemo can be horrendous. Missing the deadline will then mean that their benefit is stopped. It seems to me to be a waste of everyone’s time to put people through this when it’s simply not necessary, not to mention cruel.

    I had a text message this afternoon from former Edinburgh West MP John Barrett saying that he supports this petition and is happy for me to say so publicly.

  • Simon B, Labour bought in the ATOS assessment system.

  • Simon Bamonte 7th Dec '11 - 5:57pm

    @Alistair, yes, Labour did indeed start this whole nasty process. But that does not excuse our party for allowing it to continue or granting ATOS a longer contract (as we and the Tories did), does it? In fact, using the line “Labour did it first” to excuse its continued existence is a cop-out and you know this. It makes us look pathetic if that is our only defense. Almost as pathetic as ex-disability campaigner Danny Alexander who now supports ATOS and the disability cuts. After opposing them for years… And the rub is that the new assessments are supposedly even harsher and more incompetent than the original ones started by Labour. Not a good advertisement for us, is it?

    Labour were going to bring in ID cards. We helped stopped that. So putting the blame on Labour and acting as if we can’t do anything is weak-willed and shows the moral bankruptcy of our MPs in the Commons.

    At least our Lib Dem grassroots, like Mr. Potter here, have not had a compassion or social justice bypass like most of our MPs.

  • I don’t say Labour introduced this process as a cop out Simon, I’m just saying you can’t lay all the current problems at the door of the coalition, especially when you are talking about a fairly recent system introduced by Labour. It’s not like incoming governments can change everything overnight, there are contracts with penalty clauses to consider for a start. If the Lib Dems were propping up a Gordon Brown administration right now are you telling me that the government would be getting rid of these assessments so soon after they were created?

  • A number of people commenting here, and George Potter on his own blog, have said that our MPs and others in Westminster are not doing anything about all this. I am curious to know how George and others know this. There is, after all, a very real difference between doing something, and being seen to do something.

    I wonder if George has been in touch with our parliamentarians? Has he emailed or spoken to Jenny Willott, Mike German or Steve Webb (for example, as three who are very closely involved with DWP) or their staff? Is he in touch with any MPs at all?

    Perhaps they do need a kick from the grass roots… But I would hope they’re at least being spoken to as well.

  • Simon Bamonte 8th Dec '11 - 4:18pm

    My opinion, @George Potter, is that many of our ministers and MPs have decided that keeping their seat and keeping the coalition afloat is now more important than the needs or wishes of the electorate who entrusted them with their votes. The wishes of the almighty “markets” come first these days. There is simply no other explanation for people like Danny Alexander who, as soon as the coalition formed, decided he not only supports the welfare reforms, but supports them with glee.

    I don’t see Lib Dems in government speaking up for sick and disabled people in the national press very often, if at all. I don’t see many of them condemning a system which is leading to suicides. As far as I see, they’ve gone quiet on and changed their opinion on so many issues that I simply don’t trust them anymore. I’ve read blogs where disabled people wrote to Lib Dem ministers and MPs and only got stock replies about the deficit and “the mess Labour left us in.”

    @George Potter is right – our government is cutting the deficit on the backs of sick and disabled people, many of whom have no way to fight back. And even when they do, they are ignored. They held the largest protest of disabled people ever in the UK earlier this year and the press & politicians ignored it. I still think every Lib Dem MP who supports and votes for measures like this, against their conscience, should be voted out at the next opportunity if there is any justice in the world. And I say this as someone who voted SDP/Lib Dem since the 80s!

    Our Lib Dems in the Commons all seemed to hate Labour’s welfare reform, yet the Coalition’s reforms are basically the same, only harsher. Danny Alexander used to fall over himself to condemn Labour’s reforms and ATOS. One may suggest that they spoke out about it in opposition simply because they’re opportunists like 90% of all other MPs and now keep quiet about it for the same reason. One may say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

  • dylanthermos 1st Jan '12 - 12:38pm

    As a cancer patient, the way this government is treating people like me is abhorrent. It is very easy to sit at a key pad and make great political debate about a subject that has little meaning to most of you.
    When you are undergoing surgery or chemotherapy and you are at your lowest ebb you do not care about anything.
    I have had times when I was unable to move because the radio therapy had burned my neck so badly then you wonder will I survive?
    You people know nothing about this until you have experienced it.
    All I am concerned with is surviving.
    To attack cancer patients is just plain sick and if you are involved in it then you are sick too.
    It does not matter who started this idea as far as I’m concerned the three main parties are all the same.They only dream of being elected and to do that they have to win middle England. This policy of attacking the weakest in society is very popular in the richest parts of England.
    I just hope no one in your family is struck by this terrible disease because you will then realise how bad the disease is and the system is only making matters worse.
    My brother who is 61 has worked all his life in the building industry had to go before ATOS to see if he was fit for work. He had dislocated his shoulder and was unable to plaster walls.
    He explained that he was waiting for an operation to rectify this problem.
    They asked him to raise his right arm, he said he could not. They then asked him to raise his left arm which he did.
    They passed him fit for work. Now I ask you how could he plaster a wall with his left arm?
    If you are right handed try doing something with your left it’s not easy.
    This is the ATOS way. They are on a bonus to get as many people off incapacity benefit no matter if they are genuine.
    With the the way the money markets are affecting the general population it seems to me that politicians of the present day have no scruples and no compassion.They hit the people at the bottom the hardest because they can’t fight back.
    So if you really care, get your MP to get this cancer patient attack removed from their ideology perhaps then you will give some credibility to the party you support.

  • dylanthermos 8th Jan '12 - 12:53pm

    Shows how caring the lib dems are I posted my letter on January 1st this year and not one person has bothered to reply.
    You are either sitting on the fence as you used to do or you have no answer……..QED.

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