Opinion: Why you must lobby Parliament over welfare reform

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.

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  • If you’ve read the stuff, can you answer a little question? The twelve-month limit applies to contribution-based ESA. What happens to someone who passes the twelve-month line but has no other money coming in? Can he/she transfer to income-related ESA on the same terms or not?

  • Lib Dem Member 23rd Oct '11 - 9:03am

    How would we like it if Conservatives lobbied against Coalition policy because Conservative Party Conference had passed some motion or other?

    Being in a coalition involves compromising. Compromise is not a dirty word. Liberals have spent decades calling for more of it.

    Do you want our pitch to be: “In the national interest, Liberal Democrats will enter a coalition government with another party, but then we will campaign against our own ministers’ policies, because we are a bunch of indisciplined children who never follow the lead of our own party’s leadership?”

    Do you not realise that THAT is why people are not voting for us at present?

  • Malcolm Todd 23rd Oct '11 - 11:24am
  • Malcolm Todd 23rd Oct '11 - 11:25am

    Ooh, html fail.

    Was supposed to be linking to this:

  • I agree with Malcolm- it’s really very worrying that someone is able to post something on this blog on such a serious issue which has so many errors in that could easily scare people who may be effected by these changes. It is a fundamental part of the benefits system that ESA (as well as JSA) have two distinct types of payment- the contributory rate and the income-related rate.

    Not only has George claimed that those who are able to claim the contributory rate (i.e. have paid NIC) will be left with nothing after 12 months, regardless of their income or savings, but he also appears to be suggesting that people we be expected to find work after 12 months of the contributory rate (at least that is how I read his point about people being cut off ‘regardless of whether they are fit to work or not’). Again this is not true- they will still be regarded as being on ESA, whether they receive any payments or not and won’t be expected to look for work.

    Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that the sickest and most disabled people won’t be affected by this anyway- they are part of the ‘support’ group of ESA and these changes only affect people in the ‘work related activity’ group. These are people assessed as not being fit to work, but likely to be able to work at some point in the future.

    I think there is a case for campaigning on this issue, and I think that the means test for the income related element of ESA is too low. But we are a party of evidence based policy and I don’t think it does us any good to scare vulnerable people with half truths!

  • F J Chambers 23rd Oct '11 - 2:31pm

    Aren’t you all missing the point. Atos assesments are deliberately designed to stop people recieving DLA because, with the massive unemployment numbers about to rise, the Conservatives don’t want people to accuse them of hiding those unemployed on Incapacity Benefit. This reform is causing huge distress and incresing anxiety for all those claiming. Many are being thrown into absolute poverty and debt. If you can accept, without question, or even a minutes doubt, that terminally ill people can only be considered terminally ill for a twelve week period, then clearly nothing will affect you unless it’s actually directly disadvantaging you. As a Nation we so easily led into picking up the cudgel of the mob. It is only the people on benefits that governments seem to manage ‘turning the screw’ without U turns; now it’s the disabled being vilified. What happened to the word progressive that the Liberal Democrats used so frequently during the elections? Why do political parties only care about power? Soon baby boomers will be a strain on the tax payer, as will all the disabled. Business leaders say they won’t employ young British workers because they are lazy, unlike the Poles; the Government say young people don’t want to work. How many weeks is someone newly made redundant allowed to be unemployed for before they become scroungers. How many ‘taxpayers’ are going to be left by the time neo Thatcherism has finished.

  • I find it surprising how people like @Chrome are so naive they think the system is a) working well right now and b) sick and disabled people have nothing to worry about.

    The fact is that ATOS are finding people who are terminally ill “fit for work”. Cancer patients as well are being found “fit for work”, not to mention the mentally ill who are basically being found “fit for work” en masse. People who can barely get out of bed, walk, or deal normally with other people are now “fit for work” according to ATOS and the DWP’s “healthcare professionals.”

    Sick and disabled people, who often live in poverty, are also facing another winter with unaffordable heating bills. We will again, have to choose between heating and food if the temperature gets as cold as it has the past two years. Bearing in mind that cold temperatures hit sick/disabled people even harder than normal people. When more pensioners die per year due to lack of heating than people who die in road accidents, it is time for the government to actually do something.

    The Tories want a small state. They always hated the welfare state and the NHS. It is a shame and very sad that LibDem MPs and ministers have gone along with the welfare bill so slavishly. People like @Lib Dem Member are suggesting that loyalty to the coalition and the Tories is more important than protecting vital lifelines that are being taken away from hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable members of society. How anyone can think political loyalty should come before actual human lives shows how out of touch some LibDems are.

    Just remember: disability or severe illness can strike anyone at any time. You may be in good health now, but that can always change in the blink of an eye. We did not ask to be sick or disabled. We did not ask to live in a world where most businesses refuse to hire sick/disabled people. So why are we facing the largest cuts of any group? Is there no compassion and humanity left in the UK? Have we finally decided the interests of money and political loyalty are more important than ensuring a decent life for our vulnerable?

  • Philip Rolle 23rd Oct '11 - 10:35pm

    I was at the Birmingham Hardest Hit rally yesterday.

    There were no Lib Dem MPs or councillors there. None at all.

    That would not have been the case pre-Coalition.

  • @George Potter

    You are wrong AGAIN on several points:

    1. Income related ESA IS NOT LOWER THAN contributory ESA- it is means tested, meaning it can be lower based on a claimants savings but the full rate of income related ESA for a single person over 25 is £60.50- the same as the contributory rate.

    2. You still don’t seem to know what work-related activity means. Everyone claiming contributory ESA who is effected by the time limit is in the work-related activity group. The most ill or disabled are in the support group which is not time limited. There is absolutely no difference between the requirements on those on contributory ESA and those in income related ESA. Both can be sanctioned if they don’t comply with the requirements of claiming the benefit.

    3. The requirements on those in the work-related activity group DO NOT include having to attend job interviews. Work-related activity can mean many things- including attending additional training or work-focused interviews with JCP officials, but it doesn’t mean having to go and find a job, apply for a job or take an interview for a job.

    4. You say: ‘When people with life long, debilitating conditions are only able to receive sickness related benefits for a maximum of twelve moths then the system is clearly broken.’- again this is not true- they are still able to claim income related ESA depending on their savings/ their partners earnings- please stop scaring people with inaccurate statements.

    5. FYI the motion in the main has nothing to do with the Welfare Reform Bill other than the bit on Contributory ESA. All the rest of the conference motion dealt with the Work Capability Assessment, which is totally different to the Bill and as I understand we are already working to reform through the work of Professor Harrington.

    For the record, I do think there is an issue with the means test for the contributory rate of ESA being too low, but I understand that Governments point about time limiting ESA- if someone pays 3 years of NIC and then is able to claim contributory ESA for the rest of their lives compared to someone who was, for example, unemployed before getting ill then I don’t think that is fair.

    George, I am really pleased you’re so passionate about this stuff, but it doesn’t help you, or the Party to be constantly making misleading statements. Please read up on this stuff before posting again!! I suggest starting here: http://www.cpag.org.uk/cro/wrb/wrb205/calculating_esa.htm

  • I am shocked that someone campaigning so hard on something can be so poorly informed. It is hard to resist the temptation to repeat what others have said, about the fact that contributory ESA and income-related ESA are paid at exactly the same rate. Or that 60% of those affected by the time limit are going to be fully or partially compensated by income related ESA. Or that those who are most vulnerable – such as a single parent on ESA – is likely to be receiving a load of other benefits as well.

    In an ideal world I don’t think any of us would support this time limit. But at a time when the DWP budget is being cut, which other vulnerable group would you rather take over £1bn a year from? Remember that contributory ESA is received by millionaires as well. I’d rather put the money into supporting the most vulnerable – by safeguarding income related ESA (which to repeat, is the same amount as contributory) and the Support Group. That’s what the government has done.

    But please, please, if you’re going to campaign on this would you get your facts straight? And that means at least reading the documents on the DWP website, rather than basing everything – it seems – on what you’ve read on various blogs and internet forums.

  • @ George

    1. Sorry- but that is not what you said in your original reply- you said that the income related benefit ‘is lower’ then the contributory one- it is not. For those with no savings/ no partner’s income the full rate of income-related ESA is the same as the rate for the contributory element. The questions over the threshold for the means-test are very valid, and I agree, but that is not what you said originally and what you did say could easily scare people who might be effected without being true.

    2. You are still wrong here. Someone who has paid 3 years of NIC will be able to claim the contributory rate for 12 months, which is not means-tested in any way, after that they will be entitled to the income related element benefit, should they meet the means-test threshold. Someone who has never worked would not be entitled to the contributory rate and would instead only be entitled to the means-tested benefit, should they meet the thresholds. Both will receive ESA indefinitely providing they meet the income-related thresholds. Both groups- contributory and income related are subject to the same sanctions regime for failure to comply with the terms under which they receive the benefit (i.e. work-related activity).

    3. The work related activities for the WRAG group do mirror some of the requirements for JSA, but not all of them and the main requirements on JSA claimants- to look for, interview for and accept work are not requirements for the WRAG. You appear to be talking about work-focused interviews, which WRAG are required to attend. These are not job interviews with employers but interviews with JCP officials to look at what work a claimant may be able to do in the future. You don’t seem to understand that people in the WRAG have been assessed as unfit to work for the time-being but likely to be able to work in the future. I agree that there is a lot of work to be done to ensure people aren’t put in the wrong group, but this work which is ongoing through the Harrington review. The public policy relating to time-limiting ESA can only deal with the group as it is defined, not with how accurate the definitions are at the moment so using example of people placed erroneously, whilst tragic, mislead people into the actual impact of the changes.

    4. As I said above, I think the threshold for the means test is too low- but this doesn’t have anything to do with the time limit on the contributory rate other than the fact that it will effect more people. But what you have said in your original post is all about the time limit, not about the means test.

    5. The WRB has very little to do with the WCA. The Bill makes only a few changes to ESA, including a more comprehensive and better defined requirement and sanction regime and the stuff on the contributory rate. The WCA is not legislation it is Governmental Policy and campaigning against the WRB doesn’t change the WCA.

    Finally, your suggestion on the time limit makes no sense what so ever. You can’t have a time limit based on a person’s need. People who no longer need ESA do not receive ESA, they are moved onto JSA! You can either set a time limit- based on the idea that people who work for 3 years shouldn’t then be able to claim the contributory rate indefinitely when someone not lucky enough to have worked for 3 years is only ever entitled to the means tested benefit or you have no time limit at all!

    I personally can see the Government’s logic on that issue, what I’m concerned about is that the means test is too low, but you don’t seem to be campaigning on that, you’re campaigning on the time limit itself, which you want to replace with something that doesn’t make any sense, and you’re doing so based on half facts!!

  • Just a few more things:

    Your point 2 is totally and utterly wrong. The Support group is there for people assessed as not being fit to work and unlikley to be fit to work in the future. The is no contributory rate and no means-tested rate, if you’re in the support group you get ESA at the support group rate and have no sanctions or time limit attached to that, it makes not a jot of difference if you’ve worked before or not. The Contributory Rate and the time-limit ONLY apply to the WRAG- whihc has two different elements- either the contributory rate (whihc will be time limited) or the income-related rate- which won’t.

    On the point about a flexible time limit- you can’t assess when someone will be fit to work- what happens if a cancer patient releapses right before thier time limit us up- it simply doesn’t work. Either you have a cap set at a fairly arbitrary level or you don’t have one at all- the best you could hope for is a cap whihc is set so high most people are better and fit to work again before they hit it- but that just punishes those who for whatever reason aren’t fit to work. Lots of people are opposed to a time-limit in principle, but frankly I’d rather look at the Government saving money here, but exptending the means test, as those who are unable to claim after 12 months will only be unable to do so because they have some savings, than look elsehwere in the benefit system for the £2 billion this apparently saves!

  • @George

    Again you are totally wrong- please go away and read up in this before posting again.

    There is NO reason why someone who has paid NIC can’t access the support group. When you are assessed to ESA you are placed in one of two groups (or assessed as fit to work and put on JSA). These are EITHER the support group OR the WRAG. the WRAG has two elements- contributory or income related depending on if you have paid NIC. If you’re assessed as being sick/ disabled enough to be in the support group it doesn’t mattered if you’ve ever paid NIC- you are entitled to support which is not means tested and isn’t time limited.

    If you are in the WRAG and entitled to income-related ESA (so either have haven’t paid NIC or, after the Bill, have claimed the contributory rate of 12 months) then you are means tested for your capital and the income of your partner. The first £6000 of capital is disregarded, after that ESA payments are tapered down until you reach £16,000 of capital where you receive no benefit. As with all other benefits capital does not include your home, your car or any furniture or anything like that-so no one is being assessed as to the White goods in their kitchen as you suggest. Your savings are assessed- but surely if you’re saving for emergency then becoming sick should count!! Im not saying that’s a good thing but savings for emergencies are exactly that and the Government has a finite amount of money and I’d rather it was targeted at those with no savings to fall back on.

    Finally, people on ESA are regularly reassessed- that’s how you know people have recovered and no longer need support!! So what you are suggesting isn’t a time-limit but is how you stop people who where once ill continuing to claim a benefit they no longer need- which would be fraud of they were to do so anyway! A time-limit can only be ever based on an arbitrary cut off and the Government is arguing that a time-limit is needed because it’s not fair that someone who has paid 3 years of NIC has indefinite access to a non-means-tested benefit to which those not lucky enough to have worked and paid NIC will never be entitled! Either you agree with that argument or you don’t but you can’t pretend that you can create a flexible time-limit!

    Again- it’s great you are passionate about this but you need to do two things a) read up on exactly how the system currently works (preferably from Government or advice websites rather than ca align organisations/ blogs) and b) decide what you want to see changed and how that would actually make sense. I want my party to campaign for changes that will make peoples lives better based on the facts as they are- not scare vulnerable people and suggest policy which has no relation to reality!!

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