The Government are determined to insert some terrible things into the Bill, and none of them is worse than the indefensible one-year time limit on contributory employment and support allowance for people in the work-related activity group. Amendment 17 removes that one-year limit. The Government are trying to put it back. Now, with the blanket appeal that we have heard for financial privilege, they are trying to prevent the other place from daring to disagree with them once again.
The measure is literally indefensible: the Government have been unable to defend it. The Minister made no effort to defend it in his speech, other than to point out that it would save a great deal of money. He referred to what happens in other European countries, but there, of course, the support that people fall back on is much more generous than here. There is no defence for the one-year time limit, and the House needs to be aware that this change will start to impact in two months’ time, at the beginning of April. According to the Government, 100,000 people will lose contributory benefits at the beginning of April this year, having already been in receipt of contributory ESA for more than one year, and another 100,000 will lose it as they reach the one-year stage of their claim over the following 12 months.
Some people argue that ESA should not be limited at all—for example, the Liberal Democrats. At their party conference, they opposed any arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA, and the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Thomas of Winchester told Members of the other place that what troubled the conference last year was
“the arbitrary nature of the one-year cut-off.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 11 January 2012; Vol. 734, c. 158.]
Liberal Democrat party policy is clear on this, but we understand that today its elected representatives will take no notice of it.
The Lords amendments that the Government want to overturn are much more modest. They argue that the time limit should be not less than two years and, crucially, that the limit should be set down in regulations rather than in primary legislation. If the Government get their way, absurdly it would require a new Act of Parliament to change the limit. Throughout debates on the Bill—many Members have been present in Committee and other stages of the Bill—the Minister has told us that the purpose of the Bill is to provide the structure and that the details would be in regulations. On this measure, however, with no explanation, the opposite approach has been applied. These debates provide a clear indication of whether Ministers mean what they say when they tell us these things, or whether they are simply reading the script put in front of them.
We do not quarrel with time limiting. As the Minister said, contributory jobseeker’s allowance has been time-limited to six months for many years. The rationale has always been that within six months more than 90% of jobseekers are back in work. If it is to be fair, however, a time limit for ESA must also give people a reasonable chance to get back into work. A year is not enough. The Government’s own figures suggest that 94% of those who qualify for ESA are still on it a year later, so fewer than 6% are managing to get into a job within a year.