Clause 51 — Period of entitlement to contributory allowance

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 1st February 2012.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 1:30 pm, 1st February 2012

Let me say from the outset that I support the Lords amendments and do not agree with the Government’s motion to disagree. I shall talk about two main aspects: one is the time limitation and the second is the can of worms that I have managed to open this afternoon about the youth rate.

The time limit is unfair to people who have worked all their lives, done the right thing and thought that part of their payment of national insurance would provide them with some kind of insurance scheme so that if an unfortunate accident or ill health befell them, they would qualify for an income replacement benefit—in this case, employment support allowance—regardless of their actual income. People believed that it would work like any other insurance policy and would pay out if the unfortunate happened. The Government are breaking that link between the concept of an insurance policy and how much and for how long it will pay.

People suffering from cancer are often used as an example of a group that will fall into the work-related activity category of ESA: cancer patients will often not be well enough to go back to work within the year. Other groups of people have fluctuating conditions and some have slowly progressive neurological conditions. From everything the Minister said today, the assumption seems to be that people in the work-related activity group will move towards work, but some will be on the opposite journey, moving further and further away from work as their condition deteriorates.

Because we assess people not on their condition but on how their condition affects them when they go through the assessment, someone with multiple sclerosis or in the early stages of Huntington’s disease might not qualify for the ESA group, might end up in the WRA group and might qualify only some time in the future. They are likely to be a group that has already been in work and will have fallen out of work precisely because they have been diagnosed with these conditions. Although many of us—and probably those people, too—want to be in work, we live in the real world where employers will often not take the risk of employing someone with that type of condition, especially if the person has already lost one job precisely because of it.

I think the time limit is arbitrary and unfair, and I wish the Government would look at it again. The two-year provision is arbitrary as well—[Interruption.] In fact, I do not agree with time-limited provisions at all, but this is the best we have; it is twice as good as the Government’s proposal. [Interruption.] I am sorry that some Conservative Members at the back of the Chamber find this so funny. The people with Parkinson’s disease and MS do not find it funny. It is their lives that are being undermined, and it is they who will not have an independent income.

It is my constituents—and, indeed, those of Government Members sitting at the back of the Chamber—who, because they have saved all their lives, will not qualify for income-related ESA and will suffer as a result. They will lose their independent incomes, and their household incomes, although they may have been cataclysmically affected, may still be too high for them to qualify for income support. Despite what those Government Members sitting at the back may think, income support levels are very low, and the actual level of income on which such households will have to live will therefore not be what they may have expected.