Clause 51 — Period of entitlement to contributory allowance

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 1st February 2012.

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Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Fisheries) 2:15 pm, 1st February 2012

I will try to keep my comments brief, given the time pressure on us.

The Lords has done us a big service by highlighting the impact and implications of these measures for sick and disabled people. The 12-month limit to contributory ESA is arbitrary. Regardless of the people in the support group, the measure will affect people who are adapting to radical and serious changes in their health, income and life. They might be suffering from life-limiting conditions, long-term disability or fluctuating conditions. They might be people who have been used to living on an average income, but will have to get used to living on a very low income. Those adaptations take time; getting better takes time. Some people will take less than 12 months, some considerably more. Macmillan thinks that 94% will need support in the work-related activity group for more than 12 months. In that respect, while I do not accept the principle of an arbitrary time limit, I suspect that two years would catch more of those people and see them getting the support they need.

Fundamentally, these measures will upset the contract that we all like to think we have when we pay our national insurance contributions—that there will be some limited safety net for us if we are unfortunate enough to become sick or disabled. That could happen to any one of us in this Chamber, at any time. We do not know when we are going to have an accident or develop a serious illness, so not only cancer is involved, although we know that people across society are affected by it. Other conditions are just as serious, and the same principles apply.

On insecurity, I should draw an analogy with what happened when banks tried to prey on people’s insecurities about the future by asking them to take on insurance for loans they had taken out. The banks have had to pay out seven-figure sums in compensation to people who were mis-sold insurance policies. I hope that that does not happen again as people think, “If I get a serious illness, there will not be support for me.” I am worried that there will be an opportunity for unscrupulous selling of insurance policies to vulnerable people at the most vulnerable times in their lives.

I am concerned about the knock-on impact of the proposals on carers too. In my constituency, I have seen families working longer hours, often in low-paid jobs, just to provide financially for family members who are no longer able to work, but who once were. There is particular concern around young people; that was mentioned earlier in the debate, but it has not been focused on so much. Parents of disabled young adults have often saved throughout their lives as they are concerned about what will happen when they are no longer able to look after their children. They have saved for their children to ensure that they have independent means and a bit of money behind them for when they are adult and their parents are no longer in a position to provide.

It would be unfortunate if the capital of those young people were eroded at a time when they still had some support from their parents. They might be prevented from having an independent old age and might be made more dependent on the state than they would otherwise be. That is about the dignity of young disabled people as much as anything.

I urge the Government to consider the fact that ESA needs to be assessed on the basis of medical need, not an arbitrary time limit. People should get the support they need according to their health, not some arbitrary category that they may or may not fit into.