Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:06 pm on 8th September 2022.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade) 3:06 pm, 8th September 2022

I welcome the new Secretary of State and Ministers to the Front Bench. This Bill is a good place to start their new jobs. It is not a massive piece of legislation in its content, but its effect is seriously important for people. In welcoming it, it is important to stress that, but also to give voice to those who have suffered and had frustrations during the time that we have been waiting for this to happen.

This is a small but hard-fought step that will make the last days of life easier for the families and loved ones of those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Even though I still believe that the Bill does not go far enough, it is important to welcome that. Thousands of terminally ill people who were previously denied fast-track support will now get the help they need, which is hugely important.

There are also the thousands who did not get much-needed help in the time it has taken Governments to act. I heard the words of the previous Minister, Justin Tomlinson, and I will talk about some of the positive things in a moment, but all the pre-laid excuses about why it has taken so long do not cut ice with the people who have suffered. That should be acknowledged when we are talking about this important issue.

The action needed was simple: scrap the six-month rule and make life a little easier for folk who do not have long to live—or even to get their forms in—so they can receive support and advice. The ask was to get rid of the arbitrary date, which was inhumane; I still think that having an arbitrary date is inhumane, but it is better than what we had before. The moral imperative is, and always was, to just do the right and decent thing for people and give folk who are dying some dignity in whatever time they have left.

That is what the Bill will do in some measure. It will make a difference to those at the end of their lives. It will relieve the financial worries of families who have received the news that no family and no person wants to hear. Moreover, it will ensure that they get fast-track support across all social security payments for the first time.

The Bill has been a long time coming, as I have said. We have many frustrations about how it has been handled, which I will come on to, because, as I said, I think it is important to give voice to them, but I thank the staff at the Department for Work and Pensions who have worked on this policy change. In my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on terminal illness, I thank outgoing Ministers for the constructive meetings that we have had over the years on this issue.

For me, the story began in 2017 when I heard the experiences of my terminally ill constituents and what they were going through from colleagues in the incredible Macmillan citizens advice bureau in Inverness. Indeed, it resonates with me still today. It is one of the sharpest memories that I have of any meeting I have ever had in my parliamentary career. I sat in a room with these battle-hardened—and, I have to say, battle-weary—professionals trying to help people at the end of their life, and I am not ashamed to say there were tears in that room as I heard their stories.

I could not believe what I was hearing, and I had sat opposite the Government Benches and heard quite a lot up until then. Even then, I thought that surely there must be some kind of mistake here, that it was simply a policy flaw that only allowed people to claim benefits if they had a diagnosis of six months to live, and that just highlighting this would allow us to move on and get this changed for people because, as I have said, and I will say again, it is inhumane for people. But no, this was a culture of hostility—I have to underline this—in the universal credit regime.

Terminally ill people also lost a lot more than just their payments at that time. Countless terminally ill people were forced to go to work coach meetings, and others had their social security payments stopped entirely. Some of these people died from their illness having not had their support payments, or their payments had not even started. Others had actually had their payments stopped, and were told that they no longer qualified for this.

As I say, with the new universal credit regime, terminally ill people also lost their right not to find out about their terminal diagnosis. Previously they could choose not to be told of their diagnosis, and that was possible because their advisers completed the forms on their behalf. With universal credit came a change to the forms, confusion at the DWP, a litany of failures and a “computer says no” attitude to problem solving. The system was pretty miserable for terminally people before the universal credit roll-out—no one has ever accused the DWP of being particularly keen to put dignity at the heart of its operations—but after the roll-out it was beyond a nightmare for people.

Back then, I reached out to Marie Curie and, with Members from across the House, set up the all-party parliamentary group on terminal illness. We launched a truly cross-party effort to have the issues arising from the universal credit roll-out resolved, and to get this Government to scrap the arbitrary six-month rule. We joined forces with the all-party parliamentary group on MND and, working with the MND Association and Marie Curie, we launched the Scrap 6 Months campaign.

I think it is important at this point to pay tribute to the former MP Madeleine Moon, who did so much work. I believe she is in the Gallery, which is fantastic. She deserves a lot of credit and praise for the work she did in pushing this forward, and I was delighted to work hand in hand with her, as I promised I would, to try to get this issue highlighted. I must also pay tribute to Jessica Morden, who has taken up the mantle with Bills of her own. Indeed, I have had my own ten-minute rule Bill on this subject.

We had two active APPGs, a cross-party approach and amazing campaigners who, with so much grace and humanity, laid everything on the table at evidence session after evidence session. An example is Michelle McCluskey, whose mum died of a cancer tumour, weighing just 3 stone after the DWP stopped her £117 a week benefit. She relayed the pain and suffering this caused her over and over again to the media and in evidence sessions, trying desperately to ensure that nobody else had to endure the same. She, like other amazing campaigners, such as Mark Hughes, who himself has a terminal illness, and others who have campaigned with terminal illnesses, achieved this change today. This change is their victory—this is their moment—and I want to put on record my thanks to each and every one of them, and to the teams at Marie Curie, the MND Association and MND Scotland for all they did to lobby this Government over the past five years to just simply do the right thing.

Back in 2017, when we started to form the campaign, we must have been much less jaded as we seriously thought, given how horrendous the situation was and how easy it was to fix, that this Government would act, but it is now 2022 and, thankfully, the legislation is now going through its remaining stages today. Although I am happy—I am happy this is happening, believe me, because as a result, thousands of people will get the fast-access support they need—and I welcome the Bill, I must highlight the human cost of this Government’s inaction. Year after year we produced reports, held evidence sessions, met Minister after Minister, and highlighted real and devastating cases. We were promised that action would come. I have heard stories of the internal workings, but people who are dying do not really want to hear those. They want action to help them and their families at that time.

We held evidence sessions, and every time we were promised that action would come. Then there was a reshuffle and a new Minister, more promises of action, another new Minister and yet more promises of action, then yet another Minister and so forth. All the while, the Government were telling us that the review was imminent, and all that time we were losing campaigners to their terminal illnesses as each new Minister came and went. That time cost many more lives than we ever foresaw. Back in early 2021, Marie Curie estimated that until that point around 6,000 people had died waiting for this change.

Let us remember what we are talking about. This is not a budgetary change or a big costly exercise; this is about faster access to help for people who are dying from a terminal illness. Five years from when I first raised the issue with the then Secretary of State, five years of campaigning by so many incredible people, and we are here—it is welcome. However, this is a story of a failing Government who need to understand the issues around this. Back when I first raised the issue with a UK Minister, I also raised it with the then Scottish Minister responsible for the roll-out of Scotland’s new social security operation, Jeane Freeman MSP. Her response was almost immediate:

“Thank you for highlighting this issue and we will find a way to ensure this never happens with the new Scottish Social Security Department.”

True to her word, for personal independence payments the Scottish Government have taken an open-ended approach to defining terminal illness for financial support. I have yet to have one complaint in my inbox that people are not getting that support, so I do not see the difficulties that have been highlighted. The Scottish Government chose to start from a place of putting those people and their needs first, and to find a way to make the system work while putting dignity and respect at the heart of the process. That is in sharp contrast to this Parliament, where the internal struggles of the Tory party have seen us reach our fifth Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions in five years, and a hostile approach that is not limited to the Home Office but reverberates across Departments.