My Lords, I will try not to detain the House for too long at this hour. I want to speak, in particular, about the effects that this legislation will have on people with life-limiting illnesses and on those with terminal diagnoses. I want to follow on from a lot of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and from some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning.
As a nurse by profession, I could give many examples, but one that bears heavily on me is that of people living with motor neurone disease—that awful, usually rapidly progressing illness, which is always fatal. There is no cure, and it is a disease that I have seen at close hand.
We have heard much from the Government about the need to have a welfare system that is fair, that boosts employment; that is about choices, transforming lives, paying off the deficit and so on. The Conservative manifesto also promised—if I recall correctly—to protect people with disabilities and the most vulnerable in society. Therefore, I wonder why so many charitable organisations caring for the vulnerable and for those with differing disabilities are so concerned about the Bill—none more so than the Motor Neurone Disease Association, to which I should pay the warmest of tributes for its tireless work in supporting those living with MND and in supporting research into a possible cure.
One of the MNDA’s real concerns is the proposal to include the basic or main rate allowance of the employment support allowance in the freeze. People with motor neurone disease inevitably face rising costs as the disease progresses. If the Bill is enacted in its present form, they would be quite a bit worse off by 2019 or 2020.
A second issue causing much concern is the reduction in the benefit cap. This will undoubtedly have an adverse effect on those full-time, unpaid carers who do not live in the same household as the person they care for. This can include friends and/or family members who do not live in the same property. It could also include people who do live in the same property but who are counted as a separate household. For example, an adult living with and caring for an elderly parent or sibling may still be subject to the benefit cap. It cannot be right, therefore, that the inclusion of the carer’s allowance and bereavement allowance will affect full-time, unpaid carers in this way. In my view, these two allowances should be removed from the scope of the benefit cap.
Thirdly, there is very real concern about the question of mortgage interest. Converting this present benefit into a recoverable interest-bearing loan has the potential to leave many in great difficulty, not least those with an illness such as motor neurone disease, where the condition can deteriorate very quickly. In these situations, financial difficulties can follow just as rapidly. It cannot be right that people with life-limiting illnesses should be put in this position of possible financial crisis.
How can the waiting period of 39 weeks before qualifying for this new loan be justified? In not a few cases, 39 weeks is actually longer than the time between diagnosis of motor neurone disease and death. The cumulative effect of the reforms I have referred to is a potentially adverse effect for many people with life-limiting illnesses.
All Governments will sometimes propose or do things that provoke disappointment, anger and a whole gamut of other emotions and reactions. However, I suspect that anyone with a nursing background such as mine, and who is familiar with life-limiting illnesses, is entitled to be profoundly upset and not a little angry that any political party that claims to be on the side of the people, not least people with illness and disability, would seek to deal with the deficit on the backs of those living with always fatal illnesses such as motor neurone disease.
Nothing in these proposals has anything whatever to do with fairness, boosting employment or making work pay. Penalising people with life-limiting illness will do nothing to build an economy based on higher pay—or any of the other reasons that might be advanced as justification for this Bill. Except it will, perhaps, make the tiniest of tiny dents in the deficit. But if so, to how many decimal points would the Treasury have to go to measure that very tiny dent? Even if it were measurable, the Treasury would never publish such a calculation. Given the track record of that department in recent times, it is not about caring but about dogma. Others are being left to pick up the pieces.
I do not believe for one moment that the Minister would wish these things on people with terminal illnesses or diseases such as motor neurone disease. I hope that he will, in replying, be able to give a commitment that the Government will attempt to address these very proper and real concerns raised on behalf of those with life-limiting illnesses, and that the Government can show that they are listening. I look forward very much to the Minister’s reply.