My Lords, four years ago, speaking during the passage of what became the Welfare Reform Act 2012, I highlighted the many issues faced by those in the work-related activity group, or WRAG, on employment and support allowance, and the necessity of them receiving adequate financial support for the period when they are too ill to work. I will focus again on that one cause: people who are too ill or recovering from a debilitating disease. The Minister may well remember that I carried four amendments, but he immediately turned the Bill into a money Bill, so the discussion had to stop. But he came true on that occasion and understood the cause that I was fighting for. He brought in a government amendment to put people with cancer in the support group, and I am forever thankful for that. I am hoping to get the same response this time without having to win any votes.
I am having to repeat many of the same points today which I made at that time. Clauses 13 and 14 would cut the amount that people claiming ESA in the WRAG, and with a limited capability for the work element of universal credit, can receive from £102.15 to £73.10. You may say that £30 a week is not a great deal of money, but for people who are on benefits, it is a great deal. They will receive the same amount of money as those on jobseeker’s allowance yet be unable to work. This is a significant cut for anyone to face to a weekly budget.
Let me highlight briefly the individuals who will be affected in the WRAG. I am talking about people such as cancer patients who have undergone debilitating treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy and are in the process of recovering from their illness. I am also talking about people with other diseases such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, or who have physical and learning disabilities. Mental health has of course already been mentioned. I want to draw particular attention to people who have had a cancer diagnosis. As the Government have stated, it is true that many people undergoing most types of chemotherapy and radiotherapy go into the support group, thanks to the amendment that the Government brought in. I am pleased that that level of support is not being changed. I welcome that.
However, thousands of others who may be experiencing long-term side-effects as a result of their cancer and treatment, or those living with other comorbidities, are placed in the WRAG. While many of these people will have finished their treatment, they will still be suffering from disability. The side-effects of treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as is well known to many Members of this House, can be severe and long-lasting. Ask any who have had such treatment and they will tell you what it feels like and for how long. It also varies from person to person, depending on their cancers and their ability to cope with the therapy. Research by Macmillan and other cancer charities found that one in four of the 2 million people in England alone living with and beyond cancer today face disability or poor health following their treatment. It is not uncommon for a cancer patient still to be reporting pain and extreme fatigue long after their treatment has ended. Many of them will be unable to work as a result. To suggest that these people should be treated in the same way as jobseekers who are fit and able to work cannot be, and is not, right. It is uncompassionate and uncaring.
I am concerned that the Government’s proposals fail to recognise a clear distinction between those on jobseeker’s allowance who are available for, seeking and able to engage in work and those on ESA in the WRAG who have been independently medically assessed as being too ill to work. Most cancer patients want to get back to work. They see that as a recovery from their illness, so they wish to work.
The Government have stated that this move is about providing an incentive for people to return to work, no matter what their condition. However, I have yet to see any evidence to suggest that this is needed, let alone that it will work. If I am wrong, I have no doubt the Minister will correct me with the evidence that he has.
What people who are ill need is enough time and the right support to recover and get well. They do not need to be penalised for not recovering quickly enough.
Let me give an example that many of your Lordships may have seen. Stacie, a 43 year-old in remission from leukaemia, recently wrote an article in a leading daily newspaper about her experience of having cancer. She said:
“Throughout it all, I wanted to work. I am still desperate to return to the classroom. My hospital room was wallpapered with cards and pictures from my students and fellow teachers. When I was struggling, I only had to glance up to see the gallery I’d created of children’s artwork. Those crayon suns and stars brightened a very dark time in my life. The idea that I’d need to be further impoverished to be incentivised to return to teaching is not only ludicrous, it’s insulting”.
Stacie’s doctor told her that, because of the effect that cancer and depressed immunity had on her immune system, teaching was for her now,
“more dangerous … than police work”.
This comment highlights what I fear that the Government have failed to consider in their proposals. In order for people with long-term illness, physical or mental, to return to work without further risk to their physical or mental health, they need the right support, and they need time. They should not feel pressurised to return to work before they are mentally and physically fit enough because of financial worries. Doing so could have a significant negative effect on people’s physical and mental health. People could actually require longer-term welfare support: the exact opposite of what the Government are seeking to achieve.
I wonder what, if any, assessment the Government have made of the potential knock-on costs and implications for both the health and benefits systems if people who have been medically assessed as being too ill to work return to work too soon and their health deteriorates as a result. I spoke about people living with cancer, but, as I mentioned, it is not just people with cancer but others with long-term disabilities and other illnesses.
I welcome the fact that no current claimants will lose money, but that will provide no comfort to those who will be placed in the WRAG after April 2017. I, like many noble Lords, welcome the Government’s commitment to provide extra investment in employment support for those in the WRAG. I look forward to the Minister’s outlining more detail about this. If not, then there is a risk that the Government’s proposals will inadvertently move people further away from the labour market as people already too ill to work are made even more ill.
There is a clear link between financial difficulties and poorer health. Four years ago, I was accused of not understanding the need to reduce costs. I said then, and I repeat it now: I clearly understand the need to balance the books. However, it is not compassionate, caring, or a mark of a civilised society to do so by making the sick poorer and sicker.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, who I know from my previous experience does care, will look at Clauses 13 and 14 particularly in relation to this group of people who are suffering or recovering from cancer, and suggest a way of mitigating the effects of these proposals. I look forward to his comments.