Wednesday, 14 September 2011

James Sandbach and the amendment to the ESA motion

On Monday morning I received the unfortunate news that the amendment to the ESA motion (written by Sophie Bridger and myself and sponsored by the Guildford Lib Dems) had been rejected on the grounds of accuracy. Personally I think the decision was wrong which is why it is being appealed but the appeal will not be heard until Friday at which point it will prove rather difficult to fit the amendment on to agenda.

This is why I want to pay homage to the brilliant James Sandback. He has been the driving force behind an amendment to the motion which has been accepted and which is on the conference agenda already. Not only that, James has also managed to round up some truly amazing support for the amendment - including Evan Harris who (along with Shirely Williams and Vince Cable) I view as a minor deity.

But even more importantly than that, James' amendment is actually stronger and does more than the amendment which Sophie and I had hoped to bring to the motion.

In fact, here is the text of Sandbach's amendment:
After C. (line 25), insert:D. That vulnerable cases like this, where a welfare recipient’s income is threatened, should qualify for free legal representation. 
Delete 2 (line 35) and insert:
2. Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA.

In 3. (line 36), after ‘representation’ insert: ‘and expert advice, and for Government to reconsider
the exclusion of welfare benefits casework such as this from the scope of legal aid.

After 3. (line 36), add:4. A presumption that ESA claimants with serious and uncontrollable life-threatening conditions should be allocated to the support group rather than the work related activity group.

5 A review of ATOS performance in delivering the Medical Services Agreement contract with DWP in respect of the quality of medical assessments.

6. Effective contract compliance for contractors carrying out ESA eligibility assessments to avoid poor performance, and a presumption that in future ESA eligibility will be carried out by the public sector or non-profit organisations.
On the issue of time limiting, the contract with Atos and representation for claimants at appeals this amendment is far stronger than the amendment I've been working on. In fact, the only thing not mentioned in Sandbach's amendment is the sanctions and conditionality applied to the Work Related Activity Group (basically sick and disabled people well enough to work face financial penalties at the discretion of an individual at the locak Job Centre unless they attend the same number of interviews and training courses as a completely healthy person). That said, if time limiting is removed then the sanctions on the WRAG will have far less impact.

With regards to James's amendment I also agree wholeheartedly with Caron Lindsay who writes:
"For me, the crucial improvements this amendment makes are: 
"Liberal Democrats in Government to oppose an arbitrary time limit on how long claimants can claim contributory ESA" is much tighter wording and would send a very strong message to our ministers about what we expect of them. If we really are a compassionate society, we do have to ensure that people who are sick are properly supported. 
Free legal representation for claimants who are turned down and can't afford to challenge decisions is absolutely vital. I learned in 4 years as an MP's caseworker that Government agencies make mistakes. They are run by humans, after all, so it happens. That's a given. What they do often, though, is dig their heels in and refuse to admit or rectify their mistakes because they know that in the vast majority of cases, they won't be challenged. Often we had to present them with the evidence and be quite robust on several occasions before they would put things right. It's not a coincidence that the percentage of appeals granted goes up to 70% when people have proper representation. You really have to understand some pretty complex stuff and if you are already struggling with a long term condition, that can be very difficult, if not impossible to do. People are being consigned to a life of poverty, unable to work, yet with no support and unable to fight the bad decision that denied them their benefit. That is wrong and we as Liberal Democrats should stop it happening."
So, all in all, things are very much looking up and I also happen to have it on extremely good authority that the Lib Dem Minister of State for Pensions, Steve Webb, (also a leftie and all round good guy) is firmly behind the motion and very much wants the same changes made to ESA that we do.

So, all in all, a lot of very welcome and very good news.

For any Lib Dem conference attendees reading, the debate on the motion will be at 4.15pm this Saturday and there will be disability campaigners and charities handing out leaflets about it outside conference for most of the day.

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