Thanks for sending your email and for giving me a chance to explain why I voted the way I did yesterday.
My four main concerns about the Welfare Reform Bill, which we were voting on through Lords’ amendments yesterday, were to do with the exemption of cancer patients from Means-Tested ESA; the withdrawal of contributory ESA for young disabled people; under-occupancy penalties for social tenants; and the time-limit on contributory ESA.
I’ll go through these one by one to try and explain my decision.
The exemption of cancer patients from Means-Tested ESA:
- As you may be aware, my mother died of ovarian cancer some years ago – so I fully understand the impacts cancer can have both of the sufferer and their family. However, while this is a difficult time for all those affected, I do not feel that it is fair to single out cancer, as in effect this relegates other very serious illnesses to some ‘lower rank’ of consideration. Additionally, as is the current status quo, those with cancer who are struggling financially will obviously still receive the benefit.
Withdrawal of contributory ESA for young disabled people:
- Having spoken to many people about this issue, my understanding is that 90% of the young disabled people will still qualify for income-related ESA, which importantly will be paid at the same rate as contributory ESA. The only people who will no longer be eligible for this ESA are those who have received either a medical payment or a large inheritance.
Under-occupancy penalties for social tenants:
- This was one of my biggest concerns when deciding how I would be voting yesterday as I was unsure whether it would unfairly penalise, for example, those who are disabled and need additional rooms to store large pieces of equipment or potentially divorced fathers who only have their children living with them on weekends. However, I have been reassured that one third of savings generated through this measure will be passed directly back to local authorities for their discretionary use in alleviating the problems of those most affected such as the examples I gave above.
Time-limited contributory ESA:
- The sad fact of the matter is that having no cap on contributory ESA would be so extraordinarily expensive that even Labour has admitted that they would instigate one. Their cap would be at 24 months, however this is still extremely unaffordable and would cost the Government an additional £1.6bn each year. Instead, what we are trying to ensure is that there are measures in place to improve the quality of the Work Capability Assessment to ensure that those who are genuinely unable to work are not placed in the wrong group.
I also want to reemphasise that the changes to contributory ESA only apply to those in the Work Related Activity Group, those who are currently unable to work but whose condition is likely to change in the future. They do not apply to those in the Support Group, who are the sickest and most disabled. These people will not see any change to their benefit.
The changes will also not apply to the poorest. After 12 months those with no other source of income and less than £16,000 in savings will still be entitled to Income Related ESA for as long as they are unable to work. Around 6 in 10 of those affected will receive some Income Related ESA after 12 months. We absolutely must protect these groups from these changes – and we are.
Like many people who have written to me, I am extremely concerned that any assessments made are appropriate and sensitive and it’s blindingly obvious that one of the most important things to get right is that people are put into the appropriate group of ESA, ensuring that those in need of the most help go into the Support Group. Thanks to the hard work of our Lib Dems in Government, people with deteriorating conditions such as MS or Motor Neurone Disease can enter the Support Group if their condition has got worse, even after the twelve months has passed. This will help around 4,000 people by 2016/17.
We realise that this is an absolute priority, which is why we are continuing to improve the Work Capability Assessment so that people are more accurately assessed when they first make an ESA claim. In particular, I am very pleased that the Government has accepted Professor Harrington’s recommendation to make sure that the assessment takes better account of chronic pain and fatigue. This will help ensure that people with hidden or fluctuating conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, are given the proper level of support.
Finally, the clincher for me was the promise that there will be a one-year review of the measures, and that £0.5bn is being made available to plug any unforeseen gaps and ensure that no-one in dire need goes unaided.
I have been on benefits myself in the past. I was raised by a single mum and I have family members who are disabled. So I understand how these issues are likely to impact people. However, I believe that the negative effects have been overstated and that the review in a year’s time will readdress any imbalances.
Given the extreme financial constraints in which we are currently operating, our choices are limited. These are not circumstances any of us would choose, but we have to act nonetheless. That being the case, I very much hope that these measures will address the urgent financial issues of the country whilst essentially safeguarding the most vulnerable to the greatest extent possible.
Thanks again for getting in touch, and I hope that this has gone some way to answer your concerns and hopefully help you on the doorstep.
Thanks for your reply. Regardless of everything else, I do appreciate you taking the time to do so.
If you'll bear with me, I'd like to explain on each of the points why I think you made your decision based on incorrect information and I hope you will reply to this email as well.
The exemption of cancer patients from Means-Tested ESA:
My mother died of cancer when I was 7 so I know just as well as you the impact that cancer can have. I agree that it isn't fair to single out cancer patients for special treatment but I never thought I'd hear you, of all people, argue that, because we can't treat everyone fairly, we should treat no one fairly. Someone dying of cancer, not just being treated for it but dying should not be forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops, or be deprived of support simply because their partner earns more than £7,500 a year. So please could you explain to me, with regard to the points I've just raised, why you think it is in any way justified, or compatible with liberal principles, to have overturned that amendment when it would have cost so little in terms of the overall budget yet have been a huge relief to so many families facing bereavement.
The problem with income related ESA is the level of the means test. If these young disabled people ever are lucky enough to find a partner who works, or if they ever save up more than £16,000 together, then they will lose ESA. They will never have the chance to experience the things that we take for granted. Maintaining the practice of treating them as being eligible for contributory ESA would have only meant that £10 million of savings a year would have to be found from somewhere else - yet the government found twenty five times that amount (£250 million) to bring back weekly bin collections. A medical payment or inheritance greater than £16,000 is not "large". If you really believe there was no alternative to this change, if you really believe, despite the reasons I've just given, that there wasn't even any scope to amend the proposals even slightly, then please tell me why you think so.
Withdrawal of contributory ESA for young disabled people:
Under-occupancy penalties for social tenants:The problem with your reasoning on this is that the government does not appear to have put in place any measures to require councils to spend this money on the purpose for which it is intended or, for that matter, measures to check how the money is being spent. I fear that, just like the social fund, this money will be diverted to other purposes and, with the government, as you must surely know, moving to have the Welfare Commons did not have time to scrutinise them on Wednesday.
Time-limited contributory ESA:No one has argued against the principle of a time limit. However, you must know full well that the 12 month time limit is entirely arbitrary and based on no medical evidence whatsoever. In fact, the medical evidence is that most people effected by the time limit will take significantly longer than 12 months to be ready to return to work and therefore will be penalised by this cap purely for the sake of saving money. A two year time limit is also somewhat arbitrary but at least it would protect more people. A two year time limit would not "cost" money as this is not about spending extra money - it is about making lesser savings through cuts to disability benefits.
When people pay National Insurance, when you and I do so, we do so on the understanding that we do so in order to pay towards a system that will take care of us when things go wrong and we are unable to care for ourselves. If you were blinded in a car crash tomorrow then it would take you well over a year in order to be able to return to work. After paying into the system all your life, why should you be penalised after a year? Why should you lose all access to the benefit if your wife earns as little as £7,500 a year? For that is the really dmaging thing here - if the means test was higher then the situation would be far less severe but you voted in favour of the time limit knowing full well that people moved off of contributory ESA in April will be deprived of support if their partner works. How exactly can this penalty for families and for disabled people with working partners be justified? And why did you vote for it?
Above all, the simple fact is that the current Work Capability Assessment, which defines whether people are placed in the support group or are moved onto contributory ESA, is "not fit for purpose" - the words of the man who designed it. The governments attempts to reform it are excellent but they will not be fully implemented for five years and, in the meantime, many people who belong in the support group are being placed in the Work Related Activity Group. Have you ever read the descriptors for the WCA? You can find them here if you haven't: http://www.tameside.gov.uk/
People with long term, degenerative illnesses are being placed in the contributory ESA group. And this will continue to happen for the next three years until the WCA is fixed. In the meantime, the DWP's figures show that 40% of people in receipt of contributory ESA will lose all ESA entirely after one year because their partner works. I heard you speak movingly once about how the birth of your daughter motivated you to return to politics, how you wanted to make the world a better place for your children. Imagine, god forbid, that it was one of your children who found themselves in this situation, of being forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops while coping with a debilitating condition. Imagine how it would feel for them to know that they will be penalised because their partner works. Imagine how they would wonder why they should be forced into poverty after a year because of the way you and other MPs voted.
That is the reality facing thousands of vulnerable sick and disabled people. Please, read what I've written and then tell me if you still think voting for the time limit was the right thing to do. Or, better yet, go and visit some fo the families in your constituency who will be affected by this and see the human cost for yourself. I believe you're a good, decent man, which is why I voted for you as party President. But, even after your email, I still can't see how you can justify your voting record on Wednesday.
If nothing else, you voted against the spirit and the letter of a motion passed by conference. I wrote that motion and I worked hard to get Liberal Youth to sponsor it and to get it passed. Last September, you spoke to us at Liberal Youth, you told us how the party would have died out in the seventies had it not been for our predecessor organisation. But why should young people like myself work for the party and stay as members when even you, a man who promised to listen to the membership during your election campaign, completely disregarded our wishes when you voted in parliament on Wednesday. Aside from anything else, this was a massively idiotic political mistake as far as I'm concerned. When people in your constituency start suffering, when people living in constant pain are forced into poverty, when people commit suicide rather than face a future without support (as has already happened on several dozen occasions under the existing system) then the media will start to pay attention.
Because of your hard work, you will probably be able to be confident of re election as an MP, should you seek it, but in many parts of the country this will be a devastating blow to our party and will wipe out decades of hard work amongst some of the poorest people in society. By voting the way you did you enabled Labour to get off the hook for their own appalling record on disability benefits and, if they have any sense, they will now use every single incidence of suffering because of the changes as a big political stick to beat us with. I was upset about tuition fees and I was upset about the NHS reforms. But I've got over them and I accept that some good will come of them. But I cannot get over or understand what you and our other MPs did yesterday. It breaks my heart. I cannot see any good at all in what you have done.
I'm begging you, please tell me that I'm wrong, please tell me that my fears are unjustified, show me that all the evidence I've seen to the contrary was wrong. Above all, tell me why, because you last email leaves me asking that same question again and again: Why?