“Because the Government is stopping Contributory Employment Support Allowance, after one year for those in work-related activity, cancer patients – 7,000 of them – are losing £94 a week.”
Ed Miliband, Labour leader, Prime Minister’s Questions, June 15, 2011
Cathy Newman checks it out
After last week’s dismal performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, which had Labour MPs muttering about Ed Miliband’s leadership, the Labour leader needed to make an impact today. And he did.
David Cameron was never going to have an easy job defending benefit cuts for the sick and disabled.
But he made life a whole lot harder for himself by either misunderstanding the question, or deliberately misconstruing it.
Despite the Commons hurly burly though, the risk for the Labour leader is that the public will back the Government’s general direction on welfare reform, rather than the Opposition’s objections on a point of detail.
The Government has won public backing for its plans to curb the deficit.
But the Labour leader’s calculation is that voters will be far less supportive when spending cuts hit the sick, the disabled or the elderly.
So Ed Miliband picked an emotive subject when he claimed the Welfare Bill would see 7,000 cancer patients lose almost £100 a week in benefits. “How can that be right?” he asked.
David Cameron’s response was robust. He said the government had not changed its commitment to terminally ill people.
True enough. Anyone who is terminally ill – that is, “reasonably expected to die within six months” – will not see their benefits change.
But that’s not the question the Labour leader asked. He was talking about cancer patients more generally, not just the terminally ill. And some of them will indeed lose out under the welfare bill.
The Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) has replaced incapacity benefit, and is paid to people who are considered too sick to work.
But the coalition government wants to save £5bn over five years by restricting what claimants get after 12 months.
Currently, for the first 13 weeks after you start claiming the allowance, you receive up to £53.24 per week if you’re under 25, and up to £67.50 if you’re over 25.
If you’re in the Support Group, you are considered too ill to work, and will receive up to £99.85 per week.
If you’re in the WRAG, it is deemed that at some point in the future you will be well enough to hold down a job, and are paid up to £94.25 a week.
However, the Government – as Mr Miliband correctly claimed – plans to stop that benefit after a year if you’re healthy enough to work and your family income or savings exceed £16,000.
Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that 7,000 cancer patients will be affected by the change, based on the number of cancer patients currently in the WRAG or currently claiming incapacity benefit. The Prime Minister’s spokesman dismissed these figures as “guesswork”.
Work and Pensions Minister Chris Grayling said: “What we are saying – and this is not a cancer issue, it’s across the piece – is that those people who are on the path back to work, that we cannot, if they have already got another means of income or if they have got savings in the bank, we can’t give them unlimited ongoing benefit support, in much the same way as we don’t provide unlimited support for jobseekers who also have got other incomes.”
The Department for Work and Pensions pointed out that there may be other benefits available to those who do not qualify for further ESA payments; such as Jobseekers Allowance or housing benefits.
However, Macmillan argues that people recovering from cancer simply won’t be suitable for Jobseekers Allowance, as they still have limited capability for work – and are not “work ready”.
Macmillan wants the time-limit to be extended to at least two years.
The group points out that in the Commons last month, Mr Grayling conceded that by the Government’s own estimates, 94 per cent of claimants judged ready for work needed support for more than 12 months.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
David Cameron made a mistake talking about the terminally ill, when the Labour leader was quite clearly referring to cancer patients more broadly.
However, Downing Street insists it is pressing ahead with the policy of restricting benefits payments to cancer sufferers who are both financially better-off and healthy enough to work.
I do detect a bit of wriggle room however. A Prime Ministerial aide told me: “These things are under review”.
The Department for Work and Pensions pointed out that the criteria used to determine which benefits claimants are well enough to work is being regularly reviewed by Professor Malcolm Harrington.
So for example if you’re having intravenous chemotherapy, you continue to qualify for benefits, but if you’re having oral chemotherapy you don’t. That could change.
Ed Miliband would no doubt seize on that as another Government U-turn, and therefore a political win.
However, more broadly, benefit cuts are popular with the punters and the Government knows it. The Labour leader needs to be careful his detailed objections aren’t seen by the public as a wholesale opposition to welfare reform.
The analysis by Emma Thelwell