Dear Mr H,
Thank you for your emails about the Welfare Reform Bill.
I realise that you may be concerned by some elements of this legislation but I can assure you that the Government remains committed to supporting the vulnerable and providing support for all those who need it. Members of the House of Lords voted against three reforms for ESA, to which I shall respond below.
One Year Limit on contribution-based ESA - The one year limit on the length of time that people can receive contribution-based Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) is an important measure designed to ensure that people make the journey back towards work. It strikes the right balance between restricting access to contributory benefits and allowing those with longer-term illnesses to adjust to their health condition and surrounding circumstances, and it is double the length of time allowed for contribution based JobSeeker’s Allowance (JSA) in recognition of that fact. Furthermore, the one year time limit is not an arbitrary figure, it is in line with similar limits to other countries around the world including France, Spain and Ireland. It should also be noted that it is only the contributory element of ESA that will be time-limited, not income-related ESA.
ESA ‘Youth Rules’ – Some Members of the House of Lords also rejected Government plans to remove the automatic qualification that children with disabilities receive to contribution-based Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) ‘Youth’. However, this change was not made with the intention to reduce the support available to children with disabilities when they progress to adulthood.
The three principal reasons why the Government has instituted this change is because it simplifies the benefit system by abolishing a category where the majority of claimants would be entitled to income-related ESA. This is paid at the same or a higher rate for many people. Secondly, this measure aligns the treatment of ESA 'Youth' with other groups claiming contributory ESA to create a consistent system in the run up to the introduction of Universal Credit, the Government’s single integrated welfare payment. Thirdly, entitlement to income-related ESA will help ensure those recipients automatically qualify for passported benefits, such as free NHS prescription charges, instead of having to make a separate claim.
Time Limit Exemption on contribution-based ESA for Cancer Patients -The final measure that Peers voted on was a proposal to exempt cancer patients from any time limit on contribution-based ESA, which is slightly unnecessary as the vast majority of cancer patients would be placed in the ESA support group and or choose to be in work.
The evidence put forward by various oncologists and other experts shows that for some people, being able to continue working or getting back into work after diagnosis is an important part of the recovery process. People should not be confined six months out of work if that is not appropriate for them. Similarly, there is also a need for some patients to have full financial assistance at what is a very difficult time for them and their families. In those cases, the Government has been quite clear, people shall continue to receive all the help that they need.
The Government is now consulting on proposals to improve the way it assesses individuals undergoing treatment for cancer. Under these proposals it is worth noting that more people would be placed in the ‘support group’ (the group where people receive unconditional support) than under the previous system. This is because Professor Harrington has accepted the advice of Macmillan and other cancer charities that some treatments, notably combined chemo-irradiation, can be extremely debilitating and most people undergoing this treatment should also be placed in the ‘support group’.
I hope that this clarifies why the Government is making the changes that they are and that it reassures you that this will not undermine the support available to the disabled and people who genuinely need support.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.