Tuesday, 18 September 2012

ESA cancer concession signals popularity contest for disability benefits

The news that the Government is softening its harsh approach to cancer patients claiming sickness benefits is a welcome relief. Yesterday it announced that the one year time limit for recipients of Employment and Support allowance will only start counting down once the patient has finished all their medical treatments. It has also said that cancer patients can avoid the WCA medical test carried out by Atos as a GP's report will be acceptable proof for the benefits office.

Finally, we think, the Government is being reasonable. It is trusting NHS doctors again to verify the health of their patients and at last recognises that forcing cancer patients to attend DWP job interviews will only slow down their recovery.

Yet perversely this common sense approach to benefits locks the Government into ever more irrational behaviour. As these changes will only apply to cancer patients, other people with just as serious illnesses will still be locked into an unfair system in which they will lose benefit payments after one year even if they are not well enough to return to work - remember the Government's own estimates show that 94% of people who received time limited ESA will not be better after 12 months. The work-focused ESA also forces sick people to seek jobs, attended job centre interviews and even do unlimited work experience while they are still too sick to work.

So yes this change is great news for cancer patients but it stinks to me of a Government running scared that the public is waking up to how punitative and harsh its sickness benefits system is, and is desperate to avoid appalling headlines like this one. Cancer receives widespread media coverage as it can happen to anyone at any time, so come the election such Government negligence could have become a real door-step issue. But ultimately if the Government recognises changes are needed for ESA and the WCA it has a duty to ensure that they are rolled out universally not just for a particular group of people for whom there is greater public sympathy or understanding.

Just as worryingly this shift in policy sets a precedent that those illnesses that have popular support from the public will get a fairer hearing in the huge welfare upheaval than those who suffer from rare or unpopular illnesses (think what a rougher ride those with depression receive from the tabloid press).

Earlier this year Ian Duncan Smith announced that under Personal Independence Payments (the controversial benefit replacing Disability Living Allowance) amputees will be unlikely to receive the top level of mobility support that they currently do under DLA, and warned the public that this would also apply to soldiers.Yet Cameron intervened saying that amputee war veterans will be exempt from the harsh restrictions planned for the mobility component of PIP.

How can Cameron argue that a civilian with a below the knee amputation caused by a road traffic accident is any less disabled than a soldier with the same amputation caused by an IED?

I can see the way the wind is blowing on this issue and I for one don't want a society in which people with illnesses are pitted against each other in some bizarre X-Factor-style media popularity contest as the rest of us judge who is and isn't deserving of fair treatment.

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