We Must not let the Welfare Reform Bill Penalise Cancer Patients

13/09/2011 00:01 BST | Updated 12/11/2011 10:12 GMT

Raise the subject of benefits at a dinner party or amongst friends over a drink and lively debate will quickly ensue, with the conversation swiftly covering rioters, looters, and so-called benefit-cheats. And one could argue for hours with little resolution about the willingness of one council to withdraw support from its residents should they be proven to have broken the 'social contract' we all are party to.

People in the UK are rightly very protective of their welfare state; I have no doubt that it is this sense of ownership, that it is our welfare system that leads some to condemn those who they feel have broken this agreement between citizen and state. But what about when it is the state that breaks the agreement?

At the same dinner party there would be much less scope for disagreement on the subject of whether it is right for people recovering from cancer treatment to have their financial support curtailed irrespective of their medical condition or ability to work. True, such a serious discussion may not be suitable for the dinner table, but it is this very topic that members of the House of Lords will be debating today (Tuesday 13th September) as the Government's Welfare Reform Bill has its Second Reading in that chamber.

A key aspect of the reforms is a change to how the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) operates, with the Government proposing to remove this benefit after one year. The allowance, a benefit given to people who are unable to work due to illness or disability, is a crucial means of financial support for many cancer patients. It helps them manage while they focus on getting better. But getting better can take much longer.

Returning back to work is a vital step for many people with cancer but it should not be the case that those who are unable to recover quickly enough - i.e. within 12 months - should have their benefits taken away. These are people who have paid into the system, who have often saved diligently; people who have done everything to fulfil their side of the social contract. And yet if a partner of a cancer patient unable to work because of their illness were to earn as little as £150 a week, they would lose support from the state after a year irrespective of whether they are well enough to return to work.

It concerns me greatly that the Government arrived at this proposal purely on the basis of financial calculations and explicitly not on an evidence-based estimate of what is a reasonable length of time for people with a disability or illness to be able to return to work. As if to highlight the unreasonableness of its own policy, the Government itself estimates that for 94% of those who will be affected by this change, 12 months will not be long enough to return to work.

All of this will be on the minds of delegates in Birmingham as Liberal Democrats gather for their autumn conference on Saturday, as they are given an opportunity to vote on whether it should be the Party's policy to oppose such an arbitrary limit on the length of time someone can receive such support from the state. I sincerely hope that Liberal Democrats do speak out on this issue, and that members of the Lords challenge the Government to amend its proposals, and make sure that the state delivers on its side of the social contract.