IN its single-minded focus on reducing the public spending deficit quickly and, it would seem, at all costs, the coalition Government is making many clumsy mistakes – deepening its unpopularity as a direct result of the harm it is doing to the most vulnerable people in society.
The significant defeat in the House of Lords last week of various aspects of the radical and far-reaching Welfare Reform Bill is the latest in a series of examples of the Government being told it is going too far in the moves it is seeking to make behind the excuse of ‘balancing the books’.
The Bill was defeated in three key areas.
The Government had sought to limit the payment of Employment Support Allowance to one year, this has been extended to two.
Cancer patients have been exempted altogether from the ESA time limit and while ESA is a benefit linked to National Insurance contributions, young people who were disabled before working age, thus never having had chance to pay NI, will continue to be able to claim ESA.
The proposed changes would affect more than 700,000 people with serious illnesses and impairment.
Working families with a disabled person in them stand to lose more than £4,500 per year, much more than higher-rate taxpayers stand to lose under the Government’s latest proposals to cut child benefit.
Ironically, at a time when the Government appears to be making it harder for people on benefits not to work, it acknowledges that the ESA changes are, in fact, a disincentive to working.
More than 7,000 of those affected would be cancer patients. Around one in three families experience the impact of cancer at some point in their lives. Most of those understand that this will have a long-term impact, often taking many years of treatment.
The North East has a relatively high proportion of people depending on these benefits for a modest income.
The Welfare Reform Bill is one of the worst examples of this Government’s propensity to attack the most vulnerable people in our communities under the guise of tackling the deficit.
These are significant changes and reflect a real sense that the proposals would impose severe hardships on individuals already in very difficult circumstances.
The Government is making the poorest pay while the wealthiest remain largely unaffected and is doing very little to promote growth. Even the House of Lords won’t accept it.
By Kevin Rowan, regional secretary, Northern TUC