Bridget Phillipson - profile shotLast week peers in the House of Lords succeeded where MPs have failed in challenging some of the most punitive aspects of the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill.

They won three key victories with amendments protecting 15,000 young disabled people from cuts to the Employment Support Allowance, removed the time limit on contributory ESA payments for cancer sufferers and extended the time limit from one to two years on ESA claims.

It is right that where people can work they are supported to do so, but equally that people who are ill and can’t work receive the help they need.

In the 18 months I’ve served as an MP, I’ve seen too many cases of constituents being declared fit for work when it is patently clear that they aren’t, from people with chronic health problems such as Multiple Sclerosis and severe rheumatoid arthritis, to those suffering the side effects of cancer treatment.

It is hard to believe that the Government seriously thinks it is reasonable for cancer sufferers to only receive sickness benefits for a year.

They are people who have worked hard, never imagined they would be forced to claim benefits and would like nothing better than to get back to work.

Let’s not also forget the people in our community who may never be able to work. The mark of a civilised society is surely one that doesn’t condemn people to a life of poverty because they are born with health problems or a disability.
That’s why it was so important that a clear message was sent to the Government.

The previous Labour government introduced the Work Capability Assessment to make sure that people didn’t remain on sickness benefit for years without any help or support to get back into the workplace.

In part, this was to address the problem of the many thousands of people in the North East who were pushed onto sickness benefits in the 1980s and 1990s to bring down the unemployment figures.

However, in practice the assessment process has proved to be flawed and needs an overhaul.

Meanwhile, Atos, the company which carries out the assessments, continues to profit even though 40 per cent of its decisions are overturned at tribunal.

The taxpayer foots the bill for these costly appeals and the huge backlog means that it can take as long as nine months to even to get a date for the hearing.

No one wants to see people claiming long-term sickness benefit when they could be capable of some work with the right support, but in an increasingly competitive jobs market employers can take their pick of applicants.

Locally there are four people chasing every job vacancy.

What we need is a government committed to supporting growth and creating jobs, not one that penalises cancer sufferers.

Click here to view the original article published by the Sunderland Echo on Wednesday 18 January 2012.

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