If threats of suicide over sickness and disability welfare reform were not enough to depress me (see earlier article) then news that The Public Bill Committee on Welfare Reform voted on Tuesday to keep time-limiting as part of the Bill added fury to the mix.
Rhydian Fon-James outlines the next steps in this brilliant piece for Broken of Britain and rightly points to Stephen Timms passionate attempt to oppose the plans, but finding myself on a long and boring car journey to Devon over the weekend, I took the time to read the transcripts from the committee and my sense of frustration and anger rose with every mile.
Of all the proposals to cut social security for the sick and disabled, I am totally clear that time limiting ESA is the single biggest threat to the dignity and financial stability the most vulnerable people in our society face. Why? Because it is absolute. Once our year is up, no matter what our conditions, no matter what our family incomes or levels of poverty, we will be cut adrift. If, like me, your partner works him or herself into the ground to maintain a degree of financial independence, you will face a total loss of all support. We will become chattels, totally at the mercy of the goodwill of our loved ones. Worth nothing in the eyes of society, anyone with a progressive or degenerative condition who has not found some miracle cure within one year will be cast off.
Even a causal reading of this article makes it clear that this will present a massive dis-incentive to work. It will simply bankrupt us and force us into claiming 100% state support.
It is also a dis-incentive to be honest. I could side-step this proposal by getting a divorce and indeed, many people like me may simply be left with no other alternative.
It breaks any covenant between the state and dreadfully unwell people. People who may have paid into the same system all of their lives but find that when life becomes impossibly hard, they are all alone.
The transcripts show that other than cancer and to a lesser degree, mental illness, our politicians - of all parties - have no concept at all of what they are about to do. Mr Timms suggested that 90% of all claimants put into the Work Related Activity group will be affected by this change. From now on, if you get sick, you have just one year to get better or you will lose everything.
The Labour amendment suggested that time limiting should be set at at least two years. Mr Timms did ask for much more information and research on just how many people will actually have found work in that time, but it appears the DWP have no idea. So far studies show that of those being transferred from Incapacity Benefit to ESA, just 9% are "helped" into work within a year. What will happen to the other 81%? Nobody knows and it is abundantly clear that nobody cares.
There is no evidence to suggest that ministers have looked into exactly how much working partners earn. Can they actually afford to support their unwell or disabled partners without facing bankruptcy? With the limit set at just over £5000 per year or 24 hours a week, virtually all families will be affected.
The vital and depressing part is that despite asking for clarification on some issues and asking for a longer limit (the proposal was rejected) Labour still totally support the concept of time-limiting ESA. There were many references to how it has worked with those on Jobseekers Allowance but no concept at all of why the same mandatory approach cannot possibly work for those who are unwell.
All the while Labour refuse to listen and the Lib Dems support the Conservative proposals, sick and disabled people have no voice at all speaking out for them. How dare Labour decide that one year is too short, but two will probably be fine, with no details or facts at all to back up their claim? What kind of society and democracy are we living in if the opinions and voices of sick and disabled people are totally ignored? If those making the decisions are so keen to save money that they ignore all evidence, all pleas, all sense?
How totally out of touch are our politicians if they believe that cancer is the only condition that might not get better in a year? Have they honestly not heard of conditions like Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, Bowel Disease, Heart Disease, Lupus, Kidney Failure, Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia or the countless other degenerative, progressive or auto-immune conditions that may make it impossible for people to work? ALL of these people routinely go into the Work Related Activity Group and it is very unlikely that many of them will be able to "work" at least in the way expected by the DWP.
On 14thy May 2010, Mr Timms was stabbed by a constituent, suffering "potentially life threatening" wounds - lacerations to his liver and a perforation to his stomach. A senior police officer said that he "was extremely fortunate not to have been killed."
Just a millimetre either way could have seen Mr Timms disabled for life. He could have been left without a bowel, leaving him dependent on a feeding tube for the rest of his life. He could have suffered liver damage that left him in need of a transplant. That spare liver may have taken much longer than a year to appear. The knife could have severed his spinal cord leaving him paralysed.
Whilst I'm extremely thankful that no such disaster ravaged Mr Timm's life, the words "There but for the grace of God go I" must surely have occurred to him? Surely, he of all people must be able to see that life can change in a heartbeat and setting a stopwatch may not be appropriate to recovery?
No matter how big the stick, no matter how hard politicians try to use that stick to beat us with, some conditions just won't get better. Some will be made worse by working. A political class that chooses to ignore those simple facts, using a mid 90s definition of illness is in a very dangerous place indeed.