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11 January 2012

Will the Lords come to the defence of the poor and disabled?

Coalition may be defeated on plan to remove support for 7,000 cancer patients after 12 months.

By George Eaton

The Lords will vote later today on the coalition’s plan to time-limit the Employment and Support Allowance (formerly known as Incapacity Benefit) and there’s a chance that the government will be defeated on at least one aspect of the policy.

Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform bill would restrict the time that the unwell and disabled can receive the Employment and Support Allowance to 12 months and only those whose partner earns less than £7,500 will qualify for the means-tested version. The rest, including an estimated 7,000 cancer patients, will be left reliant on their families and charity as they lose up to £94 a week.

However, one amendment, tabled by Lord Patel, the crossbencher and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, would extend the eligibility period for ESA to two years, while another would exempt cancer patients from the time limit. There’s a good chance that at least the latter will pass.

A further scandal is that the bill does not account for those young people who are severely disabled and who have had not had a chance to build up national insurance contributions in order to receive ESA. An amendment tabled by crossbench peer Lord Listowel would ensure that they are still able to claim.

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Since proposing the reforms, the government has come up with no justification other than “we can’t afford it”. As the Prime Minister’s spokesman said:

The government had to tackle a record deficit and has set out plans to do that over the course of the parliament. One of the things we have had to look very hard at is the welfare system.

But it should be a matter of shame that the seventh richest country in the world is unwilling to ensure a decent standard of living for its most vulnerable citizens. Let us hope that the Lords do their duty today.

Update: In a serious defeat for the coalition, an amendment to protect the automatic right of young disabled people who are unable to work to qualify for ESA has been carried, by 260 votes to 216.