David Cameron and Ed Miliband sparked a fierce debate on the welfare needs of cancer patients today, after the issue was raised during Prime Minister's Question's.

Cancer charities have expressed concerns that changes to Contribution-based Employment Support Allowance (ESA)outlined in the government's Welfare Reform Bill and being debated by MP's today will see some people being made worse off a year after being diagnosed with cancer.

The issue relates to time-limiting Contribution-based ESA to just one year for those in the work-related activity group, which is one of two groups of ESA claimants.

The other group of claimants is the support group, which will not be affected by the one-year CB-ESA time limit. In broad terms, the support group of claimants are deemed not to have to undertake work related-activity. If cancer patients do not meet the support group criteria, they are placed in the work-related activity group and therefore may be subject to time limiting of CB-ESA.

The welfare system has always been difficult to access for cancer patients. Some  cancer patients struggle to meet the various disablility/capacity for work related criteria that exists for benefits such as ESA and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) even though they may be gravely ill during treatment and may need lots of rest during recovery.

This will continue to be the case for many cancer patients under the proposed welfare reforms, as benefits such as Universal Credit (replacing Income-related ESA) and CB -ESA will continue to assess people on their capacity for work whilst the Personal Independence Payment (replacing DLA) will still assess care and mobility needs.

The answer to supporting cancer patients adequately through the welfare system is a simple one and it doesn't need to be complicated.  

Cancer partients should be subject to simplified ESA/DLA criteria, using guidance from a cancer patient's hospital consultant.

The cancer patient's hospital consultant could easily make a judgement on their capacity for work and their care/mobility needs and MOST IMPORTANTLY, would also be able to make a judgement on the amount of time the patient needs help and support from the welfare system.

This is not designed to be a time-consuming exercise for the hospital consultant. It would be a simple form which outlines the patients condition as well as confirming the customers inability to work and requirement for care and mobility support. It would also state the amount of time that the hospital consultant expects the patient to need help and support for, up to a maximum of 1 year. If the cancer patient needed help past 1 year, the form would need to be renewed. The form would passport customers into the support group for ESA and to High rate Care DLA, meaning that cancer patients would be properly supported financially until such time that they no longer need that support.

There would be no need to change the rules relating to terminal illness and cancer patients could still be subject to DLA mobility component rules. Claimants would also need to meet the general criteria for ESA e.g. in the case of CB ESA, meeting the contribution conditions.    

Cancer patients would then be supported through the welfare system appropriately and according to their needs and requirements. They would no longer need to meet impossible criteria which does not relate to the nature of their health condition and treatment.

It would make use of existing expert resources; e..g. hospital consultants and there would no be no need for expensive, independent medicals etc.

There is always a danger of over-complicating these issues. IncomeMAX would urge the government to listen and to act on the guidance provided by cancer charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support, to ensure that fair and appropriate welfare support is available to those battling cancer.      

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