I have been contacted by many constituents concerned about proposed changes to Employment and Support Allowance in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.
I believe we need a welfare system that supports the most vulnerable and helps those who can work into suitable employment. That is why the Government wants to increase employment among people who have health challenges but are capable of taking steps back into work. Thanks to efforts over the last five years, the number of people with disabilities who are unemployed has already fallen, with 339,000 disabled people moving into work in the last two years.
Employment Support Allowance provides support for those who cannot work because of a health condition or disability. People who can do some work-related activity are placed in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) where they take steps to prepare themselves for employment.
At the moment, these people get higher payments than people on Job Seeker's Allowance in recognition of the fact they may have specific needs depending on what health challenges they face. However, simply paying a higher benefit to individuals may not be the best way to help claimants overcome these additional barriers to work they may face. In addition, the disparity in payments could discourage claimants from making the most of opportunities to help them move closer to work.
That is why the Government is aligning Employment Support Allowance WRAG payments with Job Seekers Allowance, and putting the monies to better use by investing in services tailored towards helping WRAG claimants into work. The Government has committed £100 million of additional funding per year by 2020-21 specifically to help meet the needs of people with limited capability to work. This means the money will be targeted much more effectively. This change will also only apply to new claims after April 2017, meaning nobody will see their entitlement fall in cash terms. I have seen some pilot work done with intensive support for individuals with mental health problems, and they themselves are very encouraged by it.
In the case of cancer patients, the Government has already listened to representations from cancer charities to ensure sufferers are treated fairly. In January 2013, for example, the Employment Support Allowance rules were changed so that those receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy will always be placed in the Support Group and the majority of cases will be assessed on medical evidence rather than a Work Capability Assessment.


Those Employment Support Allowance claimants who do find themselves in the Support Group have been deemed capable of some work-related activity at the time of their assessment by a trained professional.  However, if an individual's condition deteriorates they may make another application for Employment Support Allowance and have their eligibility reassessed. On this basis they may then be moved into the Support Group.
I also recognise that disabled people face extra costs of living, which is why the Personal Independence Payment will continue to provide for these extra costs. Alongside this, the additional Employment Support Allowance Support Group rate will continue to be paid to those with the most severe work-limiting conditions and disabilities.
The Government has noted the comments made in the House of Lords recently regarding these proposals but will continue to support the policy when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.


I hope, however, that you are reassured by the extra funding and safeguards that have been put in place to protect the most vulnerable. If you have further concerns, please do feel free to contact my office or, alternatively local help is available at Disability Resource Centre in Dunstable, with more information available on their website: www.drcbeds.org