PMQs cancer row: MacMillan back Miliband

David Cameron and Ed Miliband clashed over welfare reform and its impact on cancer patients at Prime Minister's Questions, with MacMillan Cancer Research backing Miliband.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband clashed over welfare reform and the impact of the reforms on cancer patients at Prime Minister’s Questions today, with the Labour leader quoting cancer charity MacMillan’s fears over the withdrawal of support to cancer sufferers – and MacMillan backing his decision to do so and backing up the points he made.

On Monday, MacMillan Cancer Support said that, under the Welfare Reform Bill:

“Thousands of cancer patients who rely on a vital out of work benefit could lose up to £94 a week… Macmillan Cancer Support estimates nearly 7,000 cancer patients will be affected by this change which will leave some without crucial financial support at a time when they are simply unable to return to work.”

And today, speaking immediately after PMQs, MacMillan’s head of campaigns, policy and public affairs, Mike Hobday, said Miliband was “spot on” to raise the issue, telling the Daily Politics:

“We think it was a really important issue for Ed Miliband to raise. It is quite clear the government haven’t realised it will have a big impact on cancer patients who would like to work but aren’t yet ready to do so…

“There are 7,000 people this will apply to. Those who are recovering will be hit, those who want to work but are not quite ready yet because of the treatment they receive – they will be penalised to the tune of £100 a week.”

At PMQs, in response to Miliband’s statement:

“…because the government is stopping contributory-based employment allowance after one year… cancer patients, 7,000 of them, are losing £94 per week.”

Cameron, leafing through his ring-binder and once again showing himself to be unaware of the detail, claimed:

“He is wrong on the specific point…”

With Miliband then replying:

“Many people will lose this benefit simply because they haven’t recovered fast enough.”

Furthermore, appearing before the Public Bill Committee last month, replying to this question from shadow employment minister Stephen Timms:

Can the Minister tell the Committee what proportion of those who go into the work-related activity group he expects to be back in work within one year?

Employment minister Chris Graying said:

“At the moment, we do not have a specific answer to that, but I return to the point that this is not about recovery times. It is not about a decision that 12 months is an appropriate time for recovery.

“These are people who have other means of financial support, so what we have sought to do in difficult times financially, and by taking tough decisions, is to say ‘right, we need to start to replicate in the ESA system the kind of approach we take in the JSA system’.

“We have decided to set a 12-month time limit rather than a six-month time limit in recognition of the fact that if people face a health challenge it make take longer to sort out their affairs and may even take longer than the two year period. This is one of the tough decisions we need to take in government. We form a view and try to achieve a sensible balance.

“It is not based on an estimate of a typical recovery time, but on the principle that these are people who have other means of financial support. In around 60% of cases we expect people to need additional financial support through the income-based system, which they will of course receive.”

In other words, it’s not about recovery time, it’s about money.

Earlier, MacMillan’s chief executive Ciarán Devane had said:

“Many cancer patients will lose this crucial benefit simply because they have not recovered quickly enough. The majority want to return to work as it can represent a milestone in their recovery and a return to normality, in addition to the obvious financial benefits.

“This proposal in the Welfare Reform Bill will have a devastating impact on many cancer patients. We are urging the government to change their plans to reform key disability benefits to ensure cancer patients and their families are not pushed into poverty.”

With chief medical officer Jane Maher adding:

“In my experience one year is simply not long enough for many people to recover from cancer. The serious physical and psychological side-effects of cancer can last for many months, even years, after treatment has finished. It is crucial that patients are not forced to return to work before they are ready.”

As MacMillan’s release on Monday concludes:

“Macmillan Cancer Support wants the Bill amended so everyone eligible for ESA will receive it for as long as they need it, regardless of their financial circumstances. The charity also believes it is unacceptable to make cancer patients wait six months to access Personal Independence Payment (PIP).”

Cancer is a disease that can strike anyone down at any point in time, unforseen, unexpected; for those in recovery, those fortunate to recover, for them and their families, having been through all they have, to be treated this way is unacceptable.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.