The Coalition loves choice, and now they’re offering another one to the public: don’t get cancer in the UK unless you can afford it. That’s the message that our noble government has just approved during yesterday’s debate on the Coalition’s welfare reform bill, when MPs overturned a House of Lords amendment that would have made cancer patients exempt from means testing in order to qualify for Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
Our politicians weren’t having it, and why should they? I mean, why should someone be allowed to just sit around on benefits when everyone else is out working hard, just because they’re on chemotherapy? Fairness demands that they turn up for job interviews for non-existent jobs like everyone else since, as Employment Minister Chris Grayling observes:
‘I do accept anxiety around cancer but I should also say the approach we are taking to all of our reforms, in particular those in relation to sickness and disability, is we should not write off automatically any individual affected by a particular condition….Applying a one size fits all to any one condition we believe is the wrong thing to do.’
So there you have it. The reason the government wants cancer patients to be means-tested isn’t because it wants to find more reasons to reduce disability benefit, it’s because it cares so much about each individual human being that it just doesn’t want them to be ‘written off’.
Well if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye I don’t know what will. But still there are moaning minnies out there who oppose these admirable aspirations. Like those nurses and cancer specialists at Macmillian Cancer Support, who are trying to drum up a petition because they are concerned that ‘ cancer patients receiving oral chemotherapy or radiotherapy have to undergo an assessment and may have to do job interview practice to get ESA’ .
Macmillan is also concerned that ‘Proposed changes to the benefits system could leave thousands of people living with cancer without vital financial support during the toughest fight of their lives – pushing some into poverty.’
You can almost hear David Cameron saying ‘just calm down dear’ to that one, can’t you? Yesterday the embodiment of Toryism with a human face could be found writing for that equally well-known symbol of humanity and compassion The Sun, justifying his determination to overturn the rejection of his £26,000 benefits cap by the House of Lords. The old Bullingdonian, with his finger on the common pulse as usual, noted that
I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said: ‘I go to work early in the morning and on the way I pass neighbours with their curtains closed, lying in because they’ve chosen to live on benefits.
Some of those people who are ‘lying in’ may not be able to get jobs because there aren’t any; others may be receiving chemotherapy and suffering from cancer – and some may even be dying from it. But as Lord Grantham observes in Downtown Abbey, we all have our parts to play and ‘fairness’ demands that even the sick and the dying must play theirs.
Of course there might be another dimension to the moral horror that benefit malingering inspires in politicians like Cameron, who have spent so much of their lives struggling to make ends meet. Last November a government review proposed that GPs should only be able to sign patients with long-term sickness off work for four weeks. After that their decisions will be reassessed by an independent assessment service.
According to David Frost, the former head of the British Chambers of Commerce and one of those entrusted with developing these proposals, GPs are too emotionally involved with their patients to make objective decisions about their health, and anyway patients who have been off sick for more than four weeks ‘lose their will to work.’
Welll we can’t have that. Especially, as Think Left argued at the time, when these independent assessments are likely to be outscourced to private contractors such as ATOS and the U.S. insurance giant Unum:
It is clear that there is a ‘happy match’, a common objective, between the neoliberal political view of benefits, and the interests of private health insurers. The neoliberal politician wants to shrink the State and reduce public expenditure via privatisation, and the private health insurer wants to maximize profitability by not having to pay out for any claims.
Well the government can’t be accused of a lack of joined-up thinking. And the upshot is that cancer patients must now be prepared to get on their bikes if some creep with a clipboard from a private insurance company decrees it. So if you are unfortunate enough to have terminal cancer make sure you drop dead within four weeks – and don’t think that you can lie in.
Because we’re all in the same boat and this what fairness is all about. And you can almost hear the applause coming from the Bullingdon Club, and those plummy little voices murmuring jolly good, jolly jolly good.