Kate Seymour: Cutting cash for people with cancer is driving them into poverty, not work

Kate Seymour, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support
Kate Seymour, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support
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In April last year, the UK ­Government voted to cut a vital benefit for people with cancer. This was despite massive opposition from Macmillan Cancer Support, backbench Tories and the Lords.

Since then, cancer patients placed into the work-related activity group for Employment Support Allowance, have been worse off by almost £120 each month.

Macmillan have heard many ­stories of financial hardship as a result. ­People unable to pay their rent. Scared to turn on the heating. Forced back to work long before they’re ready, risking their recovery and potentially heading for a costly hospital admission as it stalls. Scottish woman Lynn Laing, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, said: “When cancer came along, my family nearly went under. We were close to losing our home and could barely afford to eat. We used our life savings just ­trying to get by and we racked up £16,000 of debt.”

She is among thousands of ­people across Scotland who are dealt a double whammy by cancer hitting not just her physical health, but her financial security.

Sadly, Lynn is now what we’d call one of the lucky ones. She received the higher rate of Employment ­Support Allowance, having become ill before the cut was voted through.

Lynn says if she got cancer now and didn’t have the £120 a month extra in benefits, she’d probably have lost her house.

Macmillan Cancer Support ­campaigned vigorously against the cut for cancer patients at Westminster and will continue to do so.

But right now we have an opportunity in Scotland to use our new ­welfare powers to make sure no one has their recovery from cancer ­hampered by financial struggles.

In October, we gave evidence to the Social Security committee, urging them to make Scotland the first place in the UK to reinstate this vital benefit for people with cancer.

This month, as the Social Security Bill prepares to reach stage two ­scrutiny, we again ask them to listen to our calls. At £29 a week, the payment probably doesn’t sound like much to some people. But to ­someone coping with the additional costs ­cancer brings, including higher heating bills, special diets and ­travel costs to hospital, it’s a substantial sum.

A key reason given by the UK ­Government for the original cut, was that it would encourage people back to work. But let’s be clear. Cutting the benefits of people who have had ­cancer doesn’t help them recover faster. If it did it, would be prescribed on the NHS.

Cutting people’s benefits simply means people make decisions based on financial desperation rather than what’s best for their health.

At Macmillan, people with ­cancer have told us how money worries have meant they went back to work before they were ready, or worked during chemotherapy, using holidays instead of taking time off.

We know the Scottish Government are committed to creating a fairer system, one where people are treated with dignity and meeting the needs of the sick and struggling is paramount.

And we know the public back our call. A YouGov poll of more than 1000 ­people, on behalf of Macmillan, found 68 per cent of people in Scotland are in favour of the Scottish Government using money from its own budget to reinstate the benefit to people with cancer. This rises to 73 per cent among over 65s.

People with cancer are fighting the toughest battle many people will ever face. It’s clear the public agree that they shouldn’t have to fight to keep a roof over their head as well.

It’s not about keeping people with cancer on benefits forever. ­Cancer is increasingly affecting those of ­working age, many of whom will want to get back to work when they are ready.

We want is a system that gives ­people the financial support they need to put money worries to the side while they get better, but then helps them back into work when they’re ready. These are complementary, not oppositional, aims.

This new social security system is a once in a lifetime opportunity to ­create a better system in Scotland, one that puts people at the centre –one where everyone with ­cancer can focus on their health, not their finances.

We urge the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to take it.

Kate Seymour, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support.