Disability campaigners criticise government for sending out letters about welfare reform bill, which has not yet been passed
The government has been criticised by disability campaigners for warning some terminally ill patients that their benefits may be cut from next April if its welfare reform bill, which has not yet passed all its parliamentary stages, is enacted later this year.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is sending letters to claimants saying the contributory employment support allowance (ESA) will be time-limited to one year for people deemed capable of returning to employment, meaning those already receiving the benefit could lose their financial help in six months' time.
The provision is included in the bill, which has still to go to the House of Lords for scrutiny.
Neil Coyle, the Disability Alliance's director of policy, said: "The impact of cutting support will be devastating for people already told they only have a limited time left to live. Many will have worked for years and will feel they deserve a little support in return until they pass away.
"The government has time to change its plans before terminally-ill people and their families have this avoidable and quite nasty cut imposed."
The alliance claims that 700,000 people will eventually be affected by the change in support, and alleges that 400,000 would have to lose all support if the government is to meet its target of cutting the welfare bill by £2bn. Liberal Democrat delegates voted against the imposition of time limits at their party conference earlier this week.
But the DWP insisted the terminally ill would not lose the allowance if they were unfit to work, and said the 12-month time limit was intended to act as an incentive for those capable of returning to "work-related activity". Those assessed as in need of support because of illness or family circumstances would continue to receive the allowance, it added.
A spokesman said: "It will depend on the individual's capacity to work. Everyone will be assessed on an individual basis and if the decision is that they are able to start the journey back to work there will be a time limit.
"Speaking of terminal illness is clearly emotive and if they are on their deathbed they will clearly not be going back to work, but if someone is not in that position they may be able to lead a normal life which could involve work. The process of working may even be helpful in giving them a sense of being useful and prolonging their lives.
"There is no benefit or advantage in just cutting the ESA. It is not some arbitrary target."
The spokesman said the letters were being sent out in advance of the legislation being passed in order to give claimants maximum warning of the possible change.
"It would be completely wrong not to alert people well in advance that there is a possibility that their benefit entitlement may change. From next April people in the work-related activity group will only be able to claim ESA for a year, to bring it into line with other benefits. ESA is not designed for people to claim for the long term unless they are in the support group.
"We must ensure that the benefit system has to be fair to taxpayers as well as disabled people."