Downing Street vowed last night to press ahead with controversial cuts to cancer patients' benefits which Ed Miliband claimed would leave 7,000 people worse off.
The impact of the move – part of a drive to slash £18bn from Britain's welfare bill – dominated angry Commons exchanges in which the Labour leader branded David Cameron's response an "absolute disgrace".
In a combative performance, Mr Miliband seized on protests from a cancer charity over plans to means-test the employment and support allowance (ESA) after claimants have received it for 12 months. Macmillan Cancer Support said the "devastating" cut would mean almost 7,000 people with the disease could lose up to £94 a week – a calculation described by government sources as "guesswork".
Mr Miliband said: "These are people who have worked hard all their lives, who have done the right thing, who have paid their taxes and, when they are in need, the Prime Minister is taking money away from them."
Mr Cameron countered that he was using the issue as a "smoke screen" to disguise Labour's reluctance to reform the welfare system. Mr Miliband retorted: "What an absolute disgrace, to describe talking about cancer patients in this country as a smoke screen."
His line of attack appeared to wrong-foot Mr Cameron and eased the pressure on the Labour leader, who has endured days of torrid headlines questioning his leadership after a weak showing at last week's Prime Minister's Questions, when he failed to make political capital from government retreats on health service reform and sentencing.
Last night the Prime Minister's official spokesman ruled out a rethink on the planned alterations to eligibility for the ESA, designed to cut spending on the benefit by £1.2bn. He said: "We're pressing ahead with these changes. This is about reforming a broken welfare system."
The changes are contained in the Welfare Reform Bill, which was debated yesterday in the Commons. Claimants still undergoing treatment such as chemotherapy will face no time limit on claims. But those considered well enough to perform "work-related activities" will face means-testing after 12 months; those with savings of more than £16,000 or a partner in work could lose all of the benefit.
Yesterday's protests were a foretaste of many future rows over welfare spending cuts, but the Government argues that such tough decisions are essential to get a grip on the huge national benefit bill.
Ciaran Devane, Macmillan's chief executive, said he was pleased the issue had been raised in the Commons and urged the Government to amend its policy. "We want people who have paid into the system before becoming ill to receive ESA for as long as they are unable to work. We will be very disappointed if the Government fail to make these changes," he said.
The charity's head of policy, Mike Hobday, played down the disclosure that he was a former Labour activist, emphasising that all parties had been briefed over its benefit concerns.
Sasha Daly, head of policy for the Teenage Cancer Trust, said: "Young people with cancer are often very keen to get back to work quickly when they have completed their treatment, as this marks a return to normality after the destructive impact of cancer. We have a duty to protect and support these young people, not to put them under financial stress as they try to get their lives back on track."Reuse content