Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Action for Blind People

  Action for Blind people warmly welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this most timely inquiry. Action for Blind People is a national charity which helps 20,000 blind and partially sighted people each year. We focus on four key areas including employment and benefit(s) provision.

  The Committee is clearly aware of the low level of employment amongst disabled people, currently around 50% however, this situation is very much worse for visually impaired people with only 25% of blind and partially sighted people of working age being in employment. We believe that there are a great variety of factors contributing to this appalling situation which we shall outline below.

WHAT LESSONS CAN BE LEARNED FROM THE PATHWAYS TO WORK PILOTS

  We are very supportive of the Pathways to Work scheme and have anecdotal evidence that they are working very well. As a consequence of this, we believe that it should be fully evaluated and rolled out nationally before any major changes are made to incapacity benefits.

What are the Implications of DWP's Proposals for the new Structure of Incapacity Benefits?

  There are indications that the new benefit could be rather complicated as a result of its dual nature. The current system's complication could to a large extent be of its own making. The Personal Capability Test is the means by which a person is assessed as being entitled to receive incapacity benefit after 28 weeks. If the belief is that the current system is too lax and that too many people are coming onto the benefit, then the solution lies with amending the PCA rather than altering a benefit which is the main source of income for a large number of blind and partially sighted people. However, Action for Blind People feel that the current test works very well as registered blind people are exempted and generally partially sighted people will pass the test. This does not stop registered blind and partially sighted people who feel that they are job ready looking for work, but the exemption rule acknowledges that people with the most severe conditions do not have to look for work if they are not job ready.

Will the Reforms Help to Improve Work Incentives for Sick and Disabled People?

  Our major concern about incentives is that many visually impaired people are not much better off when they do move into work. This is because of the low earnings disregard within housing benefit and council tax benefit and also to some extent the result of the problems with the administration of Tax Credits. We would like to feel that the level of expertise exists within Jobcentre Plus to equip blind and partially sighted people with the skills which they will need to enter work but suspect that this may not be so. With such a high level of unemployment amongst this group it is going to be the case that many have been out of work for such a long time, that they will need a great deal of support before they are in a position to search for employment. For example low levels of self esteem. The "Condition Management Programme" within the Pathways to Work scheme has successfully confronted this issue, which is why we feel that the scheme should be fully evaluated and rolled out nationally before any changes are made.

Is it Possible to Distinguish Between Those who are Able to Return to Work and Those who Cannot?

  As we have stated above we welcome proposals for getting blind and partially sighted people who want to work into employment. However, it is vital that each person is treated individually rather than applying a one size fits all solution. Just because two people have the same eye condition and are a similar age does not mean their needs will be identical, and that they will be at the same stage of employment readiness. What should be borne in mind are previous experience of employment and the length of time that the person concerned has been out of work.

Will the reforms address the main areas of concern with the current system?

  As we have mentioned above, this may not happen as reform of the benefit may not be the correct approach. This is because the problems may lie with the means by which a person becomes a recipient of incapacity benefit through the Personal Capability Assessment. Furthermore it is vital that issues such as re-training and other support is kept in mind. And, as we indicated at the outset we are convinced of the merit of the Pathways to Work scheme and therefore feel most strongly that reform of the benefit is premature at this stage. It would be much wiser to undertake a full evaluation of them before any major change to benefit entitlement was to be enacted.

  The "better off" calculations carried out by our welfare rights team indicate that there is a need to improve incentives, as in many cases visually impaired people do not benefit financially from entering work. For example the low earnings disregard within housing and council tax benefits and the restrictions applied within the permitted work rules. This is without taking into account the administrative problems encountered by many people applying for Working Tax Credit once they find work.

THE EXPERIENCES OF SICK AND DISABLED PEOPLE

  Our work in this area shows very clearly that blind and partially sighted people would rather be in receipt of a decent salary than living on benefit. It is important to note here the nature of the debate and in particular to dispel the myth that being in receipt of incapacity benefit equals a more than comfortable existence, it clearly does not with the annual amount of benefit received being less than £4,000.  Clearly the reason 75% of visually impaired people are not in work is not as a result of the generous level of benefit which they are getting. It is however due to factors such as the attitudes of employers, recent research showing that 90% of whom consider a blind or partially sighted person difficult or impossible to employ. There are a number of ways in which the Government could help to address this such as through the Access to Work scheme: We welcome the Government's increased investment in the Access to Work scheme, however, clearly increased employment amongst visually impaired people will cause increased demands upon the limited budget. Furthermore research has shown that employers are most unlikely to have heard of this scheme, which helps to account for their perceptions that blind and partially sighted people would not be employable.

How will the Reforms Help those who are not Able or not yet Ready, to Work?

  We would like to think that increased assistance from Disability Employment Advisers at Jobcentre Plus will enable visually impaired people to be better equipped to enter the labour market. Clearly as we have mentioned above, this must be in conjunction with increased awareness of, and funding for the Access to Work Scheme. And, raising the earnings disregard to enable work to pay, thus raising the incentive for entering employment.

Richard Holmes

30 September 2005



 
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