Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by Action for Blind People after the publication of the Welfare Reform Green Paper

  Action for Blind People is a national charity which assists 20,000 blind and partially sighted people. We focus on four key areas one of which is employment. We offer supported employment in three factories in London, Norwich, and Salisbury. However, we are also very keen to offer support to enable blind and partially sighted people to move into open employment.

  We welcome very much the rolling out of the pathways to work scheme. We feel that this has been very successful in offering the level of support needed to enable blind and partially sighted people to feel confident enough to move into the job market and finally into a job. However, we are concerned that the level of training of staff will not be sufficient to meet the specific needs of visually impaired people. Many of our clients have been unemployed for several years and some have never worked. Consequently they are clearly going to need a considerable level of support to enable them to become "job ready" even before they can possibily consider moving into employment.

  We are very disappointed that the Green Paper has missed the opportunity to introduce robust measures on the demand side. For example this would have been the ideal opportunity to introduce a scheme of "disability leave" which would enable a person to take some time away from employment when they either become disabled or their impairment worsens. This scheme would work in a similar way to maternity leave and would contain the same safeguards. We strongly believe that this would make a significant impact upon the employment rates of disabled people and thus on the numbers moving from work onto benefit.

  Another key concern to us on the demand side is the hostility of employers to recruiting blind and partially sighted people. Research has shown that 90% of employers consider the employment of visually impaired people to be either difficult or impossible. It therefore appears clear to us that for the government's objectives to be fully met there must be measures to alter these views. One way in which this situation can be addressed is via the Access to work scheme. The scheme provides funding to enable disabled people to secure specialist equipment to assist them in their employment. The current budget for the scheme is sixty million pounds. Clearly this budget needs to be enhanced substantially if serious inroads are to be made into the exceptionally high level of unemployment amongst blind and partially sighted people which is currently at 75%.

  It does appear to us that there is a need to "remind" employers of their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 DDA. Ten years after its coming into force the rate of unemployment amongst blind and partially sighted people has not altered. This does imply that not enough cases of discrimination are being taken and that as a consequence employers are still largely oblivious of or not concerned by the provisions within Part II of the DDA.

  Further explanation is required about the reform of the medical assessment and in particular the ending of the exemption for registered blind people to go through it. For example we are concerned about the rate of benefit that a person registered as blind would receive who has failed the test compared with one who has passed through it. We would be extremely concerned if a blind person were to receive the lower rate of benefit (Employment Support Allowance) as clearly compared with others who have passed through "the gateway" this would be in effect a reduction in payment.

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