Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by Brian Cunningham after the publication of the Welfare Reform Green Paper


  I wrote to you in November outlining my concerns regarding reform to Incapacity Benefit and its impact upon people with multiple sclerosis and similar variable and fluctuating conditions. Having read the Green Paper, I am now writing to make some further observations which I hope you will consider.

  The aims of the Green Paper and the Secretary of State are indeed laudable. However there are several things, particularly in Chapter 2,"Helping ill or disabled people", to which I would like answers.

  Paragraph 20 states "Our first priority must be to reduce the likelihood of people developing health problems that may result in them having to give up work . . .". I would be most interested to know how the Secretary of State envisages preventing people from having diseases such as multiple sclerosis and other neurological conditions which have no known cause?

  Paragraph 63 aims to "provide a professional assessment of an individual's eligibility for financial support based on their functional capability". Firstly, I am concerned that assessors will be properly and adequately trained in all medical conditions and have an awareness of their impact. I sincerely hope that assessments will not be carried out by overworked, underpaid, frequently harassed and ill qualified civil servants in job centres. What assurances will the Secretary of State give to ensure that the quality of the assessment will not only meet the needs of the Department of Work and Pensions but also those of the disabled persons? Secondly, will there be enough staff to carry out such assessments as I understand the Department intends to reduce drastically the number of civil servants in its employ?

  Further in the same paragraph it appears that the Department is adopting a "one size fits all" approach regarding people with disabilities, in that its desired aim appears that there are disabled people who can work and others that cannot. It is unclear throughout the chapter what provision will be made for people who are able to work only to a limited degree and will still require some financial support on top of any earnings?

  I was pleased to see that the Department recognises that there are some fluctuating conditions, such as multiple sclerosis. In paragraphs 89 to 91 I welcome this acknowledgement. However, I sense an "all or nothing" approach again. It is important that the Department and its employees are made fully aware of the problems of fluctuating and widely variable diseases. Some people with multiple sclerosis are capable of full-time work and never end up on benefit. However, many find that over time their condition deteriorates, sometimes quite rapidly, and that within this deterioration there is great fluctuation in their symptoms and capabilities not only day by day but even hour by hour. Symptom management is all very well but not always possible. How will the Department and potential employers cope with people whose disabilities mean that on one day they are capable and fit for work and then on the following day they can barely get out of bed? How does the Department expect employers to accommodate such employees who cannot necessarily guarantee attendance from one day to the next? Please ensure that staff recognise this when dealing with clients with such conditions.

  In paragraph 105 mention is made of the current possibility that exists within the rules for Incapacity Benefit Claimants to earn a certain amount of money without affecting benefit entitlement. There is no mention made in the Green paper what the intention is by the Department regarding these rules and how they will be affected when reforms are introduced. As I mentioned in a previous paragraph, there may well be many people with similar neurological conditions to mine who wish and are able to work to a limited degree, as I currently do but nevertheless these earnings in no way represent a living wage. What provision is the Department intending to make for such people? Will they still be able to work? Will there still be financial support available to them in addition to their limited earnings without the iniquitous means testing? Means testing, as has been seen with pensioners, will only reduce more disabled people to poverty.

  As I mentioned in my letter to you in November, I have multiple sclerosis and currently work under the Supported Permitted Work rules. My condition is such that it takes me at least two hours to get up, shower and dress. My condition varies from day-to-day, some mornings are better than others. I work as an associate lecturer for the Open University, which is an extremely supportive employer. I teach on one course: I give one two-hour tutorial once a month. To do this requires me to rest completely the day prior to the tutorial and for the afternoon following it. I also have to mark five assignments during the course of the year, which I am able to undertake at home within the limitations of my condition. It would be unrealistic with my condition to undertake further teaching duties without it negatively affecting my health. I would be interested to know what the Department is proposing for people in such a position and sincerely hope that they will not be forcing people into employment to the detriment of their health and well-being.

  Finally, the Green paper acknowledges in paragraphs 117 and 122 that people with disabilities face a range of barriers in the workplace and in attempts to find employment. How will the Department force employers to make the required changes necessary to employ more people with disabilities. Disability costs money and many employers may well not be as farsighted and supportive as mine. Furthermore, with general levels of employment decreasing and unemployment rising, where are all these jobs for people with disabilities going to come from? I sincerely hope that people with disabilities will not be forced into low paid positions in order to achieve government policy.

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