Sixty Second Interview with Hazel Morgan
Hazel Morgan is co-director of The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities. here she talk to Amy Taylor about the government's plans to reform incapacity benefits.
Are many people with learning difficulties on incapacity benefit?
We do not know how many of the estimated 800,000 people with learning difficulties of working age are on incapacity benefit. There are no official statistics specifically for people with learning difficulties. The numbers on incapacity benefit (IB) are likely to be small, since applicants before April 2001 had to have enough National Insurance contributions from work. A recent survey of the lives of almost 3000 people with learning difficulties (by Professor Eric Emerson, the University of Lancaster, Sally Malam, BMRB Social Research, Ian Davies and Karen Spencer, Central England People First) indicated that only 14% were in receipt of IB, while 52% received income support There will now be a small but growing number of young people with learning difficulties on IB since Severe Disablement Allowance for new claimants was withdrawn in 2001 and over the last four years those under 20 can apply for IB without National Insurance contributions.
The government is proposing that people with more manageable conditions will only be able to claim the highest rate of the new employment support allowance if they take part in work focused interviews, produce action plans and carry out work related activity. If they do not comply with the conditions the new benefit will be reduced in a series of cuts stopping at the level of job seekers allowance - about £55 a week. People with more serious conditions will not be required to meet any requirements to qualify for the benefit which will be paid at a higher rate than the current long term incapacity benefit rate of £74 a week. How do you anticipate these plans will affect people with learning disabilities?
People with learning difficulties who are required to take part in interviews, produce action plans and carry out work related activity may become anxious and worried. They will need to receive appropriate and often ongoing support. Staff will need to be trained- and people with learning difficulties should participate in the training. We are very concerned that people with learning difficulties will experience a great deal of unnecessary anxiety if they do not receive sensitive support, tailored to their needs, including information in an accessible form. Indeed the delay in producing an easy read version of the Green paper may already be creating worries.
We welcome the higher rate of benefit. However, we do have concerns that it will be assumed that people with high support needs do not wish to work, and we know that some do. If they so wish they should be able to access employment, using the model of supported employment and have ongoing support.
Is there more that you would like to see in the government's proposals in regard to helping people with learning difficulties back to work?
For many people with learning difficulties it is not a question of getting people back into work, but getting them into work for the first time. In the report last year, Valuing People, The Story So Far it was estimated that 11% are in paid employment and we know that this is often likely to be part-time work. Yet many people have said that they would like a job. There needs to be a concerted effort across government departments and agencies. We would like to see tailored training for staff working in job centre plus, and a focus on the needs of people with learning difficulties from minority ethnic communities who may experience double discrimination.
All schools and colleges should work with others to encourage and support young people with learning difficulties to consider work and to have work experience. The need for support to get a job in the transition from full time education is underlined in the government’s own document, Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People. For people with learning difficulties the full supported employment model is often the best way forward. There needs to be continuity in funding and an expansion of resources for supported employment.
The government aims to get 1 million of the 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit back to work within 10 years. Do you think this a realistic ambition?
Providing opportunities for people to gain employment and raising expectations of work is important; and particularly important for people with learning difficulties. Ten years should be a reasonable time span. The extent to which the government succeeds will depend on fulfilling their pledge to provide appropriate help (and as we have said for many people with learning difficulties this means supported employment) and on the availability of local jobs.
The green paper also says that the government will roll out Pathways to Work pilots across the UK by 2008. What is people with learning difficulties experience of this scheme?
As the pilots are new, evidence is largely anecdotal. It suggests that people with learning difficulties have not benefited so far. Mencap has said that those volunteering for interviews from its employment service have been referred back to them. Pathways to Work pilots have particularly focused on people’s heath problems, looking at how they can be managed in the workplace. Personal advisers do not appear to have had the necessary training. We would like to see Pathways to Work more responsive to the needs of people with learning difficulties.