Thursday, February 17, 2011

Blind people will lose £30 per week under new benefit regime, British blindness group says

From The Guardian in the UK:

Blind and partially sighted people will no longer automatically be eligible for benefits under changes that are expected to save the government £1bn over the next five years.

Tens of thousands of people with sight loss could lose around £30 a week and miss out on support to find work under changes to the benefit system due to start in April, according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

They are unlikely be eligible for the replacement for incapacity benefit, or for tailored support helping them find work, the charity said, because a new test designed to assess levels of disability makes it much harder to qualify and ignores the difficulties blind people face as they search for work.

The institute says blind people feel "a massive sense of betrayal and are worried about the future". The changes, they believe, will push them on to the lower-paid jobseeker's allowance.

Their concerns emerged as the government prepares to introduce wide-reaching changes to the entire benefit system in a welfare reform bill.

Previously people who were registered blind were automatically entitled to incapacity benefit, but that is being phased out. From April all existing claimants will have to undergo a new medical test of their fitness for work.

The test has much tighter criteria, making it more difficult to be judged eligible for employment support allowance, the new benefit. During pilots of the changeover, 70% fewer claimants were found eligible for the full-rate, unconditional support benefit.

The new benefit has two levels: the support group, where claimants are judged to be too disabled or unwell to be expected to work, and the work-related activity group, who are deemed to be capable of working, provided they are helped into employment.

The way the test for the new benefit has been set up means that blind people will be less likely to score enough points to qualify for either level, according to the RNIB. They will not then be eligible for targeted support-into-work sessions, organised by jobcentres, and will instead automatically go on to jobseeker's allowance, which pays around £30 less a week than the existing incapacity benefit.

Steve Winyard, the RNIB's head of policy and campaigns, said the new test would "systematically exclude" blind and partially sighted people "from support to prepare for and move into employment".

The work capability assessment (WCA), which judges whether a claimant is fit enough to work, has attracted huge numbers of complaints since its introduction in 2008. Described by charities as blunt and unsophisticated, the test has passed people who are terminally ill as fit to work, and has repeatedly failed to register the difficulties faced by people with learning disabilities and mental health problems.

Changes were recommended in a very critical independent report into the test last November; most of these will be implemented, the government says, before existing incapacity benefit claimants begin to be retested, at a rate of 11,000 a week, from April.

But another set of changes to the test were introduced last week, and it is these measures which make it unlikely that blind people will be awarded the benefit.

In order to qualify for the new benefit claimants need to score 15 points in a computer-led test of their physical and mental abilities. The full 15 points will be awarded if the blind person is "unable to navigate around familiar surroundings without being accompanied by another person due to sensory impairment".

RNIB staff argue that if, for example, someone has a guide dog, they will be able to navigate around familiar surroundings, so will not be awarded the points.

They predict that most blind and partially sighted people will be given no more than nine points under the current structure of the test, meaning they will not qualify.

"Blind and partially sighted people never wanted to be seen as incapable of work, which is why we welcomed the shift from IB to ESA, but we always understood that there was going to be proper support to help us get into work," Winyard said.

"The new WCA test will mean many blind and partially sighted people are deemed immediately able to work and moved straight on to jobseeker's allowance, which will mean a big drop in income and less support to find work: 92% of employers describe blind or partially sighted people as difficult or impossible to employ.

"The government has broken a promise to improve these flawed proposals. It has ignored specialist advice, criticising its plans. At RNIB we are left asking just how this demonstrates a commitment to 'protect the most vulnerable'?"

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said support to help people find work would still be provided, even for people who did not qualify for the employment support allowance.

"We want the WCA to treat people as individuals and assess them based on their individual needs rather than simply labelling them because of their condition," he said.

"Those who are found fit for work will get the help and support they need to get a job. Those found too sick or disabled to work won't be expected to and will continue to receive the help and support they need to lead fulfilling lives."