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TX: 18.08.08 - Disability Minister

PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
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WHITE
Now a few weeks ago, as you heard on this programme, the government wants to change the way people get benefits. This includes scrapping incapacity benefit and bringing in the new employment and support allowance. That will differentiate between those who it decides are able to work and who'll be tested for their ability to work from time to time and those who are deemed not able to work and they will receive a larger allowance than before.

The Department for Work and Pensions has published a green paper called No One Written Off - Reforming Welfare to Reward Responsibility setting out its proposals. The DWP wants to hear people's views on these ideas and we've been asking you to send in your opinions and questions so that we can put them directly to Anne McGuire, the minister for disabled people, who joins us from her constituency of Stirling in Scotland. Minister, good morning.

MCGUIRE
Good afternoon.

WHITE
In a nutshell what's the point of these reforms?

MCGUIRE
Well we think that we are responding to the very powerful message that people on incapacity benefit and indeed disabled people generally have given us and that is they want to be judged for what they can do and not for what they cannot do. Now one of the ways in which we are looking to do that is obviously reforming our welfare system as to how we support people into employment. I think that the real winners from our green paper are in fact disabled people themselves and I hope as many of your listeners as possible, not just participate in this discussion Peter but also have a chance to look at the green paper and feed in their own views and their own experiences.

WHITE
Right, well we're going to fit in as many questions as we can and you know people are concerned about this, despite your intentions. One group of people concerned about the new rules are those with psychiatric illnesses and we've had this question from a major charity representing them.

FARMER
I'm Paul Farmer, I'm the chief executive of MIND, the leading mental health charity. We know that people with mental health problems really want to work but we also know that there's a great deal of discrimination and reluctance amongst employers to take on people. My question for Anne is: What is the role of government in ensuring that employers are willing and ready to employ people with mental health problems?

WHITE
So Anne McGuire, let me just get you to answer Paul Farmer's concern.

MCGUIRE
Well I think Paul and his organisation MIND have done a tremendous amount to highlight the situation that many people with mental health conditions find themselves out and he is correct - there is still a bit of reluctance, discrimination, around some employers to take on someone who has a mental health condition. But we're working with employers as well as with organisations such as MIND to ensure that one, our new capability assessment is responsive to the sort of fluctuating condition that many with mental health conditions have and two, with employers to say to them if you're wanting the best person for the job then of course you need to look at the broader spectrum. And I don't know if anybody has had a chance to view or listen to our most recent public service broadcasting advert which is focusing on employment of those with a mental health condition. Very briefly Peter, it is situated in a hospital and it throws up all the sort of misconceptions about those that have a mental health condition and the punch line is that if you don't employ this person you've just turned down Florence Nightingale for a job...

WHITE
Who did have a nervous condition didn't she, yeah.

MCGUIRE
Yeah she had a severe psychiatric health condition, particularly in her later years. And I think that's the message that we want to get across. Stop looking at people for what they cannot do and judge them on their abilities. If those abilities are fluctuating then we need to work with employers.

WHITE
Right, let me give a couple of questions from listeners which refer to these fluctuating conditions. For example, we've had from a lady who wants to remain anonymous but she says their illness means they can't open letters or they're too nervous to open the door, they only get benefits because a nurse filled in the forms for them, if you wrote to me about changing my benefit or testing you'd have no means of knowing. In other words really someone who finds it difficult to cope with life let alone getting a job.

MCGUIRE
Yeah and ....

WHITE
And these people are worried about being pushed.

MCGUIRE
Of course and I can understand where your - why your listener would be concerned because obviously she has a particular focus on her own situation. But let me be very clear that we have developed the new capability assessment along with organisations that represent people, including those with mental health conditions, as well as health professionals and others involved in supporting...

WHITE
You see people are hearing the rhetoric which says we want to get people and we're going to interview you every - on a regular basis to see whether your condition has got better, these are people who don't think their condition's going to get better.

MCGUIRE
Well, I can, as I say, that maybe part of the issues that we do have to address when we are working with individuals. I mean our disability employment advisors are well skilled in working with those who perhaps face some of the difficulties that your listener has highlighted. But let me also be clear if someone's - if the assessment is that someone is not able to work then that's obviously something that we will take into account, it's not about saying that everybody currently on incapacity benefit will be able to move immediately into employment. It is about saying for those for whom we think we can provide support, whether that be with our own Job Centre Plus or with the private or voluntary sector, then work with us, your ambitions and your aspirations can be met but we need to work together to ensure that happens.

WHITE
Here's another question from a major charity asked in person.

RICKELL
My name is Andy Rickell and I'm one of SCOPE's executive directors. SCOPE is one of the largest national disability organisations. What action will be taken to ensure that disabled people with complex impairments who may need support over a long period to find and retain employment will definitely receive the specialist support they require?

WHITE
And I think what's behind this is something you touched on but it's a worry that the people - the Job Centre people - that you've got don't have specialisms in disability. And can I just tie it in with one we've had from Kevin, who says: I'm on incapacity benefit, currently work three hours a week. When you go to the Job Centre there's one disability advisor for the area and employers are laying off workers due to the economy, where's the government going to find jobs for the millions on benefit? He said: I'd love to do more hours but who's going to help me find work at 57? So two pronged really - the employers and the fear that there aren't people with specialisms in disability.

MCGUIRE
Well it would be almost impossible for us to have a specialist in every disability placed in every Job Centre. What we have are generic disability employment advisors who if they are not able to offer the individual support and assessment they have the route to offering that to our individual customers. So we can - I think we can deal with that. And what we need to ensure of course is that our disability employment advisors are well plugged into the local network. On the issue of jobs. I mean I know that it's currently topical to talk about jobs disappearing. In actual fact Job Centre Plus any day of the week has around about 650,000 vacancies on its books or on its computer system and that's not taking into account all the other jobs that are advertised through different agencies. So the issue about jobs I can - if you're reading the papers everyday you might worry about that but I actually don't think that is ...

WHITE
People are also seeing predictions of unemployment going up and that's bound to worry them because their feeling is if that happens disabled people are the last in, first out.

MCGUIRE
Well I think perhaps Peter that is part of the confidence giving that we've got to give to disabled people, programmes such as your own and ourselves in government and employers that if you are skilled in the job that you do, if you are a committed and dedicated worker, you know we shouldn't always assume that disabled people are going to be the first out and in many respects actually I suspect they will not be the first out if there happens to be some difficulties in an organisation or business.

WHITE
Can I ask you about testing? We've had some e-mails about the testing of whether people are fit for work or not and who's going to do it. Linda says: Visualise this. How are you this week Mrs Jones? Terrible. Following week. How are you this week? Well not too bad. Okay you're fit for work. In other words, what she's saying, some illnesses and disabilities vary greatly from day to day what expertise will there be? And Paul Swain says: What about cases where there's no clear medical reasons, e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome or where it takes time for the diagnosis to be found. But he says: This wasn't really being dealt with before and there's nothing in the green paper to say this issue's been addressed.

MCGUIRE
Well I think there is a lot in the green paper which identifies those fluctuating conditions and I think there is ...

WHITE
... agree on the ...

MCGUIRE
Well can I say, is it Mrs Jones who was your questioner?

WHITE
I used that name.

MCGUIRE
Alright then, alright then, you've been rumbled. I suspect that is more of a caricature of what a health professional would do and does rather than the reality. The new assessment, as I said earlier, has been worked through with both health professionals and the organisations that represent disabled people so that it is sensitive to those fluctuating conditions and ME is obviously one that one of your listeners has identified. There are currently just short of 30,000 people with ME receiving incapacity benefit and of course there is a recognition that ME is a fluctuating condition and indeed we have recently reviewed our guidance for our decision makers to ensure that they recognise the fluctuating nature of ME and they are as up to date as possible with the latest evidence about how ME impacts on people's lives.

WHITE
Okay, I should say we've not been rumpled that was genuinely from Linda but she made up a little sketch. We haven't got long but I do want to ask you this because we had a lot from carers. Philippa Wood said: I strongly object to the proposals to transfer carers from carers allowance and income support to job seekers allowance. I believe transferring carers who are providing 35 hours a week of care - full time care - to a benefit that suggests they're not working and are available for work is an insult to carers. We had a lot like that.

MCGUIRE
And I understand that argument obviously as well as my remit on disability issues I also have a remit within department on carers and I work very closely with carers and their organisations. Can I just reassure those carers that are listening is yes the transfer is on to a benefit called job seekers allowance but we also fully recognise that for some carers it would not be appropriate for them to undertake some of the activities that we would expect other people on job seekers allowance to undertake. Their caring responsibilities will be taken fully into account and indeed there will not be any expectations for those with those full time caring responsibilities. It is moving and rationalising the benefit and a simplification actually for people applying rather than an expectation that they will undertake those conditions that accrue to that benefit.

WHITE
We must leave it there. Anne McGuire than you very much, we fitted in as many as we could. The consultation continues until 22nd October. You can find out from our website how to contribute to it. You can also hear the minister on tomorrow's In Touch on the controversy about whether blind people should be entitled to the higher mobility rate for disability living allowance.

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