Anne McGuire – 2006 Speech to the RNIB

Below is the text of the speech made by Anne McGuire to the RNIB ‘Focus on the Future’ Conference held in Aberdeen on 31st August 2006.

It is a great pleasure to be with you all in Aberdeen and I would like to thank John Legg, RNIB Scotland and Grampian Society for the Blind for inviting me to speak at this important event. The conference is an important step in highlighting the employment needs of blind and partially sighted people and I hope that the presentations here today will provide much food for thought and fresh perspectives into addressing the currently low rates of employment for blind and partially sighted people.

As the UK’s Minister for Disabled People I have been asked to set the scene and cover what the UK Government has been doing to improve the employment opportunities of disabled people generally. Although we have been doing a lot I think we would all agree that much remains to be done for disabled people generally and for blind and partially sighted people in particular.

Undoubtedly, we are going through a period of change as we review our services to disabled people and the means by which those services are delivered. I recognise that change can give rise to uncertainty. But change can also provide us with an opportunity.

– an opportunity to build on the progress that we’ve already made;

– an opportunity to shape a new, active inclusive welfare state and to contribute to that goal;

– and an opportunity to support a dramatic extension of individually tailored support that has the potential to transform the life chances of disabled people in our workplaces; in our communities and in our society as a whole.

I want to say a little about that change and the context within which it is taking place.

Since 1997, we have set about implementing the most profound extension of disability rights this country has ever seen. We have strengthened civil rights for disabled people in such areas as access to goods and services, and to public transport, and we established the Disability Rights Commission in April 2000 to help disabled people understand and enforce their rights.

In October 2004, we extended the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to provide protection against discrimination for an additional 600,000 disabled workers. A further 7 million jobs and 1 million employers were brought within the scope of the employment provisions of the Act.

Most recently, amendments made to the Disability Discrimination Act in 2005 require public authorities to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people – a real milestone in helping people to eliminate the institutional disadvantage that many disabled people still face. The legislation will ensure greater opportunities for disabled people to work by tackling discrimination in recruitment and employment.

The Act completed the most far-reaching programme of disability rights legislation that any European country has so far put in place and fulfilled our commitment, my commitment and Anne Begg’s commitment to deliver enforceable and comprehensive civil rights for disabled people. It represents a major landmark on the road to a society which promotes equality for all people and in which disabled people can be empowered to live independently, fully recognised and respected as equal members of the community.

But for all the legislative progress that we have made – we know that we have very much further to go if we are to achieve our goal of substantive equality for disabled people. That is why the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit report published in January 2005 was a milestone in Government’s approach to improving the life chances of disabled people.

Developed in partnership with disabled people themselves, we recognised that unless we changed the way we as public authorities worked, we could not put in place true equality for disabled people.

That is why we are as a result of the Strategy Unit’s report:

– working to promote independent living with the individualised budget pilots currently in England and being watched closely by the government in Scotland and the Welsh Assembly, and we;

– established the new Office for Disability Issues and a new Great Britain-wide National Forum for Organisations of Disabled People which will enable the views of disabled people to be heard by policymakers at the highest level to ensure disabled people really are at the heart of public policy – able to influence the development of policies and service delivery that will affect every aspect of their lives.

But one of the greatest challenges that we face is in trying to ensure that more disabled people get the opportunities that many of us take for granted – access to a good education and being able to move on into a job.

Recent statistics showed, that although we are making tremendous strides forward in tackling poverty:

– disabled people are still more likely to be trapped in poverty than non–disabled people;

– and a quarter of all children living in poverty have long-term sick or disabled parents.

The government is determined to tackle child poverty and to do that, we need to tackle parents’ poverty.

We know that:

– disabled people are more than twice as likely to have no educational qualifications as non-disabled people

– that they are over three times as likely to be economically inactive

– and when they do have a job they earn less on average than their peers. Indeed around a third of young disabled people actually expect by age 30 to be earning less than non-disabled people of their own age.

As a Government and as a society we simply cannot accept this situation.

I think that all of us here today recognise that work is the best route out of poverty; the best route to confidence, self esteem and ultimately independence. The right to work is the bedrock of individual independence.

But we all also know that there are still barriers that prevent disabled people from exercising that right. Disabled people looking for work can still encounter a range of barriers – from policy design and delivery of services, to physical and environmental barriers, to outright discrimination.

This not only compromises our ability to respond to the challenges of economic and demographic change – we simply cannot afford to ignore the skills and contributions of all those who can and want to work – but it also fundamentally undermines that very precious goal of true equality and opportunity for all.

We need to continue to work together to change current culture and raise the expectations of employers, health professionals and disabled people themselves so that these barriers can be overcome.

Our efforts to help disabled people get a job are crucially dependent on employers being prepared to give individuals a chance to demonstrate what they can do in the workplace. I urge more employers to give blind and disabled workers that opportunity.

This cultural and attitudinal shift is precisely what the Welfare Reform Green Paper sets out to do.

We know the vast majority of people who start receiving incapacity benefit want to go back into work – but the system currently provides them with little help to do so.

In early January this year, John Hutton wrote to 100 constituency MPs with the highest levels of people on incapacity benefits setting out research that very starkly demonstrated the clear link between the high concentration of benefit dependency and hardship and poverty.

The country has paid a heavy price for this policy failure over the years. We know that individuals, families and communities suffer when people get stuck on benefits. The previous system has dissuaded aspirations.

Over the last few years thanks to our investment in the New Deal and Jobcentre Plus, the employment rate of disabled people has risen as twice as fast as for the population as a whole. The New Deal for Disabled People has seen over 90,000 job entries since its launch in 2001 with a further quarter of a million disabled people helped into work through the other New Deal programmes. But we all know that blind and partially sighted people still lag behind non-disabled citizens when it comes to job opportunities.

We now want to build on the active labour market policies we have introduced and put in place a network of support that will help people overcome the barriers to moving back to work.

Our Green Paper strategy has three clear aims.

We will take steps to reduce the number of new claimants.

We will provide greater help for those on the benefit to return to work.

And, for the most severely sick and disabled, we will provide greater support.

The new Employment and Support Allowance will;

– be paid to eligible claimants, with an enhanced employment support component for the majority of claimants who will be undertaking mandatory Work Focused Interviews and later activity, and importantly

– include an enhanced support component for those individuals who are unable to engage in any activity because of the severity of their condition

We are also going further to activate the system – to make sure that back to work support is available to people on incapacity benefits.

In 2003 we set up our first Pathways to work pilots – combining employment and health support.

We are now expanding Pathways more widely. By October this year Pathways provision will be available to around one third of all those on incapacity benefits. A key area in its success is engaging with employers.

We need to emphasise the importance of education and the transition into work. We need to challenge the stereotypes of what blind people can and cannot do. We have help and support available through programmes such as Access to Work. We need to re-emphasise to employers the benefits of new technology. We need to work to raise the expectations of disabled people themselves and to provide support when it is needed and with all of that, the sky is the limit.

But we can only do this in partnership with the representatives here today – with workers, with companies, with providers and with trades unions. I look forward to working with you, so that together we can play our part in achieving that ambition of true equality for disabled people in Britain within a generation.

With your support I know we can build on the improvements we have already achieved for disabled people. Improvements which bring greater numbers of disabled people into the mainstream, securing economic and social inclusion for them and their families and contributing to the economic life of our nation.