TPT sets out some thoughts on the Spring Statement and their implications for the sight loss sector.
Sustainable social care
In his first budget as Chancellor, two years ago, Phillip Hammond said that the government would produce a green paper on social care to establish a way to deliver sustainable long-term funding. Since then, the green paper has been repeatedly delayed. The Chancellor offered no update on this in his statement, so we are still no further forward.
We remain worried about what continued austerity in local government means for blind and partially sighted people. This is at a time when we know vital services, including vision rehabilitation, remain under threat and provisions set out in the Care Act are often not met.
Support for children and young people with sight loss
TPT is working to highlight the lack of provision for children and young people with vision impairment, aiming to ensure everyone receives an equal standard of education, and the opportunity to learn independent mobility and living skills.
Due to both a low prevalence rate and the unique barriers to learning that vision impairment presents, mainstream educational settings often lack the knowledge and expertise to support CYP with vision impairment effectively. Specialist tailored support should always be in place.
Research shows that one in three local authorities cut their spending on services for children and young people with vision impairment over a 12-month period from 2016/17 to 2017/18, and that there has been a significant reduction in the number of qualified teachers of children and young people with vision impairment (QTVIs).
This lack of support impacts on the life chances of children and young people with vision impairment. It is not right that young people with vision impairment are twice as likely to not be in employment, education or training as the general population.
It is hugely disappointing that Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) underfunding has not been addressed in the Chancellor’s Spring Statement.
Benefits freeze goes on
A report we published last year looked specifically at the cost of living for blind and partially sighted people. It found that state benefits do not in most cases fully cover the additional cost of being visually impaired. These benefits have often been previously topped up by disability-related premiums in Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but these are due to be discontinued under Universal Credit.
The Chancellor’s Spring Statement was conspicuous in what it did not say. Notably, he did not take the opportunity, as urged by a number of commentators, to end the working age benefit freeze this year. On current plans (if there are no Brexit-related setbacks) it will end only in April 2020.
Some disability-related payments, notably Personal Independence Payment, are exempt from the freeze. But many other benefits received by disabled people remain frozen, including basic and some other rates of ESA, Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit and corresponding parts of Universal Credit. These have been frozen since 2015 and subject to below-inflation increases before that.
Remove barriers to employment for blind and partially sighted people
The Chancellor trumpeted the record-high employment rates in the UK as a sign of a strong economy. However, growing employment is not being felt by everyone. There are an estimated 20,000 blind and partially sighted people working in every major category of employment in the UK, yet blind and partially sighted people are less likely to be in work than the general population and are twice as likely to be unemployed than people with other disabilities. We need a benefits system which can provide support at their time of need combined with a meaningful and supportive approach to reducing the disability employment gap to enable people to find employment and reach their full potential.
The Chancellor, disappointingly, did not take the opportunity to address this and we will be continuing our engagement and policy work to make this a national priority for ministers.
Overall, much of the Spring Statement was caveated by the implications of Brexit. The Chancellor announced that a Spending Review would be published alongside the Autumn Budget later in the year and much of our focus will be on influencing the outcome of that review.