In August, new RAAC (Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete – a building material used since the 1950’s) events came to light reducing confidence that schools could manage RAAC without mitigations in place. As a parent whose eldest daughter starts school this week, I absolutely shared concerns as to whether our local schools would be impacted. Thankfully, as it stands, no local schools are. Any impacted school has been given an individual caseworker and the Chancellor has made it clear the necessary funding will be provided to address the issue quickly.
Having formerly served as the Minister for the Health & Safety Executive I understand both the challenges of older buildings and the need to act quickly once issues are raised. The Government has provided £28bn since 2010 to modernise the school estate, alongside 524 brand new schools, many of which have opened in North Swindon. We also rightly scrapped Labour’s use of the rip-off PFI schemes and the expensive and slow Building Schools for the Future programme. As we saw prior to 2010, this meant schools were delivered years after new developments were built causing anger amongst local parents. All new schools are now fully paid for and delivered ahead of the demand.
We are funding schools at their highest levels at nearly £60bn, we have recruited an extra 27,000 teachers and by delivering new, modern schools we have allowed parents greater choice. This is paying off with 88% of schools now rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, compared to just 68% in 2010.
As Parliament returned, I had a busy week on disability issues. We had DWP Orals on Monday, followed by a 3-hour debate on Disability Assessments, the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) Statement on Tuesday and then I was asked to do a series of national media interviews to comment on these on Wednesday.
Throughout I was able to highlight several important issues:
On disability assessments we need to extend the Severe Conditions Criteria. This would allow certain, degenerative conditions such as MND to automatically qualify for PIP without the need for a full assessment. This could potentially lift 300,000 claimants per year out of unnecessary assessments.
We should further extend the use of video and telephone assessments to link claimants with assessors with specific knowledge of their primary health condition. This would improve the quality of assessments.
We should start signposting claimants for additional support where available. For example, if there were local groups or initiatives providing support for people with mental health issues, then we should share this with claimants who could benefit.
As the WCA is revised, we need to take advantage of the increased use of flexible working and advancements in technology. 1 in 5 currently deemed ‘not fit to work’ want an opportunity to do so. We must provide them with the right support to make this possible, whether that is increased work coach time or access to the various strands of the Work Programme.
Finally, whilst I am proud that we now have over 2m more disabled people in work since 2013, a record high, there remains 300,000 people each year dropping out of work due to changing health conditions. Employers need to be better equipped to have the confidence and skills to work with the employee to make (often small) changes to keep them in work, rather than crashing into the benefit system.