Transparency ‘essential’ to tackle disability employment gap

2nd December 2015

At the General Election, I was delighted to stand on a Conservative manifesto platform that boldly committed to halving the disability employment gap. The commitment represents a significant challenge, but reflects the commitment of this Government to support disabled people to contribute fully to society and the country’s economic growth.

The number of disabled people in employment has increased by 94,000 since this time last year, according to the labour market statistics, published this week. While this is good news, the very welcome increase in the employment rate amongst non-disabled people, means the disability employment gap has increased by 4.1% from this time last year to 32.9%.

This gap refers to the difference between the employment rate amongst disabled people, and the rest of the population. It has remained static at around 30% for the past decade. Therefore, the Government’s commitment to halving it is very welcome. Indeed, the Government cannot hope to achieve its goal of full employment without this concomitant pledge for disabled people.

This is why, when the Welfare Reform and Work Bill reached its Report Stage in the Commons last month, I introduced two employment amendments to support the Government’s delivery of this vital agenda.

My first amendment required the Government to include annual reporting on the disability employment gap. This commitment has the potential to positively transform the lives of disabled people by enabling them to live independently, and help drive the nation’s economic prosperity. Research for the disability charity, Scope, has found that even small increases in the disability employment can yield considerable gains in GDP and for the Exchequer, and reductions in poverty. For example, a ten percentage point increase in GDP will generate £45 billion by 2030.

It is therefore essential that we demonstrate transparent reporting and monitoring on the progress that we are making specifically towards halving the disability employment gap. Reporting annually in this way will draw attention to the Government’s bold ambition in this area, and greatly help to prioritise its delivery.

The 30% gap in employment rates between disabled and non-disabled people arises from the multiple systematic and structural barriers that disabled people face in entering, staying and progressing in work.  The barriers will vary according to the individual, but broadly will include structural issues, such as the availability of suitable jobs, a lack of appropriate support to get into work, or the attitudes of prospective employers.

The Government, and the Disability Minister in particular, are doing great work to challenge and improve the attitudes of businesses towards employing disabled people, through their Disability Confident campaign. The campaign also highlights the Access to Work funding that is available from the Government, for any work place adjustments needed by disabled employees.

However, this alone cannot provide the solution.  The Government must also address the poor outcomes of current back-to-work support programmes disabled people. Disabled people are currently supported into work by two national government back-to-work programmes in addition to Jobcentre support - the Work Programme and Work Choice.

While the Work Programme has been generally successful in helping most customer groups to enter and stay in work, job outcomes for disabled people on it are poor. Current specialised employment support programmes, such as Work Choice, are working better for disabled people. However, they remain small and can be poorly targeted, affecting only a small proportion of disabled people who are looking for work.

Personalised, tailored support has a critical role to play in supporting disabled people into the workplace. Specialist providers have the expertise and ability to respond directly to specific barriers to work that an individual may experience.  Effective employment support may include peer-to-peer sessions, interview and CV preparation, and support that is focused on managing specific impairments and conditions within the workplace.

The Government’s devolution agenda also presents an exciting opportunity to address the disability employment gap. Local areas are increasingly being given greater control and say over their growth and employment strategies with the development of City and Growth Deals, the introduction of Local Enterprise Partnerships, new legislation on cities and local government devolution and the recent Greater Manchester Deal.

My second Welfare Reform and Work Bill amendment therefore required the Secretary of State to make provision for additional personalised and specialist employment support for disabled people. This is something that the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee also called for in their report on welfare to work programmes last month. 

In the Emergency Budget after the election, the Government announced that £100 million will be made available for this purpose by 2021. This is very welcome, and during the passage of the Bill, the Employment Minister has agreed to unveil details of what the support the Government provide.

It is of critical importance that this new investment in employment support is targeted in order to deliver the most effective outcomes. The contracts for Work Programme and Work Choice are coming to an end in 2017. This represents a fantastic opportunity to evaluate and evolve employment support. As I said in the House when moving the amendment, the sooner we get details on the Government’s plans on specialist employment support, the better.

This is particularly important given that the Bill will cut Employment Support Allowance (ESA) for some people with disabilities and long term health conditions (those who are placed in the Work Related Activity Group or WRAG) by nearly £30 a week.

According to the mental health charity, Mind, people supported by ESA typically take longer to move into work; almost 60% of people on JSA move off the benefit within 6 months, while almost 60 per cent of people in the WRAG need this support for at least two years.

Nine out of ten disabled people are in work or have worked in the past, and Scope research shows that that over 670,000 working age disabled people say they are ready to start work in the next two weeks.

As the Welfare Reform and Work Bill gets in its Second Reading in the House of Lords next week, I very much hope the Government will set what form specialised, tailored support will take to overcome the multiple barriers that disabled people face in finding and flourishing in work.

Regularly measuring progress in getting disabled people into work, and properly supporting them to do so is vital if the Government is to deliver its bold pledge to halve the disability employment gap. Doing so, will not only enable a disabled people to fulfil their aspirations and live independently at an individual and community level, but it will also deliver substantial gains for Britain’s businesses and economy.

| First published at Politics Home

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