Disability Employment Gap Update

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Photo: Result CIC Director, Jane Cordell with fellow panel participant and member of the APPG, Neil Coyle, MP at Parliament on 7 December.

Jane Cordell reports on her attendance as part of a panel at the Parliamentary launch of a government report on halving the disability employment gap.

Question: If the gap between disabled and non-disabled employment levels continues to reduce at the same rate as in recent years, when will it be halved?

A new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report answers the question: in the year 2065.

Are you shocked by that answer? Should you be bothered? With all of the other dramatic events currently happening, how important is it?

Well let’s start with economics. Since voting to leave the EU there has been even more concern in the UK about the state of our economy. The report’s introduction makes the point that:

‘Growing the economy in a sustainable way requires wider participation in the labour market.’

Construction is one of the UK’s growth industries. Fellow panelist, Kevin Millin, is a quantity surveyor representing Disabled People in Construction. He said that the combination of a big shortfall in staff in the industry and the fact that a mere 5% are disabled is a tangible example of this problem: not enough disabled people are working in construction.

Put simply, we need people to work and as approximately 16% of working age people are disabled, if we only have a fraction of them working, the economy will not be powered as well as it could be.

Dr. Lisa Cameron, MP (SNP), Chair of the Group, made it clear that this is about society as a whole. In her introductory address she said:

‘It is about harnessing potential and making the UK fully inclusive in terms of workplace policies.’

Dr. Cameron described the report as ‘bold’ and added that it needed to be.

So what does this report suggest? The two main recommendations are:

• Providing better access to jobs for disabled people including, if necessary, offering positive action, which our equality legislation permits.
• Creating a tighter legal framework to ensure disabled people, and particularly those who acquire a disability, retain their job.

Sounds good, right?

But how would it work?

The report recommends that government, with its huge spending power, leads the way. It suggests that all public sector contracts should contain inclusive recruitment and retention policies as standard clauses and that these should also apply to sub-contractors, which are often smaller organisations. There is currently a public duty to promote equality. But the view among many minority groups, particularly the disabled community, is that this is mostly ignored and rarely enforced. The report calls, as a minimum, for there to be stated target disabled employment levels for each contract and for the commissioning employer to be contractually responsible for monitoring and delivery.

Marion Turner-Hawes, representing a Northamptonshire disabled-led organisation, pointed out that there are many local and smaller disabled-led organisations with experience and skills to support disabled recruitment, employment and retention.

‘We [smaller disabled-led organisations] are here, we are all lined up and we are ready to help. Not just the charities but disabled persons and businesses. We are ready to help tackle this problem. Many of us are overlooked when it comes to putting forward our ideas and developing work.’

The report describes how many workers who become disabled lose their jobs by being ‘routinely failed on performance of health and safety grounds’ rather than being offered reasonable adjustments, enabling them to continue to work and letting the employer retain their skills and experience. It estimates that between 35,000 and 48,000 disabled workers lose their jobs each year. The report recommends that people are given the right to return to work within a year of acquiring a disability or long-term health condition.

APPG Vice-Chair, Johnny Mercer is an MP with a background in the military who understands well the impact of disability on the lives of veterans. He described work as ‘the single biggest life enhancer’ and pointed out that when an individual is disabled and does not have work this doesn’t only affect them, but their whole family. At the report launch he said that jobs needed to be allocated fairly.

The discussion also touched on the Minister for Disability, Penny Mordaunt’s (Department of Work and Pensions) stated commitment to find £120 per week for disabled people affected by recent changes to Employment Support Allowance. Neil Coyle, MP (Labour) and Kate Green, MP (Labour) expressed concern about how the money saved by the ESA changes would be redirected into providing employment support to disabled people. Lord Addington encouraged everyone present to maintain pressure on these and all issues, ensuring that there was accountability.

This was a positive discussion. And there are good, even ground-breaking, ideas in this report. But my main concern, and my main comment at the report’s launch is, supposing any of the recommendations see the light of day, how will they be enforced?

If you look back at successful legislation, such as non-smoking in public areas or wearing seat belts, the changes in behaviour initially only came about by enforcement. But once people (often grudgingly at first) had been forced to change their behaviour, they gradually changed their attitude. So in time, not smoking in public and wearing seatbelts felt ‘normal’. When it becomes normal that the colleague at the next desk, or the next checkout, or wherever you work is disabled, when it becomes normal to be able to chat openly at work about disability, then we will know the change has happened.

Stating and re-stating the many benefits of employing representative disabled people at – and remaining in – work is all very well, but until employers are formally required by law to do so, they will not. I know this from personal experience. I also know this from a budgetary angle. The EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission] has a budget of £17m per year to cover all 9 legally-recognised characteristics (including e.g race, sexuality and age). When the Disability Rights Commission (covering only disability) was disbanded in 2008 it had an annual budget of £22m. Disabled people now have to work even harder with fewer resources to get our ideas heard and taken seriously.

Despite being routinely excluded, denied dignity and independence and equality, disabled people need to try, as Lord Addington said, to find the resources to keep up the pressure. We need to believe things can be better.

What next? I will be taking part in Heidi Allen MP’s round-table discussion of the Government’s green paper on disability and employment on 12 January. The APPG hold a further meeting on this topic on 31 January.

You can read the full report ‘Ahead of the Arc’ here. And you can read the Green Paper, ‘Improving Lives’ here.

 
 

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