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29 January 2008

Speech on adults with disabilities

I am glad to have secured the debate and to see the Minister of State here on behalf of the Government. I hope to push this important issue higher up the agenda, as there are, sadly, many issues still to be dealt with, many statistics that expose the scale of the problem and many talented and able individuals who are unable to make the contribution to society of which they are capable.

Before I go into details about the United Kingdom, it is worth spending a few minutes discussing how life is for people elsewhere in the world who have the same problems but often lack the support that exists in the UK. We must never forget that in many countries, disabilities end the working lives and careers of many people. Their employment prospects disappear when often avoidable problems take their toll. Many adults suffer from lost limbs because of land mines and cluster bombs, and many others lose their sight through preventable illnesses such as river blindness. Having seen at first hand the results of such problems elsewhere in the world, I have been left with a stronger determination than ever that we can offer something much better in this country for those who are fighting for a fair deal, often on several fronts.

Last week, I attended a reception organised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), and was moved by the experience of an individual who described graphically what it was like to lose his sight and how it affected his employment. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in presenting his 10-minute Bill on employment retention later today.

Leonard Cheshire recently produced a report, “Disability Poverty in the UK”, containing many statistics showing the scale of the problem. I do not have time to go into them all today, so I will simply advise people to read the report. It looks particularly at poverty and disability, but there is one section on employment.

Employment is often the glue that holds life together. It provides income to maintain a certain standard of living and, for many people, a social structure, and it results in improved health and well-being. People in employment contribute not only to the Treasury, through taxes, but to society through their work. Why then do we have an employment rate among disabled people of about 50 per cent. and rising? There are several reasons, many of which I shall address today. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that the tide can be turned, because there is a growing problem.

Many children with disabilities now live longer, which means that in the future, for all the right reasons, there will be an increase in the number of adults with disabilities who want to enter the work force. We must be as ready as possible to remove many of the barriers that exist today.

Barnardo's at Caern house in my constituency works with children with disabilities and last Friday, I saw at first hand that excellent work. Those children need to know that they have a future in the workplace as valued members of society. I congratulate employers such as the Royal Bank of Scotland on their generous support to Caern house, and I hope that they will continue to show such interest throughout the working life of those children, who will look to major employers for a future as valued members of their work forces. Why is it that some employers will go as far as eastern Europe to fill a vacancy, but are reluctant to interview someone in a wheelchair? How many work forces would be more understanding of the disability issues of their colleagues and friends if they could break down those barriers?

The first issue on which I want to press the Minister is the scale of the problem. Will he monitor progress annually on a number of key indicators of disability poverty in relation to employment, such as the employment rate among disabled people, broken down by impairment group? Will he monitor the percentage of disabled people of working age who are in work; not in work, but looking for work; and not in work and not looking for work? For those in work, will he monitor what they are paid in comparison with non-disabled people? Such information is at the heart of ensuring that we can monitor what progress is being made and work out how to increase the rate of progress. One place to start is in Departments, which ought to be beacons of best practice, but sadly that is not the case. Even the Department of Work and Pensions has a staff base of only slightly more than 5 per cent. disabled people, compared with 13 per cent. in the work force in general.

Before we can have any meaningful debate on the issue, we must deal with the inference that disabled people are unemployed because they do not want to work. That simply is not true. Disabled people are twice as likely to be out of work compared with non-disabled people, but those who are out of work are far more likely to want to work than non-disabled people. Neither is it always true that disabled people cannot work. Certain disabilities will rule out certain jobs, but the majority of people with disabilities have a great deal to offer, and it is up to employers and the Government to play their part in ensuring that society benefits from those skills.

The new deal for disabled people, the extensions to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, pathways to work and access to work programmes have all gone some way towards achieving those aims. I very much hope that the Welfare Reform Act 2007 will encourage the adoption of more flexible responses to those who are building up slowly to returning to work on a regular basis. Such people could be encouraged to volunteer, without having to risk their benefits. I welcome the recent consultation on improving the specialist employment support available to those with disabilities, and I look forward to feeding into that process. However, I am sure the Minister will accept that despite those initiatives much more must be done to remove barriers and raise expectations among employers and employees of what disabled people can achieve in the workplace.

I am sure I was not alone in being disturbed by the rhetoric of the Conservative party's announcements on welfare to work, particularly the simplistic and headline-grabbing pledge about reassessing all incapacity benefit claimants. Whether that was mere posturing remains to be seen, but it would be a significant backward step to abandon the growing consensus on the need for support and training and instead lurch towards compulsion and sanctions. To take such an approach would be to misunderstand that often the barriers preventing disabled people from working are social in nature and require action from the Government and employers as well as from individuals.

The pathways to work proposals have been a key method of helping disabled people move into work. There is now a consensus, which I fully support, on the advantages of using private and voluntary sector providers in this area, provided that we have clearly defined objectives with stable contracts and funding. At the moment, many of the most successful employment programmes are run outside Jobcentre Plus, and it makes perfect sense to bring together best practice in the voluntary and private sectors and attempt to roll out similar schemes nationwide. However, we should not forget that it has proven difficult to transplant services that have worked well on a private or voluntary basis into the social services.

A key reason for the success of many voluntary and private schemes is that staff do not have the power to stop benefit payments if claimants say the wrong thing. Programme participants can therefore develop much more open, honest and productive relationships with advisers. The problem with Jobcentre Plus is that it plays the role of gatekeeper to benefits access, as well as the role of supporting people into employment. I draw the Minister's attention to the Australian system, which has successfully separated the Government's role as purchaser and regulator of services from their role as direct providers through public sector organisations. That approach has significantly improved outcomes. I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on it.

We need to remove not only the barriers preventing disabled people from working and believing that they can contribute, but the barriers—both real and imagined—that employers still have about the cost of employing a disabled person. That is one crucial area in which employers can and should act, not just because of their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act, but because there is a pool of talent out there waiting to be used. More than a third of UK businesses have hard-to-fill vacancies, but 3.4 million disabled people are out of work and at least 1.5 million part-time disabled workers work below their skills potential, as detailed graphically in the Leonard Cheshire report. It does not take a mathematician to see that there is potential to improve matters.

Support for disabled people to enter the job market is crucial, but it makes far more sense, socially and economically, to retain people in their current job if they develop a disability, and to provide employers and employees with proper support to negotiate the necessary transitions. Will the Minister comment on the recent claim by the Employer's Forum on Disability that 9 per cent. of employers may be breaking disability law by failing to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to keep disabled people in employment?

A major job is to improve awareness of the access to work scheme—currently one of the Government's best kept secrets. That is both praise and criticism: the scheme does a lot of good work, but there is a real lack of awareness among employers of its existence—about 80 per cent. of small and medium enterprise employers are not aware of it. For every person currently helped through access to work, there is, according to the Government's figures, a £1,400 net benefit to the Exchequer, and a £3,000 net benefit to the economy. However, helping disabled people into work should not be about saving money. We have a moral obligation to spend any savings on supporting disabled people who, for whatever reason, cannot work. They are too often condemned to a life of low aspirations and even poverty.

On employment retention, I commend the work of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West. I hope his Bill will go some way to help the 25,000 people who leave their employment because of illness or disability each year. On that point, what does the Minister think about introducing a right to rehabilitation leave? I suggest that taking time off work to learn to deal with a disability is a “reasonable adjustment”, as required by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. Formalising that as an entitlement to rehabilitation leave, allowing both the employer and employee to adjust to the disability, and making adjustments to allow people to remain in work, would make things clearer and simpler.

Although we all rightly emphasise the financial, health and social benefits of work, it is important to stress that forcing disabled people into bad jobs is not the name of the game. A revolving door to demotivating jobs at the bottom of the labour market is not the right answer to increasing labour market participation. The high rates of people who take part in the new deal for disabled people twice or more suggest that is currently not the case; disabled people are more likely to be in low-paid or part-time work, and are paid less than non-disabled people on average. For the mantra “Work is the best route out of poverty” to be true, we need to ensure that the work is sustainable, suitable and decently paid. On that point, I would appreciate an update on the “In work, better off” consultation process.

We need to move away from the rather patronising inference that we do disabled people a favour when we legislate on such matters, because removing the barriers that currently prevent disabled people from finding or remaining in work is a duty of employers and Government. However, more than that, we need to refocus the way we see the debate. By getting more disabled people into meaningful long-term work we will all benefit—society, the Exchequer and the individual. If we are serious about tackling the ignorance and prejudice that many people still have about disability, by far the best thing we could do is to allow more disabled people the opportunity to show what they can do in the workplace. If more workplaces better reflect society as a whole, and if we ensure that we provide conditions that will bring out the most from each individual, we would do more to address the problems of ignorance than any initiative or guideline from Whitehall.

I saw that at first hand in my own constituency when I visited the Remploy factory, where a group of people do an excellent job producing high-tech goods that compete on the open market. People with a wide range of disabilities work together. They make a contribution to society and the economy to benefit both themselves and everyone around them. It was a joy to visit the factory to see those people at work. I congratulate the Government on what they have done, and I hope that the Minister can take things forward, keep the issue high on the agenda, and ensure that the talent out there is used to benefit both the individuals concerned and society at large.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.