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Employment Retention

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change; and for connected purposes.

Every year, 25,000 people leave work due to work-related illnesses. Under the Welfare Reform Bill, the Government are committed to achieving an employment rate of 80 per cent. My Bill would ensure that people who develop a disability during their working life, or whose existing disability deteriorates, are supported to remain in employment, where that is practicable.

An example of the sort of person that my Bill would help is contained in the report from the Stroke Association entitled “Getting Back to Work After Stroke”. After 13 years of loyal service to her employers, Janet Nicholson was not accommodated back to work after she suffered a stroke. Her employers told her that she had to leave because of her ill health. They would not pay her a pension or discuss any alternative employment opportunities in the company. In the 21st century, in a country that is recognised to be leading the world in caring, that is unacceptable.

The type of employment retention policy with which this Bill is concerned is known as rehabilitation leave, or disability leave. The use of the word “leave” implies that the person in question is keen to get back into work. That is a feature of the Warwick agreement between the Government and the trade union movement, in which it is made clear that everyone has a right to employment. Such a system would mean that people such as Janet Nicholson would not be treated unfairly by their employers, but instead would receive the help, support and encouragement needed to help them back into work. Companies, while being obliged to retain and help the people involved, would receive Government help and assistance.

Smaller companies would need more help, both financially and in terms of training. Larger companies such as BT already do their best to accommodate the unfortunate people who find themselves in the situation that I have described. One successful example involving BT is the case of Martha Wiseman, who had 18 months off work as a result of stress and anxiety and was eventually diagnosed as having clinical depression. By April 2006, she was getting much better, and BT expressed an interest in her returning to work. Gradually, and with her doctor’s agreement, she was able to return full time. Martha feels that, over the past six months, she has progressed to being 90 per cent. okay.

Martha says that she was treated very well by BT during her sick leave, and especially by her manager, who met her regularly to keep her in contact with office happenings and progress. Those meetings helped Martha, and her manager gauged how she was doing and when she would be able to return to work. Her manager and BT should be congratulated on the work that they did with Martha.

This Bill is needed to support the Welfare Reform Bill, and all parties agree that the numbers of people who are unemployed and claiming benefit should be reduced. It is illogical to support helping disabled people to get off benefits while allowing those who develop a disability to get laid off with a pension or to be forced into claiming incapacity benefit. That is no help to the worker involved, the company or the country—everybody loses.

My attention was first drawn to this problem by the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which says that about 66,000 registered blind and partially sighted people of working age are not in work. A further 4,000 people lose their sight each year, of whom 1,000 are forced into unemployment. Those figures will not help the Government reach their ambitious target of 80 per cent. employment.

Current Government programmes such as access to work and pathways to work make available a great deal of support and equipment to assist employers who employ people with disabilities. Pathways to work was developed to provide greater support to help people claiming incapacity benefit to return to, or get closer to, the labour market. About 9,000 pathways to work interviews have been conducted, and national rates for voluntary participation have averaged 8 per cent. of all customers interviewed. In Glasgow, I am pleased to say, that figure has reached 20 per cent.

Among the companies that have made use of the Government programmes and piloted schemes implementing employment retention policies are Lloyds TSB, Barclays bank, Royal Mail, McDonald’s and BT. They should all be congratulated on their efforts, but there is still more that could be done to encourage other companies to follow their example. That is especially true for those small and medium-sized companies that might encounter financial or training problems. That was recognised by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who has responsibilities for delivery and reform. At the Labour party conference he said that

“maybe there should be a legal right to rehabilitation leave.”

There is no maybe about it—there should be such a right.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) who as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was looking into introducing such a Bill. He is now a patron of the RNIB, an organisation with which I have been working on the Bill for some time. I was as grateful for my right hon. Friend’s backing for my private Member’s Bill last year as I am for his assistance now. With his help and guidance we may see the measure passed in the near future.

The Bill also has the backing of the Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. Recently, the Disability Rights Commission expressed support for such legislation, encouraging the Government, employers and health services to develop proposals for the disability-related absences that are crucial to an individual’s recovery. My last ten-minute Bill on the subject was backed by the CBI and although no one from the organisation has contacted me yet, I am sure that the CBI is still committed to protecting companies and their skilled employees.

We must not fail those trying to cope with disabilities; they need our help and support. In fact, it is the duty of Government, business and communities to support those individuals. Being made unemployed through ill health demoralises the individual’s confidence and can often lead to long periods of unemployment and depression. As well as the effect on the individual, there is also an impact on the economy, as many disabled people never return to work. The result is a strain on the state and a burden on pension funds and benefit payments; there can even be additional recruitment costs for employers in replacing and training staff.

Through the Bill, the Government, at relatively little cost, will be able to ensure that any regulatory burden on employers is kept to a minimum. It would be an investment in the short term from which employers and employees would reap the benefits, and in the long term it would be an investment for the Government through benefits savings and tax collected.

I was pleased to be a member of the Public Bill Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill, where we recently discussed in detail a number of issues related to my Bill. However, I was disappointed that unfortunately, despite cross-party support, including that of the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—both of whom were complimentary about my endeavours to raise the matter in Committee—my proposal for an element of employment retention and rehabilitation leave was ruled out. In Committee, I was informed that my proposal fell within the remit of health, not of welfare reform, but I believe that as it had all-party support it would have been accepted and that the only debate we would be having now would be how to implement it.

The Government have put employment at the heart of their agenda over the past 10 years and have been supported by many Members on both sides of the House. I ask them to take a positive step forward and support the Bill. It would need little investment, which would be paid back many times over, but what would it mean for those affected? It would be priceless.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Robertson, Jim Sheridan, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. David Blunkett, Mr. Jimmy Hood, John Bercow, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Julie Morgan, Danny Alexander, Mr. Mike Weir and Ann McKechin.

Employment Retention

John Robertson accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 May, and to be printed [Bill 79].