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 that 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 Employers’ 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 that 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 that 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.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) on securing this important debate. I thank him for giving me the chance to make my first speech in my new role. I agree with much of what he said, including what he said at the end of his speech about the benefits that further progress could bring to our economy and society.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the Government’s record. Since 1997, we have delivered the biggest extension of disability civil rights that the UK has seen. Our vision for disabled people and our strategy to address the problem of continuing inequality were set out in the Prime Minister’s strategy unit report, “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, which was published in early 2005. We made a commitment in that report that
“by 2025, disabled people should have the same opportunities and choices as non-disabled people”,
and that they should
“be respected and included as equal members of society”.
We have made some important progress since then. We established an office for disability issues, which reports to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). It will drive forward a cross-Government strategy and provide a source of knowledge and expertise on disability. The office is currently leading a major cross-Government review of independent living. In its annual report last month, it said that, by the time of its next annual report, it expects be able to say that the Government have ratified the UN convention on disability rights, which we initially signed in April last year. In addition to the ODI, we have established Equality 2025, which is a new advisory group that brings the voice of disabled people into the heart of Government.
The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 signalled a cultural shift within Government and the wider public sector and, in particular, introduced the new disability equality duty, which came into force in December 2006. The duty places a statutory obligation on all public bodies, including local authorities, to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people and to tackle discrimination.
The hon. Gentleman drew attention to data about my Department’s performance on the employment of people with disabilities, which was fair. The figures he mentioned may, to some degree, undercount the accurate position, but he made an important point: my Department and the Government need to do much more and to go much further than we have been able to do so far. We are on the right road, but we have much further to go. We all have a great deal to do before we will be able to say that disabled people have true equality in the labour market and that they are in a position to participate fully in society.
I agree about some of the key issues that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. We believe that work is a right. For too long, far too many disabled people have been written off as incapable of work and consigned as a result to a life on benefit. That is bad for them and bad for the economy. We need to change social attitudes, remove the barriers that have been placed in the way of disabled people and improve the employment-based support available to them. I recognise that the current wave of change can be unsettling for some, and we need to be sensitive to that. However, we need change so that we can deliver better opportunities for disabled people, which includes enabling them to move into work.
There has been good progress. The employment rate for disabled people has increased by a full 10 per cent. The hon. Gentleman said that it is about 50 per cent.—48 per cent. for the third quarter of last year is the most recent figure that I have seen. In spring 1998, it was 38 per cent., so there has been a big jump, which is very encouraging progress. The number of disabled people in work has also risen, from 1.8 million in spring 1998 to 2.8 million, which is the latest figure. That mainly reflects the higher employment rate, but it also reflects the amount of self-reported disability in the work force. If disabled people had the same employment rate as the population as a whole, another 1.5 million disabled people would be in work, which would be good for them, good for the economy and good for everybody. We must all share that ambition—certainly, the hon. Gentleman and I share it.
Opening up employment opportunities for disabled people lies at the heart of our policy. It is a critical test of how far society is breaking down barriers to social exclusion. In the Green Paper “In work, better off: next steps to full employment”, published in July 2007, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, we set out specific measures that we need to take to achieve our long-term aims. They include achieving an overall employment rate of 80 per cent. and the eradication of child poverty. We also need to extend the opportunity for employment to all, including disabled people, if we are to achieve those aims.
The Welfare Reform Act 2007 embodies our approach to helping more people on incapacity benefit to realise their ambition of a return to work and our conviction that disabled people and people with long-term health conditions have a right to work and to the support and opportunities that will enable them to exercise that right. That is critical to our programme for providing opportunity for all.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether rehabilitation leave could be seen as a reasonable adjustment under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I think that it could. Indeed, rehabilitation leave is given as an example of a reasonable adjustment in the code of practice published by the former Disability Rights Commission. Of course it would depend on the circumstances, but as the commission pointed out, it certainly can be a reasonable adjustment.
Just as we needed to reform the framework of disability rights, so we need to reform the benefit system to reflect our more modern aspirations. From October this year, the employment and support allowance will replace incapacity benefits for new customers. Instead of focusing on what people cannot do, the new benefit will focus on what they can do and how they can be supported to do it. The revised gateway test for the benefit—the work capability assessment—will assess a person’s capacity and, taking into account the other barriers that the person may face, will help to identify interventions that would support a return to work.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the pathways to work scheme has dramatically decreased the number of people taking up incapacity benefit, who as a result are able to return to work more quickly. We will invest £1 billion in that programme over the next three years so that interventions will be available to as many people as possible, including support to help them manage impairments or health conditions.
We are also looking at new and innovative ways of delivering our services. For example, when I was last a Minister in the DWP a couple of years ago, we started placing Jobcentre Plus advisers in GP surgeries, through the pilot for our pathways advisory service. That initiative proved popular and has been well received by patients and GPs. The advisers have been supporting GPs or offering advice to their patients and, when appropriate, referring them to our wider range of provision. The pilots were on a small scale, but some strong local partnerships have been established. I am pleased to say that we are extending the pilots so that we can learn as much as possible and make the most of that new way of working. That point chimes well with the ten-minute Bill to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and will be debated in the House this afternoon. The Bill would ensure that, if people encountered disability or ill health, their chances of staying in work would be maximised and they would not needlessly have to leave their jobs.
Our wide variety of specialist disability employment services has opened up work options for many disabled people across the country. We have seen people develop their skills and confidence in open employment and in supported businesses. However, we need to go further still if we are to have a better, more consistent quality of service, and a clearer focus on the individual needs of every disabled person, recognising that there is a great variety of circumstances in which people need help. We are looking at how better to join up our services with those provided by others, including local authorities, and to improve the way in which our disabled customers can move from social services and education and to seek work that is appropriate to their interests and skills.
We launched a public consultation last month, outlining our proposals for improvements to our specialist disability employment services, and it will run until 10 March. I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman will be responding to that consultation, and I hope that he will urge his constituents, including the organisations in his constituency to which he referred, and those of his colleagues who have an interest in the employment needs of disabled people, to consider and respond to the consultation.
We need to carry employers with us. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that they have a significant opportunity, because they are able to recruit from a large and diverse pool of possible staff. We should ensure that they can recruit from as wide a pool as possible, and not inadvertently limit the potential of their organisations by failing to tap into some of the potential of that pool of talent. Many businesses already employ disabled people and have good policies to support that work, and they are reaping the rewards.
However, research published by my Department last year highlighted the fact that although employer awareness of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and employer attitudes towards tackling discrimination have both improved over the past few years, there is still a long way to go. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. We cannot simply hope that employers will change their perceptions of disability. We need to engage with employers and to support them. We need to work with them to open up more job opportunities to disabled people, and at the same time ensure that disabled people have the right support and the skills needed to apply for suitable jobs, to be successful in their applications and to be able subsequently to stay in those jobs. That will be a key focus of our future activities; for example, through our cross-Government health, work and well-being strategy and my Department’s EmployAbility campaign, we are working to engage employers, to explain the costs and benefits and to provide practical help to assist them in supporting their staff.
It is true that employers do not always understand the requirements placed upon them—the hon. Gentleman referred to data from the Employers’ Forum on Disability showing that employers do not always understand the needs of their customers or the support that might best help their employees to stay in work. We are committed to helping to improve that understanding and the support that is offered. Such support does not have to be difficult or expensive to introduce; it is often about making simple changes to workplace patterns and management practices rather than costly specialist equipment.
A practical example of our work with employers is the new jobs pledge, which aims to help 250,000 people currently on benefit to move into jobs through the new local employment partnerships. The Prime Minister, speaking yesterday at a major conference with employers at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre over the road, reported on progress with those partnerships. More than 400 firms have now signed up for them, and negotiations are under way with a further 500.
I spoke yesterday to a number of employers, who were very positive about the help that they were receiving from Jobcentre Plus under the new partnership arrangements. I had the opportunity to sign a new partnership agreement with the chief executive of the fast-growing airline Flybe. I hope that many more partnership agreements will be put in place and that disabled people will be among those who benefit from the opportunities that result. We are building on the findings of the Leitch report on skills, working with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council, both of which were involved in yesterday’s conference, to make the ambitions set out in that report at a reality.
The hon. Gentleman asked how we were getting on with the “In work, better off” programme. He will be aware that we have conducted a consultation on that topic, and I refer him to the document “Ready to Work”, our response to the consultation, which was published in December. We are also consulting on the future of our specialist disability programme.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me this early chance to set out our progress and our aims, which he shares. I welcome his interest in the subject, and I look forward to the opportunity to debate it further with him and others over the months ahead. I hope that I have made clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the House my commitment and the Government’s to equality for disabled people and to providing the employment support that they need and deserve, and to which they should rightly be entitled.