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Employment Retention

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to an employment retention assessment to determine entitlement to a period of rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change; and for connected purposes.

This is the fourth time that I have brought this Bill before Parliament. The inevitable question is: why do so again? In answering that, I want to outline the purpose of the Bill, which is something with which many hon. Members will already be familiar. The Bill’s fundamental aim is straightforward: to help people who become disabled, or who have an impairment that changes, to stay in work and to enjoin and guide both them and their employer in the process of retention.

In 2007, around 350,000 people moved from employment on to incapacity benefit, at great expense to both the taxpayer and employers, and at great personal cost to the individuals affected. Around 70,000 people spent less than three months receiving that benefit. With such high numbers, employment retention is clearly not an issue that is confined to the margins of society, so it is baffling that it is yet to be given prominence in policy and legislation. The consensus in this House—that improvements should be made to improve employment retention—is as unanimous as the collective grievance outside Parliament that so many people should have become unemployed and fallen out of work, despite being able to continue working and, indeed, having to find new employment shortly afterwards.

The employment retention Bill has two provisions to address the situation. First, it would provide a right to a period of rehabilitation leave for a person who developed a disability or whose existing impairment worsened while they were in employment. That would allow them, in appropriate circumstances, a short period away from the workplace to come to terms with their condition. At the moment, there is no such right under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995; rather, it has been left languishing in the non-binding code of practice for employers, where it is more often argued over than granted. The second key measure that the Bill would introduce is a right to an employment retention assessment to examine a person’s condition and advise on the reasonable steps that an employer should take under the Disability Discrimination Act to help someone remain in work. That mechanism is designed to ensure early intervention and clear guidance for employees and employers, engaging them both in the process of retention.

The Government and the Opposition have both publicly suggested that what the Bill seeks to do is covered by existing legislation. First, however, that is contradicted by the following organisations that support the Bill and which work with people whose experience does not tally with that claim: the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Leonard Cheshire, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Disability Alliance, the Stroke Association, Connect, the TUC, Unite and ASLEF. Secondly that argument is simply wrong and an excuse for inertia. Although the provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act are born from the principle and the arguments for employment retention, they remain inadequate when it comes to delivering it in practice.

In part II of the Disability Discrimination Act, examples are given of reasonable adjustments that employers might have to make. Specific mention is made of allowing an employee

“to be absent during…hours for rehabilitation, assessment or treatment”.

However, that states only what could take place, not what must take place, how it could be arranged, who could undertake such interventions or what support and advice are available from employers in facilitating that. That is where the employment retention Bill steps in. It is designed to specify a basic mechanism of assessment, which would determine what is needed to enable someone to remain in or return to work. The Bill would provide a framework to both the employee and employer within which the considerations mentioned in part II of the Disability Discrimination Act could be practically applied.

Furthermore, we know from case law that there is no right to have an assessment to determine someone’s condition or the interventions that would be reasonable in the circumstances. In the case of Spence v. Intype Libra in April 2007, Mr. Justice Elias of the Employment Appeal Tribunal held that the failure to hold such an assessment was not a breach of an employer’s duty under the Disability Discrimination Act. He stated that such an adjustment would apply in almost every case and so would at least be expected to figure in a non-exhaustive list of potential adjustments. Until a case is decided otherwise, that decision is binding on other tribunals, so it is plainly wrong to suggest that the right already exists.

I should not be surprised if the Opposition favoured inaction on the issue, as it was a Conservative Member of Parliament who stopped the Bill from going from Second Reading to Report last year, despite Government backing for it. That is the first sign, and the epitome, of a do nothing party. I find it hard to understand how it would be happy to stand by as people lose their jobs when the law is clear on this matter.

I acknowledge that the Government are looking to improve retention through a number of different measures, but they are far from enough to make the changes that we need. First, as a result of pressure from the campaign on this Bill, which saw more than 180 MPs sign early-day motion 676 in the last Session, the Government announced last March that they would introduce a cross-departmental strategy on employment retention. So, one year on, what has happened? Nothing. The strategy itself—never mind its implementation—will not come in until the end of the year, at the earliest.

Secondly, the Government have announced that they will pilot Dame Carol Black’s Fit for Work service, which would provide a similar scheme to the assessments in this Bill. Welcome as that is, it will affect only a small number of people and, more worryingly, we are years away from seeing any concrete changes. At the end of last year, the Government reported on a successful similar trial of employment advisers working from within GP surgeries to help people into work. Following positive results, the three-year trial has been extended for a further three years. But more than 1 million people will have moved from work on to benefits in that space of time, so we need some urgency and boldness here. We need the immediate change that a Bill such as this would bring, and we need to secure this for everyone.

Finally, there is the employability campaign, which is geared at increasing awareness of the Disability Discrimination Act. It consists of an advertising campaign and seminars, and once again falls far short of what is needed. In 2008, not a single employer from my constituency attended a seminar, and in the whole of Scotland, the total was only 26. Those numbers will barely make an imprint on the 350,000 people a year involved.

I will not speculate on whether a cross-departmental strategy that has done nothing in a year, a poster campaign and a pilot scheme will be enough to secure the place of Ministers in the pantheon of great reformers. We can leave it to history to decide whose name will be mentioned in the same breath as that of Bevan. But what I will say is that we need to do more. For all the apparent concessions, still nothing has changed for a person who becomes disabled in work. The inertia has been constant, but so has the support for this Bill. Throughout the years of working on the Bill with RNIB, I have heard many reasons for doing nothing, and none of them has resulted in the slightest difference to someone who loses their job. That is why I am introducing the Bill in Parliament again today.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That John Robertson, Jim Sheridan, Mr. David Blunkett, Miss Anne Begg, Julie Morgan, Mr. Mike Weir, John Bercow, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell and Dr. Richard Taylor present the Bill.

John Robertson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April and to be printed (Bill 68).