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Employment of People with Disabilities (Reporting)

Volume 593: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2015

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

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require listed companies, public bodies and voluntary agencies to report annually on the number and percentage of people they employ who have disabilities; and for connected purposes.

In the UK today, more than 11 million people are living with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term illness, and nearly 7 million of them are of working age. That is nearly one in five of the working population. People with disabilities continue to face many barriers in accessing work, whether they have a visible or invisible disability or illness. The barriers may be physical but they are also cultural. That is the situation despite the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Equality Act 2010, which provided a legal platform to challenge discrimination based on disability. Even before that, the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 and the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1958 prohibited employment-related discrimination against disabled people. Although some progress has been made, only 47% of working age disabled people are in employment, compared with nearly 80% of non-disabled people, and the figures vary considerably for different disabilities. So there is a disability employment gap of more than 30%, and it has widened slightly in recent years.

Although 4 million people with disabilities are working, another 1.3 million are available to and want to work but are currently unemployed. The vast majority of disabled people used to work, so this is such a waste of their skills, experience and talent. Attitudes, perceptions and judgments can get in the way of identifying someone’s talent or skills, and for people with disabilities that can be magnified, particularly in a job interview or at work.

A man in his 40s from Oldham told me that after an operation to remove a benign tumour left him disabled, he applied for hundreds of jobs but kept being knocked back. His experience was ignored and instead he was made to feel like a liability. He said:

“I’m ex-army, disciplined and driven to work like millions of other disabled people. I just need a chance.”

Adrian, from Saddleworth, who is in his 50s, left work in 2013, suffering from severe depression as a result of bullying. Now fully recovered, he is desperate to get back to work. He said:

“I think many employers look at mental health issues in your medical records and see it as a weakness.”

Working-age disabled people are twice as likely to be living in persistent poverty as non-disabled people, and that has implications for disabled people’s families, too. Families with one disabled member make up one third of all the families living in poverty. With the recent changes to social security support introduced by this Government, including nearly £24 billion to be cut from 3.7 million disabled people by 2018, the poverty and inequality experienced by disabled people are set to get worse. There are also implications for the economy and society as a whole; research from the Social Market Foundation has estimated that halving the disability employment gap and supporting 1 million more disabled people into work would boost the economy by £13 billion a year.

There are many reasons for the disability employment gap, including a lack of information and advice for employers. Discrimination against disabled workers is still prevalent. A recent survey showed that 15% of disabled people felt they had been discriminated against when applying for a job, and one in five felt that they had been discriminated against while in work. Information is not enough to address this—leadership is needed.

Governments set the tone for the culture of society explicitly, through their policies and laws, and more subtly, through the language they use and what they imply, which collectively tells us who they think are “worthy”—or not. This Government have made their views abundantly clear, from their swingeing cuts to social security support for disabled people to their overhaul of the work capability assessment process, which managed to be both dehumanising and ineffective. Their new sanctions policy has targeted the most vulnerable, bringing people to the brink, and people have died under it. We must also not forget their closure of Remploy factories for disabled people and their replacing them with—well, nothing. The chaos and inadequacy of the specialist employment support programme, Access to Work, which last year supported only 35,000 disabled people into work and at work, and the jobcentres’ disability employment service, with one adviser providing support to 600 disabled people, again reveal this Government’s priorities.

But what I, and many others, find so deeply offensive is the pejorative language that has been used by this Government, as they refer to people receiving social security as “shirkers” and “scroungers”—and that includes people with disabilities and limiting illnesses. The Government and anyone else who wilfully misrepresent the facts should be ashamed of themselves.

My Bill is a very modest step to help address that prevailing culture. People with disabilities should be able to access the same opportunities that everyone else can, including being able to use their talent and skills to the best of their ability. No one should feel they are unable to reach their full potential or that their hopes and dreams do not matter. By requiring employers with more than 250 employees to report the number and proportion of people with disabilities they employ, my Bill seeks to raise their awareness of the disability employment gap in their own organisation, prompting them to consider this information and what they may do about it. As we know, what is not measured or reported is rarely acted on. This is not about red tape; it is about what sort of society we want.

On its own, reporting will do little to address the disability employment gap. In addition to leadership from Government, we need leadership from organisations to shift attitudes to disability in the workplace. Training for employers, and more widely, can help develop empathy and change attitudes and behaviour. We also need practical measures to support disabled people at work, enabling them to thrive and protecting them from prematurely leaving the labour market. Some disability charities have recommended more flexible leave arrangements, as well as extending the Access to Work programme, which currently supports only a tiny minority of disabled people.

Although a number of employers do exceptional work in recruiting and retaining disabled employees, how does this apply to their procurement policies and supply chains? Of course more also needs to be done to help disabled people into work. As has been reported in recent Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiries, the work capability assessment needs replacing with a more holistic, whole-person assessment. Instead of the increasingly punitive sanctions system, more appropriate support needs to be provided. One employment adviser helping 600 disabled people will just not cut it.

It is more than 70 years since legislation was first introduced to prohibit employment-related discrimination against disabled people. Sadly, we are still fighting to address this discrimination and the inequality in employment that people with disabilities still face. Changing attitudes and behaviour needs cultural change—it needs leadership. My Bill takes another step along this path for fairness.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Debbie Abrahams, Dame Anne Begg, Sheila Gilmore, Glenda Jackson, Teresa Pearce, Alex Cunningham, Mr Peter Hain, Mike Kane, Caroline Lucas, Alison McGovern and Grahame M. Morris present the Bill.

Debbie Abrahams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 178).