Skip to main content

Access to Jobs: Disabled People

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to jobs for disabled people.

It is a pleasure to address the Chamber under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is important when assessing the impact of Government policy and judging its success to look closely at the individuals we represent. We must bring to the attention of Ministers—I know this particular Minister quite well by now, and I know that he is assiduous in his duties—individual cases that we consider representative of the failure or success of Government policy.

I want to talk about a constituent of mine, Margaret Foster, whom I have come to know quite well over a number of years. Margaret has suffered from cerebral palsy from birth. She has been directly affected by Government disability policy in recent years, because for 26 years she worked at the Remploy factory in Wrexham. During that period, she was a taxpayer who contributed to her community and all of our communities by paying taxes and working hard in her job. She did not particularly like her job; she is quite frank about that. She is a very bright woman, and she felt that it did not stretch her capabilities. Nevertheless, she held down the job for 26 years and took great pride in it.

I first met Margaret in about 2007-08, when the then Labour Government proposed to close the Remploy factory in Wrexham. I argued against that proposal at the time, and I was pleased ultimately to win the argument to the extent that the factory remained open in 2008. Unfortunately, the coalition Government revisited the issue of Remploy in 2012 and decided to close the factory in Wrexham, as they did a large number of Remploy factories across the country, affecting many disabled people.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing such an important issue to the House. Does his constituent feel as betrayed as my constituents about the Government’s broken promises about the closure of the Remploy factories? The Government guaranteed support into employment, which is not there any more, but more than two thirds of the people in my constituency who worked for Remploy have not been able to get employment since the closure of the factories.

Part of the reason why I secured this debate is to point out the failure of Government policy and the way in which it affected Margaret, who worked for Remploy for 26 years. Since the Prime Minister and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government decided to close Remploy, making Margaret redundant, she has not been in employment for a single day and has not been offered a job.

Rather than being a taxpayer, Margaret now lives on benefits. She has an income from the disability living allowance, and she receives an enhanced level of mobility allowance—£57.45 per week—and the middle-rate daily care component of £55.10 per week. She has even been refused employment and support allowance. When the initial assessment was made, she received no points. Even on appeal, she was given only nine points. She needs 15 points to qualify for the allowance. How can the disability benefits system present a case such as Margaret’s? She wants help to work and has been disabled from birth, but does not qualify for the benefit put in place by the Government supposedly to support her into work. What does the fact that the taxpayer is not supporting Margaret in her attempts to find work say about the Government’s policy?

The hon. Gentleman is telling a powerful story about his constituent, Margaret. Is he aware that in Gloucestershire we recently launched a programme called Supported Internships? Remploy was a partner, as were the local authority, the local further education college and two employers. Supported internships are an effective way for people with significant disabilities to get back into employment.

I have no doubt that they can be, but I am afraid they are not happening.

The 2014 labour force survey recognised that,

“disabled people remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people.”

There is a 30.1% gap between levels of employment for disabled people and non-disabled people. I welcome any efforts to find internships and support individuals into work, which is what we all want. Margaret was in work when the Government decided to close Remploy factories, and we were told at the time that they would support those disabled people into jobs in the mainstream. When Remploy in Wrexham was closed and Margaret was put out of work, we received all sorts of assurances about how disabled employees would be helped into the mainstream jobs market.

I lost a Remploy factory in Croespenmaen in my constituency, and the Welsh Government Minister at the time offered to take on the Remploy factories on the proviso that the Westminster Government devolve the Remploy budget to the Welsh Assembly. Does my hon. Friend think it is an absolute shame that, rather than looking at that proposal properly, the Westminster Government flatly said no to those Remploy workers?

It is a matter of profound regret that the Welsh Government’s helpful offer to take over responsibility for the Remploy factories in Wales was not taken up. Their constructive effort to address this issue was rejected out of hand. Consequently, the 35 or so people in Wrexham who would have been in work if the Welsh Government had taken on the responsibility for ensuring that the factories remained viable lost their jobs, and Margaret has remained out of work ever since.

Margaret is not alone. I am grateful to the large number of organisations that are interested in the fact that I secured this debate and forwarded me numerous briefings, all of which I have read. Time does not allow me to refer to them in detail, but Mencap said:

“Current back-to-work support for disabled people has proved ineffective. Job outcomes for disabled people on the Work Programme are low at only 8.7 percent”—

nine people out of 100—

“for new ESA claimants, and 4.3 percent for other ESA/Incapacity Benefit customers.”

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Thank you, Mr Chope. It is always good to be described as a key player.

I was quoting Mencap:

“Work Choice, the Government’s specialist employment support programme, is ineffectively targeted and offers support to a small number of disabled people with just 17 percent of referred customers claiming ESA. This represents only a small proportion of disabled people who are looking for work and it is unlikely that many people with a learning disability are benefiting from it.”

Incredibly, between 2011 and 2015 the number of jobcentres employing a full-time adviser to help disabled people fell by more than 60% from 226 to only 90, with reductions in every recorded year. It is only going to get worse. Under the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is being considered in the Lords, employment and support allowance for those in the work-related activity group will be cut by almost £30 a week for new claimants from April 2017.

Given the context that the hon. Gentleman is describing and the shocking statistics that he is giving us, is it not not in the least surprising that 3.7 million disabled people in this country live in poverty? That number increased by 300,000 last year and will only get even worse in the light of the issue that he is raising.

Absolutely. We want to get people into work. The irony of Margaret’s case is that she was put out of work. The responsibility must rest with the Government. I am not talking about a private sector job, but about a job taken away by a Government led by our current Prime Minister. He must take full responsibility for that, and it makes me angry.

Seventy per cent. of respondents to a recent survey carried out by the Disability Benefits Consortium said that the £30-a-week cut would affect their health and more than half said that it would mean them returning to work later. So constituents are now approaching us. Margaret is only one example, but it is important to refer to individual cases—one of the benefits of being a Member of Parliament, having constituency surgeries and getting to know our constituents, is learning from them how they are directly affected by Government policy. I want the Minister and everyone in the Chamber to be aware of how Margaret has been affected by Government policy, because if the Government really want to address the situation that they have created for someone such as her, they must give proper support to those who are unemployed.

The mentoring scheme that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned sounds like a good one, but we need more of them. We need to find placements for disabled people to give them experience of work and to give them the opportunity to be in a workplace. If someone who has worked somewhere for 26 years has that job taken away by their own Government, that Government have a responsibility to persuade employers to ensure that such people have an opportunity to go to a different workplace and to have proper support.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate.

My constituent worked in Remploy, as Margaret did, under a skilled seamstress. She has learning disabilities and although she has worked since, it has been in wholly unsuitable jobs. The ESA group to which she has returned is the WRAG, and the concern for people such as my constituent is the disincentive to go to work because of cuts for new claimants in the WRAG. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that threat of having less work will not promote work for people such as my constituent and Margaret? When things go wrong and their disabilities perhaps prevent them from being able to carry out their employment—

It is difficult for me to respond to a speech, Mr Chope. I might get an opportunity later, but in view of the number of people present I should move on for now.

We need support, incentives for employers and mentoring of employees. None of that has happened for Margaret in my constituency since 2012. Margaret is only one example and there are many more. Many more people who were made redundant by the Government were told that they would be able to go into mainstream employment, but have not been able to do so. Some are now not even being provided with support through the ESA. As a consequence, they remain unemployed.

I want to hear from the Minister that the Government have a real intent to address the issue. He should be providing the level of support to which I believe citizens such as Margaret are entitled. The Government failed following the closure of Remploy. They have let Margaret and others such as her down. The Government need to up their game, because people’s lives are being destroyed and they are suffering because of ill-advised and improperly implemented Government policies.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. Given the number of people wanting to speak, I will keep this as brief as I can.

When I saw the name of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) leading on this debate, I rather suspected that we might dwell a bit on Remploy, because he has a long track record of campaigning on the issue. He is, however, right to draw attention to the plight of his constituent. Personally, I take a much wider view of disability employment. On many occasions I have said that I regard Remploy as but one model, and a model that harks back to a different era of how we saw disabled people fitting into the workplace.

I know that people rarely read election manifestos—I make the effort to read my own at least, if not the Opposition’s—but one of the proudest moments of my life was to see in the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 election a commitment to halve the disability employment gap. Such a commitment cannot be seen in any other party’s manifesto—only in the Conservative party’s. I for one am proud of that fact. I am equally proud of the fact that, over the past two years, we have got 340,000 more disabled people into employment, although I recognise that there are individuals who have not benefited and that there are always detailed reasons for how things can be done better.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on securing this important debate, which should be not only about what has happened over the past two years, but about what is in the spending review. As I understand it, the spending review included a real-terms increase in the Access to Work budget for disabled people. Will my hon. Friend reflect on that for a moment?

I certainly will. I served with the shadow Minister on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where we looked at the Access to Work scheme in some detail. I am sure we had different interpretations of what we heard, because we normally do, but that is a really important project that the Government have at their disposal—it is often described as their best-kept secret.

We could do far more on Access to Work, which is one of the few uncapped Government benefits in the sense that no artificial cap has been placed on the overall amount spent. It is really important that we realise that and understand what else it could do. It is not just for critical adaptations any more. The number of people with mental health conditions who benefit from Access to Work has increased by 202% since 2010—it has more than doubled.

That demonstrates a really important point that I want colleagues on both sides of the House to understand. Once upon a time, disability employment was about physical access: the nuts and bolts of equipment, doorway widths, desks and chairs and so on. While that remains important, today, mental health issues are just as important, but they do not get sufficient attention.

I hope Opposition Members will join me in paying tribute to the Minister’s commitment. He is working tirelessly to pursue the goal of halving the disability employment gap. The Disability Confident campaign occupies a great amount of his time and I know that he is personally committed to it. We should welcome that. In the previous Parliament, we saw frequent changes in the identity of the Disability Minister. I sincerely hope that our current Minister stays in his post for the entire Parliament—he may not wish that, but I do, because he is doing a superb job.

To return briefly to Access to Work, while one may think that the entire picture is rosy based on what I have said, it is far from that. Certain groups in the disability community are really struggling to get on to the employment ladder, such as those with learning difficulties and autism in particular. The hon. Member for Wrexham quoted the labour force survey and, I think, the 47.6% figure in it, which I saw in the Mencap briefing, too. There are arguments about the starting point, but, while the overall employment gap is 19%, for groups such as those with autism it is significantly greater than that and much more challenging.

If I had to give one recommendation to the Government, it would be to ensure that Access to Work is available at the pre-employment stage when people are looking for work. The employer needs confidence that Access to Work will be available. It cannot be something for them to discover after they have made a leap of faith to take a person on. That would be one way in which Access to Work could benefit a new group of people.

I am fortunate enough to chair the all-party parliamentary group for young disabled people and, when a few months ago the muscular dystrophy campaign Trailblazers did a short report on the right to work, it found that much more support was needed at the job-seeking phase of engagement with employment. That cannot all occur after employers have decided to employ someone, because only then can they start solving some of the practical problems.

There is a wider reason to increase disability employment not just for the sake of human dignity and equality, but, I am afraid to say, for fiscal reasons, too. If we can halve the employment gap, the gain to the Treasury, according to Scope, is somewhere in the region of £12 billion. That is a sizeable sum of money that should not be ignored by any Chancellor of any political persuasion.

I also want to make a plea. To go back to my point about Access to Work, one of the avenues I pursued in the Select Committee’s inquiry was the similarity between the ultimate purpose of disabled students’ allowance and Access to Work, which are both about allowing people to participate in their place of work, be that a college, university or workplace. I still struggle to understand why they are managed by two different Departments on different sets of procedures and with different criteria. It would be far better to bring them together, because they both seek to equip people to function in everyday life. I urge the Minister to look at that.

I will move on to my final point, because, while there is much more I could say, I want others to be able to contribute. No one should underestimate the difficulty of halving the gap. That will not be easy. I know that policy makers like to use the cliché “low-hanging fruit.” That is a disrespectful way to talk about individuals, but some will be closer to the workplace than others and it will be easier to get them into it. The difficulty will come when those with much more complex needs that are more costly to address come into play in terms of meeting the goal.

No one should underestimate the courage, ambition and confidence that young people need to try to seek work. A young person in their teens is probably still in the family home and in the school environment that they have always been in. To a certain extent, they are in a safe environment. It is not until one gets out there and tries to find a job that one really discovers the existence of prejudice against the disabled in society. That can be quite a shock to many young people—it certainly came as a shock to me. I was not expecting to encounter it when making job applications, yet I rapidly ran into it and I do not consider myself to have a particularly severe form of cerebral palsy at all.

When we discuss disability employment overall, it is worth remembering that we need to encourage young people. They do not aspire to a lifetime of supported employment and their families do not aspire to that on their behalf, either. They want full equality in the workplace and we must do all we can to make that happen. It is not easy. I do not doubt that it is a very ambitious target. We are making progress now, but there is no guarantee that that will continue for ever. I therefore thank the Minister for what he is doing. I have offered a few helpful suggestions and I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on bringing this extremely important debate. I will declare an interest: I previously worked with individuals with disabilities and I chair the all-party parliamentary group on disability.

The importance of employment to those who are disabled should not be underestimated. As for all members of society, having a job is not just about earning a living; it also contributes to psychological wellbeing. A job, and the day-to-day experiences that come with it, can provide people with a sense of belonging and purpose. It can help them to build confidence and self-esteem. It can also help to provide social opportunities for people who may otherwise be vulnerable or isolated. In addition, closing the disability employment gap and helping people to reach their full potential has benefits for society and our economy as a whole. The Conservative party committed in its manifesto to halve the disability employment gap, although at present there appears to be no comprehensive strategy on how that is to be fulfilled.

Changing Faces has highlighted ongoing issues with attitudes and stigma, which can affect the employment prospects of people with facial disfigurements. Low confidence and poor expectations can also be internal barriers for disabled people.

Yesterday, my office team met Callum Russell, who is blind from birth and the founder of, which seeks to encourage and enable young people with disabilities to volunteer on a gap year or a shorter-term project. The key point Callum highlighted was the benefits of such opportunities being available to those with disability.

I want to speak only briefly, because I am aware that so many people wish to contribute, but in addition to securing jobs it is also extremely important that the Minister considers enabling people with disability to start their own business and supporting people to maximise their skills and abilities in that realm. I am pleased to have been able to speak in this important debate. This is an area that the APPG will focus on and inquire into in the next 12 months. It is critical to address that, which is about empowerment, enablement and, ultimately—this is one of my favourite words—independence.

It is a pleasure to have the chance to speak on this incredibly important topic. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on securing the debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) mentioned, the Conservative party committed in its election manifesto to help open up opportunities for the disabled, which I was very pleased about. The Prime Minister’s speech yesterday repeated the theme that the Government must be the enabler of people and the destroyer of prejudice. It is not just about providing this or that service.

Many great national third sector organisations such as Mencap, Scope, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Action on Hearing Loss do so much to help those with disabilities, and we all welcome and appreciate the work they do. We are fortunate in Portsmouth to have some great work being done to support those with disabilities by the Beneficial Foundation—I declare an interest as patron of that organisation. It is a great organisation that works with people with a variety of needs, and I had the pleasure of showing the Prime Minister the work it does in 2014 when he visited Portsmouth.

I know from discussions I have had with the Beneficial Foundation’s chief executive, Jenny Brent, that finding a job or placement is just the first step in a journey back into secure and rewarding work for anyone with a disability. It is vital that there is support for that disabled worker in terms of adaptations so that they can do their job and have equal access to facilities.

Will my hon. Friend reflect on the Disability Confident events that are run around the country, which bring together charities, employers and potential employees and help to bring people into the workforce?

We have had examples of that in Portsmouth too. It is extremely important, as with any job fair, that people know exactly what opportunities are out there.

It is equally important that others in the workplace understand the needs of disabled workers and what disabled workers do not need. There is a difference between treating someone with respect and perhaps unintentionally adopting patronising attitudes. Organisations such as the Beneficial Foundation offer in-role support to both the disabled employee and their colleagues, ensuring that everyone makes the most of the opportunity.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on securing the debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to encourage people to look not at a person’s disability but their ability, to ensure they can bring that out?

Yes, and if more organisations did that, many more people with disabilities would be employed. That is a message we must put out.

Local organisations are able to develop strong links with businesses and respond both quickly and flexibly. We know that there is still a big challenge to ensure that the disabled are able to take advantage of opportunities. The Access to Work programme helps a large number of people to overcome their physical disabilities in the workplace, but given our focus on achieving parity of esteem for those with non-physical conditions, I am pleased to see that Access to Work is also helping a growing number of people—the number has doubled since 2007—with dyslexia, learning difficulties or mental health conditions.

Everyone will welcome the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday on opening up opportunities across society. I am pleased that the state is standing up for its responsibilities as an enabler and not just a provider.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on securing this timely debate. Like him, whenever I think of Remploy, and particularly its Croespenmaen factory in my constituency, I feel anger, because I remember standing in the factory canteen on the day when it was announced that the Remploy factories were going to be closed. Some people were in tears and many were angry, begging me to save their jobs, but there was nothing I could do. That was one of my worst days as a Member of Parliament.

When that factory was under threat in 2007, the Remploy workers and the management did not sit back and protest. They went out and found business in the market. Indeed, one of the last acts of my predecessor, Lord Touhig, in 2010 was overseeing the signing of a contract between the blue chip company BAE Systems and Remploy to provide packaging.

What made me even more angry during that period was not only all the hard work that had gone to waste, but, as I mentioned in my intervention, what happened when the Welsh Assembly asked whether the Westminster Government would consider devolving the budgets so that it could provide a future for Remploy. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister gave a commitment to look at it. Unfortunately, the question was met by the Department with a big fat “no”.

The comment by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at the time that Remploy workers were only good to make a cup of coffee rubbed salt into the wounds and was absolutely damning. I try to hold back my anger when I think of comments like that. There was never an apology, and I am ashamed to say that that man is still in post.

I will, however, say this: there is nothing that can be done about Remploy now. It is no good looking back to the past. Those factories are gone. The workers unfortunately do not have a job, as in the case of Margaret, who my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham spoke of. She has no future and is parked, like many of my constituents who worked in Remploy on employment and support allowance.

The worst thing is that, according to the solicitors firm Leigh Day, one in five people who have disabilities and find themselves in work still believe they are under pressure and under duress, and are fearful of announcing that they have some sort of disability. People who have short-term disabilities, such as those who have been diagnosed with Crohn’s or colitis, find themselves in disabling situations where they cannot work and find it difficult to come back to work. They rely on understanding employers, but many of them do not have that. Many of them find themselves out of work because of that.

I always want to give the Minister some suggestions, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) did; he made a very good speech and spoke from the heart, with great knowledge as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. I think the Minister knows what I am about to say, as I have said it to him on a number of occasions until I am blue in the face: the main tool for getting people back into work—Jobcentre Plus—is not fit for purpose. I am basing that not on anecdotal evidence but on the fact that 80% of people who gain a job through Jobcentre Plus are back out of work in six months. The fact is that statistical evidence shows that the most effective systems are not provided through Jobcentre Plus but based in the community. A job club or a training scheme based in a local library or supermarket is more effective.

Anybody who has ever had to walk into a jobcentre will know that it is akin to walking through Pentonville prison. There is a security guard on the doorstep. The seats are screwed into the floor. If someone is not there on time, the adviser will sanction them. They are not good places to look for jobs. What jobcentres are essentially doing when they sanction people is reaching at the most vulnerable. Those who are stuck in the system are being pushed further into it, and they are not being provided with the help and support they need. I have said over and over again that it does not matter how many schemes we have.

Has the hon. Gentleman had the experience I have had of a really good Access to Work programme provider—in my case, Pluss, which has had considerable success in helping people with disabilities back into work? Does he agree that one thing we might do is put together some films of agencies and businesses that have had real success, so that we can show them in Parliament and spread the word about some of the great success stories, to encourage other employers to do more?

I have come across Pluss. As the hon. Gentleman will know, I was once the unsuccessful candidate in the constituency of Cheltenham, right next door to his constituency. The work that Pluss does is absolutely fantastic, and I agree that we need to do more inside and outside Parliament to promote such training organisations.

The point I was coming to, which ties in well with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, is that since the 1970s we have had 43 schemes in this country, introduced by Governments of all colours, and all of them have failed. Long-term unemployment is still stubbornly high, particularly for young people and those with disabilities. We now have to think outside the box. We can rebrand all our schemes—whether it is the youth training scheme, employment training, the new deal or even the Work programme—but they are not getting the outcomes we want.

I expect the Minister to defend Jobcentre Plus, which is a Government scheme; that is his right, but I want him to give people some hope that we will start thinking outside the box more.

Mr Chope, may I ask how much time is left, so that the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and I can divide it between us?

There should be ample time for you and the other hon. Gentleman who is seeking to catch my eye. The latest we can start the wind-ups is 5.47 pm, but we do not have to use all the time until then.

You have inspired me to speak longer, Mr Chope, but I will not; I will divide the time clearly between us. I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. It is a really good subject matter and one on which we are all keen to participate. In my short speech, I will mention some good things that we do in Northern Ireland—I know this is a devolved matter, but it is good to exchange ideas about what we do in Northern Ireland and what is done here in the mainland.

Despite the great services that exist and the Access to Work scheme, the proportion of people with a learning disability in paid employment has remained stubbornly low—we cannot ignore that fact—and according to Mencap UK, which represents people with learning difficulties, that proportion appears immune to economic factors. There are clearly issues to be dealt with. I know the Minister is totally committed to that and that he has done great things. We respect him greatly, but I think we need to look at what we can do better.

The proportion of learning-disabled people known to social services in paid employment fell from 7% in 2012-13 to 6.8% in 2013-14. Some hon. Members have spoken about the good things that have happened in their areas, and when that is the case, that is good—let us recognise those. We need to exchange such ideas and make others aware of them. However, that fall in numbers happened despite the fact that the majority of people with a learning disability can and want to work. There is an eagerness and a keenness to work, and we should encourage it. The figures are stark if we compare them with a national employment rate of 76% and an overall disability employment rate of just below 50%. As hon. Members have said, the Government pledged to halve the disability employment gap. Indeed, that pledge was in Conservative party’s manifesto, and we recognise and welcome it. It is good to see a commitment to it—well done.

Although welcome moves have been made to realise that commitment, the facts show that we need to do a bit more. I know the Minister will respond in a positive fashion, and I look forward to his comments. The Government need to monitor the disability employment gap, identify the factors that are still preventing it from closing and preventing disabled people from having access to work, and take action on those factors. There are things that the Government can do.

Department for Work and Pensions data show—I say this respectfully—that between 2011 and 2015, the number of jobcentres employing a full-time adviser to help disabled people fell by more than 60%, from 226 to 90, with reductions in every recorded year. We cannot ignore that issue. We all know that the Minister is a very pleasant person who is approachable and who does his job well, but that fact needs addressing. Perhaps he can tell us what steps the Government have taken to address the fall in the number of jobcentre advisers, and how we can best help people who are disabled when they come looking for assistance and help. That reduction surely contradicts the Government’s commitment to reduce the disability employment gap, and the effects of that cut in services need to be closely monitored to ensure that it is not having an adverse effect on the efforts to reduce disability unemployment.

I will give an example from Northern Ireland, because it is always good to put in the mix what we have done back home. We have an additional scheme to help reduce the disability employment gap. As well as the Access to Work scheme, there is Workable (NI), which is delivered by a range of providers contracted by the Department for Employment and Learning. Those organisations have extensive experience of meeting the vocational needs of people with disabilities, and using them is a great way of advancing social enterprise and supporting that sector.

Workable (NI) is a two-year programme that helps people out of economic gloom, gives them support and hope and prepares them for employment. It tailors support to individuals to meet their specific needs. The provision can include support such as a job coach to assist the disabled worker and their colleagues adapt to the needs of a particular job, developmental costs for the employer, and extra training, including disability awareness training. Those are all vital factors for any and all disabled people who want to work.

As I said, I am a great believer that this great country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is better together. We know that, and many of us would subscribe to it. Let us exchange the good points and good practice that we have in every region of the United Kingdom. Lessons can clearly be learned from the approach in Northern Ireland, and we can develop additional strategies here in the mainland to help make good the Government’s comment to halve the disability employment gap.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to him for the powerful personal testimony he gave about his constituent, who will feel very well represented tonight. I thank all Members who have contributed, including the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who also gave powerful personal testimony—I would not want to pass by his contribution.

I grew up in a household in Wythenshawe where I saw a parent with progressive multiple sclerosis move from being in hard-working employment all her life to being on benefit. That was what really inspired me into public life. My recruiting sergeant was a certain Lord Alf Morris, who was my constituency Member of Parliament at the time. He introduced the absolutely groundbreaking Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which revolutionised the way we looked at disabled people. It was about their rights, rather than what we gave them, and about how they could aspire to a better life. He also became the world’s first Minister for the disabled. I still get calls to my office asking if Alf is the Minister for disabled people in the Government today. I follow in the footsteps of giants, but I am prepared to do my best.

I also want to mention my predecessor, Paul Goggins. I worked with him when I was a local councillor in 2007 and the first threat to the Remploy factory in Wythenshawe came up. We lobbied the then Member for Neath, who was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Paul did amazing things. He got on board with JCB and with the Authentic Food Company in my constituency. We brought together a whole host of businesses. He really turned things around—it went from having a £200,000 turnover to having a £600,000 turnover. It did not help in the end, and unfortunately the factory was shut in 2012.

I do not want to make a particularly party political point, even though 20 people lost their jobs. The hardest thing for my predecessor and for me at the time was not just those people losing their jobs—following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, a lot of them have not gone on to find new work—but the fact that during the time we ran the campaign, 500 people got into employment through the work that we did. It was a solid way for disabled people to build skills and confidence and get into the workplace. It was measurable, attainable, smart and specific. It was a really good campaign.

I want to press the Minister by comparing and contrasting what Remploy did with what the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said about Disability Confident. Because of my personal passion, I am a supporter of any scheme that helps disabled people get into employment. I was therefore pleased to be asked by the DWP to get involved with a Disability Confident event in south Manchester. I worked with my next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is just as passionate about the subject and who held the post of shadow Minister for disabled people in the last Parliament.

We attracted 80 employers to the event, representing nearly 100,000 people around south Manchester. It included Manchester airport, Wythenshawe hospital and British Gas, which is in my neighbour’s constituency, and we had an extraordinarily good event. It was hosted by Vodafone—I asked it to host—which also sponsored the event, and I want to place on record my thanks to it for doing so. We had Cherylee Houston from “Coronation Street”—the disabled actress—who provided extraordinarily powerful testimony about her life and how she struggled to get into employment and into the acting industry. People from ITV talked about the company as an employer and about the changes and adaptations that it had made to make sure that she could play an important role in that TV series. I pay tribute to her and to ITV for providing role models of disabled people on our TV sets day in, day out.

I want to press the Minister on Disability Confident and how I think it should be improved. The event relied extraordinarily heavily on the contacts of the local MPs. That is an important point. Really it was the MPs, with their business contacts, who brought businesses to the event. That is a good thing, but the administration had to be done in the MPs’ offices, along with all the other things. It placed an inordinate strain on my extraordinarily hard-working staff and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, but we did it. The DWP lacked co-ordination and leadership. It wanted us to lead as MPs, but things were extraordinarily difficult on the ground. I do not want to criticise DWP officials—far from it. They were well intentioned and worked hard, but there was a lack of a joined-up approach between various parts of the DWP and the agencies that it brought in to help. That needs to be looked at.

We know from our feedback surveys that the companies found the event extraordinarily informative. Many of them went away and implemented the good practices that we had showcased there. That involved companies, chief executive officers, human resources directors and the disabled people working in those companies—we had a number of disabled people there. However, as a politician and policy maker, I like to see numbers and outcomes. It was the lack of follow-up that was so difficult to understand—I am talking about getting all those companies in and understanding how they implemented the good practice. How many disabled people did we put in touch with them for pre-employment and employment opportunities? I just do not know those figures, and I find that quite frustrating as a Member of Parliament.

There is a strong narrative about getting disabled people into work, and we are trying to show leadership as local Members, but we need some resources from the DWP so that we can accurately measure the outcomes of such events—what we have achieved—and then plan further ahead by looking at the areas and expertise that we need to develop in order to go forward. I would like to run a similar event in the next year or two, but until I get substantive data about what we were able to achieve with the first events, that will be quite difficult.

The reason I was so keen to speak in the debate is that 22% of my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran aged 16 to 64 are recognised as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 or have work-limiting disabilities. It is therefore very important that I participate in the debate in order to represent my constituents.

We know that a compassionate and decent society dictates that halving the disability employment gap, which the Conservatives pledged to do and which is an extremely laudable aim, requires the correct amount of support to be provided, not the withdrawal of support, which is causing so much concern. The reduction of the ESA WRAG payment from April 2017 will force many sick and disabled people backwards and further away from getting the help that they need to get back to work or, indeed, to enter the workplace for the first time. That is despite the fact that the WRAG was created specifically to support the ill and disabled back into work, rather than simply placing them as jobseeker’s allowance claimants. The Chancellor of the Exchequer himself acknowledged in his recent Budget statement that ESA WRAG payment recipients are usually—very often—actively seeking a sustainable place in the workforce, but there is a credible argument in the community and voluntary sector that instead of incentivising work, the Government are actually disincentivising it. Many hon. Members have touched on that today.

Many sick and disabled people find the prospect of the demands of the workplace increasingly challenging, especially in terms of how employers will react to them. According to the Disability Benefits Consortium, one third of disabled people live below the poverty line; I also mentioned that earlier. It is the case that 3.7 million people who are disabled are living in poverty, and that figure is increasing. We know that because the figure increased by 300,000 last year. What is needed to enable those living with a disability to enter the job market is to treat disabled benefit claimants with personalised and compassionate care, instead of implementing reforms that ignore the complexities and challenges of these people’s lives. If we want to support disabled people into work, the benefits system designed to achieve that end must reflect that.

We have all heard in our constituencies anecdotal evidence of the shocking treatment of some claimants since the introduction of the work capability assessment, with “fit to work” decisions being made that seem to defy all logic and reason. Thankfully, many of those decisions have been overturned, but the stress and trauma that they cause the claimants in the first place is simply not acceptable. Far too many disabled people continue to face barriers that deny them the chance to find fulfilling work opportunities. What a tragedy that so many of those barriers have been erected and—looking into the future—appear to be continuing to be erected by the Government themselves, marginalising a group that is already excluded in so many ways. I urge the Minister to reflect on those concerns in his response.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) for securing the debate. He spoke powerfully about his constituent who has been personally affected by the decision taken in the last Parliament to close the Remploy factories. As many of us predicted at the time, that move has had a devastating impact on the lives of those directly involved, the vast majority of whom have been unable to move into alternative employment. That has been the case for Margaret and others we have heard about today.

Few would disagree with the aspiration of the Sayce review of supporting disabled people into mainstream employment, but that has proved much easier to hypothesise than actually to deliver. Too many disabled people who are seeking work find it difficult to enter the labour market or to access the kind of support that they need to help them to sustain employment.

Let us not forget, however, that about half of disabled people of working age are in work, most of them in mainstream jobs. Obviously, there are some disabled people whom we cannot expect to work, but there are also disabled people currently not in work who could, with the right support and workplace adjustments, overcome the disadvantages that they face in the labour market, and we have heard about many of them today.

We should also remember, though, that access to employment for disabled people takes place in a wider economic context. For instance, I do not think that the closures of the Remploy factories really took account of the economic situation at the time, or the local economies in those areas where the factories were based. In most cases, there have been scant opportunities for those people since the factories closed.

Disabled people are far more likely to be in work in times and places where jobs are plentiful. It is always easier to find a job in an area of low unemployment than in an area where many people are chasing every vacancy. The barriers facing disabled people are sometimes related less to their disability than to prospective employers’ preconceptions about what they can and cannot do. We therefore need to acknowledge that although disabled people have certain legal protections in work, getting a job in the first place is often much more difficult, especially for those who disclose invisible or fluctuating conditions, like those alluded to by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), or for those whose health conditions have left them with a patchy work history. We need to be honest with ourselves in this place about the extent of the disadvantage affecting disabled people in the labour market.

It is very difficult in a short debate such as this to do justice to such a broad topic, but as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) reminded us, the Government had a manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap and now need to bring forward a credible strategy on how they intend to do so. At present, disabled people are disproportionately employed in the public and third sectors. Many are in organisations that have active equal opportunity policies in place and monitor the recruitment and retention of disabled staff. Unfortunately, parts of the private sector have not always kept pace with that, but one way for Government to make a difference, proposed by Disability Rights UK, is to ensure that businesses above a certain size monitor and publish data on the numbers of disabled people they employ. Many good employers do that already, but it would be a proportionate and effective way to improve access to work and would possibly help to tackle the direct and indirect discrimination that too many people who are disabled experience in the workplace.

The barriers to work for disabled people mean that the support that we offer through the social security system is all the more vital, but unfortunately the record of the last few years has been pretty abysmal in that regard, as we have heard, particularly in relation to the Work programme. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) pointed out, one third of disabled people in the UK live below the poverty line. That is about 3.7 million people. At a time of improvement in the labour market, the number of disabled people living in poverty actually increased last year. The shift from disability living allowance to personal independence payment has also meant that people with significant disabilities are losing eligibility for support. For many disabled people in low-paid jobs, such support enables them to stay in employment, so the clawback is counterproductive. Meanwhile, the Government’s plan to cut £30 a week from the support given to people in the work-related activity group—people who are not currently fit for work—is just vindictive.

This has been a timely debate, with substantial contributions on both sides. The Government are not doing enough to support disabled people’s access to employment, and I hope that Ministers will take on board the concerns raised today and bring forward the promised disability employment strategy as soon as possible.

I have a final request for the Minister. Will he reintroduce the “access to elected office” fund to enable more disabled people to enter political life? We have heard this afternoon that around one in five people in our society are disabled according to the definition in the Equality Act 2010, and it would be better if this place reflected that fact more accurately.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. Congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on raising such an important issue, and on representing his constituent Margaret Foster so ably. The situation he described is, unfortunately, happening to disabled people up and down the country.

Since 2010, 3.7 million disabled people have been affected by £23.8 billion of cuts as a result of, for example, the Welfare Reform Act 2012. It does not stop there. Under the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that is passing through the House at the moment, another 500,000 disabled people will be affected by changes to ESA WRAG support—another £640 million of cuts. That does not include the cut to the universal credit work allowance, or the £3.6 billion of cuts made to social care since 2010. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) was absolutely right to mention that disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to live in poverty. The figure increased by 2%, or 300,000 last year; those measures will definitely impact on disabled people living in poverty.

My hon. Friend mentioned the cut to the work allowance in universal credit. Has she seen the research by Liverpool Economics that shows that disabled people in work could lose up to £2,000 a year, making them one of the hardest-hit groups?

I have seen that analysis. My hon. Friend makes a vital point. I know that that area is not the Minister’s responsibility, but we must try to get the Government to think again. That change will result in the same cuts as those that the Government reversed to tax credits; the process will just be slowed down slightly.

I want to get back to what happened with Remploy. The coalition Government closed 48 Remploy factories, and a total of 2,000 disabled people—including Margaret—were made redundant. Of those former workers, 691 were given the Government’s work-related activity support, 830 received jobseeker’s allowance, and we just do not know what happened to 470.

In addition to what has been said about Work Choice and the effectiveness of the Work programme, we must not forget Access to Work, which some people have mentioned. Of the 4 million disabled people in work, Access to Work is currently supporting only 36,800. If we are really serious about halving the disability employment gap, which is a noble target, that is totally inadequate. I know that the Government stated in the spending review that there will be a real-terms increase in spending on Access to Work, but what is the money? Nobody has said. Will it be a smaller chunk for more people? The Government need to be very clear on that.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has mentioned the specialist advice and support in Jobcentre Plus. There used to be only one adviser for 600 disabled people, but that has gone down further. I commend the Minister for what he is doing about the Disability Confident scheme. He is doing his very best on that, but across the country there are only 79 active members—79 employers—33 of which are disabled charities. We will not meet the target of reducing the 30% disability gap—it is 34% in my constituency—with such low take-up. To echo the language that has been used, it is absolutely vindictive to take money from disabled people who do not have the opportunities, support or resources to enable them to take up a job. It is quite perverse.

I am coming to the end of my time, but I would like to know from the Minister what is planned for Access to Work. Will he also undertake to investigate the position of the people who were made redundant when Remploy closed? Clearly, the situation is not good enough. Will he also look at the perverse position that we are in now, where we are making cuts to support for disabled people before we have work for disabled people to get into and support for employers?

As your parliamentary neighbour, Mr Chope, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), who made a passionate speech on this incredibly important subject. I have already have some dealings with the hon. Gentleman in the course of his work on the all-party group on spinal cord injury. It was a real credit to him that he took time out of his busy schedule to come and engage on that.

I will cover the Remploy issue, and I would be happy to meet to discuss what more can be done in the specific case of Margaret and on the broader subject of disability employment. First, I want to answer some of the questions asked by various Members in what I thought was a constructive debate. As a Government, we are very much in listening mode. We are looking at ways in which we can make changes to improve the situation, and there are many ideas that we will look to take from today’s debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for his kind words, and I would be happy to continue in this role. He demonstrated a huge knowledge of the proactive work that needs to be done. It has been a real pleasure to work with him on a number of different areas of my role, and he is a real credit to his constituency.

It was a pleasure to attend the all-party group on disability, which the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) chairs so ably. We crossed paths on several occasions that day, when we went to a number of different meetings. She mentioned the work of Changing Faces. I met that organisation, which is doing a huge amount in a very important area. I am a big supporter of its “What Success Looks Like” campaign, which is an important part of the wider work that we need to do.

I echo the comments on self-employment. I had my own business for 10 years, and the careers advice that I always give to sixth-formers was, “If you are good at what you do, do it yourself. If you are not very good at what you do, be paid to be not very good.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) is doing a tremendous amount of work in her constituency. I was excited to hear about the work of the Beneficial Foundation, and I would be interested to visit and see that at first hand. I think that there are some lessons that we can learn.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who is easily one of the best speakers in Parliament. His suggestions about Jobcentre Plus were constructive. We are bringing forward a White Paper, which gives us an opportunity to look at how we can improve the situation. What he said about thinking outside the box was crucial. Some brilliant ideas have been put forward, and I encourage him to be very proactive, because there are some lessons that we need to learn.

It is also always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I do not think that I have responded to a single debate to which he has not contributed, and I am glad that he has not had another meeting that has clashed. It is good to exchange ideas, because if there are areas of best practice anywhere, we need to look at them. As I have said, the White Paper gives us a huge opportunity to change the support we offer, and I will discuss that further.

The personal passion of the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) shone through. I am grateful for the huge amount of work that was done in the Disability Confident event. I was disappointed to hear some of the negatives but it is important to raise them. We have addressed some of them and I will talk about that a bit more later. I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss them further because it is an important part of the work we are doing.

I apologise for missing some parts of the debate but I was listening closely to the feedback of the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) on his Disability Confident event as I want to ensure that we have a Disability Confident event in Worcester. I ask the Minister to engage with the issue of the follow-up to the events to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity they represent.

That is perfect timing because later in my speech I will highlight our drop-in event for parliamentarians. We are also producing a pack, which I will discuss later, and I would be delighted if my hon. Friend engaged with this because I know that he has done a huge amount of work engaging with employers, particularly with apprentices and at jobs fairs. We definitely need to recruit him to the campaign.

A comment was made about the role of the media and role models. I am doing a huge amount of work on that because it makes a big difference. The hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) covered relatively similar points regarding the ESA work-related activity group. Let us not forget that only 1% of people in the ESA work-related activity group were coming off that benefit each month. Rightly, it was highlighted that people want to get into work. Clearly that system was not doing that right. We can discuss in another debate how it will be done.

We will be spending an extra £60 million providing support this year, rising to £100 million by 2020. We should remember that no existing claimants will lose out on the cash. The proportion of people in relative poverty who live in a family in which someone is disabled has fallen since 2010. Without opening up a debate on disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, let us not forget that under DLA, 16% of claimants were on the highest level of benefit whereas, under PIP, the figure is 22.5%.

I turn to the issue of Remploy before moving to the broader issues. In March 2012, the Government confirmed that it accepted the Sayce review’s recommendations to focus support on individuals through services such as Access to Work, and away from specific workplaces or facilities such as Remploy in order to significantly increase the number of people who could be supported to access the labour market—it is that point about being in the mainstream. I understand that that is not what Margaret wishes to hear but I will come to more specific points.

The background to the case is that the 54 Remploy factories operated at a loss of £49.5 million, amounting to about £22,500 a year to support each disabled person working in a Remploy factory. That is in contrast to the average Access to Work award to support a disabled person in mainstream employment at £3,100. I understand that it is a lot more complicated than that. That debate took place in 2011 and 2012, and there was clearly a disagreement on what should happen. Following that, all disabled Remploy staff affected by the exit of Remploy factories had access to tailored support from an £8 million people help and support package for up to 18 months to help with the transition.

The final statistics of 21 August 2015 confirmed that just over 1,500 former disabled employees had received support through personal caseworkers, 867 were in work and a total of 1,182 jobs had been found. I accept that the point is what has happened since then. I do not know whether I can find that information but I will look into it.

In broader terms, ultimately we want as many people as possible to have the opportunity go into work. The Prime Minister personally committed the Government to halving the disability employment gap, and that was widely welcomed by all. In the past two years, there has been significant progress with 339,000 more people with disabilities going into work. A number of strands will help to make the aim a reality.

First, many Members have mentioned Access to Work. There is roughly a £100 million budget at the moment helping a near record 37,000 people. We have had four years of growth. Following the spending review, by the end of this Parliament we are looking to spend about £123 million and we would expect a further 25,000 people to be supported through that. We now have record numbers of people with learning disabilities, people with a mental health condition, and young people.

We have more specialist teams providing specific advice, including the visual impairments team, and other teams for hearing impairments, self-employment, large employers, and the hidden impairments specialists. Broader unique opportunities are also presented. We are looking at further ways to improve Access to Work, particularly raising awareness among small and medium-sized businesses, which would most benefit and could remove the most barriers. We are also looking into how we can simply provide more advice through that service. A number of speakers said that employers would be worried about whether they had the skillset to support somebody with a disability. Access to Work could be an opportunity to provide that.

Today we had our first Disability Confident taskforce. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) has rightly asked what more we can do to push that. We had a number of the great and the good from a huge wealth of backgrounds including recruitment agencies and groups that support people with disabilities to get into work, including the Federation of Small Businesses, Clear Company, the Business Disability Forum, the Shaw Trust and a number of others. There was a collective brilliance around that table. I told them that I am very much in listening mode and I want them to challenge us and to identify ways in which we can take advantage of the Chancellor increasing the funding.

The whole point is to make more businesses aware of the huge wealth of talent out there. That is being underpinned through our Disability Confident campaign, which is there to share best practice, bust myths and signpost businesses and potential employees to the help and support that exists. Underlying all this is ensuring that people understand that it is a positive benefit. We are not asking businesses to do something that is not right, but to take advantage, often through making small changes, having greater recognition or understanding that a huge network of support is available. We will push that, with a real emphasis on small and medium-sized businesses.

The Minister is making a good case for Disability Confident. Does he agree that we need measurable outcomes for those events?

Absolutely. I am coming to that, and we will be having that further meeting.

More than 300 organisations are signed up but that is not enough, which is why we will be doing a lot more promotion this year. The digital sign is now up and we are keeping more records of that. We will go back and challenge, particularly those larger businesses, to find out what more they can do with their supply chains and what further questions can be asked. That point was raised as well.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).