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Disability Employment Gap

Volume 611: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2016

I beg to move,

That this House regrets the Government's lack of progress towards halving the disability employment gap; further regrets that the Government has not yet published its White Paper on improving support for disabled people; notes with concern that commitments made in the Autumn Statement 2015 to help more disabled people through Access to Work and expanding Fit for Work have not materialised; further notes that the Government is reducing funding for specialist support for claimants with health conditions and disabilities through the Work and Health Programme; and calls on the Government to reverse cuts to the work-related activity component of Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit work allowances that risk widening the disability employment gap.

In my opinion and that of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, the Government are failing disabled people in Britain—failing to support them into work and failing to support those unable to work—and they are doing so deliberately, with calculation, care and even premeditation. It was entirely premeditated to go into the election boasting about cutting a further £12 billion from social security but forgetting to mention it would come from disabled people and those on low wages in need of tax credits and universal credit. I would like to say that we do not know why the Government are doing this, but we do know, because the Secretary of State’s predecessor told us in his tearful goodbye:

“we see benefits as a pot of money to cut because they don’t vote for us”.

It still shocks me to repeat that demolition of the Government’s one nation credentials—indicted by their own words.

I welcome the successor Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box, because all too often the last one failed to turn up in the House to accept scrutiny or difficult questions on issues such as this one, the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign or the bedroom tax. I welcome the decision he took on his first day in the job to stop the plans to take personal independence payments away from people unable to dress themselves or use the toilet unaided, and I also welcome the fact that in the same speech he said that there would be “no more welfare cuts”, but I deplore the fact that he must have known, even as he made that statement, that the deepest cuts had already been made. The cuts from disability living allowance to personal independence payments, the cuts to employment support allowance, the cuts to the Work programme, the cuts to universal credit: all those sharp incisions had already been made. The effects were yet to be felt, but now, a few months down the line, the pain is evident, the harm is clear and these things can be measured in the widening gap in employment between disabled people and the wider population.

Will the hon. Gentleman take a step back from the rhetoric and have a look at the facts for a second? Does he not welcome the 365,000 more disabled people in work over the past two years, and the 3.3 million in total who are in employment? Will he not welcome those facts?

Let me give the hon. Gentleman the facts. I welcome every job provided for a disabled person, and I welcome every opportunity for disabled people to get into work, but the facts are that the Government have gone backwards on the target for disabled people. When our Labour Government left office, the disabled employment gap stood at 28%; today, it is 34%—an increase in the size of the gap between ordinary able-bodied people in work and disabled people. That is the truth of these circumstances. [Hon. Members: “Ordinary?”] What a ridiculous point. I mean the gap between able-bodied people without disabilities and disabled people. That stands at 34%— increasing on the Secretary of State’s watch and under this Government.

I will give this Secretary of State and his Government credit where it is due. I credit them for setting this difficult target to halve the disabled person’s employment gap. It was a clear pledge in the Conservative manifesto at the last election. On page 19, it said that the Conservatives would

“halve the disability employment gap…transform policy, practice and public attitudes, so that hundreds of thousands more disabled people who can and want to be in work find employment”.

That is a genuinely laudable aim. Labour fully agrees that if disabled people can find work and want to work, we should do everything we can to encourage and assist them in doing so. It would be good for all of us: good for them to be in work; good socially for our workplaces to be more integrated and rounded places; good economically, as reducing the gap by 10% would add £45 billion to our gross domestic product by 2030.

Unfortunately, a year on from that promise, the Government are either reneging on it or just failing to take the action needed to meet it. The volume of people currently employed who are not disabled stands at 80%, but the figure for those who are disabled stands at 46%—a gap, as I said a few moments ago, of 34%. The House of Commons Library, the Resolution Foundation and the TUC have all carried out analysis to show that the Government are making little or no progress towards the target. To hit it, they will need to get 1.5 million disabled people into work.

On the basis of the current state of activity by this Government, I cannot see how they are going to achieve it in a month of Sundays. I cannot see how they are going to get it back even to where it was at the end of the last Labour Government at 28%. It is a worse performance by this Government than that of the last Labour Government. What is even worse is that it is becoming more difficult for disabled people to get into work and stay in work because of the cuts that the Government are making. That will be my next theme.

Is it not true that under the last Labour Government, by the time someone was 26, they were four times more likely to be out of work as a disabled person than they are under the current Conservative Government?

I have repeatedly said that the last Labour Government were performing better in terms of the disabled person’s employment gap than this current Government, and I shall say so again in a few moments.

Is my hon. Friend as concerned as me about the effect of the Government’s welfare changes on access to the Motability car scheme? Is he concerned about how many people have had their applications for the higher rate of the mobility component of PIP turned down only to find after many months and the loss of their car that the decision has been reversed because of problems with the assessment procedure in the first place? This affects people’s ability to get to work and to hold down and keep their jobs.

Of course it does, and I am going to say something about that straight away, because the first of the cuts that I want to discuss—cuts that are making it enormously more difficult for disabled people to get into and stay in work—is the PIP cut. As we know, PIP is a system of support that helps disabled people to deal with the extra costs of being disabled and to play a full part in life, which includes going to work. Eventually, when they have all been shifted across from Labour’s disability living allowance, 3.5 million people will be on PIP.

As I said earlier, the previous Secretary of State baulked at taking £1.2 billion out of PIP by changing the eligibility criteria in respect of washing and dressing, but he knew that he had already saved £2 billion by tightening the criteria relating to the move from DLA to PIP. One of the ways in which he tightened those criteria involved the mobility component of PIP, versus DLA. Crucially, he changed the measurement of people’s mobility—how far they were able to walk—from 50 metres to 20 metres, the net effect of which was, quite simply, that fewer people were eligible for the mobility component. As a result, 17,000 specially adapted Motability cars have been removed from people. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that I have got my stats wrong. He can tell us what he thinks the stats are shortly, but first I am going to tell him what Muscular Dystrophy UK has said, because it has an interest in the matter. It has said that it is deeply concerned about the fact that between 400 and 500 specially adapted cars a week are being taken away from disabled people, which is an extraordinary statement. Does the Secretary of State think that is right? Does he think for a second that it is even cost-effective? More important, what does he think about the impact on real people?

Only this morning, Muscular Dystrophy UK highlighted the case of a woman called Sarah, aged 29, from Norfolk. She has myotonic dystrophy, which means that her muscles are progressively wasting. None the less, she works as a nurse in a local hospital, although she needs a specially adapted car to get to work. We could all celebrate that, could we not, were it not for the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions has taken her car away.

Sarah says:

“The ‘20-metre rule’ does not assess how someone’s mobility is affected by their condition. Occasionally I may be able to walk 20 metres, but on other days…I could fall…decreasing my mobility further…I could…choose not to work, but…As a nurse, I make a difference in my role, but it seems like the DWP is trying to prevent me from doing so.”

That is the human effect of the changes that the Secretary of State is overseeing.

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will retract his earlier choice of words, when he separated hard-working people like Sarah of Norfolk from other—in his words—“ordinary workers”.

That was a slip of the tongue, and I regret making it. In this of all areas, we should be extremely careful with the language that we use. I did not mean to imply what the hon. Lady suggests that I was implying.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Department for Work and Pensions has a duty to monitor the impact of the PIP roll-out, given the projection by Disability Rights UK that it could cause about 55,000 disabled people in work to lose their Motability vehicles and thus their ability to work?

I think it is absolutely shameful that the Government are refusing to monitor that properly. It is clear to all of us in the House that if people lose the cars that allow them to get to work, it will be harder for them to stay in work or seek employment. That, surely, is as plain as the nose on the Secretary of State’s face.

Does the Secretary of State think that taking Sarah’s Motability car away from her helps or hinders his mission to halve the disability employment gap? It seems to me that he should know the answer to that. I ask him to bring forward the review of PIP, and to think again about the 20-metre rule in particular. I ask him to look at what Atos and Capita are doing and reform their management of the system, because it is not working, and people such as Sarah are paying the price.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem is the fact that the assessment process is so dehumanising for a lot of people? This is not about human beings or about realising their full potential; it is about treating people as numbers.

My hon. Friend is completely right. As we all know, the truth is that there was a set of targets for savings to be made from the social security budget. Those targets were set by the Chancellor and passed down the road to those at Caxton House, who have set about carving up disabled people’s benefits in order to meet those targets. It is frankly shameful that people are being dragooned into this process, being treated poorly and demeaned by it, and at the end being less likely to stay in work or find work. That is very clear.

I will give way in a moment. I just want to make a few more points about universal credit, then I will happily give way to the former Minister for disabled people.

Let us move on to the work allowance under universal credit. This is another way in which the Government are penalising disabled people in work. One million low-paid disabled people will be on universal credit when it is fully rolled out, and thanks to the cuts to work allowances that this Secretary of State has introduced, they will all be about £2,000 a year worse off than they are at present. What does the Secretary of State think that cut will do for the life chances of those people? What does he think it will do to help him achieve his mission of halving the disability employment gap? Does he think that earning less will make people more or less likely to stay in work? I think I know the answers to those questions, which is why Labour is clear that we will reverse those cuts.

The fact is that the Government spend £50 billion a year on benefits to support people with disabilities and health conditions. Does the hon. Gentleman not want to turn his attention to how we are going to reform the system, rather than simply harking on about how much money is being spent? I think he knows better than that.

I said 20 seconds ago that one way in which I would reform the system would be to reverse the cuts to the work allowances under universal credit. That would clearly make work pay for 1 million disabled people in this country. I would start there, and I shall mention myriad other things later that the Government could do.

I would also reverse the cut to the support for disabled students. Getting qualifications is even more important for disabled students than it is for non-disabled people in this country. This summer, disabled students will be looking at their options and considering whether they can afford to go on to higher education, and they will be grossly disappointed to learn that the Government have already made it harder for them to do so through the decision to cut the disability student allowance which supports nearly 70,000 disabled higher education students.

I am going to finish this point. I might give way to the hon. Lady later.

Can the Secretary of State tell us how many fewer disabled students will go to university this September? I would be really interested to know, but I am not sure that the Government gather statistics on that. It would be good to know whether the cutting of that grant will mean fewer disabled students going to university. Can he explain how putting up barriers to disabled students is going to help his mission to halve the disability employment gap?

The biggest barrier that this Government have raised for disabled people seeking to enter the workplace is the cut to the work-related activity group under the employment and support allowance. That is a cut of around £1,500 a year for 500,000 disabled people whom the Government are meant to be helping into employment.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned the fact that the cuts to the employment and support allowance will leave 500,000 disabled people £1,500 a year worse off. Those measures were passed by this Parliament only once the former Secretary of State had given an assurance to this House—and particularly to Conservative Members—that there would be a White Paper on a settlement package for disabled people before the summer recess. Is my hon. Friend as disappointed as I am that that White Paper does not appear to be forthcoming?

I am deeply disappointed. I suspect that lots of Government Members, many of whom were sold the ESA cuts explicitly on the promise that the White Paper would come through, will be deeply disappointed. In fact, I may find it in my speech to mention a few of them in a couple of minutes’ time.

I am going to make a bit more progress and may give way in a minute.

Let us talk about ESA. Here is what the experts, not MPs, think about the cuts to the WRAG under ESA and how they will affect employability. Parkinson’s UK says:

“The cut to the WRAG will push people…even further from the workplace.”

Muscular Dystrophy UK states that the cut

“will widen the disability employment gap rather than reduce it.”

Mind’s chief executive, Paul Farmer, said

“Implying that ill and disabled people will be motivated into work if their benefits are cut is misguided and insulting.”

I could not agree more. It is grossly insulting to disabled people. I know that many Government Back Benchers feel the same way, because that is why they were so loth to give their votes to the Government on the ESA cut. In fact, many of them—[Interruption.] I am going to finish this point. Many of them did so explicitly because the Government promised to beef up support for disabled people. Let me quote a few Government Members and then I will give way to the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer).

I will first quote the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), who said before abstaining on the vote:

“To secure my trust, I need to believe in the White Paper and that the £100 million will go some way to help those people. That is my warning shot to the Government.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 215.]

The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said that the

“White Paper is incredibly important to the matter we are discussing, because it is the replacement for what the Government are proposing to remove.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 222.]

The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) said

“I was about to vote against ESA cuts when he”—

the previous Secretary of State—

“sought me out - he personally and angrily begged me not to”

and that he

“Promised me he was introducing a white paper which guaranteed enhanced and more easily accessible benefits for the seriously disabled”

in this country.

The shadow Secretary of State mentioned experts and then descended into partisanship, so I thought I might try to bring him back to the experts. He has not yet mentioned the Sayce report, so what are his views on that? It discussed many aspects of employment support for disabled people and highlighted the positive aspects of the Access to Work programme, stating that it

“should be transformed from being the best kept secret in Government to being a recognised passport to successful employment”

and that the Government should double the number of people who are helped. Does he agree with that? How would he propose that the Government go about achieving it?

I agree with lots of it, but the truth, as I have been describing, is that we have seen nothing but cuts. The shift from the Work programme to the Work and Health programme involves an 80% cut in support. Access to Work is dealing with fewer people this year than last year: 31,000 versus 34,000. Those are the facts, and the Government really need to check them. When the Secretary of State was the Secretary of State for Wales, he welcomed the Fit for Work scheme, but he has now scrapped it in my constituency. It is another scheme that is meant to be helping people, as Liz Sayce described, but it is being cut on the Government’s watch. That is the truth of the matter.

Where is this fabled White Paper? Where is it, the one that we have been waiting for all these months? Perhaps the hon. Member for Sherwood knows where the Government have it hidden and can tell us all about it.

I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. He talks about how strong the feelings are on the Government Benches and how much compassion there is around the issue of trying to get disabled people into work, but it is worth noting that the number of Government Members here to discuss the matter is more than double the number of Opposition Members. The number of Back Benchers here to support him in this debate has just gone down to single figures, which says quite a lot.

Low-brow, low-ball comments such as that really do not help the debate. This is a serious debate. I am taking it extremely seriously on behalf of the Labour Front Bench, and I would expect better from even Tory Back Benchers than that sort of nonsense.

Where is the White Paper that we have been expecting? I will tell the House. A former Employment Minister—the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) may still be on the Front Bench, but I never seem to see her there any longer because I suspect she is too busy campaigning on Europe outside this House—promised it by the spring. The Secretary of State’s predecessor then turned spring into summer. This Secretary of State went one better and turned a White Paper into a Green Paper, kicking urgency, clarity and specificity down the road. It is another insult to disabled people who are seeing their incomes cut and their Motability vehicles taken away. In my view, it is yet another insult. After disabled people have been knocked from pillar to post with the cuts to ESA, PIP, universal credit, student grants and the Work programme, the Secretary of State, for all his warm words, is putting legislation to put some of those things right on the back burner. That is the undeniable truth behind the shift from a White Paper to a Green Paper. It is failing disabled people.

Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition will support the Government when we think they are getting things right, but we will stand up and be counted when they are getting things wrong. We applaud the establishment of the bold and ambitious target to assist disabled people into work, but we will call it a lie—a cruel lie—if that promise is revealed to be a pipedream without the resources and the will to make it come true.

The Secretary of State says he wants to start a new dialogue with disabled people. Well, we are waiting to hear it. More importantly, he says he intends to make a difference and halve the gap in employment that they face. Well, I am waiting to see it.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith).

This House is at its best when it seeks to speak with one voice. There have been times in the past when the House has sought to speak with one voice, and no more so than in the area of disability. That is when we get the best response from organisations that represent disabled people and disabled people themselves, because they respect that. The tone that the hon. Gentleman has struck this afternoon is entirely the opposite approach. I regret the way in which he has gone about his business this afternoon and his partisan tone. I know he thinks that this style of opposition works for him, especially on Twitter, but organisations that represent disabled people and disabled people themselves will be very disappointed with the tone that he has struck.

Under this Government, our country has seen the highest levels of employment ever, with more than 2.5 million more people in work than six years ago. However, for many disabled people who want to work and who could work, the unquestionable improvement in our labour market and historic levels of employment over recent years do not ring true when it comes to their own circumstances and outlook for the future.

That is partly a legacy of the system that we inherited as a Government. It dates back to the days of one of my predecessors, John Hutton, who said that under his reforms, he wanted to see 1 million sick or disabled people get back to work. The truth is that that never happened. Instead, far too many sick and disabled people were parked on benefits without the correct support from the health service or the jobcentres. That is what happened under Labour and what has been happening over the last six years.

I made it clear in my first statement to the House following my appointment in March that I am ambitious for disabled people and for the support that they receive. I am ambitious for Britain to become the best country in the world for disabled people to live: a country that provides the right kind of support to help them lead as full and active a life as possible; a country that is a world leader in assistive technologies that transform their independence at home and their working environments; a country where employers embrace and embed disability awareness as a core component of their business; a country where disabled people have the same opportunities as anybody else to get a job and share in the prosperity of our growing economy.

The Secretary of State chided my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) for the tone of his opening remarks, but does he not recognise that the organisations that represent disabled people are unanimously opposed to the scale of the cuts to support that his Government have introduced?

I have huge respect for the right hon. Gentleman. The truth is that in real terms, we are increasing the support that we give to disabled people. By the end of the Parliament, we will still be spending about £50 billion to support people with long-term health conditions and disabilities.

I struggle to understand how the Secretary of State could suggest that support for disabled people has gone up in real terms, when if someone who is currently on employment and support allowance and who is in receipt of ESA WRAG goes into work but then falls out, they lose access to that £30 a week. How can he possibly say that when he is looking at a person-centred approach to this debate?

We can get on to that later in the debate. The truth is that ESA has not worked in the way that was intended when it was set up by the previous Labour Government. When John Hutton created ESA, it was with a view to seeing 1 million people with disabilities and long-term health conditions get back into work. It has not done anything like that. The truth is that for those people who are in the work-related activity group, there are better ways to get them the support they need and to help them back into work. The incentives are not in place.

What percentage of the workforce in this country has disabilities, or, to put it another way, what percentage of people with disabilities are part of the workforce?

There are different ways of measuring that, but around one in six people have a disability. I will come on to explain why those figures will go up and what challenges that will present to us as a society. It is a mark of the extent of our ambition as a Government that we have a commitment to halve the disability employment gap. That is exactly the right vision to have, but we are in no doubt that the challenges are both profound and complex.

The employment rate for those who are not disabled is currently 80%; for disabled people it is 47%. That is not just a gap of 33 percentage points, but a gap in the life chances of disabled people up and down the country. It is a gap that has persisted for too long. The barriers that disabled people have built up over many years will take time to break down. I am clear that, for far too long, too many have not had the right support or been given the opportunity of work. Very often they are parked on benefits, cast aside and forgotten about. That is not good enough.

I will make a bit more progress, but I will give way later.

Emerging from this past of unfulfilled potential, there are encouraging signs that those barriers are being dismantled and that attitudes are changing. Travelling home on the Tube the other day, I saw an advert promoting a career with Shell—I can already see grimaces on Labour Members’ faces. That ad made it clear that Shell recognises that the more diverse and inclusive a team, the more varied the ideas and the better the business. Diversity drives innovation. The ad shows how a disabled person is as much a part of a business’s core vision of success as any other recruit. Recruiting disabled people should not be a bolt-on extra or a nice thing to do. As the ad says, the company is in search of “pioneers” and “remarkable people”. For me, this was more than a recruitment ad; it was a much wider advert for how society is changing and how disabled people are viewed. They are no longer patronised or diminished, but a core component of a well-performing business and of a diverse and successful society.

I see and hear that change for myself when I meet employers, charities and disabled people. I hear it from members of the Disability Charities Consortium and of the mental health expert advisory group. Just yesterday, when I was visiting the constituency of the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), I had the pleasure of going to a micro-brewery in Bermondsey where all the employees have learning disabilities.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way and for visiting the fantastic organisation, UBREW, in my constituency. He has spoken a lot about ambition, but does he not think that this House and disabled people were misled about the timing of the new disability support programme from next year—at the same time as the ESA cut is going to be delivered? Does he not think that it would be fairer and more reasonable if the ESA cut was delayed until his delay to deliver the new employment programme has come to an end?

I do not think that the House was misled. The money has been made available from the Treasury and I have discussed it with the Chancellor. That money is there. What I have decided to do—I will explain this in more detail later—is to take a step back and work much more closely with disability organisations and disabled people. Rather than rush to push out a White Paper, I have decided to talk to those organisations that know the situation the best, and work in a new spirit to work up some proposals that we know will make a long-term difference. That decision I have taken not to rush ahead with a White Paper and to work more collaboratively on a Green Paper has been welcomed by the organisations that I have been speaking to.

The Secretary of State talked about the importance of having the right support for people with a learning disability. Young people with a learning disability often tell me that the transition at 16 to mainstream college can be especially challenging for them, particularly if they want to go on into employment. Will he join me in supporting organisations, such as Dove House in my constituency, that want to do more to help special schools support students right through to 19, to ensure that young people have the support they need to get into employment?

My right hon. Friend, a former Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, makes a really important point and that is an organisation that I would love to hear more from. That period of transition is crucial. Those charities—we all have them in our constituencies, do we not, Madam Deputy Speaker?—often have more expertise than anybody else and work day by day in local communities, supporting people with disabilities. We need to hear far more from organisations like that.

The pride and passion that I saw displayed yesterday among the staff at that social enterprise, employing people with learning disabilities in that wonderful community of Bermondsey in south London, was a model of motivation for supporting people with disabilities. These positive experiences are reflected in the figures. Over the past two years alone, 365,000 more disabled people have gone into work, and that is a huge achievement. However, that progress has not translated into a narrowing of the disability employment gap, largely because of the enormous growth across the labour market in general. The gap will close only when we see a faster increase in the rate of employment growth among people with disabilities than across the economy generally. That is how we close the gap.

The shadow Secretary of State lauded the fact that, on paper at least, the disability gap was narrower under Labour, but that was because unemployment was soaring across the economy. That is not the way to close the disability employment gap. We need to harness the positive progress across the economy and ensure that people with disabilities and long-term health conditions are at the front of the queue to benefit from those changes in economy.

I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend has come on to this point. Does this not echo the broader point about what we need to do about life chances, which is not to focus on transfers over an imaginary line but instead focus on the real underlying factors?

My hon. Friend makes an important broader point about how we think about poverty and disadvantage. I think that we have come a long way as a Government and across society in understanding poverty. It is not just about chasing after a target on paper; it is about understanding what is going on behind the scenes and drilling down into root causes.

The disability employment gap is national but the support and solutions are, I believe, often local. Many Members on both sides of the House are doing excellent work to encourage and support disabled people in moving into work in their constituencies. One example of that is the holding of reverse job fairs, which are important events to link local employers with specialist disability organisations and help to create long-term job opportunities for disabled jobseekers. Jobcentres up and down the country are also on the frontline, supporting disabled people’s move into work, and we are more than doubling the number of disability employment advisers in jobcentres to provide specialist and local expertise to help disabled people enter employment.

I commend the Secretary of State for his tone. One category that he has not mentioned is those who suffer from long-term mental health conditions and who are getting back into work. I commend to him recommendation 7 of the independent mental health taskforce, chaired by the chief executive of Mind, which talks about the DWP working to direct funds currently used to support people on employment and support allowance to commission evidence-based health-led interventions to help get people with long-term mental health conditions back into work.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am clear, as is my whole ministerial team at the Department, that the challenge of mental health is enormous and profound. We must do far more to understand it and its interaction with employment. We will be spending tens of millions of pounds in the coming years on pilots to try to understand what interventions can make a positive difference for people with mental health conditions, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we are determined to see positive change in that regard.

We are expanding Access to Work, so that 25,000 more disabled people by 2021 will be helped with the additional costs they face from working. We are ensuring that disabled people are part of our plans to increase apprenticeships, with an accessible apprenticeship task force which is providing advice on how potential apprentices with learning disabilities and other hidden impairments can take these up.

The Secretary of State is generous in giving way. On Access to Work and the fact that we are increasing spending on it, that increased spending will be of little value if it remains, as Liz Sayce said, the “best kept secret” in the DWP. How can we ensure that the most vulnerable and the smallest businesses, which would benefit most from it, hear about it and can gain the full value of that scheme?

The slightly glib answer that I could give is that there is a role for all of us in this House to promote Access to Work in our communities and constituencies, but there is a broader challenge for the Department and for the Ministers as to how we get that information out. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has responsibility for disabled people, is taking the lead on that and will refer to it in his closing remarks.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Can he explain why the number of disabled people supported by Access to Work is lower now than it was in the last full year of Labour in government? When will he publish the figures for the number of young disabled people who are supported from the £10 million fund that was meant to have been dedicated to voluntary placements from 2013?

I do not have the specific figures to hand, but I heard a voice in my ear from my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), that those figures are not correct, so perhaps in his closing remarks he can respond directly to the question from the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle).

My right hon. Friend made the point about apprenticeships. I was interested to hear some comments from the Minister for Skills recently about the possibilities of adapted apprenticeship frameworks for people with particular disabilities and learning difficulties. We recently had a fantastic cross-party debate in this House about autism. Does my right hon. Friend agree that for people with autism, apprenticeships can offer a very good way forward if they are properly designed?

Indeed. We have the accessible apprenticeship taskforce, which will report to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. That is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who has deep experience and expertise on these issues. I am sure autism will be one of the aspects that we consider.

We are embedding employment advisers with mental health therapies to support people with mental health conditions to receive timely and tailored employment advice. We are supporting disabled entrepreneurs through the new enterprise allowance, with over 16,000 businesses being set up by people with disabilities and long-term health conditions since 2011. Only today, I was reading about a deaf person in Gloucester who has been helped by the new enterprise allowance to set up a carpentry business. That person is no longer on benefits and has joined the many thousands of small business entrepreneurs who are so important to our economy.

These are all real, practical measures that we are taking to make a difference for disabled people, but the scale of the challenge that we face demands a broader response. The scale of the challenge is demonstrated by the forecasts and by the way our demographics are changing. More and more of us of working age will be living with some kind of health condition in the future that will need to be managed for us to stay healthy in work. Around 12 million people of working age are already living with at least one long-term condition, and that figure is forecast to rise. Mental health problems are also rising, particularly for young people. Around one in six working people have a mental health condition, and that figure rises to around one in four for jobseeker’s allowance claimants and almost half for those receiving ESA. Lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity mean that the proportion of the working population with significant health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease is likely to increase.

Is any monitoring being done as to how many people who get into work are still in that job one year later? Sustainability is just as important as getting the job in the first place.

The hon. Lady mentions an extremely important point. We are doing that, particularly for people with disabilities. More broadly, with our universal credit reforms, that is one of the things that we will be doing generally for people moving off benefits. The support does not end the day that they find a job. The support continues, to ensure that the employment is sustainable.

On top of the long-standing barriers disabled people have faced, there are serious long-term demographic changes. They require serious and long-term cross-sector solutions. No single policy or initiative from my Department or any other will serve as a silver bullet to immediately close and seal the disability employment gap. We will only make the strides we all want to see by working differently and by working in a truly collaborative way; yes, with the health service and the welfare system, but also with local authorities, employers, charities and voluntary organisations. It means we also need to listen to, and speak with, those who know what support will work best—disabled people themselves.

That is why I announced that we will publish a Green Paper later this year to do just that. I make no apology for taking the time to ensure we get such important reforms right. The reforms have the potential to transform so many lives. It is important to build consensus and to seek the views and support of the individuals and groups involved. It is also about understanding what works with groups who perhaps have not been heard from enough so far, such as smaller, local organisations who have a lot of expertise and understanding of what works on the ground, and importantly, groups such as employers to look seriously at the role they have to support and help the disabled people they employ.

The Secretary of State will know of the work done by the charity Pluss. Indeed, his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), attended the showing of a recent video it produced about people who had returned to work. Does he agree with Pluss and me that there may be opportunities to attract more smaller employers into taking on people with disabilities if there is a tax break on national insurance, in the same way as there is a tax break on apprenticeships for smaller employers at the moment?

It is exactly that kind of incentive that I hope the Green Paper process will explore. Those are exactly the kinds of ideas that we need to examine. My colleagues in the Treasury will obviously take an interest, but we have to think differently right across Government if we are to have any hope of closing the disability employment gap. I am particularly keen to know what small businesses think about what they can do to employ more people with disabilities.

I applaud the aspiration for consensus, which the Secretary of State has now set out a couple of times in his speech. Does he not recognise, however, that he will not achieve a consensus against a backdrop of such huge cuts in support for disabled people? The Chancellor tried that again in the most recent Budget. While the Government are cutting support so much, the Secretary of State will not find the consensus that he rightly wants to achieve.

I hear the right hon. Gentleman’s point. When it was made earlier, I said that by the end of this Parliament we will still be spending more in real terms on supporting people with disabilities. My aspiration for the end of the Parliament is that we will be spending in a much more effective way to help to transform lives.

This new approach is not just about changing the way disabled people are supported to move into work, but how they are helped to stay in work. A disabled person may make the breakthrough into work only to permanently fall out of work and on to sickness benefits soon after. Tens of thousands of disabled people do so every few months. I completely agree with the Resolution Foundation’s report this week, which highlighted the need for more focus on supporting disabled people in work, as well as those moving into work. Prevention and early support will be key to that, which is why we are supporting people to stay in work and trying to prevent them from becoming ill in the first place. That is why we are investing an extra £1 billion a year for mental health care in the NHS to support 1 million more people to access high-quality timely care.

Our Green Paper has the potential to be an historic opportunity to harness and build on the positive changes we have seen for disabled people. It is only through this approach—working with employers, disabled people themselves, the NHS and the welfare system, and local authorities—that we can build a strategy that will work to make a difference to people’s lives, keeping them in work as well as helping to support many, many more into employment.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) on securing it.

We absolutely agree with the Government’s aim of halving the disability employment gap, but we have serious concerns about the actions they are supposedly taking to achieve it. With just three-and-a-half years in which to achieve their goal, they are failing. The Resolution Foundation estimates that halving the gap by 2020 will require 1.5 million people with disabilities to be supported into work. I agree with what the Resolution Foundation said in yesterday’s report, “Retention deficit”, in which it highlights that work

“is not right for everyone”

and that the Government could damage their aims by pushing work at all costs, but that there is an opportunity in the discussions on health and work.

Opposition Members have said on numerous occasions —during and since the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016—that the Government are doing things in the wrong order and are, as a result, harming their own objectives. They cut off support from ESA WRAG and universal credit work allowance, and we will now be waiting even longer before the replacement system is up and running.

I welcome the reference in the Labour party motion to the frustration over the delay in the publication of the long-promised White Paper. However, while I remain sceptical about the Government’s real intentions in their change of heart, I welcome the announcement of the Green Paper on health and work—assuming that there is a genuine consultation process, a genuine listening on the Government’s part to stakeholders and a genuine investment in the resulting service—but why were those things not done before the cut to ESA WRAG and before the cut to universal credit work allowance?

The now not-so-new Secretary of State must quickly set out a timetable for the Green Paper consultation and for publication. We cannot allow the Green Paper to follow the White Paper. We in the SNP are deeply concerned that valuable time in which to make progress on disability employment is being lost as a result of this delay. The Tories cannot be allowed to kick this into the long grass. The Green Paper should be brought forward urgently, with real engagement with the community and voluntary sector, to shape the new framework. The Secretary of State must formally make a statement of his intentions and lay out a road map for the development of the new programme and time frame.

The Resolution Foundation also said yesterday that benefit off-flows do not always equate to sustained employment and that the Government’s policy is focusing too much on their rhetoric about getting people off benefits, while not supporting people who are currently in employment to keep them in it. The Resolution Foundation has made a number of recommendations, which I hope the Government will read and consider.

The Secretary of State rightly said he wanted to turn the discussion on social security away from statistics and towards the people involved, and I have some people who desperately want to be listened to and who have agreed to have their cases raised today. These people highlight the issues being faced by disabled people throughout the social security, access-to-employment and workplace processes. Their stories highlight how they are being let down.

At the end of last year, I was contacted by a young woman with autism, who was being forced through round after round of assessment, form-filling and evidence-offering. She was in receipt of PIP and had only recently taken part in the assessment process for it when she was told she would need to go through a work capability assessment and to submit evidence to receive ESA, which she was being cut from. She had to compile and submit all the same evidence a few short months after the same Government Department had requested it. She had to go through very similar and, for her, equally traumatic assessment processes for the same Department for which she had done it a few short months prior. For anyone, that would be an upheaval and an unnecessary burden, and it would result in increased anxiety, but for someone with autism, it is painfully traumatic.

Most galling for me, however, was that my constituent’s placement was put at risk by the decision over ESA. She would not be able to continue if she failed the WCA and was forced back on to JSA. That is why removing ESA WRAG is so damaging to the prospects of those who are on the cusp of finding employment, but who need that extra support and additional resource to get there—in the case of someone with autism, for instance, so that they can finance a familiar taxi, rather than use the daunting, potentially dangerous and unknown world of public transport—and to stay on a training placement, which builds their confidence towards the workplace.

The National Autistic Society has said that its research shows that only 15% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment. It says the Government cannot rely on an improving economy alone to ensure that disabled people, including autistic people, share the same employment opportunities.

The hon. Gentleman is citing some good cases, as he always does when this issue comes up for debate, but does he not agree that the underlying problem with ESA was that only 1% of those on the programme actually went into work, when 60% or more wanted to find work? The programme simply was not working. Does he recognise that?

Absolutely, but I also recognise that cutting off support cuts off the access to work available to some people, including the constituent I described, and puts the cart before the horse.

The changed system should have been put before the House for debate and scrutiny before the cuts to ESA and universal credit were applied. That was simply ludicrous, and I suspect that we are now going to pay the price. Mencap estimates that

“less than two in ten people with a learning disability are in employment”,

despite, in its estimation,

“eight out of ten being able to work with the right support”,

and a majority wanting to work. The key phrase is

“being able to work with the right support”.

Mencap’s criticism is that the

“support is often not available or those giving that support often do not understand learning disability.”

My nephew and his parents have been through the wringer to get support for him for almost all his life. He is approaching his 17th birthday and is sitting his GCSEs in Lancashire—I wish him well as he goes through that. He has cerebral palsy, which limits his mobility but has not limited his communication skills—far from it. Getting the right wheelchairs, accessing school transport and getting additional support when he needs it at school has been a constant fight for the family, and now he is anxious about what happens as he transitions from school into work. This is what he said to me when I asked him, ahead of this debate, about entering the employment market:

“I’m not sure what I can ask of an employer, for example, if I want to work at an Apple Store but all the tables are too high for me to reach can I ask the employer to make the tables accessible to me? I also sometimes worry that employers may choose another applicant for a position because they believe it would be easier to employ them, even if I am the best person for the job. I would however like to say that when I went for the interview for my apprenticeship my school were very supportive, but that may be because they already know me and I’ve been there for the past five years.”

That tells me of the lack of confidence that many disabled people have about entering the employment market. My nephew is the most gregarious, confident and engaging young man you could wish to meet, yet he feels he will be held back at work. He feels—unsurprisingly because of the way he has had to fight for support throughout his life—that he will have to ask employers for help: that he will be a burden on his future employers because of his disability, and that that will lead to him losing out.

That tells me, and it should ring loud and clear to the Government, that for the employment gap to be halved and for people with disabilities get fair access to employment we need to address how we treat them in all areas of social security support. Making them feel as though they have to fight for help and support that should be their right and expectation damages their long-term prospects and confidence to enter the employment market.

Surely we should not just pigeonhole people who are suffering disability into individual areas but ensure that they have the confidence to be able to get into employment and participate in the wider community.

I find nothing in the hon. Gentleman’s comments that I can disagree with, but the fact is that they do not have that confidence at the moment. That is clear from the examples I am giving and from the expert third-sector organisations. They do not have the confidence because of the way they have been treated throughout their lives in having to fight for appropriate wheelchairs and go through traumatic work capability, PIP and DLA assessments, which they find demeaning. The whole process reduces their confidence not just to enter the workplace but to maintain a dignified level in society. I take his point, but there is far more for us to do.

This view is echoed in many ways by Sue Bott, deputy CEO of Disability Rights UK, who said:

“It is bad enough that the government spends so much of its time and resources on finding ways to deny”

disabled people

“benefits and support but then not to put measures in place that would increase employment opportunities really is a double whammy for disabled people. The fact is that it is only when we see a government seriously committed to equality will we get progress.”

Last Friday, I saw a constituent, a 37-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease, who had gone through a PIP assessment. The assessment report described him throughout as “it” rather than “him”. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is an example of exactly how the approach he advocates is not being put into practice under this scheme?

That is absolutely sickening, and it should reduce us all to shame. That goes to the heart of why we have said throughout the election campaign in Scotland that when we create our social security agency we will put dignity and respect at its heart for those very reasons. Sadly, in some cases—not all, but some—those things have been lacking.

There was another case that I wanted to highlight about the work capability assessment, but time is pressing. Suffice it to say that the failings of the assessment stage make it far more difficult for the Government to achieve their goal of supporting disabled people who, with the correct support and guidance, would be able to find employment. Jobcentres, which are there to provide such help and support, are dealing with people who are not capable of working because of their ill health and disabilities, but who have mistakenly been sent there as a result of the flawed ESA decision-making process.

Another disabled constituent of mine who is in work contacted me regarding problems with the progress of his DLA and PIP application. He informed me that he had had numerous problems with the process. Despite supplying detailed medical evidence of the effect the health problems had on his life and the type of support he requires—the evidence clearly highlighted why that support was needed—he was told that he had to attend an assessment with ATOS. My constituent requested that that be carried out at an assessment centre, but was sent a letter by ATOS telling him, in language that he found threatening, that it would need to be a home visit.

Given that my constituent is trying to maintain a full-time job, the unavailability of weekend appointments makes it very difficult for him to adhere to strict appointment times during the week. The assessor did not attend on the day that was eventually scheduled. When my constituent inquired about that, he was told that no appointment had been made for him. This led to ATOS stating that it would consider the application on the basis of the evidence that my constituent had supplied, which left him understandably confused about why that had not been done in the first place. Supporting people with disabilities who are already in work is essential to ensuring that the disability employment gap is not widened still further. The Resolution Foundation referred directly to that in its report yesterday.

In conclusion, I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect on the personal testimonies that I have presented, as others across the House no doubt will, as he progresses towards the Green Paper. SNP Members are committed to seeing disabled people supported into employment when they are able to be, but that can come about only through appropriate support, and not simply by honouring the rhetoric of getting people off benefits and into work.

Order. In order to try to accommodate all 10 hon. Members who have indicated to me that they would like to catch my eye, I am afraid it is necessary to start with a limit on Back-Bench speeches of six minutes each.

I shall keep it quick, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate. I was genuinely pleased when I saw that the Labour party had selected the disability employment gap as the topic of its Opposition day debate, because it seemed so out of character. Why would the Labour party try to have a consensual Opposition day debate when it is all about hurling insults at each other? As ever, the shadow Secretary of State did not let me down. He did not talk about the disability employment gap at all. He gave his usual speech about disability, and he mentioned all the points that he tends to make about disability. The debate could have been called simply “Disability”. He started to refer to what he called the disability gap, and I have no idea what that even meant. It could have meant almost anything. It was a peculiar avenue to go down.

The shadow Secretary of State is quite right, on one level, to hold us to account for a manifesto pledge, but there is a certain irony in the fact that he is holding us to account for a pledge that the Labour party chose not to make in the last election. It was not clear from his speech whether the Labour party has made a commitment to halve the unemployment gap.

I am pleased to see the shadow Secretary of State nodding his head. It is a little churlish of him to criticise us for not narrowing the gap in the first year since the election. He is quite right to point out that the gap has broadened—[Interruption.] It really annoys me that the Opposition Front-Bench team always think that the best way to address any speech by a Conservative Member is to sit and give a running verbal commentary on everything we say—a monologue to their imaginary friends sitting on the Front Bench. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) be quiet for a minute? I am sorry to have to shout at her. I listened very patiently and quietly—[Interruption.] I do not want a conversation with her; I am asking her to listen to my speech. I sat patiently and listened to the shadow Secretary of State. I did not engage in a running commentary. [Interruption.] If she wishes to step outside and argue with me now, then we can do so. All I am asking is for the hon. Lady to show me a common courtesy and to listen to what I am saying, not issue a running commentary. [Interruption.] Yes, I know that my time is running down, but I place great importance on standards of politeness in this Chamber. If I choose to use my time in trying to enforce those standards, that is my choice and it is not for her to comment on it.

I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman has given way. Inadvertently, that will give him an extra minute, which he will be very grateful for. With all due respect, he will not have seen from where he is sitting that, during the opening speech in this debate, his Front Benchers were making the same running commentary against Labour Members. That is perfectly reasonable as part of the debates that take place, but I do not think it is reasonable for him to offer to take outside a Member of the official Opposition.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. As you always remind us, Mr Speaker, we are responsible for what we say in the Chamber. My point to the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne was that rather than interrupting my speech, I was more than happy to continue the debate about proper standards of addressing Members in the Chamber after we had completed our speeches. On that note, I think we will move on.

I was touched by what the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) said about his nephew in Lancashire and his perception of engaging in the jobs market. That spoke to me quite a lot because there was a time when I often felt I would be a burden to an employer. An implicit assumption built into how I viewed the world was that, for some reason, employers would somehow not want to touch me with a bargepole, that I would have to be better than the best and that the hurdle would always be that much higher. I very much understand his mindset.

To me, the biggest challenge in trying to overcome the disability employment gap is that some of our assumptions about what will happen to us in the workplace are so low to start with that it is very hard to give people the confidence to engage in the process. One of my concerns—this is partly why I agreed to participate in the review organised by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People—is my belief that percentages can be a very difficult way to measure what is actually going on. We had a very helpful contribution from the Labour party to the review. I welcome the fact that it felt able to make a submission, and I hope it will do so on the Green Paper as well. The contribution was actually interesting. Again, it focused on percentages—the percentage of people with a disability who are in work or engaging in an apprenticeship—but such figures are always hampered by the fact that those are self-declared disabilities. Many potential applicants simply do not want to acknowledge somewhere on a form that they have a disability in the first place, in case it affects the employer’s perception of how they will be treated during any interview process.

On my hon. Friend’s point about confidence, does he agree that that is not just the confidence of the applicant, although that is absolutely vital, but the confidence of employers to take on disabled people and people with disabilities? As the Secretary of State set out, reverse jobs fairs and such things can help employers to have the confidence to take on employees with disabilities.

It is very important that we use such opportunities to allow employers a broader range of mechanisms to test whether someone is suitable for a job, over and above a simple face-to-face interview.

I will not go into the findings of our review because they have not yet been agreed or sent to the Minister, but some themes strike me as particularly important. One relates to the very useful occasion when we saw Departments—the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions—working together and, with shared objectives, trying to iron out the differences between them. That alone was very worth while.

It was interesting to see that, despite how much the Government have already changed to improve the situation, employers and potential employees are not aware of what has changed. We may have changed regulations in Parliament, but are we adequately communicating such changes to the outside world so that people know they can take advantage of them?

There is always more that the Government can do in setting a good example. All Departments take on apprentices. I would like something written into each Department’s plans to state what percentage of apprenticeships should go to people with various types of disability. Some important points raised were not about learning or developmental disabilities, but about other hidden impairments such as hearing loss, and I hope that can be built on in any future examination of what goes on.

I welcome the Green Paper, although it is not mentioned in the Opposition motion. For me, the Green Paper is a real opportunity to reset a conversation that I think has gone awry during the years that I have been in this place—surely I am not the only person who is pleased to hear about a fundamental reassessment of the work capability assessment. We set so many hurdles between a disabled person and the job they want that it can make things that much harder. There are two separate assessments—one for ESA, and one for DLA or PIP—and time and again we put hurdles in people’s way. I would far rather try to reduce the number of assessments and make them more about how the state can help the individual. It should be much more personalised, and about acting as a gateway to all the different types of help that should be available.

There is much evidence to show us what works, and supported employment, indented training qualifications and supported internships have by far the best outcomes, although they are also the most costly to deliver per individual. The challenge for the Government is how to square that circle in the medium term. We know what helps to get people into a sustained job—the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) was right to stress that it needs to be sustained—but often, getting the job is not the challenge; it is about enabling a person to stay in that job and thrive in that place of employment. The Government can do a lot more on that front, and the Green Paper is a chance to reset the clock. I cannot wait to get stuck in and contribute.

The Government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap is an important step towards recognising that many disabled people want to get back into work. As has been said, however, if they are to have any chance of success, the Government must recognise and act on the significant barriers to employment that many disabled people face, including keeping jobs for the long term. They must also recognise and acknowledge the contribution that disabled people make in their communities through voluntary work—this should not just be about paid work—and everyone who is not able to work should have the support they need, including financial support, to lead a dignified life. To a certain extent dignity has been lost from the argument, and we need to bring it back to the centre.

The Government must also make it clear exactly who they expect to work. Many stable and able disabled people are already in work, and the challenge is to get the long-term sick, the terminally and chronically ill, and people with what could be called those disabilities that are hardest to accommodate, into employment. As the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said, however, that is often the most expensive solution.

If the Government are expecting the chronically ill, the long-term sick and people with complex disabilities to carry out paid employment, they must provide the support needed for that to happen. That support should not just be for individuals who are unwell or disabled; it should also be for the employer. Earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) vividly demonstrated how important that is and how difficult it can be. People with long-term illnesses and unstable conditions and disabilities, as well as those with learning disabilities and mental health problems, may be unable to work at the same pace as other employees. They may need more time off or flexibility, or they may need to work at home, and many employers might not be comfortable with that. Progressive, fluctuating disorders such as Parkinson’s disease have symptoms that can fluctuate during the day, and particular support is needed for those with such conditions, and so that their colleagues and employers can manage that work environment.

The Government should also look at their own record in employing people with disabilities. According to Leonard Cheshire Disability, only 8.9% of civil service employees are disabled, and at senior levels that drops to 4.5%. That could be improved, not only through direct employment but by the Government looking at their procurement policy. They should expect not just contractors but subcontractors to demonstrate their commitment to employing disabled people.

As has already been mentioned, proper careers advice, training and access to apprenticeships are also critical. Young disabled people are four times more likely to be unemployed than their peers. As we all know, the Government have said that they will fund 3 million new apprenticeships over the course of this Parliament. Those have to be accessible to long-term ill and disabled young people and people with serious mental health problems. I am aware that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys is carrying out a review of disabled people’s access to apprenticeships; I ask for the Secretary of State’s assurance that any recommendations made in that review will be taken seriously and acted on to improve the current situation, and then monitored, to make sure that we are making proper progress.

I know that this subject has been talked about a lot already, but I want to put on the record my concerns and those of many of my constituents about the planned cuts to employment and support allowance. I have seen no evidence whatever that the cuts will help disabled and long-term ill people back into work. On the contrary, the evidence I have read shows that they are more likely to push people further away from paid employment.

We know that one third of disabled people cannot afford to eat on the current levels of ESA work-related activity group support. What impact does my hon. Friend think the further cuts will have on their ability to get closer to the workplace?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The problem at the moment—I see this constantly in my own constituency—is that people with disabilities are really struggling to make ends meet. In my constituency, there is the added problem of access to transport: with cuts to bus services, many disabled people are unable to get into town and attend support classes as they used to. That is particularly concerning.

Recently a constituent came to one of my surgeries right on the edge of tears—that is difficult for any of us to see. He was that upset because he had just found out that he had failed the mobility part of his PIP assessment. He had a job and needed his car to get to work. He showed me a letter from his GP confirming that for many years he had not been able to walk more than 50 metres; I am not a doctor, but it looked pretty clear to me. The assessor, however, had decided that my constituent could walk 200 metres. Why or how I do not know, although I do not imagine that he made him do it for the assessment. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to look at the quality of assessment and of the assessors. If my constituent had lost his car, he would have lost his job. If we are working to get disabled people back into work the last thing we want to do is undermine them in that way.

I think most Members would accept that Governments of all colours have not done enough to support disabled people into work. This debate centres on whether the commitment made by this Government to halve the disability employment gap is progressing quickly enough, and in the right way. Looking simplistically at the numbers, which many Members have touched on today, there are now 365,000 more disabled people in work than two years ago, and more than 3.3 million in work in total, so we have made a good start. But we would all agree that it is not enough, and guess what? We believe that we should be working on this together. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has just left the Chamber, because I was so disappointed in his tone; I know he can do better.

We have accepted that we need to do things differently, so a Green Paper and a fresh new approach are exactly what we need. But we cannot rush that. I am disappointed not to have seen the Green Paper yet, and the disability charities I have spoken to are also eager to see it, but we need to decide whether tweaking existing systems and policies to meet a deadline is better than taking our time and getting it right. I do not think that it is. After all, any changes we make will affect the most vulnerable in society. I know that the new Secretary of State is determined to get this right, and disability charities have conveyed that sense to me too.

Although speed must not be our only goal, we must, I am afraid, keep in the back of our minds a deadline we have created for ourselves. I am sorry to say that the decision to cut the ESA work-related activity group before the White Paper had emerged was wrong; I regret the Government’s decision. It would give an incredible boost to the disabled community if they were to commit to freezing that decision just until the White Paper is agreed. If we can, we should. It should be a positive, ambitious and anticipated document. It is not enough for a Government simply to provide the financial and healthcare support for everyday living; we need to do everything we can to unleash the untapped potential skills and hopes of people with disabilities.

When I spoke to a gifted IT graduate with learning difficulties, she did not want to be protected from society; she wanted to be out there helping to build it, so why on earth could she not find a job? As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I have seen how the existing Work programme has simply not worked for disabled people. It is hugely successful for those closest to the jobs market, but not for those with physical or mental health issues. As our jobcentres evolve to support universal credit, so our work coaches will need to perform comprehensive triaging right from the beginning and provide a dedicated path of support from day one. People must not be allowed to sit on the merry-go-round of the system for two years before anything positive happens to them.

We need to make much better use of small third-party providers, such as the Papworth Trust in my constituency, which is one of the most highly regarded disability charities yet is running mainstream Work programme services because the payment method for specialist work choice provision is commercially unviable. That is ridiculous. Specialists know how to support disabled people and to identify what they can do, whereas much of the current pathway to employment focuses on what they cannot do.

The White Paper needs to look at the whole world of a disabled person, so if the Secretary of State does not mind, I am going to add a few things to his list. Do they have good accessible housing? What about the social care to support them at home and to help them get up and get out the door? It is not just about the employment services. We have to understand what they need. It is not enough just to treat the benefit application processes; the entire journey through ESA and PIP needs looking at again, and that should be coupled with a cross-departmental assessment of everything a disabled person needs to fulfil their potential.

Does the hon. Lady agree then that placing medical professionals in doctors surgeries is counterproductive, as people are likely not to seek medical care for fear of being reported to the Department for whatever illness they have got?

Forgive me—I am honestly not seeking an extra minute—but I genuinely do not understand the question. Did the hon. Lady mean medical professionals in jobcentres?

Perhaps we can have a conversation later, because I do not understand the question. I am sorry.

Departments need to work together—hell might freeze over—and perhaps share budgets. Having the right housing, for example, is the absolute beginning of a disabled person’s journey to work. If the fund available to deliver the Work and Health programme is significantly less than those for its predecessors, the Work programme and Work Choice, we will need to be smarter about how we spend it. Let us target young disabled people before they leave school. I heard the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) talk about his nephew. It is absolutely wrong. We should be getting in there and grasping people’s potential before they come to feel they cannot achieve. That is so wrong.

What about people who have only just gone on to ESA and disabled people who are in work? As we have heard, it is considerably more difficult for disabled people who have been out of the workplace for a long time to get back in. We need to get in there while their self-esteem is still high. I was once out of work for more than a year. It is flipping hard, and it is significantly harder for a disabled person. Access to work must also mean access to work experience and job interviews. You do not put fuel in a car when you have reached your destination; you need fuel for the journey to get there. And as we have discussed, people need to know about it too.

Would it not be great if we could design the process around the person, rather than pushing individuals with differing complex needs through a process just because the process was there first? We need to stop pushing square pegs through round holes; only then will we achieve our ambition of halving the disability employment gap. If the Secretary of State continues to demonstrate a willingness to make that happen, he and the Government will have my support.

I speak as someone who worked in the coalmines for 20 years and as a care worker for 16 years. I am also someone whose family has been devastated by muscular dystrophy and who has spent some time being unemployed or off work due to ill health. Throughout my life, I have come into contact with Departments of Health and of Social Security and the Department for Work and Pensions in their various forms. As a trade union representative, I have represented people at tribunals and sat as a wing member of tribunals, so I understand very clearly the history of Government relations with the welfare state.

I am glad to have a consensual debate, as I want to speak mainly about my experience as chairman of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy, but it is right and proper for the shadow Secretary of State to highlight that at last year’s general election the Government went to the people with a pledge to cut £12 billion from welfare budgets and refused to explain from where they were going to take the money. That is a simple fact. It is not rhetoric or scoring party political points; it is absolutely true.

I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say that he wants to work across government and across agencies. He twice mentioned the role that local authorities can play. I would be delighted if Gateshead council could play a role in helping to get disabled people back to work. If, however, 48% of a local authority’s budget is cut over six years, it will be stretched to the limit unless something is done to close the gap and try to provide help.

I want to talk specifically about the information that has been given to the all-party group on muscular dystrophy by the young people who came together under the title of the Trailblazers. I know that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) is a strong supporter of that group and has done tremendous work, so I was pleased to hear him speak today. These young people have clearly said that they have real concerns. They produced a report, “Right to Work”, in which they said clearly that young people should have the right qualifications and skills and exactly the same opportunities to gain paid employment—whether or not they are disabled.

Often these young people with ambitions are restricted by the inbuilt prejudices that they encounter in the workplace. The report shows that fewer than half of the disabled people in the country—48.5%—are actually in employment, in comparison with 78.8% of able-bodied people. They believe that the best way to address that is by giving as much support to individuals looking for work as is given to businesses and organisations already working.

The group also believes that the abolition of the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance has and will continue to put disabled people at a significant disadvantage. Almost half a million people are currently in receipt of the WRAG component, and it helps disabled people to get their interviews and to ensure that they are fit and healthy enough to get to work and stay in work. This abolition means that people with muscle-wasting diseases have had removed from them the support they need for sustainable, long-term and gainful employment, and it is likely significantly to widen the gap at a time when we are all saying that we want to close it.

When members of the Trailblazers went around the country to find out what was the reality, they found some basic things. They found far too many recruitment agencies that people were physically unable to reach because they were inaccessible up a flight of stairs. They were told that all jobs were available online. As Government Members said earlier, what happens if people are trying to go online, but the desk is set at a level from which it is difficult to operate the computer, or if people do not have access to a computer? These are the sort of basic issues that we should be working together to put right.

Some of the people carrying out the work for the report—disabled young people themselves—went for office-based proficiency tests, but instead of being based in the place where they were working, some of the interviews were happening in places such as coffee shops, where many other customers were milling about. How on earth can people show how proficient they are in circumstances like that? Trailblazers said that that while disability employment advisers were a hugely positive resource, it believed that they should all be given an enhanced level of disability awareness, so that they would recognise when disabled people came looking for a job that they might need to look at things in a very different way.

Some disabled young people seeking jobs face a dilemma: they must decide whether or not to disclose that they have a disability; obviously, not all of them will have a visible disability. They worry about the possibility that if they disclose their disability, there will be prejudice against them before they even get through the door. It should be made clear that they should have the right to decide whether or not to disclose their disability, rather than being told that they must state “I am disabled” on the form, and fail as a result. If they do that, they will already be behind the curve. Trailblazers said that when young people went for interviews, they should be given support so that they felt that they had been invited for a genuine interview, and were not just there to make the numbers up so that someone who could tick the boxes.

I ask the Minister to talk to those people, listen to them, learn from them, and apply the lessons.

Sadly, as the Secretary of State said earlier, for far too long successive Governments have labelled disabled people as those who are unable to work. However, I believe that, through their actions, the present Government are busting that myth. A great number of disabled people want to work: indeed, I am sure that the majority want to do so. They are extremely capable of working, and want to experience the feeling of self-worth that earning a wage brings.

We heard from the Secretary of State that 365,000 more disabled people had moved into work in the past two years, and we heard further statistics from other Members. However, although the fact that more than 3.3 million disabled people are now in employment represents a great step forward, it is not enough yet. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke eloquently of how often numbers do not tell us the true story.

In January last year, the Prime Minister called for Britain to become a nation of full employment, and I am sure that his pledge applied not just to able-bodied people but to those who are disabled as well. If that is to happen, however, many workplace barriers need to be broken down. Sadly, many of the barriers are put up by employers, probably unknowingly. It is amazing how many business premises, while they may be wheelchair-friendly in that they allow people in wheelchairs to get into the building, do not enable them to get around once they are inside. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) described very well the barriers that prevented people not just from getting into a shop, but from working there. He was talking about a small environment; many other workplaces are huge, and the barriers are still there.

However, this is not just about need for premises to be wheelchair-friendly. Many disabled people are fully mobile, but have other work-limiting conditions. For instance, a recent survey revealed that 35% of business leaders did not feel confident about their businesses employing a person with hearing loss. As our workforce age, disabilities such as hearing loss will increase rather than decreasing. The Government provide support for businesses through the Access to Work scheme, but I am afraid that too many employers are totally unaware of its existence. I ask the Secretary of State to consider ways of promoting support for disabled people and their employers.

In 2013, the Prime Minister launched the Disability Confident campaign, which encourages employers to recruit and retain disabled people so that both employer and disabled person can realise their potential. Disability Confident works with employers to show that employing disabled people is good for the individual, good for the business, and good for society. By highlighting the business benefits of inclusive employment practices, the campaign aims to remove barriers to work for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions.

I am aware that the Government are working with more than 120 employers who have committed to being active partners in the Disability Confident campaign, but that is not enough. It is time now to engage with many more businesses of all sizes—small, medium and large—to ensure that more employers really understand the benefits of employing someone with disabilities and start to break down those workplace barriers. In March this year, I held a jobs and community fair, and next year I shall be extending it to a jobs, community and Disability Confident fair, in order to be more inclusive myself.

Today’s debate has been as much about equality as about disability, and I hope that in a small way it will have brought about the will to ensure that we strive for equality irrespective of age, sex, colour or disability. This Government can quite rightly be proud of their record on getting more disabled people into work, although I am sure that they want to do more and not rest on their laurels. I am sure that they want to do more to narrow the gap, to ensure that even more people can proudly provide for their families and be proud to take home a pay packet at the end of every month.

I congratulate those on the Opposition Front Bench on calling this debate and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) on leading it earlier. If there is one lesson we can draw from today’s debate, it is that it is much easier to talk about closing the disability employment gap than it is actually to close it. I have lost count of the number of debates we have had in this place over the last few years about the shortcomings of the work capability assessment; the well-documented failures of the Work programme; the devastating impact of the new sanctions regime on people who are found fit for work or work-related activity but cannot then comply with the conditions attached to their employment and support allowance or jobseeker’s allowance; those whose support has been cut in the transition from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, including thousands who have lost access to their Motability vehicles, in some cases compromising their ability to get to and from work; and most recently, those who are going to receive £30 a week less in employment and support allowance or lose their work allowance.

Disabled people and those with long-term health conditions have borne the brunt of austerity cuts in recent years, yet in that time there has been no tangible improvement in the rate of disabled people’s employment. There has been an assumption on the Government side that the support we have offered to sick and disabled people in the past has discouraged them from seeking work. Last year, the Chancellor went so far as to talk about “perverse incentives” when he was trying to justify cutting the incomes of some of the most disadvantaged people in our communities, but there is absolutely not a shred of evidence that cutting support has helped disabled people to find work. Quite the reverse: I am sure that almost all of us will have encountered sick and disabled constituents who have fallen through the safety net of social security altogether.

I think the Government recognise that their reforms have failed many disabled people and failed to address the barriers to employment faced by many disabled people who could and would work with the right support. We were promised that we would have a White Paper long before now, but here we are in June and still waiting; the proposal has been batted off into the long grass. I am disappointed about the further delays, but I actually welcome the tacit acknowledgement that this whole project needs a lot more reflection. I share the view that we need a lot more input from disabled people, a lot more work with employers, and a very different approach that is centred on individuals. Yet more punitive austerity is not going to cut it; it will just cause yet more misery for disadvantaged people.

The consultations in advance of what is now going to be a Green Paper will provide an opportunity to get disabled people round the table with the wide range of voluntary organisations that represent their interests, so that those organisations can really listen to them. The consultations will also provide a chance to talk to employers about how they can best be supported to recruit and retain a disabled workforce. This will be a chance to do much better, and I really hope that this time round the Government will do things very differently. No one is pretending that this is easy. Part of the challenge is that when we talk about disabled people’s employment, we lump together as a group people who are every bit as diverse as society itself. We need to see the whole person, not the condition. We also need to recognise the wide variations in employment support needs.

We need to recognise that other aspects of a person’s life, such as whether they have qualifications, skills and work experience, will have a significant impact on their job prospects. We also cannot ignore the fact that the wider inequalities in our labour market—such as those associated with gender, age or ethnicity—intersect with and often compound the barriers associated with disability. Perhaps most significantly of all, we cannot ignore wider labour market conditions and the simple availability of work. At a time when insecure, temporary, part-time work is becoming far more prevalent for everyone in low-paid jobs, high-falutin’ talk about sustained employment for disabled people becomes a bit of a moot point.

There is much talk about changing employer attitudes. While I wholeheartedly agree that we can and should be doing much more to help employers take on and retain disabled staff, progress has been painfully slow, and the take-up of schemes such as Disability Confident has been pretty paltry. We have seen some degree of cultural change over recent years in terms of flexible working and not only for disabled people. Some larger employers have led the way in employing disabled people and carers in sustainable ways—it is important to mention that during Carers Week—but we have to be honest about how far cultural change can take us and how greater flexibility poses serious challenges for some sectors and for smaller businesses in particular. If the Government are serious about changing attitudes, that needs to be backed up with resources. We need to make it much easier and affordable for employers to do more to support their disabled staff and to keep them in work.

Like others, I read the Resolution Foundation’s report on retention deficit this week. It contains several useful, practical suggestions that merit much closer attention, including the idea of keeping a person’s job open for up to a year after the start of sickness absence—much like maternity leave—which could help people to stay in work. That could also be of huge benefit to people recovering from serious illness or surgery, but it will work only if employers are recompensed, as is suggested, by reimbursing statutory sick pay costs for firms that support their employees to make a successful return to work. Those things are worth exploring further.

Crucially, the Resolution Foundation also recommended making early referrals to whatever scheme replaces the Work Programme for people who find that they are unlikely to be able to return to their previous job. If we continue to wait until someone has become long-term unemployed before making targeted interventions, we will miss the boat. People often lose confidence and social contact if forced to leave work and can fall further away from the labour market. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that and about incentives for small businesses.

We have heard a different tone from the Government today. That is welcome, but it is hard to reconcile it with the reality of brutal cuts in income and the dehumanising experiences of recent years for disabled people. The Government will have to make a radical change of direction if they are to make any real difference to disabled people’s job prospects and to restore dignity to the whole process.

The Secretary of State said plainly that it is important to get the tone of such discussions right. By and large, that is what we have done in this afternoon’s debate. I was much taken by the contribution of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), who talked about his nephew. I found it very moving, and he got the tone exactly right, because this should be about individual people. Similarly, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) also got the tone right. What a contrast that was with the tone used by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), in his entirely inappropriate opening remarks.

The wording of the Opposition motion just smacks of opposition for opposition’s sake. The manner in which it was proposed by the Opposition Front Bench showed the truth, which is that it is politically opportunistic and partisan. It was entirely unhelpful for the tone of the debate and for the people whom we are seeking to assist. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys questioned the exact nature of the debate and said the shadow Minister just seemed to be starting a general discussion rather than looking specifically at the points, so in that spirit I will look specifically at the motion, clause by clause.

The motion starts by stating that the House regrets the

“lack of progress towards halving the disability employment gap”

but that does not add up. We are helping more people with a disability to get into work than ever before. Some 365,000 more disabled people are in work now than two years ago. More than 3.3 million disabled people are in employment in total, which is an increase of 150,000 in the past year alone. Some Members made comments about the exact figures of the disability employment gap, but as has been pointed out, the reason for the discrepancy is that the rate of employment is so much higher under this Government than it was under the Labour Government.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, because I understand that we are only about 20 minutes away from the closing speeches and I want to give everyone the opportunity to speak.

Secondly, the motion says that the House

“regrets that the Government has not yet published its White Paper”.

That does not even take account of the Secretary of State’s clear statement that he now intends to bring forward a Green Paper. I am surprised to hear the Labour party say that we should be doing this quicker, because its usual complaint is that we do not listen enough. Now, it appears to want us to rush out proposals without talking to the people we should be listening to. A proper consultation in which we talk to people with disabilities and the third-party, voluntary and charity sector organisations that represent them will take time. It is absolutely right for us to do that.

The motion goes on to note

“with concern that commitments made in the Autumn Statement 2015 to help more disabled people through Access to Work and expanding Fit for Work have not materialised”.

I have the autumn statement here. It is clear in its commitment that there will be

“a real terms increase in spending on Access to Work…to help a further 25,000 disabled people each year remain in work”.

It talks of

“expanding the Fit for Work service”

and of

“over £115 million of funding for the Joint Work and Health Unit”.

I say gently to the Labour party that the autumn statement is still in place. We are still in the period that it covers. I do not understand why Labour is suggesting that we are in some way reneging on it, when the period is still current.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not give way for the reasons I have given. I am sorry.

The motion

“further notes that the Government is reducing funding”.

That just does not add up. We are increasing spending on disability support. In the last Parliament, spending rose by £3 billion. We are now spending £50 billion on benefits alone to support people with disabilities and health conditions.

Last Friday, I attended a meeting of the North Devon and Torridge disability access forum. It was an extraordinarily positive meeting. Yes, it has concerns about the people it represents, but it wants to have a positive way of working with me and, through me, with the Government. That is typical of the positive attitude in North Devon. In Ilfracombe just two months ago, I organised a Disability Confident event, which the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People attended. It was an extraordinarily positive event that showed what can be done when people get together and work for the good of the majority of people. That is what we should be do doing.

It would have been remiss of me not to give way to a Devon colleague. I agree with him entirely, of course.

In the last two years, 365,000 more disabled people have moved into work. About £50 billion every year is being spent on benefits alone to support people with disabilities or health conditions. The Government will continue to spend more than Labour did in 2010 in every year between now and 2020. Benefits related to the additional costs of disability have been uprated every year.

We are well on our way to securing the Government’s manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap. This Government are doing more than the Labour party, which proposed the motion today, ever did. This is opposition purely for opposition’s sake, and we should consign the motion to the No Lobby where it belongs.

It is a privilege to speak in this debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I have a particular interest in it being held and in it being constructive.

Disabled people are still under-represented in the workplace, with their general employment rate reported to have been 46.7% at the end of 2015, compared with a rate of 80.3% for non-disabled people, so we have a long way to go. Within the disabled population, there are certain groups of people for whom the employment gap is even wider. They include those with learning disabilities, developmental disorders, such as autistic spectrum disorder, and mental health issues. Mencap says that fewer than two in 10 people with a learning disability are currently in employment, despite the fact that eight in 10 are able to work if given the right support. Recent data also indicate that only 15% of people on the autistic spectrum are in full-time paid work, and that 26% of graduates on the autistic spectrum are unemployed.

Having a job is not just about earning a living, but about contributing to our psychological well-being. It provides people with a sense of belonging and purpose. It helps to provide social opportunities for people who might otherwise be isolated. It enables everybody to feel a sense of fulfilment and it is also good for our mental health. We must therefore tackle this vicious cycle. The Government have made a very welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap. That has been translated into a figure of 1.2 million disabled people leaving benefits and entering the labour market. If that is achieved, what a welcome boost to our economy it would be.

We must ensure that we harness the potential of people with disabilities. TUC analysis shows, however, that, at current rates of progress, it will take until 2030 to achieve that target. That is very concerning. We therefore need to take significant action. I share the frustration of those who say that the White Paper has not been compiled within the promised timeframe. I fear that it is indeed a great let-down for disabled people. I also share the view that to remove benefits before putting in place adequate supports is unhelpful and actually disabling.

The all-party group on disability has been working on this issue, and we have identified the many elements that are required to make suitable progress. I will name but a few. They include: equipping disabled people to compete better for existing jobs through increased support at every stage; improving back-to-work support after short periods of unemployment or ill health; promoting training courses for people with disability, particularly within new and emerging markets; and setting up peer support programmes, which have been identified as a missing component, to assist confidence and enable people to provide good role modelling.

It was also raised at a round-table event this afternoon that we do not have many people with disability employed in jobcentres. This would be another good initiative, as they could support others to gain work. We need the availability of apprenticeships and training and supported internship programmes for people with disability. That is crucial. Moreover, we need to overcome quite significantly the negative attitudes of many employers to the recruitment of disabled people. I ask MPs across the House to hold job fairs, as I will be doing, with a specific focus on social enterprise and support for those with disabilities and for employers who wish to offer them employment. We in this House should also be leading by example, by promoting jobs and apprenticeships at Westminster for disabled people to train them in all aspects of running this House.

The issue of Motability cars has been raised by my constituents. Recently, I had a constructive meeting with Lord Sterling on this issue, and if possible I would like to have further discussions on the matter with the Minister. We are talking about a lifeline to independence and people must have it maintained. I stress the importance of involving disabled people at every stage of this Green Paper. The people who know what they need and what works are service users. I am pleased that, at the next meeting of our all-party parliamentary group, the Secretary of State will be in attendance alongside the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise and the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People—the big three—so we hope to make progress. It is also important that the BIS Minister is there, because people with disability make not just very good employees but very good employers. We must take this forward.

I hope to work constructively with everyone in the House. This is a key issue. Getting it right will not only have an immense impact on the quality of life of individuals but will be extremely important for our society as a whole.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I thank those on the Labour Front Bench for calling this debate on disability and the employment gap, because it is all very much part of what I hope we on the Government Benches stand for—that is, being one nation and ensuring that we talk about life chances, which were firmly included in the Queen’s Speech.

I am one of very few Members on the Conservative Benches to represent a totally inner-city constituency. I do not have a single piece of countryside in my constituency—with the exception, perhaps, of a rather wet meadow that is the Ponderosa pony sanctuary—although it has lots of parks and things like that. I congratulate my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench on the excellent job they have done in reducing the deficit and encouraging growth in the private sector, which has meant that we can begin to turn our minds as a Government towards how we will help those people who are out of work for reasons of disability or whatever else.

In my Plymouth Sutton and Devonport constituency, the claimant rate is now down to 4% from 6.1% in 2010, when I was first elected. In Plymouth, we are now facing the problem of a skills shortage. Shortly before the 2010 general election, my city was thought to be one of the most vulnerable communities in the country as it remained dependent on the public sector. It has had high levels of deprivation and, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there is a difference in life expectancy of 11 years between the city’s suburbs and the more deprived communities such as Devonport, which is where the dockyard is located.

Plymouth is a low-wage and low skills economy, with more than 38% of people who are employed working in the public sector. That is mainly because of our relationship with the Navy. During the 1950s, Ford was going to come to Plymouth but the Navy stopped that happening because it did not want to compete on wages and for skills. At that stage, it employed about 10,000 people, which is a very large number. That figure is now down to 3,000—perhaps 5,000—people working in the dockyard and elsewhere.

The city was badly bombed during the war, but we have a great sense of resilience, which is incredibly important. The work that has been done by the Government, the local enterprise partnership and the city council—by both political parties, I must add—to ensure that we got a city deal that will deliver 1,500 new skilled jobs is very good. It is not the case that because someone is disabled they cannot do a skilled job. After all, people have lots of opportunities to do that.

I have been working with a man called Chris Leonard who runs an employment agency called Mego, which specifically considers the lower-skilled. We came to the conclusion that to bring the number of claimants down even further, we must focus on those people suffering from mental health issues, such as depression. Too often, we do not think about that. Issues such as alcoholism, drug taking, neurological conditions and, of course, smoking produce that, so we must work very hard to ensure that those people can be helped back into work. I am also very keen to ensure that people suffering from neurological issues and other such conditions have access to the pharmaceutical products that they should have.

Last year, quite a few people wrote to me about ESA and I had quite a lot of sympathy with what they were saying. It is important that we ensure that they are encouraged to get into work by becoming involved with voluntary organisations and so on. The Government have been doing a good job of encouraging people to get involved in voluntary organisations. If anybody living in Plymouth, in the constituency or the city, wants to go and help the hedgehog sanctuary, that would be a brilliant idea. As everybody knows, I am a great fan of the hedgehog and have been doing a lot of work in that regard.

The Government need to make sure that people will not be isolated. We should encourage them to get back into community life. I have been doing a lot of work with the local jobcentre and last Friday I met a gentleman there who came to see me. He was quite young and obviously had real issues to do with autism. In Plymouth we are campaigning for an autism pre-school, because we have to start early in people’s lives to get them used to the idea. That young man had no confidence before he arrived, but staff were deeply surprised that he learned to engage with people, and he had even learned to shake my hand when he left. It is extremely important to instil such confidence.

It is important to ensure that skills testing takes place and that people in schools take an interest in the community. I pay tribute to Stoke Damerel community college for the work it does on dementia, which has become a big issue in the city. The more we can do to make sure that people can get back into work, the better.

I am pleased to be able to speak briefly in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I want to use the opportunity to describe the experience of one of my constituents, who came to see me because of her concern and frustration about the Fit for Work scheme that is mentioned in the motion.

My constituent is a highly trained occupational therapist with decades of experience. She was employed by Fit for Work, the company under the umbrella of Health Management Ltd which is part of Maximus, the company to which the Government have awarded a lucrative contract to work with people with disabilities to get them back into work.

When the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was the Secretary of State for Wales, he announced that the Fit for Work service was to be provided in Wales. The service was to provide support and advice to employed people if they had been or were likely to be off work for four weeks or more. According to Government statistics, about 48,000 Welsh workers a year are off sick for that length of time. Fit for Work was to be gradually rolled out across Wales and England. It was seen as a particularly important scheme in Wales, where a higher than average proportion of the workforce is employed in smaller companies, which do not have occupational health services to support absent staff.

The then Welsh Secretary said:

“The Fit for Work initiative will give tens of thousands of people across Wales the support they need to return to their jobs more quickly. This is clearly good for the Welsh economy.”

GPs in Wales were to offer patients a referral to the service, which included an in-depth assessment, followed by a personal return to work plan and managed support to get back to their jobs. That was in June 2015.

My constituent came to see me because, as she put it, both as an employee of Fit for Work and as a taxpayer she was concerned about how that contract was being delivered. She started working for Fit for Work in November 2015, a few months after the Secretary of State’s announcement, at the centre in Nantgarw in the constituency of the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith). However, by April 2016 Fit for Work was making staff redundant because of insufficient referrals of clients, and the centre was closed.

My constituent asked me why the Government were not supporting a service that they had instigated. Twelve months after the start of the scheme the public, GPs and employers did not appear to know about it on any kind of meaningful scale. It was inadequately advertised, so it is little wonder that the number of referrals was too low. She told me that Fit for Work did only a few employer engagement activities. The implementation was poorly managed and badly promoted. Matters even got to the stage where highly qualified medical assessors—case managers like my constituent—were taken off assessments with clients and told to ring round employers to tout the service.

Fit for Work had been predicated on 13,500 referrals a month, but the service was getting only about 450 referrals. Not only had it been badly advertised and implemented, but the process that case managers implemented was not effective in helping people achieve the aims of the scheme. My constituent described it to me as very standardised and commoditised. Speed and light touch were its hallmark.

The assessments were expected to be carried out very strictly, which had the effect of diluting the wealth of professional experience that my constituent could bring to her role. Assessors were expected to complete six assessments a day. She told me that she struggled to even do two or three properly because of the time it took. Everything is done over the telephone. Calls are meant to take 45 minutes and the referrals were supposed to be for people who had, for example, back pain, depression or anxiety and had been off work for four weeks. However, some of the people being referred had been off work for two years and their problems were much more complex.

I was just thinking about how one would try to gain, in 45 minutes, not only the trust of the person but sufficient information to understand properly their condition and the context they were living in. To do the assessment properly, my constituent felt it required preparation, including: reading all the information from the employer and the GP; making the telephone call; gathering the information from the client; considering all that evidence; considering what a return-to-work plan might look like; transcribing that information; and giving recommendations and an opinion within the production of that return-to-work plan. She told me that to do that properly would take three hours.

The targets set for the Fit for Work programme had the effect of removing much of her clinical judgment from the process. Fit for Work auditors would listen in on the calls with clients and tell the case manager whether the call they had made had passed or failed the requirements of the process—not whether it would deliver a proper return-to-work plan. It was very difficult to pass the test. She described the scheme and its implementation as being entirely data-driven, rather than people-driven. On his appointment, the Secretary of State said, laudably, that he wanted to ensure his Department realised there was a human being behind every DWP number. This direct account from someone who was employed to deliver his Department’s scheme flies in the face of that.

My constituent left me with a message for the Secretary of State. She says she is convinced of the need for this service. It could help a lot of people to get the right help and get back into work sooner after illness or injury. Her team was a fantastic group of highly skilled, empathetic and knowledgeable health professionals. They had very many valuable strengths and experiences to make people’s health and wellbeing better, allowing them to return to work at a time that was right for them. They were not utilised. They lost their jobs, the centre was closed and that support did not materialise.

May I first start with apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith)? He is attending a debate on the EU with the former Secretary of State, taking the opportunity to consider that issue in relation to its impact on disadvantaged people.

We have had a very interesting debate, with many well-informed and well-argued speeches. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and wish his nephew with cerebral palsy all the very best with his GCSEs. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) talked about her constituent who had gone through the PIP process and how it was affecting her ability to work. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) gave a characteristically brave and honest speech, which we in this place have come to expect from her. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) talked about his experience as a care worker and said that he has a family member with muscular dystrophy. He is the chair of the all-party group on that condition and made a very well-informed speech.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), with characteristic forensic analysis, talked about the issues we currently face in social security policy, in particular the lack of evidence for many of the measures the Government have introduced. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) focused on the disability employment gap and the variations relating to different conditions—a very important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) described in detail her constituent’s dreadful and deskilling experience of working for the Fit for Work programme. The process focused on data, not people. We need our interest to be focused on people.

About 12 million people in the UK are living with a disability, an impairment or a limiting, long-term illness: 5.7 million are of working age; 5.2 million are over the age of 65; and 0.8 million are children. Although 4 million people with disabilities are working already, another 1.3 million are fit for work and want to work, but they are currently unemployed. However, as we have heard, the gap in the employment rate for disabled people, compared with non-disabled people, has grown under the Government to 34%—a 4% increase since they took office. Given that the vast majority—90%—of disabled people used to work, that is such a waste of their skills, experience and talent.

As study upon study has shown, the Government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap rings hollow, with estimates that it will take until 2030 to do that at the current rate. The shelved White Paper, with the promise of a strategy defining support for disabled people, is yet another broken promise. Although I recognise that the Green Paper is coming, why did that not happen in the first place? Why has there been this about-turn?

The issue comes down to whether the Government believe in the principles that underpin the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which we are a signatory. Fundamentally, disabled people should be able to participate fully in all aspects of society, including work, and to access the same opportunities as everyone else, and that includes being able to use their talent and skills to the best of their ability. No one should feel that they are unable to reach their best potential or that their hopes and dreams do not matter. Do the Government therefore support the principles and articles of the UN convention? If so, when will they publish the UN committee’s report investigating the UK’s breaches of the convention and their response to it?

I am sorry, but I will not—I have a lot that I want to say.

The Government 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. Collectively, those things tell us who they think is worthy or not. The Government have made their views abundantly clear. Their swingeing cuts to social security support for disabled people—including the recent ESA WRAG cut of £1,500 a year—total nearly £30 billion since 2010 to 3.7 million disabled people.

The Government’s overhaul of the work capability assessment manages to be both dehumanising and ineffective, and it has been associated with profound mental health effects, including suicide. Their sanctions policy targets the most vulnerable, bringing people to the brink, and some have died under it. The PIP debacle is making it harder for disabled people to stay in work. There is also the closure of the independent living fund. I could go on and on. This is happening across all Government Departments—Business, Innovation and Skills; housing; Transport; Education; Justice; and Culture, Media and Sport. Disabled people are being completely marginalised.

I am sorry, but I will not. As I said, I have a lot to say.

What needs to happen? Addressing these issues, including the disability employment gap, needs political will and leadership. The Labour party’s disability equality roadshow will work with disabled people, their carers, disabled people’s organisations and providers across the UK, listening to them and developing with them policies that address their needs and that will work. However, we will also engage the public at large, providing an alternative to the Government’s negative narrative and casual inaction.

If 90% of disability is acquired, why are we doing so little to help employers retain skilled and experienced employees who may become poorly or disabled? We 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. Clearly, if the Government increase the 37,000 or so who used Access to Work last year by another 25,000, that will still be only a tiny, tiny proportion of the 1.3 million people who are fit for work.

The Disability Confident scheme needs to be rebooted. The latest revelation that only 40 mainstream private sector employers across the UK have joined it since its inception three years ago shows that it is, to put it mildly, completely inadequate. What measures are in place to measure the scheme’s efficacy? Where employers work hard to recruit and retain disabled employees, how does that apply to their procurement policies and supply chains?

More needs to be done to help disabled people back into work. As we have been arguing for over a year, the work capability assessment needs to be replaced with a more holistic, whole-person assessment. The current system that assesses eligibility for social security support is not fit for purpose and should be completely overhauled. I welcome some of the change in language on disabled people on this matter. That needs to be reflected in departmental and Jobcentre Plus performance indicators that do not just focus on getting people “off flow” as a successful outcome. Since so many of the same people also have PIP assessments, we should also look at how we could bring these together. It is pleasing that the Government say that they are considering this.

Instead of the increasingly punitive sanctions system, more appropriate support needs to be provided. It is essential to maintain and increase specialist disability employment advisers in jobcentres. There is currently one adviser to 600 disabled people, and even if that is doubled to one to 300, that is still a very low ratio for the Government to be working to. I would also like their role to be extended to working with businesses. The current commissioning and payments system for the Work programme and other welfare-to-work programmes also needs rethinking. We need to improve specialist support, looking at what works. Work Choice, while it has better outcomes than other programmes, may not be the only solution. The individual placement and support scheme for people with mental health conditions is another example. As I have said before, there needs to be greater integration between Departments —not just between the DWP and the NHS but with BIS and economic development. For example, if someone who has musculoskeletal conditions or mental health issues has to take time off work, they need appropriate early intervention to help them get back to work. That is not happening at the moment. We need to understand the bottlenecks in the local system that my impact on this. We need to reflect on the drive for “flexible” labour markets and what this means for supporting people with long-term and fluctuating conditions back into work, and most probably out of work and then back into work, and so on.

There are clear geographical variations in the disability employment gap, but also in the strength of local economies and the availability and types of jobs. It is well established that the prevalence and geographical pattern of sick and disabled people reflects the industrial heritage of our country. Contrary to the Government’s “shirkers and scroungers” narrative, incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators. Local economic conditions, whether the economy is thriving or not, will determine how readily sick and disabled people will be able return to work. Geographical analysis shows that people with equivalent conditions in the economically buoyant London and south-east are more likely to be in work that those in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west, and Wales.

It is over 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 disabled people still face. Changing attitudes and behaviour needs cultural change and it needs leadership, and we will provide it.

It is a great pleasure to conclude this debate, which has been a positive and constructive debate on a very vital subject. I think it is fair to say that on the majority of the issues there is genuine cross-party consensus. We have identified the challenges that we face and we are looking to find as many opportunities as possible to move forward. I am proud to serve in a Government where the Prime Minister personally committed us to halving the disability employment gap. Our Secretary of State has shown a genuine passion to understand, listen and engage with the stakeholders—those with the first-hand experience of how we can identify the opportunities and overcome the challenges. I am confident that we will continue to make a real difference in this vital area.

In the past two years alone, 365,000 more disabled people have entered into work. This is crucial for a number of reasons, as I find when I engage with stakeholders, particularly young stakeholders. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) mentioned his nephew who is taking his GCSE exams—I join in the good luck messages to him. That summed up exactly why this is so important. Disabled people rightly wish to be judged on their ability, not their disability. I say that as an individual who has not only employed disabled people but benefited from doing so.

We have to look at businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) highlighted one of the key areas, which is that we have a skills shortage in this country. If businesses have the confidence to make the necessary changes—often, they are small ones—they will benefit. If more disabled people can get into work, disabled people and businesses will benefit. It is a genuine win-win situation. Key for the Government, and key in my role, is to make sure that we showcase talent, share best practice and create genuine opportunities.

I will quickly whizz through some of the highlights of the work that we are already doing. There is a real-terms increase in support to help those with disabilities and long-term health conditions to seek work. We are reforming Jobcentre Plus. We have the hidden impairment toolkit and additional training. We have doubled the number of disability advisers. We have commissioned the £43 million mental health pilots, including the collocation of improving access to psychological therapies.

The new Work and Health unit rightly brings together the greatest minds in DWP and the Department of Health —something that has been greatly welcomed by our stakeholder groups. In that, we have already commissioned pilots on the innovation portfolios with a real focus on mental health support, the personalisation pathfinders and the peer-to-peer support that our stakeholders repeatedly highlight as crucial. Disability Rights UK has helped to lead on those pilots. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who does great work as the chair of the all-party group on disability, also recognises the importance of peer-to-peer support.

With the reforms and the introduction of universal credit, the area that I am most excited about is having a named coach for the first time. As individuals navigate their way over the challenges of getting into the workplace, they will have a named coach to support them to find work and to get additional support. When they are in work, for the first time they will have continued support to help them to achieve genuine career progression.

I welcome the increased focus from the Health and Safety Executive, for which I am also responsible. Its title includes health and safety, and on safety it is world leading—foreign countries and foreign businesses pay for our expertise in improving safety—but there is also a real focus on the health side, recognising that we lose 131 million days a year to ill health. There will be a huge amount of additional work in that area. The HSE has fantastic business engagement. Businesses of all sizes—small, medium-sized and large—proactively engage with it, and we want to utilise that.

While my hon. Friend is on the subject of health, does he agree that disability sport can play a huge role in not only supporting the health of people with disabilities but building their confidence and helping them to prepare for work? Does he agree that we should do all we can to support initiatives such as the International Centre for Inclusive Sport at the University of Worcester?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I absolutely agree, and it was a great pleasure to join my hon. Friend in visiting Worcester arena, which showcased how inclusive design right from the beginning has made a genuine difference and created more opportunities. That was one of my favourite visits as a Minister.

The new employment allowance has helped more than 16,000 disabled people to start their own business, and with Access to Work we have secured funding for an additional 25,000 people. We are close to launching the digital service to bring Access to Work online, which will please employers and those who seek to claim. We have introduced specialist teams. We have the mental health support service, and we are doing further work to support apprentices, particularly those with mental health conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) highlighted the need to increase awareness, and she is absolutely right. All too often, this has been Government’s best-kept secret. I commissioned work through KPMG to look at how we can better increase awareness so that we can, as quickly as possible, fill the 25,000 additional places. As many speakers have highlighted, it is not just about the Government; we have to look at employers, because employers will create those opportunities.

Before the Minister moves away from the role of the Government, can I just say how refreshing the disability organisations I am proud to have worked with over the years have found it to have a new Secretary of State, with a new and more engaging agenda, who is willing to acknowledge that there has been significant failure over the last six years at the introduction of new and better schemes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. I find it refreshing that the Secretary of State is willing to engage, because we are talking about the individuals who see those opportunities and challenges from day to day, and who can provide us with constructive solutions. The Green Paper, which I will talk about later on, is a real opportunity for them genuinely to shape how we will improve opportunities.

We want to help encourage employers to provide such opportunities so that those who chose to engage with the Work programme, with Work Choice and with charities do not continue in the loop—yet another 12-week course to be told how to prepare a CV and go through an interview—and lose confidence as they move further away from the jobs market. The key is that if we can create those opportunities, more people will be able to get into work.

Our Disability Confident campaign has now signed up over 600 employers, and we are recruiting over 100 a month. This is about sharing best practice and signposting, but we will go further. We are working on plans with greater asks of particularly the larger employers to make sure that they include as many people as possible from their supply chain in such training days.

Several Members have highlighted reverse jobs fairs. It was a great pleasure to visit the one held by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones). This is about bringing together all the organisations doing a huge amount of work to support disabled people in their respective communities to meet small and medium-sized businesses that are often unaware of the huge wealth of talent in the country and the support that would help people into work. I am proud that a cross-party group of over 50 MPs have signed up to hold their very own reverse jobs fairs. I thank each and every one of them because it will make a difference.

We have commissioned small employer engagement pilots, in which we are sending out representatives to talk to small and medium-sized businesses—doorstepping them, asking them to put on the kettle, and saying, “Look, we are here to support you. We can signpost you to genuine talent to fill your skills gaps.” The pilots are still in their early days, but I am very excited by the positive outcomes achieved in matching skills gaps with people who wish to work.

Some speakers talked about how vital apprenticeships are. They give people a genuine opportunity to develop real, tangible skills that will lead to work. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who has chaired the joint taskforce set up by the Minister for Skills, the BIS Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships, and me. The taskforce will make sure we can open the apprenticeship commitment—the Government want 3 million more people to access the apprenticeships scheme during this Parliament—to more people with disabilities, particularly those with learning difficulties who find the entry requirement of grade Cs in GCSE maths and English to be a hurdle too far. Again, I am very excited about this. We set up a one-month taskforce, and its work was completed yesterday. We will look at its recommendations, and we intend to act as quickly as possible.

This is about the importance of localising and tailoring our solutions, and we are absolutely committed to that. Several speakers highlighted the fact that only 6% of those with learning disabilities will typically achieve meaningful, tangible outcomes. That is totally unacceptable. When I visited Foxes Academy in Bridgwater, which was featured on Channel 5, I learned that over 80% of its students have been able to find work, of which 45.6% are in paid employment. That is because it has the equivalent of an apprenticeship scheme, with supported working. It works with employers to identify skills gaps and it provides the necessary training. That is something we can replicate and that I want the taskforce to highlight, and I am excited about its potential.

I attended the launch of the Resolution Foundation report yesterday, and I pay tribute to both Laura and Declan, who did a huge amount of work on it. The report highlights a lot of important issues, especially about the retention of disabled people in work, which is particularly important given that we have an ageing workforce and that 83% of people with a disability have developed that disability with age. It is right to look at all those areas to help keep as many people as possible in work. It is far easier to support people to keep them in work than it is to get them back into work.

To turn to the Green Paper, I know from my engagement with them that the stakeholders are genuinely excited at this opportunity. They understand that they will make a tangible difference to what the Government are doing, and I hope that that will secure support.

I want quickly to respond to some of the points made by the shadow Secretary of State. On mobility, there are 22,000 more people accessing the mobility scheme than before PIP was introduced. On the 20-metre rule, it is not as black and white as whether someone can do 19 metres or 21 metres; it is about being able to travel a distance reliably, safely, in a timely manner and repeatedly. On the assessment process, I urge the shadow Secretary of State to visit a centre and sit through an assessment to see what happens. There is too much hearsay, and not enough genuine knowledge. On DLA, let us remember that only 16% of claimants accessed the highest rate of benefit compared with 22.5% under PIP. We are targeting the money at the most vulnerable, and that is why the numbers are increasing and the money is being spent.

I say to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) that it is right this is done on a cross-Government basis. It has to be joined up and we genuinely need greater understanding. I say to all those who contributed to this debate that it has been an important and positive one.

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put.