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Employment for People with Disabilities

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered employment for people with disabilities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am delighted to lead this debate, not least because at the moment every Conservative MP seems to want to know me because they want my vote this afternoon, so I have 90 minutes clear of any of that kind of distraction. Much more important, I am delighted to lead this debate because supporting people who have disabilities to live full lives and to enjoy meaningful employment is something I have been concerned with for over two decades.

I know that this Government recognise the need to remove barriers that prevent people with disabilities from enjoying good access to jobs. They also recognise that little attention has been paid by Governments of all parties to this issue over decades, and as a result there is a significant gap between the employment rate of disabled people and that of the rest of the population. We all accept that if the same proportion of disabled people had been in work as non-disabled people at the time of the last general election, in 2015, an extra 2.268 million disabled people would have been in employment.

I welcome the Government’s Disability Confident campaign, which aims to challenge attitudes towards disability; increase understanding; remove barriers to employment for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions; and ensure that disabled people have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations. I do not wish to steal the Minister’s thunder by stating what the Government are doing and how they intend to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, but it is good news that an extra 120,000 people who have disabilities are now in work compared with a year ago. We are certainly going in the right direction, but I believe that much more needs to be done to ensure that people who have disabilities are enabled to secure meaningful employment.

This morning I will argue that the Government’s Work and Health programme, which focuses on those with disabilities and health conditions, is the tool needed to crack the problem, and I will demonstrate that the Government’s work is made easier by the many organisations that are well placed today to remove the barriers in the way of those whom those groups support. I am keen to ensure that every extra penny spent to reduce inequalities in employment opportunities is well spent and delivers for those who need it. I will concentrate on the need, particularly today, to focus our resources on those who have learning disabilities and to ensure that money is used wisely and effectively to enable them to live full lives and be active in the communities they love so much.

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that I chair the commission on autism. We launched a report yesterday on the barriers to health for people with autism, and we are going to move on to barriers to employment. Does he agree that autism is a disability that is rarely recognised, and that if we got more people with autism into work we would save billions of pounds for the Treasury?

I completely agree. In a moment, I will talk about my background in working with people with all sorts of learning disability, including autism, and the amazing contribution they can make to our local communities and to the workplace. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Supporting people towards independence and meaningful employment is something I have taken an interest in for years. Many of us will have stories about our mothers-in-law. I met my mother-in-law to be long before I met my wife. I met her in the mid-1990s, when I worked as a youth and community worker in Penzance, which is the main town in my constituency. She set up a charity called Choughs Training Project and spent her days supporting people with learning disabilities to learn skills, work in the charity and become active in the community. I was so impressed with the charity’s work that I became its chairman.

One of our most rewarding achievements was to relocate the charity and set up a training café in the heart of the newly built Wharfside shopping centre in Penzance. Over the years, Choughs Training Project—which still exists and is now called Manna’s Diner—has helped large numbers of local people to gain confidence, learn everyday life skills and work within the catering and hospitality sector. I was hooked to that work and went on to manage the Mustard Seed charity in Helston for eight years. During that period, we set up microbusinesses within the charity, and my staff and volunteers supported people with learning disabilities including autism, helping them to grow in confidence and experience and to develop skills that enabled them become more independent. We also helped to chip away at some of the perceptions that can exist in our society of people who have learning disabilities.

Each day, the people we supported made and delivered an amazing range of sandwiches and cakes for local businesses and retail outlets, not only providing a valuable service in the town but engaging in local society, breaking down many of the barriers and bridging the gaps between people with learning disabilities and those who live and work in the town. Every week, we went down to a local National Trust walled garden where we grew fruit and veg in our allotment. Using our own produce and buying direct from local farmers, we boxed up and delivered fresh produce to local homes. What made that work so interesting was that people with learning disabilities were helping local producers to sell more of their produce and were also going into people’s homes. I met many people—particularly older people—who did not meet people from one week to the next. Having someone come into their home who was able to communicate freely, had good social skills and was willing to talk about everyday life was a bright part of their week.

For a time, we ran three community cafés, two of which were in local children’s centres. Again, that brought together different groups in society, helping them to understand the richness and wealth of the local community. In both Penzance and Helston, which is also in my constituency, those projects continue their good work, and many such small but significant initiatives still operate. My experience is that people who have learning disabilities are keen to work and welcome opportunities to learn new skills and play their part in modern society.

I have to say, the hon. Gentleman’s speech is so refreshing that I wish he had stood as leader of his party. I could not have voted for him, but I could have campaigned for him. Is it not a fact that many people on the autism scale find it very difficult to be diagnosed and their condition recognised, and to get access to care? Even children in care with a learning disability can have a 20-month wait for therapeutic care.

I agree. Right next door to where I ran Mustard Seed was a small office for Spectrum, which does amazing work supporting families of people with autism. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are so many elements of this—not just whether a person can work or would like to work, but their whole wellbeing and how we give them full lives, so that they are in a position to contribute in the way they want to. You are absolutely right, and I appreciate that intervention.

Since being elected as an MP, I have taken a particular interest in this field. There is no point in being an MP unless you can do something about the challenges you identify growing up and taking part in local society, so there would be no point in my coming here if I did not attempt to address some of the challenges I found in my professional work previously. I have been doing some very good work, and I recently discovered the positive work of Cornwall People First, which supports people to speak up for themselves and to live full lives. I have watched that charity at work: rather than doing things for our most vulnerable citizens, it stands alongside them and enables them to rise to the challenge, whatever it may be. The great tragedy is that the charity’s funding from Cornwall Council is being reduced from £120,000, which is really nothing at all out of the council’s budget, to £70,000, which means it is able to do about half of what it was doing this time last year at a time when we want people with learning disabilities and other disabilities to be supported and helped much more.

I have got to know the work of Rebuild South West, which is a unique community interest company run by ex-military personnel who work to restore lives while rebuilding properties. It has been working with people who have all sorts of challenges, including disabilities and mental health conditions. It is particularly refreshing that in my constituency, which has 1,030 empty homes—not second homes or holiday homes, but abandoned homes—and people who desperately need family homes, Rebuild South West is working with owners to bring the homes back into use and using vulnerable people who need support to gain skills and to work with others they can identify with. That amazing work is largely without the help of the council and the state.

It is fabulous to hear about my hon. Friend’s experience. Does he agree that many people with mental health problems are looking for work and want to be in work, and that we must give them more support because it is good for them to be in work and good for everyone around them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I welcome her intervention. The mistake in the rhetoric of how we challenge welfare is that it is about saving money, but it is not. It is often about trying to provide people with full lives so that they feel confident and able to contribute and have satisfying work. My hon. Friend is right to mention that. I want to concentrate on learning difficulties because they present particular challenges and I believe I have identified how to resolve them. Anything we can do to help people to grow in confidence and to manage their health issues by supporting them to feel that they have something to offer is good for everyone. Thank you very much for that.

I have recently had the great and amazing privilege of meeting the people behind Helston and the Lizard Works. I used to work in Helston. The Lizard is a lovely part of Cornwall and a tourist area, but it had the highest number of people not in education, employment or training of any rural part of the country. I take a particular interest in the challenges facing people, particularly the young, on the Lizard and how they access work. Helston and the Lizard Works is unique. Many people believe the challenge is too great and that we should accept that some people will never be able to work, but Helston and the Lizard Works does not believe this and through a unique back-to-work business and community-based project in my constituency it has shown that with the correct support people can overcome enormous obstacles and take control of their own future.

It is important to make the point that being jobless is not just an individual’s problem. It is a business and community issue that can have a business and community solution. Helston and Lizard Works has engaged with local businesses and encouraged them to give their time to inspire and support jobseekers. It has run community projects to allow jobseekers the chance to get involved in their local community. It set out to help 40 people into work—I have explained how challenging Helston and the Lizard are geographically—and ended up achieving this for 104 people, which in a rural area such as west Cornwall is remarkable. It has helped many other people besides.

I selfishly mention these projects and examples in my constituency because each one and many more like them throughout the country have three things in common. They are brilliant in what they do, they are well placed to develop this work further and to help the Government to achieve their target for getting for helping people into employment, and they are all strapped for cash. I am arguing that as the Government develop their Green Paper, they should recognise that such groups are well placed to support people as they prepare for work and find work and when they are in work. If we get this right, we can transform the lives of many people, and I am excited about the opportunities ahead.

As I prepared for this debate, I thought back to some of the barriers I encountered when supporting people with learning disabilities. I will touch on them briefly simply to emphasise the contribution that many community groups already on the ground can make and that they are ready to act. The transition from school to work for people with learning disabilities has particular challenges. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to this, and it is also true for people with autism. Community-based organisations could be funded to work with schools and colleges to identify suitable work placements and apprenticeship opportunities, and to support youngsters in this transition period.

Hearing about my hon. Friend’s experience of bringing people with disabilities into the workplace is incredibly valuable to us all. In the Works and Pensions Committee yesterday, one of the ideas I floated over some of the people from whom we were taking evidence was that to encourage more young people into apprenticeships we should incentivise small and medium-sized businesses as we did some years ago for people without disabilities. Does he agree that allowing SMEs to have up to two apprentices with disabilities without having to pay national insurance would help to incentivise them to take on apprentices with disabilities?

I certainly think that such initiatives are important in breaking the deadlock when employers are not absolutely sure that they can provide those opportunities. I am looking at how to make that possible in my office. I understand that support and grants for apprenticeships continue to the age of 25 for people with disabilities. It is important to recognise that advantage, but we should do more.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. The reputation of further education in Cornwall is brilliant—everyone says it is the exemplar. Do you work in partnership with Cornwall College of further education? Is the hon. Gentleman picking up one of the problems we are picking up that some schools that become academies are filtering out people with special educational needs and autism because they think they will pull down their performance in league tables?

Thank you Mr Stringer. I also made that mistake.

I work with FE colleges in Cornwall and other groups such as Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability and others. I am talking to all of them and have been since being elected to Parliament to see how we can bridge some of the gaps. I share the concern about academies. League tables, albeit not necessarily the intentions behind them and incentives they put in place, present a problem to schools across the board in terms of how they maintain a high position in league tables and continue to attract children. We must look at the incentives that may marginalise and exclude people. I accept that is important.

It is obvious that different people have different hopes and aspirations. That is equally true of people with learning disabilities and, or autism. Community-based organisations can help to develop a creative and flexible approach to employment and occupation to achieve optimum positive outcomes. That is particularly true of how we work with employers to find opportunities to provide spaces and places for people.

My hon. Friend is making an important speech, and I apologise for missing the first few minutes of it. One option for community organisations working with employers is to set up their own enterprises. ASPIE in my constituency set up Wits End Wizardry, a web design company that was designed to employ people with autism. Does he agree that when community organisations have expertise in dealing with a particular condition, they can bring real value to designing the workspace and supporting employment for people with conditions such as autism?

I agree. Such organisations can also encourage progression and create bespoke opportunities for people with a learning disability. I completely accept that. As the Government put new money into this—the £60 million and the £100 million a year—I hope it will go down to organisations that really understand the opportunities and challenges and their local communities. That is hugely important.

I have found that families of vulnerable people are understandably anxious about how their loved ones would cope in the world of work. We have already heard about the challenges and lack of support as they go through school. It is understandable, then, that as their children go towards that transition, parents will be equally anxious. The organisations with which I am familiar are not seen as part of the system and they have the trust of the families they support. That helps to overcome a real barrier to meaningful employment for those who can otherwise find themselves on seemingly endless day placements and college courses. I have met people with learning disabilities who have done every course available to them and continue to go round and round. That is not giving them full lives.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. The case he is outlining is making an even stronger case for the Government to make early publication of the Green Paper a priority, so that some of these issues can be ironed out and a proper, concrete process can be put in place. Does he agree?

Actually, until today I had been wanting to hurry on the process of the Green Paper, but having achieved this Westminster Hall debate, which I had been seeking for some time, I am glad that we have not had the Green Paper yet, because I am hoping that everything I am suggesting and the other suggestions made today will be included in it. I will be looking to see exactly how my local community organisations will benefit from this morning’s debate in the Green Paper.

One issue that the Green Paper will have to tackle is how the Work and Health programme will use what resources it has most effectively. The Work Choice programme has been incredibly successful, but we suspect that there will not be enough money for that programme to be available to everyone, with any disability, so there are some quite difficult choices to be made. Do we focus on the people closest to the workplace or on those with the most severe disabilities, or do we try to do a mixture of both? Does my hon. Friend agree that the way we use things such as Work Choice, which has been so successful, will be key to success after the paper has been written and the policy is implemented?

I do agree. We need to understand that every penny we spend effectively and successfully now is a penny saved that can be used to support the next individual. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. How do we prioritise? Who should we work with most? Do we just go for quick wins or do we go for the greatest challenge? We must recognise the contribution that people will make to the economy and society if we get this right, as well as the savings to the state. At the moment, so much of what we are spending, almost to maintain the status quo, is not money well spent.

I found that, although willing, employers would be nervous about whether a candidate had the skills and support network needed to work in often busy workplaces. Community-based organisations can build trust with business owners and have the connections to help to equip prospective employees with the skills and confidence they need.

I want to mention a couple of things that need to be taken seriously as we look at the Green Paper. We hear often in the Chamber now about constituents who have written to us to raise a particular issue. The chairman of Cornwall People First, who has a learning disability, asked me to raise the following issue in this debate. At the moment, he has a free bus pass for use after 9.30 am. If he wants to get employment or to access training, that bus pass needs to serve him at a time when people are actually going to work. It would be brilliant if we could talk to local authorities and change that, so that bus passes are free to use when they are actually useful to the people who need them and have a right to them.

Also, we talk a lot about the role of jobcentres, but one of the jobcentres in my constituency, in Penzance, is in a huge granite building that is completely uninviting, and often when I walk past there is a security guard standing at the door. In Helston, there is a large, glass-plated shopfront, and again, by the door stands a security guard. For someone who is vulnerable and feels they are being pressured to take part in a system, that is a barrier in itself. We need to look at how we can improve that.

In recent decades, people with disabilities have made huge progress in the workplace and more are now in work than ever before. However, despite wanting to work and often having the right skills and experience, many people still face significant barriers to accessing employment. I have focused on people with learning disabilities, but that is true for all people who have a disability. As the Green Paper on disability employment is progressed, I would ask that significant consideration and support be given to these small but effective community organisations. They are ready and primed to address the barriers to employment that exist for people with disabilities.

I am a huge fan of Cheshire homes and have enjoyed my visits to the home in Marazion in my constituency. I want to conclude by reading Leonard Cheshire Disability’s statement of belief, which serves as a reminder of why we are taking part in this debate today:

“We believe that disabled people should have the freedom to live their lives the way they choose—with the opportunity and support to live independently, to contribute economically and to participate fully in society.”

I intend to call the Scottish National party spokesperson at 10.30 am and obviously the debate finishes at 11, so there is approximately 35 minutes left and there are five Back-Bench speakers. The arithmetic is straightforward.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate on such an important issue. It is about the barriers to employment for many people in our society who are disabled, and I hope that I can bring to it a perspective from Northern Ireland.

We are dealing with people who were born with disabilities and those who were diagnosed later—reference has already been made to people with autism and with special needs. There should be no barriers in society, whether in work or in other spheres of life, for people who are disabled and are seeking to improve their lives, the lives of their families and the contribution that they can make.

Equality and protection of equal rights is vital throughout the UK. Discrimination against those with disabilities in the workplace is rightly forbidden by law. Those who were born with or who develop a disability are entitled to the same amount of respect and the same opportunities as all of us in this Chamber have. Anti-discrimination legislation is a key component in the promotion of employment for those with disabilities and their protection in the workplace, yet it is not sufficient on its own and efforts must be made to influence the work culture. In any discussion about the current Human Rights Act 1998, it is important that the provisions on people who have disabilities in the workplace are not diminished or diluted in any way. It is important that those well-held protections are copper-fastened, secured and sustained.

People with disabilities are not a homogenous group, and employers and colleagues must realise their obligation to accommodate different people’s specific needs. Negative attitudes to disability, both physical and mental, and stigma must be challenged. Employment can not only make an important contribution to the lives of disabled people but demonstrate that they, too, make a significant contribution to our economy and society. They have much to offer and they bring a different perspective, often derived from their disability and their experience due to their disability.

Many people with a disability develop it in adulthood. I support programmes that enable people to develop new skills when they are diagnosed with a disability and forced to retrain. It is important that they are allowed and enabled to do that if it is what they want. However, the Government—I say this advisedly—must learn that a disabled person cannot be sanctioned into work. The current system, and particularly the welfare system, sometimes punishes people with disabilities who struggle to find suitable work. We have seen examples of that throughout our constituencies and particularly in Northern Ireland. It can punish people who may never be able to do the type of paid work—or give the time that is needed—that employers currently value.

This Government, and the previous coalition Government, have hijacked disability rights group language about independence in order to cut the rights of disabled people. Cutting the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance—ESA—would not have supported people with disabilities into work. There is some evidence base for that. Like other Members, yesterday I received a briefing from Parkinson’s UK that clearly states:

“The cut to financial support for those in the ESA work related activity…from April 2017 will push people with Parkinson’s even further from the workplace,”—

when we want to encourage them to stay in or enter the workplace, and can—

“cause unnecessary stress which will make their condition worse and harm their financial situation which may already be precarious.”

The key, here, is recognising the need to challenge attitudes to disabled people in the workplace and to support them if they are able to work. To pile financial pressure on them is counterproductive and cruel. The focus and concentration for Government, and agencies as well, must be to challenge discrimination, as the hon. Member for St Ives highlighted in his very thoughtful contribution. We must make the workplace more equal and we must promote awareness of the support mechanisms that are available. There must be fair treatment in back-to-work schemes for people who may have already been in the workplace and find themselves disabled as a result of an accident but want to contribute to society and make their own lives better. There must be recognition and support for people who cannot work because of their disabilities, but who wish to do so and wish to make that contribution. I look forward to the response from the Minister on this very important issue.

It is a pleasure to speak on this matter, Mr Stringer. May I commend the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for, as he always does, setting the scene on these issues? It is a pleasure to make a contribution and, like the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), I will give some comments, direction and focus on Northern Ireland. The issue, clearly, is work itself and how we address that.

Despite the great services that exist and the Access to Work scheme, the proportion of people with a learning disability in paid employment has remained stubbornly low. That is a fact we cannot ignore and is what this debate is all about. The Government have previously referred to £330 million, which would be spent over the next five years on a tailored peer support offer for disabled people out of work and targeted at work in the ESA or the work-related activity group. That is, of course, welcome, but it should be remembered that the recent Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 cut ESA for this group by £30 a week—other Members have referred to that—saving the Government £640 million and ultimately greatly offsetting the supposed £330 million investment. I am sure that the Minister will give the Government’s side of that, but those are the figures as I see them. The proportion of learning-disabled people known to social services in paid employment fell from 7% in 2012-13 to 6.8% in 2013-14. According to Mencap UK, which represents people with learning difficulties, that proportion appears immune to economic factors. These are clearly issues to be dealt with.

I would like to make some comment, as others have —other hon. Members will probably mention this as well—on those who have served King and country in uniform, and their families. In Northern Ireland we have had some 30 years of troubles; we have a large number of veterans who have mental and emotional issues. I feel that there needs to be more focus on them and their families.

Mencap also says that the fall in numbers of learning-disabled people in employment happened despite the fact that the majority of people with a learning disability can and want to work. There is an eagerness to work, and we should encourage it. The figures are stark if we compare them with the national employment rate of 76% and an overall disability employment rate of just below 50%. The Government pledged to halve the disability employment gap. Indeed, the pledge was in the Conservative party’s manifesto, and we recognise and welcome it. It is good to see a commitment to it, but that commitment must be met with results. That is how we measure any legislative change or commitment—by the results.

Mencap supports the 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK and their families. They directly support over 10,000 people with learning disabilities to live their lives the way they want and, importantly, to live independently. Many good initiatives are happening across the whole of the United Kingdom. I commend one in my constituency—Daisies Café at the Ards hospital—for the truly excellent and extraordinary work and commitment it gives to those who have emotional and physical disabilities. I know that the café works in the constituency of South Down as well, and across the whole of Northern Ireland.

Fewer than two in 10 people with a learning disability are in employment. Mencap estimates that almost eight in 10 people with a learning disability could work if given the right support; however, that support is often not available or those giving it often do not understand learning disabilities. The estimate of fewer than two in 10 in work is Mencap’s estimate, and the Government’s figures are even lower: the figure for those in work known to social services is 6.8%. Of course, this is just one of many stakeholders and one of many conditions affected in this area, but it is a pertinent example and an indication of a very worrying trend.

Although welcome moves have been made to realise that commitment, the facts show that we need to lift our game and do more. The Government need to monitor the disability employment gap, identify the factors that are still preventing it from closing and preventing disabled people from getting into work, and take action on those factors. These are things that the Government can and should do. Every day, every MP will have interactions with those with disabilities. I believe that we are elected to this House to act on behalf of those who need support more, and to help those who cannot help themselves.

Department for Work and Pensions data show that between 2011 and 2015 the number of jobcentres employing a full-time adviser to help disabled people fell by more than 60% from 226 to 90, with reductions in every recorded year. We cannot ignore that issue. We need to know what steps the Government have taken to address the fall in the number of jobcentre advisers, and how we can best help those who are disabled when they come looking for help. I know that the Minister is very responsive—I mean that honestly and sincerely—to the questions that we put to him, and I am sure that he will come back with the steps that the Government intend to take. That reduction surely contradicts the Government’s commitment to reduce the disability employment gap, and that cut in services needs to be closely monitored to ensure that it is not having an adverse effect on efforts to reduce disability unemployment.

I will give an example from Northern Ireland, because it is always good to give examples of what the devolved regions are doing so that we can ensure that we have the best practice here in the mother of all Parliaments. We have an additional scheme to help reduce the disability employment gap. As well as the Access to Work scheme, which is a devolved responsibility, there is Workable (NI), which is delivered by a range of providers contracted by the Department for Employment and Learning. My party colleague Simon Hamilton is the Minister for that, along with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. These organisations have extensive experience of meeting the vocational needs of people with disabilities, and using them is a great way of advancing social enterprise and supporting that sector.

Workable (NI) is a two-year programme that helps people out of tough economic situations, gives them support and hope and properly prepares them for employment. It tailors support to individuals to meet their specific needs. The provision can include support such as a job coach to assist the disabled worker and their colleagues to adapt to the needs of a particular job, developmental costs for the employer and extra training, including disability awareness training. Those are all vital factors for any and all disabled people who want to work. With the fresh start agreement and the streamlining of Stormont Departments in Northern Ireland, I will be sure to keep an eye on progress and bring any positive developments back to this House, so that the best policies being implemented across the United Kingdom are known and taken into consideration here at Westminster.

In conclusion, let us exchange the good points and good practice that we have in every region of the United Kingdom. Lessons can clearly be learned from the approach in Northern Ireland, and we can develop additional strategies here in the mainland to help the Government make good on their commitment to halve the disability employment gap.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate and on the manner in which he started the debate, which has continued with other Members. This issue is of supreme importance to Members right across political parties, right across the divide, and we have to work constructively together to address it. It is particularly important to me in Glasgow East, which has a higher than average rate of disability—disabilities that have transpired throughout life, not just birth impairments.

As I have said before in the House, ours is a disabling society. Some are born with impairments whereas some acquire them, and those can be visible and invisible. From time to time, we all get a glimpse of the invisible agency of a society that is organised for the convenience of non-disabled persons. Ours is a society that adds to disabilities; we must endeavour to change it, and employment is at the heart of that challenge.

Today in the UK, the disability employment gap stands at 33%. Of course, the Government have pledged to cut the disability employment gap in half—to put 1.2 million people living with disabilities into work. I thoroughly applaud that target but feel, as many hon. Members across the House may feel, that the Government sadly do not appear to be doing enough to make that aim a reality.

For example, in a speech in August 2015, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), criticised employers for the persistence of the disability employment gap. There is criticism due in that respect but, less than two months later, it was reported that the Department for Work and Pensions had cut the number of specialist disability employment advisers in jobcentres by over 60% between 2011 and 2015. Instead, the UK Government wish to replace those specialists with general, non-specialist “work coaches”.

In jobcentres in my constituency, where there are higher levels of disability, that one-size-fits-all approach has stripped services and advice to the bone. In a constituency such as mine, where unemployment is almost double the national average and competition in a flat jobs market is fierce, people with disabilities are not on an even playing field. Competition for jobs without education for employers in how to support people with disabilities in finding work further economically disadvantages people and deprives the job market of their unique talents and skills.

Charities have said that cutting specialist advisers from jobcentres will undermine the UK Government’s goal of halving the disability employment gap. Will the Minister address those concerns and tell us what assessment the Government have undertaken to ascertain the impact that the changes will have on recipients of the benefit?

The UK’s rhetoric of supporting disabled people does not necessarily reconcile with the reality of the closure of Remploy factories. In 2013, the Government closed nine Remploy factories, with hundreds of disabled people losing their jobs across the UK and Scotland, including in Leven, Cowdenbeath, Clydebank, Stirling, Dundee and Springburn, which is in the neighbouring constituency to mine.

A constituent of mine who worked for 25-plus years as a seamstress has since been put into work experience jobs and inappropriate and short-term employment. She has now been shoehorned bluntly into the care sector, which is completely inappropriate work for her. When the Government made the decision to close the Remploy factories, they pledged an £8 million package to help those who had lost their jobs to transition to mainstream employment. However, figures reported in 2015 show that, of the 1,507 Remploy workers who lost their jobs, 733 had still not secured employment. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s progress on helping Remploy workers to secure mainstream employment? Is he satisfied with that progress?

Stereotypes and stigma still persist in contemporary society. ACAS found that for 42% of disabled people seeking work, the biggest barrier to getting hired was misconceptions about what they could do. Indeed, Geoffrey Wright, a former Remploy worker, described his experience of this. He said:

“I was looking for a job and now I’m not. They take one look at you, you hand them your CV and they never call.”

Last week I visited a wonderful school in my constituency, Cardinal Winning Secondary School, which educates children with a range of additional support needs or spectrum disorders. They learn valuable life skills and skills that will enable some of the pupils to achieve employment when they leave school. The nurturing environment of the school can be contrasted with the fears of some parents that their children will not be given the support when leaving education to continue to fulfil their potential—in employment, the voluntary sector or other areas.

An ageing population, coupled with an increasing pension age, will mean that more people are available and willing to work. People with disabilities have many valuable assets that we are missing out on by failing to break down barriers. The economy loses, society loses and people with disabilities lose. We must rise to the challenge together. It is an opportunity not only for our economy to be more diverse and our society to be more enabling but to break down barriers and to smash stigma and stereotypes—together, across the House, we must rise to that challenge.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate. Many of us are reminded every day in our constituencies of the lack of services for disabled people, especially when young people leave full-time education. Today, as we focus on employment for disabled people, we must look at the shortage of careers advice available, which in itself leads to low numbers of registered disabled people engaged in paid employment.

Like other hon. Members, I appreciate all the excellent efforts of various Government Departments, outside organisations and, most of all, carers and volunteers, but there is still a vast gap when meeting the needs of disabled people and getting them into employment. The Equality Act 2010 has gone a long way in protecting the rights of disabled people. Included in the Act is the provision that employers must make “reasonable adjustments” to avoid a disabled person being put at a disadvantage compared with a non-disabled person in the workforce, but we cannot ignore the fact that that there are over 6.9 million disabled people of working age, which represents 19% of the working population. Of that, 1.3 million disabled people in the UK are available and want to work. Only half of disabled people of working age are in work compared with 80% of non-disabled people.

What we are seeing is a very clear difference in the employment statistics for disabled persons and non-disabled persons. I do not want to appear to be having a go at businesses but those figures suggest that non-disabled people are being favoured for jobs. Why is that happening? Is it because of the level of training required, the lack of qualifications, poor social skills or apprehensive employers? I believe it to be a cocktail that includes all those factors. That is why Government need to increase the accessibility of jobs for disabled people.

The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. One thing that has changed and improved in many ways is assistive technology, particularly for people with conditions such as blindness or deafness. Does he agree that disseminating information about the assistive technologies that are available and making sure that businesses are aware of them and how easy they are to use is an important part of this?

Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The need to promote awareness of the technologies and what is available to help companies to take on people with additional needs is a valid point.

There are two special schools in my constituency. We fundraise every year for them and try to help them to get young people into employment. Principals, staff, parents and pupils are trying to provide an excellent level of care. The detailed attention that each child receives to ensure that they are developing to their full potential is exceptional. Schools are doing their best to get the best out of young people who have additional needs, but once the child reaches the age of 19—I am referring on this point to Northern Ireland—and is due to leave full-time education, support diminishes. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland recently have set IQ tests for young people. If they reach a score of 70 or above they are deemed ineligible for specific services provided through the Department. This is simply devastating for young people and for their families as they struggle to fulfil the needs of their sons and daughters. The principals of the special needs schools have expressed to me their utter frustration at how quickly all the great work carried out in their schools is being lost as the correct level of support is not available for young people. The reality is that so many of those young people could be out working and adding to the economy, but they cannot get over the initial application phase because the support services are just not there.

I recently visited a social enterprise in my constituency that is providing excellent support, skills and qualifications. Sadly, it is under constant threat of closure due to lack of funding. Its staff train young people in essential social skills that not only equip them for the world of work, but boost their inner confidence. The social enterprise focuses on preparing young people for adult life, encouraging them to reach their goals and giving them invaluable skills. I am currently working closely with a local supported employment organisation, Ulster Supported Employment Ltd, on how we can do more after people turn 19. USEL goes some way in addressing the setbacks faced by disabled people, but we should go further in supporting such organisations and social enterprise initiatives.

Parents have said that there is no flexibility of benefits for their sons and daughters who are heading into work. That has created a significant reluctance for young people to come off benefits and start working. The challenges in their new job may not be something that they can sustain, and if they have given up their entitlements they may have to wait a number of weeks, or even months, before they can claim benefits again; indeed, they may not even receive them at all.

All Members of this House are trying to be proactive in their constituencies. In Upper Bann, I am planning a jobs fair for disabled people in the autumn. I have spoken to the local council, further education colleges, the special needs schools and a number of other organisations in my area, and all are keen to come on board. During the summer recess, we will try to get businesses interested, and see whether we can help people with additional needs and disabilities to fulfil their ambitions in life.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate.

I recently spoke in the Chamber during the debate on the disability employment gap. In that speech, I welcomed the announcement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions of the Green Paper on health and work. I welcomed it on the basis that it would involve a genuine consultation process, that the Government would genuinely listen to stakeholders and that there would be genuine investment in the resulting service. The Green Paper cannot be a conduit for further cuts. It must be boldly resourced if the Government are to get close to their employment gap target. I made clear that this should have been done before the cut to employment and support allowance for those in the work-related activity group and before the cut to universal credit work allowance.

The mistakes of the past cannot, sadly, be undone, but we must do all we can to amend them. Above all else, that requires the publication of a properly-resourced Green Paper to a cast iron, copper-bottomed, concrete timetable. The delays and changes are well known: the White Paper became the Green Paper; the Secretary of State changed from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) to the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb); and the proposed publication date of

“well before the summer break”—[Official Report, 14 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 633.]

became “later this year.” The Secretary of State is currently seeking employment elsewhere, and depending on who the eventual winner of the Conservative leadership contest wishes to surround themselves with, his position may be filled by another candidate anyway. Given that, it is imperative that a clear deadline and concrete timetable are announced as soon as possible. The Government should then abide by that schedule regardless of any future changes in ministerial personnel.

Given some of the ideas that have been floated today, in spite of some of the comments made by the hon. Member for St Ives I hope that he will be an ally in the Scottish National party’s call for an early and immovable timetable for the publication of the Green Paper. The fallout of Brexit and the Conservative party’s internal squabbles may be grabbing the headlines, but hon. Members and Ministers must never forget that such issues, which affect the day-to-day lives of thousands of our constituents, should always be our main priority. Nothing can justify the matter being pushed even further into the long grass. Government must go on.

This debate has been a good example of a non-partisan, non-party political discussion of issues of crucial importance to many of our constituents. The hon. Gentleman disappoints me by going down the track of what might or might not happen in the leadership of the Conservative party. That has no relevance to the debate. It is not about having a precise timetable, to the day and hour, for the publication of a Green Paper. It is about good, long-term solutions for people with disabilities, and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman endorsed that.

I am merely pointing out the fact that, at a time when there are delays to the publication of the Green Paper, the Conservative leadership battle cannot be allowed to get in the way. That is not being partisan or party political. It is merely pointing out the facts. It has been delayed. Why has it been delayed? Why are further delays happening?

The Secretary of State has spoken many times about his wish for a social security system that is focused on people rather than statistics. I therefore used my speech in the Chamber to highlight examples from constituents and my own nephew about problems that the current system has caused for them. Those examples highlighted issues including people in employment not receiving adequate support to claim the benefits to which they are entitled, such as the personal independence payment, which can help to support the additional costs of daily living and access to employment. Disabled people who are not yet ready for employment are being forced to attend the jobcentre due to the flawed ESA assessment system, and this has a knock-on effect on jobcentre staff, who are therefore unable to focus their attention fully on individuals who are capable of looking for work and who need support.

I hope that the Secretary of State took on board the issues that those stories raised and that the Green Paper will outline steps to address those matters. It is important, however, not to forget about statistics completely. For example, 14,000 people have lost access to mobility vehicles as a result of the replacement of disability living allowance with PIP. That causes obvious problems for those trying to seek or maintain employment.

Parkinson’s UK’s statistical research shows that more than 17,000 people between the ages of 20 and 64 are living with Parkinson’s across the UK. Those individuals have an average working life of 3.4 to 4.9 years after diagnosis, and a mean retirement age of 55.8 years compared with the then UK average of 62 years. As the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) said, financial support is critical to those people and the cuts are harming opportunities. Those statistics and many others like them that relate to individuals living with other diseases and disabilities highlight the challenges and opportunities that a disability presents to a person’s employment.

Parkinson’s UK notes that people with the condition have experiences that mirror the general trend of people with disabilities in that they are less likely to be in employment and more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than someone without a disability. That highlights the double focus that any employment and disability legislation must address: how to increase opportunities for disabled people who are out of work while ensuring that those in employment have all the support available to remain and progress in their roles.

In the 2015 spending review, it was announced that the Work programme and Work Choice would be replaced in 2017 by a new Work and Health programme. Although the scheme will be targeted at a reduced number of participants, Leonard Cheshire Disability highlighted that payments will be spread more thinly as annual expenditure for the scheme will be £130 million by 2020 —an 80% reduction on the current combined expenditure on the Work programme and Work Choice. Time does not allow further discussion of all recommendations made by Leonard Cheshire Disability, but I recommend its briefing paper to all hon. Members.

Back when we were waiting on the White Paper, the spending review and the autumn statement 2015 promised it would contain

“reforms to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities, including exploring the roles of employers, to further reduce the disability employment gap and promote integration across health and employment.”

I hope that the Green Paper—when it appears—will contain those aims alongside proposals of how best to achieve them. The Government have already lost valuable time on making progress in disability employment by withdrawing their commitment to publish a White Paper and by delaying the publication of the Green Paper, with no date yet agreed.

It is our responsibility to work towards the day when every person is equally valued. In doing so we will ensure that disabled people have the freedom to live their lives as they choose and to participate fully in society, and our society as a whole will be immensely better off for it. I therefore hope that the Minister will heed these words and ensure that that becomes a reality as soon as possible.

I commend the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and the other hon. Members who have spoken in today’s debate. Between Cornwall, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic fringes have been well represented this morning. I just wonder where everyone else is.

We debated this subject in the main Chamber a few weeks ago, and many of the issues raised in that debate have been rehearsed today. I note the hon. Gentleman’s special interest in the lives of learning disabled adults, which I am sure we all share, but it is important that we have had a broader debate today. The hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) made helpful distinctions between the different challenges faced by those with lifelong disabilities and those with acquired disabilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and others set out the wider context of disabled people’s lives.

I still have deep-seated concerns about the difficulties that disabled people face in accessing the labour market and staying in work, especially those with more severe and fluctuating conditions. I have pointed out many times the flaws in the current system and how they combine to make circumstances extremely challenging for those who have to overcome barriers to employment because of disability or health conditions. Those flaws include the shortcomings of the work capability assessment; the failures of the Work programme; the devastating impact of the new sanctions regime on people who are found potentially fit for work or work-related activity but who cannot comply with the conditions attached to their ESA or jobseeker’s allowance; support being cut in people’s transition from DLA to PIP; and people’s income being reduced by cuts to ESA and work allowances.

Life has got a whole lot harder for many disabled people over the past few years. The support for many of those who are in work has been reduced, and those who are looking for work or taking part in work-related activity have been put under enormous pressure to comply with unrealistic conditions. Those who are not fit for work have too often felt themselves to be scapegoated or demonised as shirkers and malingerers and subjected to repeated and counterproductive assessments of their fitness to work. Too many disabled people, both in work and out of work, have experienced a lack of respect and understanding in their encounters with the state and have felt their dignity undermined.

Austerity has taken a very heavy toll on disabled people, yet there has not been much gain for all that pain. The rate of disabled people’s employment has been stuck for quite some time. I have previously been very critical of the assumption at the heart of Government that the support offered to sick and disabled people through social security creates, to quote the Chancellor, “perverse incentives” to keep them out of the workforce. There is no evidence that slashing the incomes of sick and disabled people helps them to find work. Quite the reverse: austerity has compromised the health and wellbeing not only of sick and disabled people but of the family members who support and look after them. Taking away the entitlement to a Motability car from thousands of people makes it significantly harder for them to sustain employment or to get into work. It reduces their options and increases their dependency on family members. Raising the bar on entitlement to support means that carers of those who lose benefits also lose their support but still have to provide the care for free.

I have met too many constituents with long-term health conditions who have fallen through the safety net of social security. Despite having worked and contributed for decades prior to the breakdown of their health, they have dropped out of the system altogether. Frankly, I am sick of referring people for church food parcels who should be getting better support from statutory agencies. There is recognition on both sides of the House that the UK needs to take a very different approach. The Government promised us a White Paper in the spring; then it was summer; then it was a Green Paper, and now the prospect has since been batted even further into the long grass. Yes, let us take time to reflect and to get this right, but we still need a timescale. I sincerely hope that the Minister will set that out today—this is a great opportunity to do so.

The consultation period ahead of the Green Paper gives the Government an opportunity to get disabled people around the table, along with organisations that represent their interests. There is a lot of expertise out there, and valuable perspectives on what does and does not work. For instance, Disability Agenda Scotland points out that the Work Choice programme has been far more effective in delivering results—sustained employment—than the Work programme and provides more intensive and extensive support for participants. A third of those taking part in the Work Choice programme delivered by the employability service of the Scottish Association for Mental Health find sustained employment, which is significantly more than for any other approach of which I am aware. Advisers have limited case loads and spend much more time with each person and with employers, and they also help people to apply for Access to Work funding.

In contrast, most of the emphasis in current programmes is on helping to prepare and equip unemployed disabled people for the workplace. If we want to secure a step change, the real trick is to prepare and equip employers not just to take on more disabled staff but to retain staff who become disabled or develop long-term health problems. Access to Work can play a crucial role in aligning the needs of businesses with employment programme outcomes, but it can also help businesses to adapt when a valued employee develops a condition that makes it harder for them to do their job. I wholly accept that certain jobs and certain conditions may be incompatible, but there are many, many occupations that can be sustained with the right adaptations.

This cannot just be about changing employers’ attitudes. Let us acknowledge that the take-up of schemes such as Disability Confident has been fairly low. We have seen some degree of cultural change in recent years in terms of flexible working, which has probably been driven more by labour market requirements than by concerns about disabled people’s employment rights. We should also remember that flexibilities have cut both ways, with a sharp rise in zero-hours contracts and more insecure and unpredictable working patterns. The hon. Member for South Down, echoed by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), made a good point about legal and human rights protections for disabled people, and those issues need to be part of our debate—they are perhaps more contextually important now than they have been for some time in the wake of the events of the past couple of weeks.

In general, large public sector and voluntary organisations have been much more successful than smaller employers in employing disabled people, perhaps because they are more likely to have professional human resources or occupational health staff in situ. It might also be easier for larger organisations to cover unplanned absences. The challenges of taking on someone with, for example, a fluctuating condition are likely to be far more acute for a small business or in certain manufacturing processes. Encouraging cultural change will not cut it if there are no resources to back that up. We need to make it much easier and more affordable for employers to do more to support their disabled staff and to keep them in work.

Small and medium-sized businesses in particular need cost-effective ways of managing and mitigating what they see as the risks of taking on staff with a chequered work history. Most jobs in the UK are with small and medium-sized enterprises, which will therefore provide most of the opportunities for disabled staff. The potential win-win for employees and businesses will be huge if those hurdles can be overcome, but there is a need to build confidence by improving concrete support for employers in the event that, say, someone with a fluctuating condition has a relapse or goes through a spell where they cannot work at full capacity. If employers do not have some means of insulating themselves from such unpredictable situations, we are unlikely to make much headway in reducing the employment gap for disabled people.

The last time we debated these issues, I referred to the Resolution Foundation’s recent report on the retention deficit in employment. The report makes lots of practical suggestions for policy change, such as keeping a person’s job open for up to a year after the start of their sickness absence. The model is similar to maternity leave. It would help people to stay in work and it could also be of huge benefit to people who are recovering from illness and who are expected to make a full recovery, but it will only work if, say, we reimburse the statutory sick pay costs of firms that support their employees to make a successful return to work. I hope the Government are seriously considering those recommendations.

The Resolution Foundation also recommends making early referrals to support for people who find that they are unlikely to be able to return to their previous job, which will be a growing demographic challenge. We should not wait until someone becomes long-term unemployed before making targeted and individualised interventions. For those forced to leave work, the loss of personal confidence and social contact often pushes them further away from the labour market. I therefore hope that the Government take all that work on board.

In the absence of a Green Paper, disabled stakeholders, disability groups, community organisations, carers, employers and, indeed, MPs are all scrabbling about in the dark. The process needs to be transparent and inclusive, and I hope the Minister will get it properly under way and set out a timetable as soon as is feasible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. I find it interesting to hear about the practical projects in rural west Cornwall with which he has been involved. I also note his comments about how those projects have always found themselves strapped for cash. It is an enduring issue.

This has been a worthwhile debate. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) pointed out that anti-discrimination legislation, while a vital component, is insufficient on its own, and that we must always challenge negative attitudes to people with disabilities. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded the Minister to consider the impact of the cut of £30 a week to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) rightly mentioned the closure of nine Remploy factories in 2013. She asked the Minister to update us on progress in providing support for former Remploy employees and pointed out that 733 of the 1,700 people who lost their jobs have still not secured employment. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) rightly called for a clear timetable for the publication of the Minister’s Green Paper.

There are approximately 12 million people living with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term illness in the UK, of whom 5.7 million are of working age. Although 4 million people with disabilities are already working, another 1.3 million are fit for work and want to work, but are currently unemployed. However, as we have heard, the gap in the employment rate between disabled and non-disabled people has grown under this Government to 34%, a 4% increase since they came into office. The vast majority of disabled people—90%—used to work. This is a waste of their skills, talents and experience.

As study upon study has shown, the Government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap rings hollow. It is estimated that, at the current rate, it will take until 2030 to do so. The shelved White Paper, with the promise of a strategy defining support for disabled people, is yet another broken promise, so I join others in their request to Minister today: will he tell us definitively when he will produce his Green Paper?

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

What is the Government’s planned negotiating position in relation to disabled people with regards to the exit of the EU? What EU legislation tackling disability discrimination and enhancing accessibility for disabled people will we retain? For example, will we retain the 2000 employment equality framework directive prohibiting disability discrimination, which dramatically strengthens UK disability employment law?

The Government set the tone for culture and society, and this Government have made their views abundantly clear through their swingeing cuts to social security support for disabled people, including the recent ESA WRAG cut of £1,500 a year, and an overhaul of the work capability assessment process, which has managed to be both dehumanising and ineffective and has been associated with profound mental health effects, including suicides. The Government’s sanctions policy, targeting the most vulnerable, has brought people to the brink—sadly, people have died under it—and the personal independence payment 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, but I will not, due to the shortage of time.

This is happening across all Departments. In the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, disabled people are being marginalised. Given that 12 out of 14 economic analyses forecast an economic downturn over at least the next year, will the Minister ensure that public spending for disabled people will not be hit yet again? I would like a clear response on that point.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published its report last week on this Government’s austerity agenda, and the recommendations were damning. On unemployment for disabled people, the committee recommended that the Government

“review its employment policies to address the root causes for unemployment and include in its action plan time-bound goals with a specific focus on groups disproportionately affected by unemployment, such as…persons with disabilities”.

The committee also recommended that the Government review their austerity policies and programmes introduced since 2010 and

“conduct a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of these measures on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups, in particular women, children and persons with disabilities”.

On social security, the committee recommended that the Government

“reverse the cuts in social security benefits introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016”.

Will the Minister commit to implementing the UN’s recommendations on issues highlighted by Labour Members for many years now, address the disability employment gap effectively, produce a cumulative impact assessment and reverse the measures in the 2012 and 2016 Acts that have had a devastating effect on many disabled people?

What needs to happen? Addressing those issues, including the disability employment gap, needs political will. If 90% of disability is acquired, why are we doing so little to help employers to 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 leaving the labour market prematurely. Some disability charities have recommended more flexible leave arrangements, as well as extending Access to Work. Even if the Government do finally increase Access to Work from the 37,000 or so who were helped last year, it will still be available only to a tiny proportion of the 1.3 million disabled people who are fit for work. In the current economic climate, what assurances has the Minister had from his colleagues that Access to Work funds will be increased?

The Disability Confident scheme needs to be rebooted. The latest revelations that only 40 mainstream private sector employers across the UK have been involved since its inception three years ago show that the scheme is, to put it mildly, clearly inadequate. What measures are in place to monitor its efficacy? For those employers who work hard to recruit and retain disabled employees, how does the scheme apply to their procurement policies and supply chains?

Of course, more needs to be done to help disabled people back into work. As we have argued for over a year, the WCA must be replaced with a more holistic, whole-person assessment. The current system to assess eligibility for social security support is not fit for purpose and should be completely overhauled. However, such changes would also need to be reflected in new departmental and Jobcentre Plus key performance indicators that do not focus just on getting people “off flow” as a successful outcome. Given that so many of those people also have PIP assessments, we should also consider how to bring the two together.

Instead of the increasingly punitive sanctions system, more appropriate support is needed. It is also essential to maintain and increase specialist disability employment advisers in jobcentres, as several hon. Members have said. The current figure of fewer than one such adviser to 600 disabled people will not contribute to halving the disability employment gap. I would also like to see advisers’ role extended to working with businesses.

Current commissioning and payments for the Work programme and other welfare to work programmes need rethinking as well. We must improve specialist support, looking at what works. Although Work Choice has better outcomes than other programmes, it may not be the only solution. The individual placement and support scheme for people with mental health conditions is another example.

As we have said before, greater integration is also needed between Departments: not just between the Department for Work and Pensions and the national health service, but between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and those bodies responsible for economic development. For example, if someone with a musculoskeletal issue or a mental health condition needs to take time off work, they need appropriate early intervention to help them back to work. We need to understand the bottlenecks in the local system that might affect that. We also need to reflect on the drive for flexible labour markets and what it means for supporting people with long-term or fluctuating conditions back into work—or, most probably, out of work, 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 type of jobs, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East made clear in her intervention. 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.

It is also clear that local economic conditions—whether the economy is thriving or not—will determine how readily sick and disabled people will be able to return to work. Again, geographical analysis shows that people with equivalent conditions in the economically buoyant London and the south-east are more likely to be in work than those in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west or Wales.

It is more than 70 years since legislation was first introduced to prohibit employment-related discrimination against disabled people. Sadly, we are still fighting to address such discrimination and the inequality in employment still faced by disabled people. Changing attitudes and behaviour needs cultural change. We in the Labour party will always promote that change and work to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), not only for his 20 years of experience, but for his powerful and well respected speech today. I met with him previously to learn at first hand of his experiences and knowledge in this area, and I was incredibly impressed in that meeting. I want to make it clear that as we work towards the Green Paper, and then the White Paper, he has to be very much at the heart of that, drawing on his vast experience, and also the experience of his very popular mother-in-law.

I pay tribute to Manna’s Diner, to the Mustard Seed charity, to Cornwall People First—just to reassure the gentleman who was concerned about using the bus before 9.30 am, that is an example of where Access to Work could help, so it is worth looking at that—to Rebuild South West, to Helston and the Lizard Works and to Cheshire Homes. I trust I have remembered all the organisations my hon. Friend mentioned, and I put on record my thanks for all the great work they have done. He summed up his own speech perfectly with the three phrases about brilliant organisations. We need to empower those organisations to ensure they are at the heart of helping disabled people to find work, and they are well placed to help because they have the local knowledge, connections and goodwill, which are absolutely integral, and are familiar with the challenge of accessing cash.

I will whistle through some of the questions asked by other Members and then set out what the Government aim to do. I thank all the speakers in this proactive and positive debate; if I miss anything raised today, I will be happy to meet any individual MP face to face, as I have already done with a number of colleagues. The hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted the importance of employers recognising changing circumstances and opportunities. They also touched on funding, which was picked up by many other speakers. The Government are increasing funding to support people with disabilities and long-term health conditions every single year of this Parliament, right through to 2020. We are currently spending £3 billion a year more than when we came into office. The hon. Member for Strangford highlighted the importance of Mencap, which is at the heart of the work we do; its policy team is very proactive.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and others mentioned disability advisers. The situation is now being changed: we are rapidly re-recruiting and are looking to get to 500 disability advisers.

I thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) for committing to hold a reverse jobs fair. More than 50 MPs across the parties have signed up for that—I had one in my own constituency. I will return to that shortly.

The Minister and I have discussed reverse jobs fairs before, and I want to give him some feedback from my reverse jobs fair in Worcester. When I opened the new Waitrose in Worcester the other day, I was introduced to one of its partners, who was completely deaf and who was hired as a result of that Disability Confident initiative.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is one of the most proactive MPs in supporting our initiatives. He is a real credit to his constituency.

I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) about the Green Paper; I will come back to that later. He and others raised the issue of Motability cars; we have increased the number of people accessing the Motability scheme by 22,000. I reassure him that Parkinson’s UK, who I met again yesterday, and Leonard Cheshire are two major stakeholders who are very much involved in the work we are doing.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) mentioned the Resolution Foundation report. I attended and spoke at the launch, and the foundation has asked some important questions and has made its own suggestions and recommendations, which can be considered in the Green Paper.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on stepping up to be my shadow today. As I said, we are increasing funding. The work capability assessment is not perfect. It was introduced by the Labour Government, who made tweaks to it themselves. The coalition Government made tweaks and we have tried to make tweaks. We all accept that it has to change; that is a given, and we will look at that in the Green Paper. It is important to remember that the personal independence payment is not work-related—it is separate. It is ESA that is work-related. On the change from the disability living allowance to PIP, only 16.5% of claimants accessed the highest rate of benefit under the DLA; under PIP the figure is 22.5%. As a benefit, the PIP is far better at accessing the most vulnerable in society and providing them with adequate support.

Access to Work helped 37,000 people last year. I understand that, as an absolute number, that is a relatively small percentage, but we must remember that not everybody on Access to Work has a lifetime award—sometimes it is a one-off adjustment or an occasional adjustment—so the scheme actually helps far more than that. We have had confirmation of an increase in funding for an additional 25,000 places, and we are actively doing all we can to let small and medium-sized businesses in particular, which are responsible for 45% of jobs, know about the scheme. I will come to Disability Confident, and I have already covered the disability advisers.

The Government are committed to halving the disability employment gap. That was announced personally by the Prime Minister, which gives me some extra bargaining tools when I talk to other Departments, to the public sector and to the private sector. Disability Confident is an important part of that. Some 690 organisations have now signed up; we are making changes to the scheme, with greater asks of larger employers in particular, and are recruiting more than 100 organisations a month now, so it is beginning to accelerate quickly.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives made the very powerful point that employers are nervous and we need to build trust. That is absolutely right. Disability Confident is part of that process, with signposting and sharing best practice, along with reverse jobs fairs, which I am encouraging all MPs to get involved in, particularly those who are most critical of the Government. They can do their bit to be proactive and host their own reverse jobs fairs. The way it works is that I got 22 local organisations in my constituency—the sorts that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives highlighted in his examples—into a room. Working with local media, I got more than 70 small and medium-sized businesses that were looking to recruit people to come into that room and say, “These are the skill gaps that we’ve got.” We introduced them to those organisations and lots of job outcomes came from that.

Building on that, we decided to carry out a pilot of small employer officers, who literally doorstepped local employers and, over a cup of tea, discussed the huge hidden talent that could be matched to those employers’ skills gaps. Those pilots have been really successful, and I am pushing hard for them to be rolled out nationally, as part of the summer Budget funding. Working with the disability advisers in the jobcentre and all the support organisations, whether national providers or local charities, we can get the busy small and medium-sized businesses that are lacking confidence and knowledge of the talent that is out there, and hook them together.

That is crucial, because I have seen so many disabled people who are playing by the rules, engaging with the Work programme, the Work Choice programme or the different charities, and doing their bit to find work. Without opportunities at the end of that, they will continue to loop round the system, getting ever less confident and ever further away from the jobs market. Everything we do has to be underlined by matching that up to employers. I am really excited by what a difference that can make, and I have seen from working with employers how tangible that difference can be.

Learning disabilities were at the heart of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. Those with a learning disability have a 6% chance of having a meaningful and sustainable career. As a group, they are the furthest away from the jobs market. All Governments of all political persuasions have tried and have tweaked, but have not budged that figure.

I recently visited Foxes Academy near Bridgwater, which had set up an old hotel. In their town, the opportunities are in hotels, restaurants and care homes, so those are the skills they provide for their young adults—the equivalent of sixth form—as well as teaching skills for independent living. In their third year, students go and have a supported year in industry, after which 80% of them remain in work, of which 45.6% are in paid work. Even the conservative figure of 45.6% is so much better than 6%.

I challenge officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to say “The Government are committed to 3 million more apprenticeships. Why are we not doing more to open them up, particularly to those with learning disabilities?” We set up a taskforce, which has now concluded, and we will shortly be announcing its recommendations. If we can open up access to those 3 million places, that will make a huge difference.

The Green Paper is a priority for the Government. It is well supported by stakeholders, who understand that, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives set out so clearly, when we use their experience and knowledge, we can make real and good decisions. But it cannot be rushed; we have to do it as and when we get all the right questions answered and the right information. It will come this year and will be done in the right and proper manner with the full support of the stakeholders who I regularly engage with.

We will continue to work with the jobcentre network to upskill. Universal credit will give individuals the opportunity, for the first time, to have a named coach who will support them both in getting into work and once they are in work. I am proud of our record: 360,000 more disabled people in work in the last two years. It is right that local best practice should be integral to that.

I am grateful to the hon. Members who have contributed to this valuable debate, and to the many organisations, including Scope, Leonard Cheshire and Cornwall People First, that have helped to inform it. Breaking down the barriers to employment for people who live with disabilities is a very real and important challenge. I would not have requested this debate if I thought I was wasting my time, other Members’ time or, indeed, your time, Mr Stringer. I am here because I am confident that the Minister understands the urgency and the importance of the issue and the opportunities presented if we get this right.

I want to live in a society that refuses to accept the barriers that currently exist for so many. I believe in equal opportunities for all. We are promised a richer economy and a richer society if we deliver for our most vulnerable people. Finally, I would like to say that I will be holding my own reverse jobs fair in October.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).