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House of Commons Hansard
EU Referendum: Immigration and Disability Employment
11 October 2016
Volume 615

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered immigration policy and the disability employment gap after the EU referendum.

Members who have looked at the title of this debate may not immediately understand what I am driving at. I raise the subject of immigration and disability employment not just because I have been both Immigration Minister and Minister for Disabled People, but because I think we have a very good opportunity, post-Brexit, to look at getting more disabled people into work. I am pleased to see the Minister for Immigration in his place; I am also pleased to see the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work here today, because that demonstrates that the Government are joined up on these matters and that Ministers in different Departments work closely together.

A number of issues came out of the referendum. First, the British people want us to have control of immigration, both from within and from without the European Union. I think that will mean ending the free movement of people and applying the same rules to those coming from inside the EU and to those coming from outside the EU, in one consistent immigration system. It flows from that—and from the fact that the Conservative party has twice committed, in our 2010 and 2015 manifestos, to reducing net migration—that we should use that extra control to reduce net migration to the United Kingdom. If we are to have a dynamic, fast-growing economy that continues to generate lots of jobs, as we have done consistently over the last six years—indeed, businesses have created more jobs in Britain, using the conditions created by the coalition Government and by this Conservative Government, than the whole of the rest of the European Union put together—we need to increase the ability for businesses to use the talents of those British citizens who are not yet in the labour market.

The referendum has also given the Government the opportunity to deliver another manifesto commitment, which is to halve the disability employment gap—the gap between the proportion of people who are disabled who are in work and the proportion of the working-age population as a whole. We can use Brexit as an opportunity to challenge businesses to use some imagination and effort to look harder at employing people with a disability, whether that is a mental health problem, a learning disability or a physical disability. Those are the messages that arise and that I will elaborate on a little further in my speech, before my hon. Friend the Minister responds—positively, I hope—on behalf of the Government.

Having caught the end of the previous debate, I want to lay my cards on the table. I come at this issue as someone who supported the remain campaign but, as I mentioned, I have also been Immigration Minister, so I understand the complexities and challenges facing the Minister as he grapples with the subject. The Prime Minister, who as a former Home Secretary knows how challenging this area is, has said that there is no single policy that can be introduced to control immigration; getting a handle on it requires detailed, relentless work over time. As soon as the Government close one loophole, people get around it. The world changes and the needs of the economy change. If we are to have an immigration system that delivers for the economy and the British people, that relentless, detailed work needs to continue.

When I was Immigration Minister, I found it very frustrating not to be able to control EU migration. We could control it a little—we could crack down on overt abuse—but it was largely outside the control of Ministers and of Parliament. That was very frustrating, and Brexit is an opportunity to get it right. It seemed to me in the referendum campaign that one of the important issues, although not the only one, that led to the vote to leave the European Union was that the British people were frustrated that free movement within the EU did not give their elected Government and their elected representatives the ability to control immigration and to choose who came to our country in the way they thought we should. I do not think that was the only issue, but it was clear from the general election campaign and from the referendum campaign that it is important and we need to address it.

As I said, the Conservative party made a clear commitment in both our last two manifestos to reduce net migration to sustainable levels, which is defined as reducing it from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. That ambition has been reconfirmed, post-referendum, by the Prime Minister. She has been realistic that it will take time to deliver—we are not likely to leave the European Union for another two years after article 50 has been triggered, and it will take time for the implementation of policies to take effect after that—but we can get on a path to delivering that target. That would be welcome, and I know the Minister would be keen to achieve it.

It is worth saying that this is not just about our manifesto commitment. The reason for reducing net migration is that, certainly at the lower end of the labour market, there is evidence that high levels of migration can have an impact on wage levels. That was one of the issues reflected in the British people’s decision to leave the European Union. Particularly in areas that have large numbers of new migrants, there can be significant pressures on public services, which we also heard about from the public: pressures on accessing doctors, other healthcare services, schools and housing. All those pressures would be alleviated if we controlled migration more effectively.

If no British citizens at all were out of work, clearly it would make sense to import workers from overseas to fill the skill gaps and the gaps in the labour market. However, although unemployment is very low—less than 5%, which is a success both of Government policy and of the work done over the years of the coalition Government, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), to make the benefits system more flexible and to encourage people to get into work, with changes such as universal credit—a significant number of British people who are capable of working and would like to work have some sort of barrier or difficulty that makes it harder to get a job.

I do not particularly want to fire statistics at the Minister, but it is worth looking at the number of people who claim employment and support allowance and are in the work-related activity group, which means they have a condition that will allow them to work at some point in the future. There are nearly half a million people in that category, half of whom are people with mental health conditions, for example, who would be able to work if they were given the opportunity to do so and their employer made reasonable adjustments. There are more than 1.5 million people in the support group; again, with reasonable adjustments, some of those people would be able to enter the workplace. I remind the Minister that many of those people would like to work. They want the opportunity to work, but they do not currently get it.

There are also significant numbers of people with a learning disability who would be capable of working and would love the opportunity to work but do not currently get it. It is worth mentioning some information that Mencap has provided for this debate. It points out that there are 1.4 million people in the United Kingdom with a learning disability. Mencap exists to support those people and their families. It estimates that around eight in every 10 of those 1.4 million people with a learning disability could do work, with the right support, but also that only two in every 10 of them are currently in employment. That means that, according to Mencap staff, who are experts on such matters, six in every 10 people with a learning disability—840,000 people—could do some sort of work but are not currently given the opportunity.

Mencap says that the majority of people with a learning disability can work and want to work. The figures are stark: the national employment percentage is in the high 70s, but the overall disability employment rate is just below 50%. Mencap makes the point that there is a large pool of people who are capable of working and would like the opportunity to work, but who are not currently given the opportunity to do so.

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I was very much in the out camp and was pleased that the referendum went the way it did. My constituents asked me whether they would continue to be protected by disabilities legislation, as they are while we are in the EU. Is it the right hon. Gentleman’s intention that that legislative protection would still be given outside the EU? I understand the Government committed to that, so I am keen to hear whether that is the case. If it is, the existing protection in legislation will continue.

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I welcome that intervention because, although I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point, it gives me the opportunity to remind the House that it was a Conservative Government who in 1995 brought in the first Disability Discrimination Act, which was taken through the Commons by Lord Hague of Richmond, who was then simply William Hague and a Minister in the Department that became the Department for Work and Pensions. That was trailblazing legislation in this country, informed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which Lord Hague had studied carefully. He had the full support of the then Prime Minister, John Major, in taking it through the House.

That legislation is largely domestic and was introduced by a Conservative Government. When the last Labour Government introduced the Equality Act 2010, which consolidated a lot of legislation in one place, we supported that. I was the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman at the time, and I would not anticipate any change—certainly no diminution—in the legislative protection for disabled people when we leave the European Union. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that.

Some people might be thinking, “Well, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that point at a timely moment. All this legislative protection is in place, so what difference will leaving the European Union make?” I received a briefing note from the Papworth Trust, which is another excellent organisation that helps disabled people to get into work. I suggest businesses need to put more effort and imagination into hiring people. The Papworth Trust says:

“A major barrier for our customers”

—the disabled people whom it helps—

“is that employers often seek ‘ready-made’ employees who are proficient in their role with minimum training, support or cost to the employer.”

The trust also highlights the fact that there are many good employers that go that extra mile.

My argument is that, post-Brexit, we can say to employers, “You’re not going to have the ability to hire people who are ready to drop straight into your company off the shelf. You are going to have to look harder at people who might require extra training or assistance. The Government should stand ready to help you, perhaps by dealing with the extra costs of hiring some of those disabled people, but you should look at them and give them the opportunity. They will repay you by being productive, valued and valuable employees.” The Government can challenge employers on their attitudes. As I said, there are already some very good employers. The Government’s Disability Confident scheme helps to share best practice and gives employers the confidence to hire more disabled people. It is a very good example.

I have several asks to make of the Minister. First, he should continue the work that the Government are already doing in the Department for Work and Pensions, which is working closely with the Home Office on this matter. As I highlighted at the start of the debate, the fact that Ministers from both Departments are present and listening to the debate is excellent. I have had conversations with both the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Home Secretary on this matter. They are both keen to make progress in this area.

Secondly, we need to identify the sectors of the economy in which we are currently very dependent on migration from the European Union. For both entry-level and skilled jobs, we should find out where people with a disability could provide a contribution to employers.

Thirdly, the Government need to work in partnership with employers, but also to utilise the third and charitable sectors. I have already mentioned several organisations, but Mind is a prominent mental health charity that encourages employers to employ people with a mental health problem. Scope and Mencap are both excellent organisations that continue to work in partnership with the Government and employers.

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I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I cannot agree with everything he has said about immigration but, on the disability employment gap, I have to concur with a lot of what he said. Will he encourage his colleagues in the Government to bring forward the Green Paper on the health and work programme so that some of the issues we are discussing can be teased out further?

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Part of the reason why I started to have some of the conversations I have been having and secured this debate was to inform the wider debate. I think the Government are planning to publish the Green Paper in the autumn. Part of the point of discussing these subjects is to feed into the strands of thinking that will go into the Green Paper, which is of course a consultation document. As the Government listen to responses from employers, Members of Parliament and the charitable sector, they can include this debate as one thing they think about as they formulate the specific plans that will be published in a White Paper and perhaps, if required, in legislation.

The final thing I want to say to the Minister is that he should look at some of the help that the Government could provide to employers and at some of the help that is already in place, to see whether, if we were successful in getting a significant number of disabled people into work, it would be sufficiently flexible and scalable. I would like my hon. Friend to look specifically at the Access to Work programme, which is an excellent scheme, but not as well known as we would hope. One of my concerns is that, were we as successful as I hope we can be, we would run into a problem, because Access to Work is currently funded by the departmental expenditure of the Department for Work and Pensions. Were a lot more people to want to use Access to Work to help to fund the reasonable adjustments that employers might need to make, we would run up against a funding barrier. Scope has proposed that Access to Work should be funded from annually managed expenditure so that it can be scaled as necessary in response to demand.

In summary, the Minister should work closely with other Departments across Government, which is already happening but must continue; he should look at the Green Paper that the Government are going to publish and the feedback from it, and build in the ideas I have outlined; and he should look at the help that the Government already provide to employers to check that it is going to deliver in the new environment. If we do that and get that imagination and effort from employers, with support from Government, one thing that will flow from Brexit will be further opportunities for disabled people to get into work. To use the phrase of the moment, we can then truly build a country that works for everyone.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on securing the debate, on his eloquent contribution and on his article on this very subject in today’s Times newspaper. As both a former Minister for Disabled People and a former distinguished holder of the post that I now occupy, he brings unique knowledge and experience to the debate. Indeed, there was very little in what he said with which I could disagree. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work was present for my right hon. Friend’s contribution, which shows that we work across Government on such matters.

One issue that my right hon. Friend raised was the help and support that can be given to employers on the hiring of people with disabilities. I would also like to talk about people with abilities; we have talked a lot about disability, but the abilities that people have are a tremendous resource, although in many ways it goes untapped. Our small employer offer now gives advice and financial support to small and medium-sized enterprises, and further ideas will be explored in the forthcoming work and health Green Paper, which he referred to.

I will discuss my current area of responsibility shortly, but first I will mention the real advances that this Government have made in employment and disability employment. In the past six years, we have overseen huge increases in the number of 16 to 64-year-olds in employment. Since May 2010, employment has risen by 2.3 million, with 74.5% of people of working age now in employment. That is a testament to our record of helping nearly a million new businesses to set up and grow, and of creating nearly 3 million new apprenticeships. We have also taken the lowest-paid workers out of income tax and introduced a new national living wage to help sustain the labour market. In addition, during the past three years the number of disabled people in work has increased by almost half a million. A total of 3.4 million disabled people are now in the workforce.

However, there is much more to do. The labour force survey from 2015 tells us that 11% of disabled people of working age have never worked, compared with 8% of non-disabled people. There are also important differences in the highest educational qualifications of working- age disabled and non-disabled people, which may affect the employment opportunities and income of each group. Also, while the rate of employment for those of working age is at 74.5% overall, it is at 47.9% for disabled people.

We recognise that the gap between the employment rates of disabled people and non-disabled people remains too large, which is why we are committed to halving it. This Government are ambitious for disabled people and people with health conditions, and we want to remove the barriers that prevent them from working. We want every individual to have the opportunity to share in the economic and health benefits that work brings.

The Government’s ambition to halve the disability employment gap has been widely recognised as being bold and challenging. The gap has persisted over time, under successive Governments, and is the result of a complex blend of factors. We plan to publish the Green Paper that I have referred to shortly. It will explore a range of ways to improve the prospects and transform the lives of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. We want to remove the barriers that prevent them from working, and help to ensure that they are able to obtain work and remain in it.

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We look forward to the publication of the Green Paper, but will the Government commit to putting forward any extra resources? A number of the areas that the Green Paper would seek to address, including helping people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions, would require a bespoke intervention and a bespoke service, which is obviously expensive. Is it possible for the Government to commit more funding to what will be proposed in the Green Paper?

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Of course, a review of resourcing will be part of the review, but let us not forget that getting people into work means that they will be less reliant on benefits and more able to contribute, not only to their own lives but to the economy through the tax they will pay.

By the end of this Parliament, we want to have shown that there are interventions that can meaningfully address the pay gap, and to be on the way to securing success. Addressing the gap is partly about ensuring that employers do all they can to fill jobs with people in the resident labour market, including disabled people.

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I apologise for arriving late for the debate, Mr Owen. Does the Minister agree that we should actually be quite optimistic, given that employers report above average levels of commitment and loyalty from their existing disabled workers? That is a good story to get over to employers.

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. This process is about sharing the experiences of employers who have managed to deliver on this issue, to show that it is not something that employers should be frightened of. Rather, it is a real opportunity for their business that they should grasp with both hands.

Although nine out of 10 people employed here are UK nationals, we want to reduce the reliance on international workers, as part of our manifesto commitment to reduce net migration to sustainable levels, which means in the tens of thousands and not the hundreds of thousands. Working with colleagues across Government, I am determined to deliver on that commitment.

We have legislated twice to stop illegal migrants from operating under the radar, but there is no doubt that there is still far more that we can do. In March, we announced a package of measures to reform the routes for skilled workers, to ensure that only those who can make a real economic contribution can come to the UK. We are setting higher salary thresholds and introducing an immigration skills charge of £1,000 per worker per year, to boost funding for the training of UK workers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean referred to the pressure on wage rates from immigration, and that change will help to address that problem. Nevertheless, there is more we can do to ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and best, while also ensuring that we clamp down on abuse and create opportunities for resident workers and disabled people.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced last week, we will shortly consult on potential reform to our work and study migration systems. We will look very carefully at the work routes, including examining whether we should tighten up the test that companies have to take before recruiting from abroad.

We will do all we can to encourage employers to offer jobs to resident labour, including, of course, disabled people. We will consult on plans to ask any company seeking to sponsor a visa to bring in a non-EU worker to provide details of the proportion of work visa holders in their workforce, alongside other information used to support the visa application process. That already happens in the United States and is one of several proposals that we will consult on as part of our work to ensure that companies take reasonable steps to recruit at home before looking to bring in workers from abroad.

As with other information used in the visa process, that work would not involve, and was never intended to involve, the publication of the ratio of resident workers to foreign workers, nor the creation of lists or names of workers. We are considering adding other conditions that must be met before a company can recruit from abroad—for example, considering what steps they have taken to train up a local workforce. We are committed to reducing non-EU migration across all visa routes, to bring net migration down to sustainable levels as soon as possible.

British businesses have driven the economic recovery in this country, with employment now at record levels. However, we still need to do more, so that all British people, including disabled people, get the right opportunities they need to get on in life. What is happening now is not fair on the companies doing the right thing, so I will consider again whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in resident workers.

I turn to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean spoke in some detail. Like him, I was on the remain side of the argument, but I accept the wishes of the British people as expressed at the ballot box. As the Prime Minister has made clear, Brexit means Brexit, and we will make a success of it. The Prime Minister has announced that we will trigger article 50 by next March. Beyond that, however, she has rightly been clear that we should not provide a running commentary on events, and it would not be right for me to set out the terms of our negotiations here, even if I was aware of all of them. What I will say is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean suggested, leaving the European Union presents us with an opportunity to look afresh at all the issues around free movement.

Currently, nationals from countries in the European economic area have the right in EU law to enter the UK for any purpose for up to three months, and to stay indefinitely to work. They can access services and employment on the basis of their EU passport or identity card. Free movement rights are exercised at the discretion of the EEA national, rather than with the permission of the destination member state. Since 2004, free movement from the A8—the eight accession countries—and from the A2 countries, Bulgaria and Romania, has provided employers with a readily available pool of cheap labour. That has had a significant impact on employment practices, so any restrictions would clearly have an impact.

EU nationals, excluding Irish nationals, account for almost 6% of total UK employment, but they are over-represented in sectors such as hospitality, manufacturing, agriculture, transport and storage. It is in that context that we can look again at prioritising employment for the resident labour market, including disabled people. We should look at where disabled people are able to provide a contribution, while ensuring that the right safeguards are put in place, particularly if they do not have an advocate to work in their best interests. That will require close working across Government, but I assure my right hon. Friend that in order to address these issues I will work closely with my counterparts in his other former Department, the Department for Work and Pensions; with the voluntary sector, where appropriate; and, of course, with employers.

I assure my right hon. Friend that the position of the disabled is, and will remain, a priority for this Government in the months and years ahead. We will seize every opportunity to ensure that, wherever possible, those with disabilities are helped into the workforce.

Question put and agreed to.