[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Disability Confident scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the Members who have made the effort to attend the debate, which I secured because I am a passionate believer in the ideals represented by the Disability Confident scheme, the support it offers and the progress it has made.
As recently as the 20th century, disability often prevented individuals from contributing to their communities and to society as a whole. At the turn of the 20th century, “defective” individuals were identified and separated from their communities through legislation such as the Mental Deficiency Act 1913. Meanwhile, adults who suffered an injury that caused a disability were often forced out of work and left reliant on rudimentary health and benefit schemes. Fortunately, in recent decades, Britain has made significant progress in guaranteeing rights and opportunities for disabled people. From the appointment of Britain’s first Minister for disabled people in 1972, to the discrimination and equality legislation of the 1990s and the early 21st century, our country has begun to catch up with the contribution, intellect and determination of so many disabled people across the United Kingdom.
I wish to cover three key components of the scheme in depth: the intent to provide equal opportunities for disabled people to be active participants in society; how the scheme contributes to reducing the disability employment gap; and how to encourage and engage employers to become more confident in employing and retaining disabled people.
First, let me expand on what I mean by intent. The Government should work to ensure that disabled people are not underrepresented in the workplace. Over the past seven years, it has been a common refrain of the Government not only that work should pay but that it is the most effective way of contributing to society. The logic of that belief is sound and has led to the Government overseeing the lowest unemployment in 43 years and, since 2010, the fastest rate of job creation. More than 600,000 more disabled people are in work now than were seven years ago. The employment rate among people with disabilities was 1.3 percentage points higher between April and June 2017 than in the same period in 2016, which means that the number of people with disabilities in employment rose by about 104,000.
Such opportunities help to provide work to formerly workless households and to provide disabled and non-disabled individuals with purpose, colleagues and community—factors that are widely recognised as helping to contribute to good physical and mental health. The Disability Confident scheme is consistent with that belief and complements other Government initiatives in work, welfare and health.
My second point is about the disability employment gap, which is defined as the difference between the employment rates among disabled and non-disabled people. There are currently 3.4 million disabled people in employment, which is approximately 49% of all disabled people. On its own, that sounds reasonable, but 80% of non-disabled people are currently in employment. The overall unemployment rate is 9% among people with disabilities but only 3.8% among people without disabilities. We should be determined to close that gap.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that we should aggressively pursue the UK Government’s target to halve the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people, and that Disability Confident will help to reduce that gap?
I could not agree more. That is a laudable target, but we should always try to go a little further. In my view, the target is there to be exceeded, and I am sure that the Minister will do everything she can to achieve that.
Let me dig a bit deeper and draw some gender and regional comparisons. Between April and June 2017, about 2 million women and 1.5 million men with disabilities were in work. That means that the employment rate among people with disabilities is about 50% for men and 48.6% for women. It is worth noting that more working-age women than working-age men have disabilities, which explains the discrepancy between the totals and the percentages of men and women with disabilities who are in work. However, the gap between the employment rates among women with and without disabilities is smaller than the equivalent gap for men. Although there is some reasonable news, it is tempered by the fact that the disability employment gap is still 27 percentage points for women and 35 percentage points for men.
It is also worth looking at the regional breakdown across the UK. Annual population survey data show that between July 2016 and June 2017 employment among disabled people was highest in the south-west of England, at 58.5%, and lowest in Northern Ireland, at just 36.7%. Scotland ranks third lowest in the UK, ahead of only Northern Ireland and the north-east, with a rate of 43.4% compared with the UK average of 49.7%. It is worth noting that those regional discrepancies by and large reflect the overall employment rates of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
The data highlight the issue at hand. I secured the debate so that we could continue to raise awareness in the Government and in the public and private sectors of the contributions and under-appreciated talent of disabled people in the UK and, in so doing, help to bridge the disability employment gap.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the fact that Disability Confident is a UK-wide scheme is excellent because it allows companies across our country to take part? Small companies such as Jaycees, a computer shop in Forres just two doors down from my constituency office, groups such as ENABLE Elgin, which does great work across Moray, and even globally renowned firms such as Maclean’s Highland Bakery, Walkers Shortbread and Baxters Food Group are all signed up to the scheme.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The scheme is commendable, and being UK-wide allows it to provide consistency and a standard for employers, both large and small, across the United Kingdom.
My third point is about employer engagement and retention. The Disability Confident campaign was set up by the Government in July 2013 and aims to help employers improve how they attract, recruit and retain disabled workers. The scheme also aims to educate employers about the benefits of employing disabled people. Some 5,000 employers have signed up to the scheme since 2016, including my own parliamentary offices, Clackmannanshire Council and Perth and Kinross Council, which both cross through my constituency, and several other businesses in my constituency. I encourage everyone in this place to sign their offices up for it. It is quick and easy—it takes only a few minutes. If hon. Members need any help, they should pop by my office. I am also pleased to say that the main Departments have achieved Disability Confident leader status, a standard to which many organisations should aspire.
In researching for this debate, I came across a number of exciting case studies, including a company in my constituency that has signed up for the Disability Confident scheme. The Glenalmond Timber Company in Methven has been signed up for two years and has taken on a number of employees through the scheme. Most recently, it hired Colin, who is deaf. Colin started only a few weeks ago, but in that time he has been made to feel part of the team. Jed, his team manager, helped him to settle in by learning sign language. Jed commented that he “saw the man, not the disability”. In return for that commitment, the company gets an enthusiastic, hard-working and happy employee. Indeed, Colin’s wife commented that she had never seen her husband so happy.
Glenalmond Timber Company has also worked closely with the local jobcentre and disability centre to maximise the benefits of the Disability Confident scheme and what the company can offer through it. Staff have nothing but positive comments, and Jed has been invited to speak to students in local schools about his experience and about how they can be involved in skills development schemes and apprenticeships to ensure that their talent is not wasted.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Although I very much support the scheme—that is why we are all here—many small and medium-sized business in Northern Ireland do not have the resources to participate in it. Companies that want to be part of the scheme but have upstairs offices or would have to widen doorways for people who use wheelchairs or take measures to allow visually disabled people to fully participate cannot take part because of the cost of renovating their buildings. Does he agree that that is a shortfall of the scheme? Perhaps the Minister will address that in her response.
I realise that the scheme is a start, and later in my speech I will come to a number of areas that I hope the Minister and the Government will seek to develop further.
I was talking about the Glenalmond Timber Company. For people who do not know, Methven is a village in my constituency—it is not a bustling metropolis. There is not a huge amount of infrastructure, nor is there a particularly strong disability lobby that has worked hard on local or national Government. However, a company there is committed to seeing the person and not the disability, and it has reaped the positive results of that. I commend the Glenalmond Timber Company for the work it has done through Disability Confident. I hope the Minister will join me in visiting its site in the near future.
Of course, it is not just local businesses that are involved; national and international businesses have also signed up to the scheme. I thank Sainsbury’s, which has provided information on cases across the United Kingdom. It is a large corporation that has been highly involved in the Disability Confident campaign. One of its employees in the north of England experienced some mental health issues and has only just felt confident enough to talk about his condition at work. Although he requested to remain anonymous, he commented:
“There is still a stigma about mental health, so I was nervous about talking about it. But receiving a firm diagnosis recently made it easier for me to speak up. Everyone I’ve had contact with here has been really supportive and keen to help. I worked with my line manager and HR to come up with adjustments, which have made a massive difference. Flexible rotas, extra preparation time at the start of shifts and the addition of a click and collect shift to my working week have made things less stressful.
I’m now really enjoying my job. There’s great camaraderie and team spirit, and with regular reviews as we go along, there’s no reason I won’t be able to stay in the role long-term…I’d advise colleagues dealing with mental health conditions to take that first step and talk to their managers. Once you’ve said the words, it gets much easier.”
Those words are great to hear and show that the scheme is making a great start, but there is still a lot of work to do.
The 2017 Conservative manifesto committed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) mentioned, to getting 1 million more disabled people into employment in the next 10 years. The Government therefore released a White Paper entitled “Improving Lives: the future of work, health and disability” in November last year. The strategy is based partly on supporting disabled people to find work but also on providing investment to support them to stay in work, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The White Paper states that the Government will
“increase the reach and effectiveness of Disability Confident”,
while the Disability Confident business group has been established to provide leadership, peer-to-peer support and the sharing of best practice. Furthermore, the White Paper included the following policies and proposals. First, the roll-out of the personal support package, which includes the recruitment of 200 community partners, 300 disability employment advisers and about 100 small employer advisers. It will also provide support for individuals to help find and keep a job. Secondly, the Government have committed—I am sure that the Minister will elaborate on this—to explore the best options to provide support to those with more complex needs, and those who are furthest from the labour market across the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is being generous, and it is a huge pleasure to see another member of clan Graham representing Ochil and South Perthshire in the House. Does he agree that there may be a good case for the Government to consider doing what they did so successfully with apprenticeships: to provide small employers with an incentive to hire people with disabilities? If that were in the form of a national insurance break, that might be the catalyst that enables us to move at the pace we want in taking people with disabilities into employment.
Indeed. I will come to that point towards the end of my speech.
The Government’s proposals are all laudable and aspirational, and I am sure they will receive cross-party support in their implementation. I also ask the Minister to ensure that any new provisions are UK-wide and not limited by devolution settlements anywhere in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is most kind in giving way. The other reason I wanted to come to the debate and make a comment was that over the years I have heard from a number of civil servants employed by Government who have lost their jobs due to their ill health—irritable bowel syndrome is one such example. It is a colossal experience for the person concerned, but even though they were employed by Government, the Government paid those people off. This debate is an opportunity to raise awareness in all Government Departments to ensure that people are not penalised because of their ill health in jobs they wish to stay in.
I could not agree more. I hope that, through further speeches, we will hear more case studies and examples to try to raise the profile of the issue further. I know that the debate will not be left in this Chamber but that it will be continued by Members across the House in their constituencies and hopefully in the main Chamber. As I said, I urge cross-party support, because everyone has a role to play in helping to achieve the Government’s commitments as well as getting behind some of the Government’s policies and practical applications to try to ensure we achieve the targets set.
The Disability Confident scheme is about creating a movement for change, getting employers to think differently about disability and to act to improve recruitment and retention of disabled workers. The scheme has three levels that have been designed to support employers on their Disability Confident journey. An employer will complete each level before moving on to the next.
At the start of an employer’s Disability Confident journey, it can sign up via gov.uk with its Disability Confident commitments and identify at least one thing it can do that will make a difference for disabled employees. The second step is to become a Disability Confident employer. Such an employer will need to undertake a self-assessment, testing its business against a set of statements grouped into two themes: getting the right people for the business; and keeping and developing those people. For both themes, the employer will need to agree to take all of the actions set out in the core actions list and at least one from the activity list to make good on its commitment.
The final level, achieved by some Government Departments, is level 3, a Disability Confident leader. For that, an employer needs to meet two additional elements. First, it must challenge itself through self-assessment and open up to external challenge to ensure it really is pushing itself and delivering the best for its people. The second element is leadership within industry and among peers as well as with its own communities and supply chains.
By working through the scheme, employers also get access to a wide range of information, good practice and other resources, including links to Department for Work and Pensions programmes that can provide practical assistance. For example, Access to Work provision rose by 8% last year, and for some groups it rose at an even faster rate. For example, the number of deaf people who had support approved increased by 13%. There was also a significant increase in the number of people with provision approved who have mental health conditions, which was up 37%, and those with learning disabilities, which was up 25%. For young people aged 16 to 24, the increase was 26%.
Those metrics are all encouraging, and the scheme has the right intent and policies to progress. However, no scheme is perfect, as alluded to by other Members, so I ask the Minister and the Government team to look at continuously improving the scheme over the next few years and ensure that it is regularly reviewed so that we can check progress and see if anything can be done to provide UK employer incentives, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises, where cash is more constrained and it is more difficult to make the changes that would allow extra people to enter our workforce and increase our productivity.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking a second intervention. He described well the different levels of the scheme and employers who have signed up. Is there also a need to ensure that employers who have signed up do not rest on their laurels on the first level but are encouraged to move on, develop the programme and progress through the levels of the scheme?
Absolutely—my hon. Friend makes a valid point. Even at level one, employers are making a commitment to take action within the next 12 months, and the mechanism must be used to ensure that those commitments are followed through. Commitments are easy to make online, but there needs to be the follow-through to make a real difference.
Quite simply, we cannot afford to allow any of our citizens’ talents to go to waste. For our United Kingdom to reach its full potential, every one of its citizens must reach theirs. Harnessing the skills and talents of everyone is at the heart of a successful economic plan, but good employment delivers much more than just a strong economy. Having a good job is good for our health: it keeps people healthy, both mentally and physically. I want disabled people to have every opportunity to go as far as their talents will take them. That is the sort of aspirational country I want to see, and that is what this scheme is starting to deliver.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on, and thank him for, securing this extremely important debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability, I am pleased that we are having this debate. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment that we should be having these debates in the main Chamber as well. This week, I applied to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on the potential that disabled people bring to our economy. We must harness their skills and potential, and I would hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members here today would support that application.
The Disability Confident scheme is extremely symbolic. I have held a Disability Confident event in my constituency and would advocate other hon. Members doing so. It was important because only when we go through the process of helping employers to look at the scheme and what it would mean can we understand the hurdles that they feel they face—we can see not only the positives, but some of the limitations within the scheme as it stands.
A number of employers came along to the event on the day. We had great support from the Department for Work and Pensions and from various other organisations, and it was a successful event. I was pleased to publicise it and to tell people, “This is a really positive scheme and a positive event.” However, I would say that, in the follow-up, almost a year later, I re-contacted many of the employers who came to the day. They said, “Yes, it’s a good scheme, and we feel a bit more confident,” but confidence in itself does not always lead on to employment. While it is a good scheme, there is much more we can do.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on bringing forward this important subject. My constituent, Atif Aslam, is a maths graduate but suffers from multiple sclerosis. Although he can access interviews, often employers do not put in place what he needs. For example, he needs a scribe in an interview if he is to fill in particular applications. He has been to interviews where he has told them in advance and the employer has not provided it. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is one thing for employers to say that they will sign up to this, but another thing for them to act on it?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Providing adaptations is one of the challenges that employers, particularly small businesses, have come to me about following the event. They have said that they need further support from the Government. As a psychologist, I know that feeling confident is great. I feel confident that I will probably do lots of exercise this year, but whether that turns into my doing exercise might be a different story, particularly when it comes to February or March, rather than January when I am full of inspiration. We are starting off with a good scheme, but we need to build on it and my hon. Friend’s point is extremely important.
Small businesses find dealing with legislative requirements a challenge and a concern. They need help to navigate them, and support in overcoming what are mainly perceived barriers—perceived barriers can still mean businesses taking a step back from giving employment opportunities to people who have disabilities. I understand from disability organisations that the scheme itself has received mixed reviews—I am referring to Disability Rights UK research. I believe it is possible to get to level 3 of the scheme without actually employing anyone who has a disability. We want to see much more of the additional practical support that employers need.
The disability employment gap has remained pretty static at 32 percentage points for many years, which shows that we are making some progress, but certainly not the progress we need to make. That reinforces the point that we need to do much more. The APPG, which hon. Members are welcome to join, recently compiled an inquiry report looking at the disability employment gap. The report estimated that, with the current policies, as of 2016-17, it would take 50 years to meet the Government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap. That is not where we want to be and is further evidence that much more needs to be done.
My hon. Friend has obviously read my speech. Yes, the manifesto pledge has changed. Given some of the responses from disability organisations, the Government were obviously struggling to halve the gap, which was their initial manifesto pledge, but we must harness the potential of people with disabilities for this economy. We cannot have a good economy while people are sidelined and not part of it. Across the United Kingdom, we must do all we can to rise to the challenge and ensure we get as many people with disabilities into employment as possible, recognise their skills and abilities, and give them opportunity, hope and support exactly where it is needed.
The APPG report, by Nick Bacon and Kim Hoque from the University of Warwick, made a number of important recommendations that I would like the Minister to consider in addition to the disability employment scheme. These are things that we believe would make a difference. It is important to look at apprenticeships, which have been mentioned. When people leave school, there is often nothing to go to. That is when people can start to feel hopeless and that they are not part of society. That can accumulate into not just disability, but mental health issues, depression and feeling very isolated. It is important to act at an early stage. Apprenticeships should be made available in realms of the economy where there is growth, such as science, technology, engineering and maths, and areas where there are employment gaps and we can harness people’s potential, where that is the role they want to fulfil.
Looking at support for disabled entrepreneurs, I often find that in these debates we automatically think of people with disabilities as employees. They should also be thought of as extremely skilled and as having the potential to run businesses and employ others. Overcoming some of the challenges that are currently in the way, such as discrimination in obtaining finance and capital to start businesses, which can be particularly difficult, would make a difference.
Research shows that peer-to-peer support for disabled entrepreneurship is helpful. It helps people to speak about what is working, what the challenges have been, how they have overcome those challenges and how to move forward, with support from someone who has been through the process, which is always good. Another recommendation was to look at leveraging public procurement, particularly for big contracts, and thinking about whether we could leverage some of those public sector contracts towards inclusive companies. It would make a fundamental, significant change to the numbers of people employed.
We in Parliament have to be role models. I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has signed up to the scheme. In parliamentary work, other things are also happening that I think are very positive. I have taken up quite a bit of time, but before I finish I will briefly mention the Speaker’s internship scheme, which has now been widened. I am very pleased, because we put forward a proposal just last year, before the snap election, to increase participation in the internship scheme, ring-fencing money for disabled interns. That will start in September. Parliament should be walking the walk as well as talking the talk, so that is a positive thing and I commend Mr Speaker for showing his support and taking it forward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on securing this very important debate.
This Government have a breath-taking record when it comes to getting people into employment—a record for which they get insufficient credit. It is easy to see joblessness simply as an economic challenge, but for the individual concerned, securing a job can have a major impact on their sense of self-worth and confidence, allowing them to lead a full, independent and rich life. I can only imagine the intense frustration many disabled people feel in knowing that they have ideas and energy to share in the workplace but facing practical barriers in securing work.
It is stating the obvious to suggest that people with disabilities have huge wells of talent to tap if we can collectively find a way of addressing some of those barriers. Other Members have referred to the disability employment gap, which has remained persistently high for decades. Were such a gap present in other parts of the working population, there would rightly be uproar. This problem is every bit as urgent as other workforce diversity challenges.
I commend the Government for the Disability Confident scheme, which marks an important step in helping to change perceptions among employers about taking someone on with a disability. I recently met representatives from Leonard Cheshire and learned about Change100, its graduate placement programme that secures talented disabled graduates paid placements at some of the UK’s best known companies. Leonard Cheshire highlighted to me some of the simple steps that help to build a disabled person’s confidence in making a job application, such as a prospective employer displaying Disability Confident accreditation, offering flexible hours and home working and having an awareness of the Access to Work scheme, which can fund building adaptations and specialist equipment. Leonard Cheshire recommends that the Government endorse an independent evaluator to monitor the success of employers in recruiting and retaining disabled staff, beginning with Disability Confident employers. Results could then be published to see how employers compare and to encourage improvement, increasing the speed of change.
What I most want to raise is the needs of people who are unemployed and have less visible disabilities, whether mental or developmental. In the six months that I have been the MP for Hornchurch and Upminster, I have had two cases brought to my attention by the parents of young men with autism who have been desperate to secure long-term, meaningful work suited to their specific skills. Both gentlemen are very skilled and anxious not to spend the rest of their lives isolated at home.
The first, Richard, has Asperger’s and has engaged with the jobcentre but considers that disability advisers do not adequately understand and consider his employment needs. He has been seeking paid work since 2005, and the jobcentre has frequently encouraged and assisted him by facilitating work placements and courses, rewriting his CV to reflect that additional experience. However, much of that has just been box-ticking, without meaningfully improving his job prospects. Richard has still not secured any suitable long-term paid opportunities and has twice been referred to employment support services, which subsequently told him they would not be suitable for someone of his needs, which knocks his confidence again and makes it even harder for him to make the next approach in the workplace.
Those sentiments are shared by Drew, a politics graduate with autism who has struggled to find employment since 2004. Drew similarly laments the lack of personalised support in various Access to Work schemes for those with disabilities, noting that those on the autistic spectrum need not only a chance but an integrated way of ensuring that that chance pays off for them. In Drew’s case, an employment opportunity was found, but it soon became unsuitable due to difficulties in getting transport at the required shift times. When the opportunity collapsed, Drew had to reapply for unemployment benefits, forcing an individual with organisational difficulties to navigate a complex system and knocking his delicate confidence levels.
Drew’s parents recently came to my surgery and described how he gets very costly support that is not properly designed. That money would be much better spent if the jobcentre or his support workers had a focused approach at the beginning of the journey into work, helping him to establish relationships with his employer and in future with his colleagues, and helping him with his journey. If that support is focused right at the beginning, it might pay off with a much more viable job opportunity, rather than just putting a person on course after course, without any real structure to the process.
I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether she has looked at the specific skills that some people with autism have—for instance, IT and tech skills, which both Drew and Richard display—and whether any approaches have been made to bodies such as the National Cyber Security Centre or techUK, where those kinds of talents are really needed in the workplace but have not yet been found in sufficient numbers. I would also appreciate her thoughts on refocusing support away from courses and work placements and on to the initial stages of employment opportunities, as I have described.
The hon. Lady is making a very thorough speech. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability, I have had a lot of positive feedback about the Access to Work programme. Does she agree that it is really important for that programme to be made more visible, so that there is greater awareness of it and the people who need it, just like the constituent she spoke of, are able to access it?
One of the important things about this debate is that we need to raise awareness across the board. MPs can help to do that by continuing to have debates, whether here or in the main Chamber—that is an important part of the process. A lot of employers simply do not know about these schemes and therefore do not have the confidence to access them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on his fantastic speech. I have known him for many years, and I am not surprised that he has a full grasp, and a very proactive and constructive way, of promoting this very important issue. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), who clearly demonstrates a desire to push this.
There will be contributions from Members right across the House because we all recognise the importance of the subject, and we all have a commitment, whichever political party we represent, to see more people with disabilities having an opportunity to work. During my time as the Minister for Disabled People, that was always brought home. Whenever I went on visits, my favourite thing to say was, “If you were the Minister, what would you do?” There were some great ideas that I would happily take forward and some suggestions that we could not, but universally, people—and particularly young people—wanted the opportunity to work. That opportunity is often taken for granted, but for some, there are challenges that prevent them from enjoying it. For some, it will be full-time work. For others, it might just be an hour. I spoke to the parents of young adults whose desperate hope was that their children would get one hour a week, which would make all the difference to their quality of life. We are all determined to make a difference, and this cuts across political divides.
I saw many good examples and did lots of tours. Big employers were pretty good. GlaxoSmithKline, National Grid and Marks & Spencer had big HR teams that were skilled at ensuring there were ways of navigating the challenges that those employees might face. However, 45% of jobs are within small and medium-sized enterprises, which are not big enough to have HR departments. They would often shy away from employing someone with a disability and did not realise that there was a huge amount of talent out there.
I know that there is, because before I became an MP I ran my own business and employed people with disabilities. I did not do that because I was ticking a box or seeking a halo. I did it because it made good business sense. We as businesses were competing for the very best people, and often by making very small changes we can tap some fantastic talent and benefit. Before I did my Disability Confident event, one of my friends who runs a business said to me, “Do you know what, Justin? I’ll do you a favour. I’ll come along,” and I told him off. I said, “It’s nothing to do with favours. This has to work for you. There are reasons why it hasn’t worked for you in the past, and this is why we need to do a Disability Confident event.” Through the Disability Confident campaign, we can give employers the confidence to employ people with disabilities. I pay tribute to the DWP Disability Confident team, who were fantastic in providing manpower and very patient when I decided to do things completely differently.
I did a reverse jobs fair. Rather than a typical jobs fair, where people seeking a job turn up and hand out their CVs to employers, we gave stalls to 25 local organisations in my constituency in Swindon who help disabled people get into work. We had Pluss and the Shaw Trust, and lots of local organisations. I then wrote to all the employers that I could find addresses for and said, “You probably have recruitment problems, because we are close to structural full employment. I want you to come along and tell all these organisations where your skills gaps are, and they might be able to match someone to you.” There were 25 organisations, and 80 employers turned up—that was 180 people.
On the day, at STEAM Museum, we had 30 employer pledges. McDonald’s alone took three young adults with a disability to start immediate employment at a newly refurbished restaurant. There were two internships. Three organisations—Swindon Borough Council, Network Rail and the Research Councils, all major employers in my constituency—signed up to the Disability Confident campaign. Swindon College launched an internship programme for those with a disability. The local enterprise partnership wrote to all the businesses to provide the information; we had three donations from businesses to some of the charities there to support their work further; and 17 businesses agreed to meet different organisations after the event to specifically talk about how they could provide people to match the skills.
A lot of the businesses were worried. Would they be able to provide a safe environment for somebody with a disability? The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has just left, made the point about the cost. That is why things such as Access to Work can help—it had a stand. Organisations understood that they could go to the employer’s business and say over a cup of tea, “This is what you will need to do to make a change. We will help to do that. We will not just drop somebody off on day one and then hope it all goes well. We will work with you because, when this is a success, which it will be because these people have great skills, you will keep coming back to us.”
Crucially, we all want more disabled people to have an opportunity. Everybody gains because the employers have skills gaps. People are determined to contribute and want to work. They are enthusiastic and talented. Through the Disability Confident campaign, we have an opportunity to share best practice and promote it. I fully support what the Government are doing. The issue has total cross-party support and I pay tribute to every individual MP who has taken the time to do a Disability Confident event. They are making a difference. I have spoken to the young adults and they are very grateful.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who has given such a passionate account of his own personal experience. I have taken a lot from that and have been inspired to consider doing something similar in my constituency in Redditch. We have heard excellent contributions from all parties. The debate is very important and I am pleased we are having it today.
My personal experience as an employer before I entered the House taught me how valuable it is to build diverse teams, not for any altruistic reason but because it makes such a difference to the performance of the business. Like the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), I have a background in psychology and I studied workplace psychology. Diverse teams—diversity of ability as well as all the other things that we think about—have been shown time and again to perform better. They make better decisions and achieve better results, so it makes an enormous amount of sense for us all to promote the Disability Confident scheme for employers.
I agree that work is not just an economic proposition. It is about achieving human potential. It is about individuals and whatever ability they have been born with being able to achieve their potential, contribute and make a difference in their lives. It is so inspiring to hear some of the stories that we have heard today.
I am a relatively new Member. I am pleased that 23 employers in Redditch have signed up to the Disability Confident scheme. I want that number to grow and I shall take practical tips from Members to try to push that number up. I have already visited six of those employers, so I have seen what a difference the scheme makes and how transformational it is for individuals’ lives when they contribute and have a purpose. It is not just about a manufactured scheme. It is about a real contribution on the same basis as any other employee. They are valued for the contribution that they make to the business or organisation. That is what is important. People who are disabled, like people who are not disabled, deserve to be valued for what they put into the workplace and into the organisation. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), I have signed up to the scheme.
I was interested to watch the programme on TV, “Employable Me”, a few months ago, which I thought was a fantastic example of what a difference employment makes. It was inspiring and heart-warming to hear from people who had faced challenges to get into the workplace. Very often simple and practical changes can be made in a workplace. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has left, that sometimes employers can be put off. I recognise that. Working in a small business and starting up a small business without a dedicated HR function can mean that there is a fear—people visualise a lot of different equipment or modifications being needed, when sometimes that is not the case. It is very much about educating colleagues in the workplace to understand and appreciate how they can make small changes to enable people to fulfil their potential. I have personal experience of working with disabled individuals in many different walks of life. It has always been overwhelmingly positive and has made such a difference when one takes the time to understand what the challenges can be.
I welcome and commend the Government’s ambitious scheme. Like colleagues, I have a couple of suggestions for the Minister. The Shaw Trust has just won the contract in Redditch to deliver the programme there. I recommend the Minister looks at the recommendation that the trust has put forward. There is a one-stop shop, a portal, for employers to go to, where they can receive all the information and resources that are there for them to improve Access to Work. A former Minister for Disabled People referred to the Access to Work programme as one of the Government’s best-kept secrets. We should not let that be a secret. It should be a primetime headline, because it is excellent news.
The Minister might like to consider whether we should publish more figures. Should we require large companies to publish figures of their success on employing disabled people? We have seen what is happening in the gender pay gap, where there is definitely a lot more to do, but we are starting to achieve positive change. Perhaps we could do that with disability as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on securing this debate. Before I go any further, I wish to declare an interest. My wife is disabled and I think I should put that on the record. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that the incidence of multiple sclerosis—MS—becomes more prevalent the further north we travel within the UK. My remote constituency therefore has one of the highest levels and so the issue is of enormous interest.
I have listened to the debate thus far with the greatest of interest. The experiences of the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) are instructive. The issue is about getting the disabled back to work. It is about giving the disabled dignity, quality of life and self-esteem. Whatever side right hon. and hon. Members were on in the Brexit debate, the fact is that as the UK goes into new waters we will have to maximise and utilise our workforce like never before. We will have to use every bit of brainpower and every bit of skill we have, and that links into this debate.
The tone of the debate is right because it is not about the disabled, but about employers. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, there is an issue with getting small employers to take up the use of the disabled. The scheme is a laudable UK-wide initiative, but there is a Scottish dimension. I do not want to denigrate the Scottish Government, but co-ordinating with the Scottish Government, which I am sure happens at the moment, can only be a good thing. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of possibilities. Is the enterprise network in Scotland fully engaged? Perhaps it is, but there is a useful way forward there.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) hinted at the idea of big business mentoring small businesses. That sort of expertise and knowledge can be passed on. The Government may have to enable that via enterprise agencies or whatever, but it would be useful. We need to publicise the benefits of the scheme. We need stuff in the media and on the television about how good it is. Mention was made about whether firms will stay engaged and move up the levels, and that is one way of ensuring that that happens.
What is great about today’s debate is the fact that no one can take anything away from the fundamental decency of the scheme. All parties recognise that; it is a good scheme and is well intentioned. It helps those who most need help, and I appreciate that. That is why we are singing from the same hymn sheet today, and why it is a pleasure to take part in the debate. Progressing the scheme can only be good for everyone in the UK, particularly in the slightly uncertain times ahead, as I have said. We have to maximise our potential.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on securing the debate. It is important that it should take place now, following the publication of “Improving Lives” on 30 November. The Christmas period gave us an opportunity to read it and to consider its findings and recommendations.
The disability employment gap has been with us a long time. It is a bit like the “Mind the gap” announcement on the underground, where in some stations the same message has been broadcast for more than 40 years. We need to change the record. A good start has been made, and 530,000 more disabled people are in work than four years ago, but the gap has been stuck at around 30% for over a decade. The challenge that we now face is to remove the barriers that prevent disabled people from getting into work, realising their full potential and having the fulfilling lives that are so important to them and their families.
The barriers, which have been well discussed today, include inaccessible recruitment processes, securing reasonable adjustments in the workplace and overcoming employer uncertainty about taking on disabled people, first for work experience and then for full-time employment. I welcome the Government’s plans to test out ways of improving people’s experiences of the work capability assessment and then to deliver long-term reforms. I am grateful to the Minister for a personal assurance that she will do that.
I sense that for Disability Confident to be a success, the Government should provide a national framework, within which local people and organisations would be the champions, and understand the needs, of their local communities, and could set about delivering the scheme on the ground. The measures and support that the previous Secretary of State announced on 30 November help to provide that framework. There is a need for regular reporting and evaluation of how the campaign is going. “Improving Lives” must be a living document, not something that gathers dust on the shelf. If it is, a good databank of good practice will be built up, and can then be cascaded down to local communities. With Government in the background providing the framework and support and acting as a critical friend, delivery must ultimately be down to local people.
A possible criticism of “Improving Lives” is that it does not provide guidance on how local initiatives can be nurtured and go on to flourish. The feedback from the roundtable discussion that took place in Lowestoft as part of the consultation, and from the Disability Confident event that was put on by Jobcentre Plus, Mencap, local charities and employers in October 2016 at Lowestoft Sixth Form College, is that it is local people who want, and are best placed, to drive forward the campaign. That is an approach that we will build on locally at a chamber of commerce event in March.
The Government have made a good start in promoting Disability Confident, but more work is required to put flesh on the bones. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire will put in for a debate on this matter each year, so that annually there will be report-back sittings at which the Minister can make a statement and Back-Bench MPs can provide feedback from the communities that we represent. It is important that Disability Confident should succeed. If it does, Britain will be a much better place. Not only will disabled people and their families acquire a real sense of fulfilment and wellbeing, but so will their work colleagues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my colleague, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), on securing this important debate. [Interruption.] It is an Ayrshire pronunciation.
Since the inception of the Disability Confident scheme in 2013, as has been said, some 600,000 more disabled people have secured employment. While that is welcome, we must strive to improve that figure. The scheme aims to change attitudes, behaviours and cultures to ensure that the skills and talents that many disabled persons possess are not overlooked, but utilised to benefit businesses, communities and, most importantly, the individuals concerned. It is to be hoped—and I am sure that it will happen—that more employers will attract, recruit and retain disabled workers. The process includes promotion of the Access to Work scheme, which was mentioned earlier and is emerging as important in securing changes to workplaces, to allow disabled people to be employed. That has inspired more than 5,000 employers to sign up to the scheme.
Within my wider constituency area there are examples of committed employers who have signed up to and are actively participating in the Disability Confident scheme. They include South Ayrshire Council, Tartans & Tweeds in Girvan, and Ayrshire Hospice. Many others have also signed up, and I welcome their participation. I encourage businesses to consider signing up to become Disability Confident employers. Online Government guidance and resources are readily available to assist businesses large and small that want to join the scheme.
I applaud local DWP staff who are hosting employer events. Two seminars are being planned to encourage employers to become members of the scheme. MPs can all be ambassadors in our constituencies to promote this wonderful scheme. I employ someone in my own office who is regarded as disabled under the Equality Act 2010, for whom I am required actively to consider whether any reasonable adjustments are required, and that individual is an effective and valued member of my team. It is important that disabled persons have equality of opportunity and that we ensure that their skills and talents will not be overlooked.
We have come a long way since the scheme was introduced in 2013. The “Improving Lives: Work, health and disability” Green Paper of 30 November, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members, creates further opportunities for more disabled people to take up employment, with an ambitious target to secure employment for 1 million more individuals over the next 10 years. The Green Paper also explores opportunities for apprenticeships and for self-employment, as was mentioned. A disabled person need not necessarily be an employee, but could become an employer. Such opportunities are supported by 300 disability employment advisors and about 100 small employer advisers.
The Government can be proud of their endeavours and, to a degree, their success in creating an environment to enable disabled individuals to secure and retain employment, and develop their full potential.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on obtaining the debate and on his persuasive email to colleagues encouraging us to join up, which I did. It was very easy, and I know that he will be checking how progressive we are in my office. The scheme is much needed, not least because of the statistics that we have heard, showing that about 50% of disabled people are employed, compared with 80% of non-disabled people. It will of course improve the recruitment and retention of a more diverse and talented workforce. I am pleased that I have signed up.
In my time as an MP I have the pleasure of visiting a number of businesses, many of which have signed up for the scheme already. One that stood out was Carillion, a supplier to the nuclear industry, which is working with National Autistic Society, recognising a skills gap and the fact that there could be opportunities from adapting its recruitment and retention procedures. That brought home to me the benefits to us all of improving those procedures.
Having visited businesses in my community, and organisations such as the Egremont Youth Partnership, which works with young people with disabilities, and Mayfield special school—I have also met self-sustaining groups that support parents of people with autism, such as Autism Around the Combe—I know that there is something lacking in provision during the passage from being a young person to an adult. I should like the Minister to work with other Departments, and particularly with the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to ensure that ways are sought to improve disabled people’s access during the passage between being a young person and adult. That applies particularly to apprenticeships.
I am looking forward to the National College for Nuclear opening on 9 February. That will provide even more opportunities for my constituents and many others to work in the nuclear industry. However, when I asked what provisions it has put in place for the recruitment of disabled people, there was a gap in knowledge—I certainly noted an area for improvement.
Today’s debate has been positive, and Members’ contributions have been quite something. As always, the most inspirational point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who spoke of the role that we as MPs can play in inspiring our constituents through skills fairs and so on. I thank him once again for that suggestion, which I will work on.
I am grateful to be called to speak, Mr Rosindell, not least because I was unable to attend the beginning of the debate because of other commitments.
I want to say how much I support the Disability Confident scheme. It has been running since 2013 and now has 5,000 participants. In March, I will attend a breakfast in my constituency, organised by the DWP and by Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, to speak to business people about the importance of the scheme. The three-level system is a good way of running the scheme, and to go from Disability Confident committed to Disability Confident employer, and then to Disability Confident leader, is an excellent idea.
It is also a good idea to link with other Departments, and there are other opportunities to use the scheme as a building block. As this Conservative Government are refreshed with dynamic new Ministers, we have a huge opportunity to take things forward. There is a long history of helping disabled people, particularly in Conservative Administrations—we had a Motability scheme running in the ’92 Parliament in my constituency —so the Minister has a great heritage to build on.
I shall do my best to summarise what we have heard this afternoon, and many confident and concerted voices from different political parties have described where we have been getting things wrong, and where we get them right. I thank you, Mr Rosindell, for the opportunity to speak, and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for securing this debate.
The hon. Gentleman identified progress that has been made since the 1970s. Attitudes have changed dramatically. He said that the Government must provide opportunities to get people back into work. He highlighted that 80% of adults without a disability are in work, but that only 49% of those with a disability who are able to work are in work. That figure drops dramatically to 36% in Northern Ireland and 42% in Scotland. He also talked about encouraging employers to sign up to the Disability Confident scheme. We would all echo that sentiment.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) reiterated the need to have debates such as this in the main Chamber. Like her, I have hosted disability conferences and events in my constituency, and I urge all Members to follow suit. She highlighted the fact that to close the current employment gap would take 50 years at its current rate, which is simply not acceptable. She also raised the importance of apprenticeships and helping people with disabilities to start their own businesses, and mentioned the facility for disabled internships here in Westminster.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) zeroed in on the practicalities of employing people with disabilities, including autism, and said that the lack of personalisation in the process only compounds the difficulties and knocks the applicant’s confidence. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) identified some big employers as being engaged, but believes that most small and medium-sized enterprises are not as capable, or perhaps less well informed, when it comes to taking up such opportunities. He highlighted how to run a reverse jobs fair—an event I have also organised in my constituency. Such events are precious because they allow employers and employees to network with each other over the course of one working day, which can prove invaluable.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) spoke about the benefit to the workplace of a diverse team and the value that that can bring. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) emphasised that this issue is perhaps more about employers than employees, and the benefits and fundamental decency of the Disability Confident scheme. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke about removing barriers, including employer uncertainty. That links back to my earlier point about networking events and introducing employers that have successfully employed people with a disability with those that are hesitant and need help to bridge the gap. That confidence gap can be bridged by such events.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) spoke about how changing attitudes and cultures is crucial. The importance of the Access to Work scheme was re-emphasised, and that should be echoed by us all. The hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) said that she has visited a number of local employers that have signed up to the scheme and are already reaping its benefits. She asked the Minister to work across Departments to improve all aspects of the recruitment and retention process.
Only about 49% of working-age disabled adults are in employment compared with 80% of those with no disability. Although many disabled adults make important contributions to the economy, others face barriers to employment. Breaking down those barriers and creating inclusive workplaces is good not only for individuals who are able to get into work, but for the whole country. Disabled people have the same ambitions, aspirations and work ethic as others, but they are under represented across a broad range of industries. We should maximise the skills and talent of everyone who can contribute to our economy.
Employers should be aware that support is available to them to help to remove the barriers that prevent disabled people from utilising their talents. I strongly encourage all employers to seek out such support. Hiring disabled people is not just a moral issue; it makes good business sense. Research highlighted by a previous Minister for Disabled People, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), showed that 92% of consumers think more favourably of businesses that hire people with disabilities, and that 87% of people would prefer to give their custom to companies that recruit disabled people.
In the past, we have seen how misconceptions have prevented disabled people from taking up employment opportunities. We must challenge those misconceptions. The Scottish Government have a number of programmes to help disabled people as they seek employment, including the targeted employment recruitment incentive, which is helping young people who are disabled or who have additional support needs. The Disability Confident campaign will complement that work, but we should be clear that, although much has already been done, there is still much more to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on securing this important debate. He made some valuable points, particularly about engaging and encouraging employers to recruit more disabled people, and about the importance of reducing the disability employment gap. I share his pleasure in the fact that so many Departments are signed up at business leader level for the Disability Confident scheme, and I hope the Minister will ensure that all Departments do that. I am currently completing an application for my office to become a Disability Confident employer. The hon. Gentleman also recognised the importance of work and the positive impact that that can have on one’s health and wellbeing.
Good contributions were made by several hon. Members, and we all recognise the importance of the scheme. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke passionately about the scheme that ran in his constituency. He was once Minister for Disabled People, so he is very knowledgeable about the scheme, including some of its shortcomings.
All hon. Members will be in favour of improving employment opportunities for those with disabilities and long-term conditions, but figures for the disability employment gap show that there remains a clear and continuing problem regarding access to sustainable and supportive employment. For far too long, many disabled people have not been in work. That is unacceptable, especially when we compare the numbers of those in work who are not disabled with those who are. Currently, 49.2% of disabled people are in work.
The Disability Confident scheme was designed to address the clear failures of our employment support system. However, we have so far seen very little evidence of its success at tackling the problem. That is demonstrated by the employment gap. In fact, what we have seen from the Government is a shift in direction. At the 2015 general election, the Conservatives promised to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. They have since dropped that commitment and are now looking at a slightly lesser target. It is slightly less ambitious—they now seem to say that they will not halve the disability employment gap by 2027.
That is also true of the Disability Confident scheme. The Government were supposed to
“assess specific, measurable, action taken by employers”
as a result of the scheme. That has shifted. The Government now claim that they are
“not able to measure the number of disabled people moving into employment as a direct result of it”.
How are we supposed to assess whether the Disability Confident scheme is actually improving people’s access to employment? There is a clear need for a meaningful method of evaluating the scheme and its effects in terms of getting disabled people into work.
Many disability organisations have sent us briefings, and Disability Rights UK has highlighted the concerns. When the Department for Work and Pensions launched the scheme, it did not refer to how it would look at job outcomes. What is more important is evidence—we do not see the attitudes of employers and their understanding of disability employment. For one thing, many of the employers that have signed up to the scheme are large employers that transferred from the old legacy scheme—the two ticks system. Obviously, what we need to do, looking at the numbers going forward, is see how we can continue to encourage other employers. As has been made clear, the scheme has about 5,000 members, which is great, but we have to consider that in context: there are more than 4 million small and medium-sized enterprises in this country. I would be keen to hear the Minister say a bit more today about what we are doing to encourage more businesses to become part of the scheme.
This matters because the attitudes of many employers remain the central barrier to recruiting disabled people. The charity Leonard Cheshire Disability found that 60% of line managers surveyed stated that concerns about the costs of workplace adjustments prevented them from employing a disabled person, so it is clear that employer attitudes are not shifting. Work needs to be done on improving the attitudes of employers. If we look at the details, we see that often there is a lack of knowledge about reasonable adjustments, which is obviously another barrier.
Not many employers are familiar with the Access to Work scheme. We all know that that is probably one of the most popular schemes. It is effective in its results in supporting people in work, and it supports people to stay in work. However, I always say, as I heard another hon. Member say, that it is one of the best kept secrets, because so many people are not aware of it and what it can do. How can the Disability Confident scheme grow and expand if employers are not aware of the Access to Work scheme and the important role that it plays in supporting disabled people into work? I have been a beneficiary of the scheme throughout my career.
I am conscious of the time, but will say a bit about awareness raising. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the Government spent about £13,500 on promoting the Access to Work scheme. I think we would all agree that a little more needs to be done on improving and raising awareness of the scheme. It would be very welcome if the Minister outlined what plans we have to raise awareness and for ensuring that Access to Work will be adequately funded. Obviously, we all want demand for the scheme to increase, because we all want more disabled people to get into work. I therefore want to hear more about ensuring that the scheme is adequately funded.
Disability Confident is a voluntary scheme. There is a question about how we can further encourage and incentivise employers to become part of it. The scheme is good in part and well intentioned. As I have said, it is sometimes difficult to measure the good impact. Not evaluating the impact is how we end up with a scheme under which, as has been pointed out, it is possible to achieve level 3 accreditation without actually employing a single disabled person. More needs to be done to ensure evaluation. I therefore ask the Minister again whether she agrees that the Disability Confident scheme should measure the number of disabled people moving into work. To build on the current scheme, there should be some sort of independent evaluator to monitor and evaluate progress under the scheme and how well employers are doing in recruiting disabled people and retaining them in work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I add my warm congratulations on securing the debate to all those expressed by other hon. Members towards my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham). This is one of those rare occasions in Parliament when we have much agreement. My hon. Friend did a splendid job of outlining the Government’s achievements and had obviously done a huge amount of homework to understand and describe all the data, so I am not even going to bother. He can consider himself as knowledgeable as the Minister on all the statistics and data.
I do not have much time and will not be able to respond to everyone’s suggestions in as much detail as I would like, so I will write to everyone who took part in the debate to respond in more detail. However, as there have been really good suggestions and some concerns raised, I will, in the few minutes available to me, talk about those.
First, on the scale of our ambition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister could not have made it clearer that she believes in a country that must work for everyone, not just the privileged few. For our nation to be successful, we need to build on all the talents of all our citizens, which includes people with disabilities and health conditions. We are very ambitious to ensure that people who are disabled or have health conditions can play their full part in society, which of course includes employment, to the extent that they can, so we are determined to do everything that we can to build on the progress that we have seen. We have heard today about the hundreds of thousands of people now in employment who were not previously. Just in the past few years, we have made a significant improvement, but we are ambitious to do more. We have set ourselves a target of 1 million, which is a really good starting point, but like my hon. Friend, I believe that targets are there to be busted—to be exceeded. We will all be celebrating when we get past that point.
“Improving Lives: the future of work, health and disability” sets out a very comprehensive strategy for delivering on our ambitions. We have firm plans, which are detailed in that document. We are taking action across three settings: in welfare, with the work that the DWP does; in the workplace, in partnership with employers; and, very importantly, in the health system. For the first time, we have a joint unit between the DWP and the Department of Health and Social Care. Colleagues have rightly made much today of the importance of different parts of Government working together. That joint unit is a step in the right direction. In addition, I will be chairing a meeting of Ministers across Government to ensure that we are doing everything we can in each Department. We have heard about the work that we need to do with the Department of Health and Social Care and with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I see the industrial strategy, clearly setting out that we want to see growth right across our country, as a key part of enabling me to deliver on my targets. We will be setting out very clearly how we can work with employers to create healthy, inclusive workplaces where people can thrive. Part of the problem is not just getting people into work—most people will acquire their disability during their life—but enabling adaptations to be made in the workplace, so that people can stay in work. That is probably more important with mental health than anything else. “Improving Lives” was our response to the Stevenson-Farmer review, where we adopted all of the recommendations that were made. We are encouraging employers to look carefully at what more they can do to support people with mental health issues.
The key part of our plan is to improve access to occupational health. For too long, occupational health services have been the Cinderella services of the NHS. Our joint unit with the Department of Health and Social Care will bring real focus to that. The plans that we have set out will require a lot of innovation. We are building a very robust evidence-making framework, so that we are sure we are capturing information about what works.
Some questions were raised around the House about the possible negative impacts of devolution. I want to reassure hon. Members that this is a UK-wide ambition and a UK-wide scheme. We work very constructively in Scotland. I want to give some examples. We have recruited 24 community partners with lived experience of disability to work in our job centres. We have appointed 12 new small employer advisers. We have implemented more than 11 peer support job clubs. That is just in the first few months. I hope that is reassuring that our ambition is for this to be a UK-wide scheme.
Of course, this is about establishing strong partnerships with employers and listening to their concerns. We have heard about some of those concerns today. I want to point out that we now have 5,357 companies signed up to Disability Confident. The vast majority—67%—are SMEs, with 46% being microbusinesses where people employ just one or two employees. We are getting to those small employers, but we accept that there is more work to be done. Those barriers, which have been articulated so well today, exist in a lot of employers’ minds. What are we doing about that? We are very actively promoting Access to Work. We are doing that through working with networks of organisations, such as the chambers of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the local enterprise partnerships—businesses themselves.
It has always occurred to me that Access to Work is a great tool when someone has their job, but a bit like a journey, they need petrol to put in the car to get to the journey. There should be access to work experience and job interviews. What does the Minister think about expanding the scheme to cover those as well?
I appreciate that intervention because I can clarify that that already exists. Access to Work can be used in all of those circumstances. Perhaps in the past not all of the job coaches in all of the jobcentres knew about that. We have made a massive investment in training our job coaches so that they are fully aware of all of these opportunities, and we have trained additional specialist disability advisors in the jobcentres, as well as our community partners, with their lived experience.
The amount of training and information from the job coaches goes to the heart of some of the points that were extremely well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), who spoke about her constituent Drew. His journey is one that I am sure we all recognise from our constituency casework with young people and their parents. The parents are really worried about what happens to their child, particularly if they have learning difficulties—autism was the case quoted with Drew. When they leave education, they want to work, they have a passion to work, but they can find it very challenging to navigate the system. That should not be the case now. His job coach in the jobcentre will have access to all these different support services. Our innovation and our vision is about putting the person at the centre of their journey to work and fitting the support and the services around them. Access to Work is the key part of that, but other things are available as well, such as tailor-made support packages depending on the level of support that people need.
I want to reassure everyone that Access to Work is a demand-led funding pot. As the demand grows, so does the funding. Year after year we put more money into that pot. The amount of money one can have every year goes well over £40,000, so it is a considerable amount of money to enable people into work and to stay in work. Under the Equalities Act 2010 employers have responsibilities to make reasonable adjustments. A key part of the role of the Access to Work team in the Department is to have those conversations. It is a three-way conversation between the person seeking work or wanting to stay in work, the employer and ensuring those services are funded through Access to Work. We have people from the DWP present today, from Disability Confident and Access to Work. I am sure they will be really pleased to hear hon. Members compliment their work. Certainly in my time as a Minister I have seen what an extraordinarily dedicated team of people we have, not only on the frontline in our jobcentres, but in the Department. I hope they have received those comments and will take them back to their colleagues.
What more can we do for SMEs? In our plans we recognise the valuable contributions that have been made by, for example, the Shaw Trust, which has advocated for a portal. We are now actively looking at designing a portal so that employers have a one-stop shop to see all of the benefits and supports that are available. That will be live this year. We are also looking at what more we can do for incentives. This has come up a bit today. There were suggestions about using some of the lessons from apprenticeships. Again, we have committed to look at what incentives would work for employers. I am very engaged with large, small and medium-sized businesses. I am fortunate to have a great leadership group of people from businesses of all sizes and all different sectors working with me, to really help get this right for employers. For example, we have committed to looking at whether a national insurance holiday would be an incentive to help businesses employ more people with disabilities.
A couple of other questions were raised about the quality assurance of the programme. Just to reassure hon. Members, if an organisation reaches level 3, it has to be independently audited. Somebody goes into those organisations to make sure they are actually delivering on what they say they are doing. It gives me great pride to say that every Government Department has now reached level 3. Just before Christmas I attended quite a scary meeting of all the permanent secretaries—these are truly the people that run our country—to give them their level 3 certificates. I have set them a very clear challenge for this year: to use their leverage with supply chains—Government are a huge purchaser of services—and to have a discussion when they are commissioning or purchasing services about whether they are working with Disability Confident employers. All of those permanent secretaries work with a lot of arm’s length bodies. They have committed to me to work with those organisations. People expect us to lead from the front in Government and they expect public services to be a leading example. I am working to ensure we will do that.
It remains for me to touch on one final issue, going back to young people, which various hon. Members raised: why do we not do more about supported work experience and apprenticeships? I can reassure hon. Members that the Government have put a lot of money— a lot more than in the past—into enabling more apprenticeships for disabled people, to ensure they are properly supported, and have put a considerable amount of extra money into supported internships. I recently visited companies that were taking on many more young people as a result.
I want to praise everybody who has taken up this opportunity, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), whose work is inspirational. We have set up a meeting, which all hon. Members have been invited to, to learn how to become Disability Confident and how to set up the inspirational sort of meeting that we have heard about today. I thank everyone for what they have done and ask that they please come to this meeting, so that they can all be part of the change that we all want to see.
I have 20 seconds, and I just want to thank all hon. Members for contributing so much. To pick up the point my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) articulated so clearly, this scheme is not a favour, it is not charity, it is about realising true talent. Disabled individuals have been the President of the United States, and have unlocked the secret of the universe in the case of Stephen Hawking—and that was before the scheme! I look forward to seeing what they can achieve after the scheme has been in place for a few more years.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).