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Unemployment and Autism

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I thank the National Autistic Society and the local group Autism Take 5 for their help in preparing for this debate.

Of those who have been fortunate enough to have received a diagnosis, there are 540,000 people with autism spectrum conditions. Some 433,000 are aged 18-plus, and 107,000 children are currently diagnosed with ASCs UK-wide. Research by the Centre for the Economics of Mental Health sheds light on the impact on the UK economy through lost productivity. This Government emphasise the need for people to move into paid employment and for higher rates of economic activity, but the autistic population is standing out as they are experiencing social and employment exclusion more than any other group. The cost of this is £27.5 billion spent annually supporting people with ASCs, and a 36% loss in employment in that group.

The World Health Organisation reports a substantial increase in people being diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions. Therefore, we must consider the large number of teenagers now approaching working age. This is significant because people with ASCs experience symptoms that are considered barriers to employment.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this subject to the House for consideration. Every one of us in this House and those outside are concerned about it. Does the hon. Lady agree that support and understanding are the key to employment of people with autism, and that the option of free training—something different, and something proactive and positive for people with autism and their employers—should be available to private employers who wish to learn how to get the best from their staff, and ensure that their working environment is safe and secure for all workers?

I feel privileged that the hon. Gentleman has intervened in my Adjournment debate, and I could not agree with him more. I will come to his point later in my speech.

Following a survey commissioned by the National Autistic Society, the London School of Economics advises that only 16% of adults with ASCs are in full-time employment, despite 77% of them wanting to work. These figures have remained static since 2007 and are considerably lower than the employment figure for people belonging to other disability categories, which currently sits at 47%. Therefore, those with autism spectrum conditions are disproportionally unemployed.

We know that employment contributes to our identity and quality of life. Equally, we are only too aware that unemployment has significant individual and societal costs. As a result of these barriers, most people with ASCs who are fortunate enough to gain employment will experience mal-employment, and will most likely be placed in jobs that are a poor job fit for their skillset. This is commonly because the job does not align with individual interests, talents, specific skills or intelligence levels. It is common sense that the better the job fit, the more likely people are to succeed. By not addressing this, individuals with ASCs will experience high levels of job turnover, resulting in disjointed employment histories that limit their potential for continuous employment; we know that when applying for jobs, our work history can either facilitate or block our access to being invited for an interview.

Every adult—with or without a disability—has the right to enjoy employment, and should be able to choose their career without restriction, to work in positive conditions and to be protected against unemployment.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major concerns for many people relates to workplace assessments and their effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, whether for those with autism or other disabilities? Does she agree that the Department really should consider how it measures the effectiveness of workplace assessments—say, for those with autism—in enabling them to stay in a job for a longer period?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He raises a very important point.

It is recognised that jobcentre staff will encourage an individual to apply for and accept any vacancy. For someone with a fragmented employment history, this quickly becomes accepted as the only route to employment.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that we should ask the Government to follow the advice and example of the Scottish Government in creating an autism implementation team to improve outcomes, including in accessing work, for people with autism so that they are supported as they make their way in the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I do agree. In fact, there are many occasions when this Government could follow the excellent example of the Scottish Government, but in this case it could prove especially fruitful.

Not all jobs are suitable for individuals with autism spectrum conditions, as a result of their own individual barriers. These are common symptoms of ASCs. It is accepted that ASCs will result in individuals experiencing strong resistance to change and poor social communication and interpersonal skills. They will struggle in acclimatising to new routines and procedures. However, this should not prevent them from accessing employment: it means that we need to change our approach within the workplace.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the way in which she is presenting her case. As well as the barriers of access to employment that she is speaking about, there are barriers of access for people with autism going about their daily lives in general. Does she agree that Hope for Autism, which is based in Airdrie but serves the entirety of North Lanarkshire, is an example of a specialist local organisation doing fantastic work to help young people with autism, and their families, not just in accessing work but in being able to cope with the barriers that they face?

I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, he is absolutely right. There are so many organisations UK-wide that support and help people with autism, but we need to really concentrate on getting people on the spectrum into employment.

We need workplaces to become accessible for those with ASCs. I would argue that we need a more holistic approach and acceptance of an individual’s personal preferences and abilities. We must recognise the barriers that some will face when attempting to gain employment. In the first instance, job application forms can be too complex and without clear instructions. Most individuals with autistic spectrum conditions will struggle with deciding whether they should declare that they have an ASC. Again, this is a result of the neurotypical stereotyping that continues to exist today. In other words, people with ASCs are perceived as being very different, and there is no real understanding of the challenges and range of autistic spectrum conditions that exist.

When someone with an ASC is fortunate enough to be invited for an interview, a variety of factors may impact negatively on their performance, as it might be called, in relation to a neurotypical candidate. It is important to recognise that they will be sensitive to sensory stimuli—bright lighting and so on—that will result in increasing their anxiety before they have even begun the interview. We use the neurotypical as a normative benchmark for interview success, but this needs to change. Interviews measure candidates demonstrating their social skills and having the confidence to maintain a flowing conversation. An interviewer will expect the interviewee to respond to questions quickly.

However, the language used in questions can be misunderstood. Not everyone interviewing applicants is experienced or trained in interviewing techniques and can all too often ask one question that contains other questions, causing confusion for an individual with an ASC. One common question in interviews is, “Tell me about yourself.” Someone with an ASC will have difficulty in determining what exactly the interviewer wishes to know: it is too open-ended a question. Questions need to be concise and designed to avoid misinterpretation. They will struggle to read between the lines or understand the tone of voice. Many interviews use questions that require hypothetical scenarios and hypothetical answers. People with ASCs are factual thinkers and will find that line of questioning challenging. We also know that someone with an ASC will have problems understanding facial expressions and recognising social cues. It is widely accepted that people with ASCs experience difficulty in adapting to new routines and procedures. They will also struggle with adopting a flexible approach in unexpected situations, so not all jobs will be appropriate environments for them. I have not given an exhaustive list.

The Government argue that disability support is in place, such as the local supported employment and intensive personalised employment support programmes, but those are generic disability employment programmes, not designed for autism spectrum conditions. We need specialised support that will prove more successful in assisting people with ASCs into employment and maintaining employment. That role should be taken up by Jobcentre Plus. With proper training, jobcentres would be able to support employers who take on those with ASCs.

Being employed offers structure and routine, which enhance an individual’s life. If employers need to change their approach to hiring staff and allow a time period for those with ASCs to settle into their roles and environment, that should be done. However, there is very little or no evidence to prove that the Government are taking steps to regulate the situation, in spite of their past commitment to do so.

What is not being recognised are the attributes that people with ASCs have and can bring to the workforce. About half of those in this population will have higher education, with some educated to PhD level, yet they remain under-represented in senior organisational roles. So many people with ASCs are extremely skilled in maths, physics, computing sciences and engineering, yet they remain discriminated against, with their talents and intelligence being cast aside—all because the Government will not put into practice the recommendations provided by various autism charities.

The Government are refusing to take the bull by the horns and activate their own strategy and the Equalities Act 2010 to its fullest extent; they would rather tiptoe around autism and claim that they recognise that changes need to be made. Where is the headway on this? People with ASCs are still being excluded and discriminated against. Given their abilities, they have exceptional characteristics as employees, such as honesty, efficiency, precision, consistency, low absenteeism, disinterest in office politics and attention to detail. However, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, the lack of appropriate training and support for employers means that they generally do not see these characteristics—only autism. More often than not, that means that people in the group are forced into entry-level jobs that will not last long, due to their intelligence levels.

We cannot continue to repeat this vicious cycle with the new generation of workforce. When someone is excluded from the workforce despite their credentials, despite their abilities, despite their intelligence, what are the implications of their being unemployed? They are depression, isolation, anxiety and low self-esteem. The system is not fit for purpose.

What are the Government planning to do to rectify the situation? They continuously categorise autism spectrum conditions as a “learning disability”. I suggest that being able to achieve a PhD, complete higher education and have expert level skills is not reflective of having such a disability. Not all people with autism spectrum conditions have learning disabilities, and we need the Government to recognise that. We need to stop regarding the autistic and neurotypical ways of thinking as polar and conflicting opposites; they are merely different, with no wrong or right side at play.

The Autism Alliance has done amazing work in providing the confident autism and neurodiversity toolkit, but it is not being used enough. The difficulties many people with autistic spectrum conditions have may mean that, when they cannot get a job, they have to apply for benefits. Most of my casework is in relation to people requesting mandatory reconsiderations or people being forced to attend tribunals. It is all too obvious that the application forms for benefits such as the personal independence payment and employment and support allowance—

In relation to PIP and reconsiderations, does my hon. Friend recognise that, as I said to the Minister yesterday, 85% of all considerations were overturned in April 2019? Rather than that type of bureaucracy, we should be investing in the frontline, as my hon. Friend is saying.

Yes, I completely agree.

As I have said, most of my casework is in relation to people coming to me as they cannot navigate the benefits system. They find it increasingly difficult, and many in fact just give up altogether. As a caring society, we should not allow that. Applications for PIP and ESA are designed in such a way that they eliminate the neuro-diverse mindset. They are designed by a Government who would have us believe they are using all the toolkits, training, expertise and guidance from the various charities. It is clear that if this were true, more adults would have accessed employment since 2007, and fewer adults would be struggling to navigate the discriminating benefit process in operation. As MPs, we cannot know the number of individuals who have tried to apply for these benefits and not got beyond an application. People may now be homeless, have mental health issues or worse because of how this Government are failing the autistic population of this country.

I should like the Minister to address these questions. What steps will this Government take to close the autism employment gap? Will the Government commit to ensuring all Jobcentre Plus staff have proper autism understanding training? Will the Government commit to recording autism in the labour force survey so that we can measure progress in the employment of those with autism spectrum conditions?

Finally, will the Government commit to raising awareness of the autism friendly employer award? This would help many more ASCs into employment. There are other awards that MPs could work towards, too. I am proud to be the first parliamentarian to receive the autism friendly award. It is not hard to make a difference for ASCs, but by raising awareness we, together, can perhaps raise employment levels for this under-represented group of society and harness their undoubted talents for the good of society and of the economy as a whole.

It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). She made a very well-thought-through, constructive and challenging contribution, with which—apart from perhaps the odd comment about the Government’s record—I wholeheartedly agree. I am not surprised at the quality of her speech, because I and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), were just commenting on how the hon. Lady is probably the most prolific Member on parliamentary questions in our Department and keeps us very active when we arrive at the office every day.

There were four asks—I will cover all four—and it is a yes across all four. First, as a Government we are proud that there have been an additional 950,000 more disabled people in work in the last five years alone, and we hope to see a further 1 million by 2027. The hon. Lady is right that we do not currently record statistics on people with autism in the labour force survey. The National Autistic Society has done its own survey, and it has estimated that 16% of the 700,000 adults with autism are in work. We are now working with the Office for National Statistics so that we can make that part of the labour force survey. I would welcome that, as the Minister for Disabled People, and we are very much on that.

Parliament often rallies round to raise the profile of cross-Government improvements that are needed to support people with autism. The all-party parliamentary group on autism has more than 200 cross-party members, and the Westminster Commission on Autism brings together senior parliamentarians and leading members of the autism community. There are also several national and local autism-supporting organisations, which are key stakeholders that support various Departments.

I thank the Minister for giving way and for a very constructive response to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). Does he agree that it is extremely important that parliamentarians undertake the autism awareness training that the all-party parliamentary group has provided? I believe that more than 100 MPs have already done so. I was very pleased to do it. Does he also agree that MPs should undertake the Disability Confident training to ensure that they are Disability Confident employers?

The chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability has highlighted two incredibly important asks of all Parliaments and parliamentarians, and I wholeheartedly agree that they should all have that training, and that they should all sign up to Disability Confident. Many parliamentarians have done so and many enthusiastically support both those campaigns, but it does no harm to remind people that, even with busy diaries, that is incredibly important.

The majority of the speech of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw focused on employment opportunities, so that is where I will start. In the jobcentres, we are grateful for the work of the Autism Alliance, which helped develop the disability toolkit, providing comprehensive information on autism and hidden impairments. We also now have the bite-sized autism awareness learning that jobcentres are looking at. From that, many examples of good practice have developed locally, which we are sharing across the jobcentre network. They include calm and quiet sessions for claimants.

We also have the disability passport, “About Me”, which encourages disabled claimants to disclose their disability and health conditions at an earlier stage. That improves communication, ensures reasonable adjustments in advance and allows individual challenges to be explained only once. That issue was clearly highlighted in the hon. Lady’s speech. We have done more intense training on autism and hidden impairments for 1,000 of our frontline staff to ensure that there is a high level of understanding in every jobcentre. We will continue to do that, and that was one of the hon. Lady’s asks. I would like to invite her to meet me and my team to look at that particular area so we can have confidence that we are doing everything we reasonably can in all jobcentres.

As part of our support for people who could be classed as being further away from the workplace, we have: universal credit personalised support, which could simply be signposting following the first conversation; moving on to the Work and Health programme; the personalised support package, which now includes 800 disability employment advisers and leaders; or the intensive personalised employment programme, which will be launched at the end of the year. The last is highly personalised and tailored to the individual’s needs. That is important, because every autistic person experiences autism differently and many have complex needs or other conditions, such as a learning disability or a mental health condition, so the programme has to be tailored and personalised.

One of the best levers that we have as a Government is the Access to Work programme. Again, while we celebrate the fact that 33,800 people—a record number, up 13%—benefited from Access to Work last year, as with the labour force statistics, we cannot record autism. However, once that comes in to the labour force statistics, we will also have it within Access to Work. I know that it is not an exact comparison, but last year there was an increase of 22% in claimants with a learning disability where there was a crossover. There was also a 28% increase in young claimants who benefit from the Access to Work scheme. That is important because Access to Work has only recently broadened out from simply supporting people with a physical disability or sensory impairments, and we have now stepped up significantly support for mental health, learning disability and autism.

However, it is a journey and we have a real commitment to go much further. We are working with organisations such as the Autism Alliance and Exceptional Individuals to ensure that our staff have specialist knowledge, so that when they talk to employers and the potential or existing employee about how we can provide support, we have the best knowledge of the available technology and the way in which support workers can help, particularly in the interview process. Probably the most powerful part of the hon. Lady’s speech was about interviews and adapting the interview process. I have employed disabled people. I understand that interviews are a strange old process, because they bear little relation to what happens next and generally everybody just claims to be very active at sport. The real question is how they will fit those roles. We talk to employers who are struggling to fill skills gaps about being a little bit smarter. Also, through the Access to Work programme, we can look at travel, which is important, particularly if people are anxious and would find public transport difficult. We will be doing far more.

We are looking to build evidence in this area. We are working with a supported business alliance—57 supported businesses across the country—to provide a greater level of additional support. In return, we can gather the evidence to see how we can break down the barriers and provide long-term sustainable opportunities with career progression.

As had been said, I appreciate the constructive way in which the Minister is responding to the debate. Alongside the barriers that people with ASCs have to the workplace, they are also, sadly, more likely to be exploited. One of my constituents was affected by unpaid work trials in B&M Stores. In light of this debate, I wonder whether the Minister might reconsider the Government’s opposition to the 10-minute rule Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) to ban exploitative unpaid work trials, so that people with autism and Asperger’s, such as my constituent, are not exploited in such a way again.

I am conscious of time, so I will have to look into the details. It is right that we absolutely have to do more to enlighten businesses of all sizes about the opportunities. Small changes and good practice can benefit not just individuals with autism, but the organisations that take them on.

This is my second time as Minister for Disabled People and I am very proud that, in the final few weeks last time, I was able to push through the opening up of disability apprenticeships, removing the need to get a grade C in GCSE maths and English for people who would qualify under the disability apprenticeship. That is an important way that we, as a Government, are trying to remove barriers, but we must look at providing additional support within the workplace to go beyond the interview, so that people have an opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

Through our Disability Confident campaign, which now has more than 12,000 businesses of all sizes signed up, we are looking to share best practice. I think we can go further than that, not just by recruiting more organisations to the Disability Confident campaign, but by looking at organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive. To a certain extent, that will help support the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray). It is very proactive in engaging with businesses on safety, so it is a given that the workplaces will have a safe environment. We are world-leading on this—other countries look to our expertise—but we need to do the same on health. That includes empowering small and medium-sized businesses in particular that do not have personnel or HR departments, so that they can have the skills and the confidence to make small, reasonable adjustments. That would be a win-win for all.

I had the pleasure on Friday, as part of Employability Day, of meeting employers and individuals who had overcome those barriers. That was transformational for those individuals who were enjoying the opportunity to contribute, and to the employers who had struggled to fill gaps and were now benefiting as an organisation.

I was just sitting here thinking about the best way of doing this. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) has made some suggestions. When it comes to organising training for the potential employer and the young person with autism, would the Minister consider using the influence of parents and families to enable the training process to be easier for the person who has autism as well as for the potential employer?

I agree. In all parts of accessing services and applying for jobs, having supportive individuals is a reasonable adjustment that a good employer, a good organisation and a good Government should take into account and should encourage.

In the final moments, I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw. It is fantastic to see so many Members supporting an Adjournment debate. I think that is a recognition of the quality of the speech that was delivered on a really important topic. I think there is much agreement across the House and I would be very happy to meet further to discuss what more we can do. The Government are determined to make a real difference in this area. I am absolutely thrilled to see that there is cross-party support for that. Together, we will do everything we can to unlock every individual’s talent, so that everybody can benefit from the growing economy.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.