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Disabled People: Support in Work

Volume 703: debated on Monday 8 November 2021

The Department delivers national programmes as well as initiatives in partnership with the health system to support disabled people to start, stay and succeed in employment. These include Access to Work and intensive personalised employment support, which continues to provide that support after work has begun.

It is essential to ensure, particularly as we approach the winter, that all workers have access to a liveable sick pay and do not put themselves and others at risk. However, the current earnings threshold disproportionately affects disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. What concrete actions will the UK Government take to finally fix the wholly inadequate sick pay system?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those points, and it is a pleasure to work with her once again; I have done on various topics. The Government previously consulted on reform to statutory sick pay, as she will know, but we did not think that the pandemic was the right time to introduce changes to it, as that would have placed an immediate and direct cost on employers at a very difficult time. Instead, we prioritised changes to the wider welfare system. However, I can assure her that our work on this is ongoing and I look forward to talking to her and others further about this.

I would like to welcome the Minister to her new role. She will be aware that the disability pay and employment gap remains far too large. The figures might appear to show a narrowing in recent years, but academics believe that this has been offset by an increase in the number of people identifying as disabled. Today, on the 26th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it is clear that urgent action is required. The Government’s strategy for disabled people offers only a consultation on mandatory reporting. Will she be bolder than her predecessor and bring in mandatory reporting now?

I look forward to working with the hon. Lady on these vital issues. She is right that our national disability strategy demonstrates our intention to consult on workforce reporting. She asked an additional question about pay gap reporting, but those are two slightly different things. Pay gaps are, of course, caused by a range of factors, and to address them we must ensure that everybody has equal access to opportunities. That will be my passion in this role. I hope she welcomed the disability employment statistics out only last week; they show that some progress is being made, but there is a heck of a lot more to do, and I will be there doing it.

I gave the Minister a straightforward policy ask with no additional financial commitment, so it is regrettable that she cannot do it straight away. However, clearly money is required to deliver a fully inclusive society. Can she confirm that the spending review contained no extra funding linked to the strategy, other than for education and employment? Does she have plans to speak to the Chancellor about further funding, and will she now push for a full debate to show disabled people that her Government are giving the strategy the attention it rightly deserves?

That strategy and its implementation will be one of my utmost priorities; I look forward to discussing it in a constructive manner with the hon. Lady and everybody else here today, but I think she may have misread the £1.1 billion in targeted support for those with disabilities that was in the Budget and the spending review last week, which covers access to work, more work coaches and the Work and Health programme.

I have seen at first hand how assistive technology can change the lives of young people with disabilities at Treloar School and College in Alton in Hampshire. Can my hon. Friend update the House with any further details on the national centre for assistive and accessible technology, which could do so much to support adults with a learning disability and other disabilities to get into employment?

I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend has raised that point, and I agree on the centrality of assistive and accessible technology. That is why our national disability strategy contained a commitment to invest up to £1 million in 2021-22 to develop a new centre for assistive and accessible tech, reporting on progress by next year. I look forward to working with her to do that.

The Minister will know that many disabled people work and receive their personal independence payments, but when someone is given a telephone appointment, they are told that they can only arrange the appointment once. That is hardly fair; if it is scheduled when they are working and the assessments can take up to an hour, that is not possible. What are the Government doing to make it easier for people to be in work and have that access?

The hon. Lady raises a good point, which I will be happy to take away and look into. In general terms, I can say that we made commitments in our Green Paper published in July to improve the assessment process overall, across both the work capability assessment and the PIP assessment. She will also know that we have been using telephone methods through the pandemic and are looking to see what will continue to be the best methods. I look forward to discussing that further with her, and I will take away the point she raises and look into it further.

We can be rightly proud of delivering record disability employment, but to meet our commitment of 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027, we must expand opportunities through disability apprenticeships, a key commitment within the national disability strategy. Will the Minister confirm that she will continue to press our Department for Education colleagues to ensure we deliver that vital commitment?

I certainly will. It will be my passion to deliver all the commitments in the national disability strategy, to support more disabled people to be in work, stay in work and thrive in work. I also thank my hon. Friend for the foundational work he did on this, which I look forward to continuing.

It is good to hear some of the commitments the Government are making, but unfortunately we have heard them before. Many disabled people, particularly those who are trying to get employment and support allowance or PIP, will struggle through their assessment because their disabilities are hidden. What work is the Minister doing on that, including with providers of those assessments, to ensure that those with hidden disabilities are given a fair chance?

Again, the hon. Lady raises a common-sense point, on something that I will want to make sure is working well in our system. As I said in response to a previous point, we have indicated that we are keen to look at how the assessments in general can be improved. We have that commitment to this House in our Green Paper, published in July, which I will be looking forward to developing further. I can let the House know that we have received more than 4,500 consultation responses to that Green Paper, which gives us a very sound basis for hearing the voices of disabled people and acting on what is needed.