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People with Learning Disabilities: Employment

Volume 742: debated on Monday 4 December 2023

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

I thank the House for allowing me to have this important Adjournment debate on a subject that is close to my heart and those of my constituents and my family. When the welfare state was introduced in 1949, just a few years after the second world war, probably over 90% of disabled people in this country had a job—they went to work. There were a number of reasons for that. I think it was mainly because we were short of labour after the war—a lot of men did not come back—and there was a need for people to rebuild the country, so lots of people had to go into the workplace. But there was also a lot of support in place for people to go to work under the new welfare state system.

We have some similar challenges right now. We have probably got over a million vacancies, and we have lots of people out there who are quite prepared to do the work but need a little bit of extra support in getting the skills and doing the job from day to day. Nowadays—the Minister may correct me later—the proportion of disabled people in the workplace is probably about 60% to 65%. That is a lot less than back in the 1940s, so maybe we could learn some lessons from the past.

We can talk about physical disabilities because we can see them. We can see people who are injured—those who have got a bad back or a bad leg—and all sorts of physical disabilities. Governments and employers have come on a long way in the past 20 or 30 years to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace to ensure that people can do a decent day’s work, have a decent job and play a part. In this debate, I want to concentrate on people with learning difficulties.

Whenever I talk about stuff like this, I always think about this young lady in Ashfield. Her name is Jossie. She is seven, and this month—I think on 17 December—she will be eight. Jossie has Down’s syndrome. Jossie is not alone—she will not be alone, because probably 900,000 people of working age in this country have learning difficulties. Jossie’s mum tells me that although great strides have been made in our educational system throughout the years, there are still a lot of problems and barriers when it comes to transitioning from education to the workplace. She says that more needs to be done.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward. I spoke to him before the debate. He is right that there are 870,000 working-age adults with a learning disability in the UK. Only 26.7% of them are in the workforce, so less than a third are in paid work. There is often a stigma whereby those suffering from certain types of disabilities feel that they are not capable of applying for certain jobs. Does he agree—I am sure he will say yes—that more can be done in schools to instil in young people with disabilities that their future career choices are not limited just because they have a disability? That could be taught through work experience opportunities. In other words, give them a chance to do better—we can do that.

I thank the hon. Member—my friend—for that. He makes, as usual, an intelligent contribution, and I totally agree. I am a strong believer that everybody in this country, regardless of disability or background, is good at something and that they can make a contribution to this great country of ours and to society. They can go to work, or they can work from home—they can do something.

Historically, far too many people with learning difficulties have had a label given to them. I have seen—a lot of people in this place have probably seen this—people who have been called “stupid”, “thick” or “not worthy”, or it has been said, “They can’t have a job like the rest of us. They can’t communicate properly.” That is just wrong. Like I said before, everybody can make a contribution. Everybody can do something and have a stake in society.

Jossie’s mum Steph told me that the most important thing for young people with learning difficulties is that each person be individually assessed to ensure that the right opportunities are provided in accordance with their abilities, and she is right. She said that it is important to get the balance right, not to under or overestimate a person’s capabilities and to make sure that the right opportunities are available. That is right; we should ensure that the right opportunities are available, especially for young people, to make the transition from education to the workplace. There has to be more support for those people. People with a learning disability have a right to work and to have a stake in society. They have a right to equal pay, opportunities, career progression and support at work.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, more than 870,000 working-age adults in the UK have a learning disability, but less than a third—26.7%—are in paid work. That is the lowest employment rate for any health condition or disability. Many people with a learning disability want to go to work. On a weekly basis, I see people who want that extra bit of support to go into the workplace. Mencap, a charity I support, does some great work in this area. One of its surveys found that 86% of unemployed people with a learning disability wanted a paid job. That is a staggering number of people. They do not want to stay at home and do nothing; they want to make a contribution.

Some 45% of respondents who did not have a paid job cited worry about their benefits as a barrier to getting one. I completely understand that. Some 35% of respondents who did not have a paid job cited lack of support to look for work as a barrier. Some 23% of those without a paid job who would like one identified inaccessible application forms as preventing them from getting work. It is terrible that people with disabilities who want to go to work find barriers in the way. Hopefully, the Minister can address that in his speech.

I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. He is right to talk about the barriers, which include interview processes and retaining people with disabilities. Does he agree that common-sense changes to interview procedures, such as practical, show-and-tell interviews rather than an inquisitorial ordeal, would suit the talents of people with learning disabilities far better than the old-fashioned, conventional ways, which are real barriers to fulfilling their potential?

My right hon. and learned Friend is spot on. People of any age with learning difficulties face barriers. When we interview people, we should not always treat people equally; we should treat them fairly. What might be a fair interview for one person is not always fair for another.

We have some great initiatives in this country. I do not agree with the idea peddled by certain groups and some politicians that people with any disabilities will be forced into a certain group and forced into paid employment, or have their benefits sanctioned or income reduced. That is scaremongering and political point scoring. We need to rise above that, because this is about encouraging people with disabilities to be in the workplace. Work is not a punishment; it gives us all a stake in society and is a good thing. On the whole in this country, people might not enjoy their job so much some days, but they enjoy getting up in the morning, going to work and having the routine. Why should people with disabilities be any different? Why should we treat them differently?

The hon. Member is making a powerful contribution. In my constituency, we have a number of good examples of companies and organisations that have embraced the spirit of employing those with disabilities. Café IncredABLE is a social enterprise that is leading the way in facilitating training, employment and meaningful daytime activity for individuals with a learning difficulty or autism. Given the benefit that social enterprises bring to the lives of those who participate in them, does the hon. Member agree that the Government should further support them so that more can be rolled out across our constituencies?

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. There is always more that Governments and local authorities can do, and thank goodness for the charity sector. Charities that support people with learning disabilities do great work.

We have a project called Rumbles in Nottinghamshire that runs two cafés, one outside my constituency and one in Ashfield on Sutton Lawn. It has been running for about 15, 16 or maybe 17 years and was set up to help people with learning disabilities. There are a couple of paid staff who train young people with special educational needs or learning difficulties in cooking, cleaning, doing the washing, serving people and operating the till. Those are great skills for young people with learning difficulties. It gets them out of the house, and gives their parents and families some respite. They get out and learn new skills and mix with people, making new friends. It is absolutely brilliant that we have these initiatives locally.

However, we have a slight problem and the Minister might be able to help me with it, because he came to visit the café earlier this year. This service, which is a lifeline to people and their families, faces the axe. This brilliant facility is facing closure after about 17 years in operation. The charity was paying the council a peppercorn rent of just a few hundred quid a year, I believe it was, but the council decided that it is such a good business it wants to put the rent up to £7,000 a year and it also expects the charity to maintain the public toilets next door at a cost of £10,000 a year. The charity has agreed to pay the £7,000 and it has some extra support to do that, but that is still not good enough for the local authority. The local authority does not realise that if this place closes and goes into the private sector, the young people with learning disabilities will have nowhere else to go. If this place goes, they cannot do their training and their work or meet their friends. I hope the Minister might be able to help and steer me in the right direction on how to convince our local authority to keep this lifeline open.

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. Rumbles café—there are several across Nottinghamshire—does fantastic work with young people with learning disabilities, getting them into the workplace and supporting them. Does he agree that it is slightly strange that Ashfield District Council says that the closure of the café and kicking them out of the building is about the money, when only a few years ago the councillors spent five or six times as much to give themselves extra cabinet jobs and put it in their own pockets?

My hon. Friend is quite right—I forgot about this—that just a few years back, this same bunch of councillors created five extra cabinet positions when they first got elected, at a cost of about £60,000 and then created a political officer position at a cost of another £30,000. That is £80,000 or £90,000 there, so their maths do not stack up. In fact, their maths do stack up when it comes to giving themselves hefty pay rises, so maybe they should take a long, hard look in the mirror. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Rumbles café has helped literally hundreds of people across Ashfield over the years. I want to give a special mention to a lady called Helen Storer. She is 60 years old, bless her, and she lives in Selston. She has special educational needs—she says herself that she has her own difficulties—but she lives independently, on her own. She relies on the support of good neighbours and good friends in the community—it is a cracking community—and she worked at Rumbles. She volunteered there, learned new skills and made friends. She learned how to cook and other life skills, such as how to do housework and stuff like that, and she absolutely loved the place. It brought her on leaps and bounds.

Places like this are a lifeline. It should not be about making huge amounts of money. We should put people before profit in these sorts of situations. Look—it does make money, but it goes back into the caff to help support people to learn those new skills to live independent lives. It has no shareholders, just honest hard-working folk who are doing the best for people with special educational needs in the community.

I have said it before, and sometimes I get a little bit of opposition to trying to get people into work, especially disabled people. It is not cruel to get disabled people back into work. Most people, as we know from Mencap’s own figures, want to work and want to get into the workplace. It is up to us as a responsible society to try to give the support they need to get in the workplace and have a stake in society. I often think about little Jossie and her mum and dad, and the challenges they face. When parents have a little girl of six or seven who has got her difficulties, they are always thinking, “What’s going to happen to that little girl when she leaves school?” They want that little girl to have lots of opportunities. They want her to live independently and to be able to make some of her own decisions and just do the simple things in life—to go out and shop, run the house, budget, have friends and have a social life. That is so important. Not everybody like Jossie can live an independent life, but a lot can, and it is important that as a society we support these people.

We are very good at giving benefits away in this country to people, and rightly so—people need that financial support. With rent and council tax support, personal independence payment or disability living allowance, employment and support allowance and other bits and bobs, a single person with learning difficulties can maybe get up to 25 grand a year through the benefits system. I always say that if we can pay somebody on benefits 25 grand a year for being sat at home, surely we can pay them that for going to work, whether the support is from a charity, a Government-funded agency or whatever.

I am going to close on that. Once again, Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me to speak tonight. This is a subject close to my heart, and I know from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) that it is close to his heart as well. I look forward to seeing what the Minister has to say.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for securing this important debate and for speaking with such great passion. He very much shares my determination to do better in this area to help and support more disabled people into work and unlock all that potential that we know exists.

In 2017, the Government set the goal of seeing a million more disabled people in employment between 2017 and 2027. I am proud to say that, by the first quarter of 2022, the number of disabled people in employment had increased by 1.3 million, which means that the goal was met after only five years. By the first quarter of 2023, disability employment had risen by 1.6 million in total since the goal was announced, but we are aware that this progress has not been even. Those early successes must be a catalyst for further change. We know that most learning-disabled people want to have a job, and evidence shows that they bring many positive benefits to their employers. That is something I hear time and again, as I go round the country meeting employers and meeting disabled people experiencing the benefits of work.

But we also know that less than three in 10 working-age people with severe and specific learning disabilities are currently in employment. That means that more than seven in 10 of this group are still unable to access the independence and sense of fulfilment that employment can bring, and that many employers are not benefiting from the enthusiasm, skills and commitment that they can bring to their workplaces. We are therefore working hard in Government, as an enabler and with others, to support learning- disabled people to secure, sustain and succeed in employment.

We are continuing to improve the general support available to learning-disabled claimants when they attend the jobcentre. Additional work coach support provides disabled people and those with health conditions with increased one-to-one personalised support from their work coach to help them move towards and into work. That support is already available in two thirds of jobcentres in England, Scotland, and Wales. It will be available nationally in 2024. We have strengthened our disability employment adviser role, delivering direct support to claimants who require additional work-related support and supporting all work coaches to deliver tailored, personalised support to claimants with a disability or health condition, including those with a learning disability.

As well as this general support, we are providing a range of special programmes that can help learning-disabled people to access employment. They will have priority access to the work and health programme in England and Wales. Intensive personalised employment support provision has also been available in England and Wales, providing highly personalised packages of specialist employment support for disabled people and people with health conditions to achieve sustained employment.

The local supported employment programme helps people with learning difficulties and/or autism to find and retain work through intensive one-to-one support and an evidence-based approach to supported employment. Local supported employment aims to develop a sustainable model by giving intensive one-to-one support to those faced with significant barriers to work. We have funded 23 lead local authorities to deliver local supported employment in 28 local authority areas in England and Wales from November 2022 until March 2025. Over that period, LSE will help about 2,000 people to move into and stay in work. An average of 90 participants in each of the 28 local authority areas are set to benefit from £7.4 million in grant funding and support which will include the assignment of job coaches who can carry out vocational profiling, engage employers and provide in-work support to enable this group to enter and maintain employment in the open labour market.

The spring Budget confirmed funding for a new employment programme called universal support, which will use the proven supported employment model to help inactive disabled people, people with health conditions and those facing additional barriers to employment into sustained work—doing more of what we know succeeds in securing meaningful outcomes for people. One of the aspects of the coverage of this issue that frustrates me the most is the failure to recognise that it is as important to focus on retention as it is to focus on job starts, and that both must be seen in tandem. That is precisely what universal support will help us to do. Eligible learning-disabled people will be able to opt into receiving up to 12 months of “place and train” support helping them to move quickly into suitable work, followed by wraparound support to help them to sustain that employment in the longer term. I am pleased to confirm that following the announcement in the latest autumn statement, we are expanding the universal support scheme to enable it to provide support for 100,000 people a year once it has been fully rolled out, an increase on the 50,000 places a year announced in the spring Budget.

We know that many learning-disabled people will require workplace adjustments to secure and retain employment, and the Access to Work scheme can undoubtedly help with the extra costs of working, beyond those involved in standard workplace adjustments. Access to Work contributes to the disability-related extra costs of working faced by disabled people and those with a health condition in the workplace that are beyond the costs of standard reasonable adjustments, and includes the provision of support workers, specialist aids and equipment, and help with travel to and from work. As part of the scheme, we are testing an “adjustments passport” in a variety of settings to establish whether it can reduce the need for assessments when the requirements remain the same and need to be “passported” around to help a person enter into a role and then make progress within it, as well as making conversations with employers easier.

We recently launched an Access to Work adjustments planner, which will be rolled out to all universities and higher education colleges. The planner collects key information about a student’s adjustment needs which can be easily shared with prospective employers. Trial results show that disabled students using the planner are more confident about entering employment. We are also testing Access to Work Plus, a new employer offer that can offer additional support to employers who are willing to think differently about their vacancies and consider whether they can adapt, shape or flex a job to enable a disabled person to retain, return to or move into employment. That is relevant to my hon. Friend’s point about the key support that needs to be available to aid people’s transition into work, and available at various points in their lives when they want to enter the workplace or increase their educational opportunities, and to maximise those life chances.

During their transition to employment, learning-disabled young people can benefit from supported internships, which are aimed at those with a learning disability or autism who have an education, health and care plan. Supported Internships usually last for 12 months, contributing to the long-term career goals of young people and matching their capabilities. Alongside their time with an employer, supported interns receive support from a specialist job coach and complete a personalised study programme delivered by the school or college, which includes the chance to study for relevant qualifications, if appropriate, and to receive English and maths tuition at an appropriate level. While the Department for Education leads on this in England, the Department for Work and Pensions provides support for Access to Work where needed and I would be happy to ask colleagues in the Department for Education to provide further details to my hon. Friend about the opportunities that supported internships can provide.

Separately, the autism employment review, led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), has been receiving evidence this year about the barriers preventing autistic people from starting, staying and succeeding in employment and how those barriers can be overcome. Although the review focuses specifically on autistic people, many of the adjustments and initiatives that will benefit them will also benefit a wider group of people including learning-disabled people and people with other disabilities. I am hugely grateful to him for all his efforts.

I am grateful to the Minister and the departmental officials who are here for their close work on the independent review. I am glad that he has made the point that, although we focus on autism, the wider point about neurodiversity must not escape us. As the evidence has emerged, the concept of a more universal approach to the way in which employers interview people generally seems to be the real answer, when dealing not just with people who are diagnosed but with those who perhaps do not even realise they might have a condition or issue that has not been diagnosed or acknowledged.

My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point and I look forward to receiving the final recommendations from the review, which will help to inform the forward decisions that we take as a Department. I would be keen to pick up with him on that specific point separately from this evening. I also want to thank every Disability Confident employer out there for the enormous contribution that they make and for their commitment to supporting the important goals that we have been debating this evening.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield has a particular and very praiseworthy interest in helping people with Down’s syndrome to succeed in work and in life. He referred to Jossie, an inspirational young lady with Down’s syndrome in his constituency. He also referred to the great work being done by the Rumbles charity in his constituency, and it was an honour for me to visit Rumbles with him earlier in the year to see its magnificent work for myself and to meet Gina and Tamar and the energetic team at Rumbles who bring so much to that community and help to provide so much opportunity. I wish them every success in their work.

I am keen to help this group and I have been speaking to the Down’s Syndrome Association about its WorkFit programme. On Wednesday, I will visit its site to visit two of its WorkFit candidates who will share with me their experiences of the workplace and how they were supported to find and maintain their jobs. As my hon. Friend points out, the key to the success of the WorkFit programme is a bespoke person-centred approach for each candidate and bespoke advice, resources and training for each employer taking part.

As we develop and roll out our new programmes, we will be keeping this need for a personalised approach very much in mind, because—touching on the points made by the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—that provision is so helpful to people in beginning to provide those early opportunities, precisely as Rumbles does and as the Step and Stone Bakery in Bristol does, which I have also had the privilege of visiting. I met the inspirational women who run it, Jane Kippax and Jane Chong. I also visited Tapestry by Props Brewery in Bristol, run by the enthusiastic chief executive officer of that organisation, Colin Fletcher, and his team. And only last week, I visited the Fair Shot Café in Covent Garden, run by its founder and CEO, Bianca Tavella. These are amazing organisations providing early opportunities for people to develop their skills, and that is a model I want to look at to see what more we can do to help to support them. All those organisations and many others across the country can be enormously proud of the contribution they make to supporting employment opportunities.

My message to the Ashfield Independents who run the local authority in my hon. Friend’s area would be that they ought to look at this issue in the round. The support that services such as these can provide is an invaluable resource, not just for improving the life chances and opportunities of the individuals who work in those cafés but for doing right by the taxpayer and helping to minimise costs elsewhere in the round. I hope that they will find a common-sense solution to support that brilliant provision for the years to come. I just could not be clearer: these opportunities are life-changing. Work has such a positive benefit for people in so many respects, and those opportunities should be extended to all who wish to have them. That is our clear mission as a Government and I am grateful to Members across the House for their support in that endeavour.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.