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Buckland Review of Autism Employment

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 25 April 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the recommendations of the Buckland Review into Autism and Employment; and urges the Government, businesses and the wider economy to implement them.

There, in the words of the motion, lies the force of the review that I had the honour of chairing and the report that was published at the end of February. This was never going to be a bout of navel gazing—an inward-looking report that purely viewed the challenge that faces autistic people in getting a full or part-time job as a problem, a risk or a challenge—but instead a massive opportunity not just for all of us who are involved and who have spent years campaigning for or caring about autistic people and the wider neurodiverse family, but the wider economy, businesses small, medium and large, and self-employment. The question of productivity in our economy has been at the heart of the economic debate for more years than I care to remember. There is the issue of economic inactivity. We need to move away from the rather tired and clichéd argument that views this through the prism of benefits, rather than the range of talents that autistic people have, the myriad conditions that are involved, and the potential that autistic people want to realise in a happy and healthy workplace.

I put on record my thanks to Stephen Lismore and the team of civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions, some of whom are here today, for their tireless work and support in marshalling the wealth of evidence that we received—both written evidence, and evidence from a number of roundtables that we held during our call for evidence, in person and online, which allowed people from right across the four nations of the UK to take part. The list of organisations, businesses and people who helped to make the review such a rich and stimulating process runs to seven pages at the back of the document. That tells the House how deep we wanted to go, and how meaningful we wanted to make the process.

The review was robustly independent, and we pulled no punches on the limitations of Government programmes, but the DWP deserves my thanks for its dedication and support. I am also thankful for the support of the UK’s leading research charity on autism, Autistica, and of James Cusack and the team there, remembering that the leadership of that organisation are themselves autistic people. That was important for me on many levels. The review had to be led by autistic people, and about autistic people—in other words, “Nothing about us without us.” I speak not only as a parliamentarian and a former Minister, but as a parent of a young woman who will, in due course, face choices, and hopefully be able to have a job of her own.

Some people will say, “Well, he’s only in it because he cares about his daughter.” I am in it because I care about the hundreds of thousands of people like her who deserve their chance. They might not be at the top of the tree in terms of their abilities. They might not be able to get jobs in MI6 and the security services, which by the way are really coming to rely on the gifts that autistic people have. It is about jobs right across the spectrum, down to part-time jobs that will mean so much to the people who can do them, and will give their life purpose, fulfilment and happiness. We must not lose the concept of happiness in all this. There is a moral case to be made for the recommendations in the review, but there is also—I make no apology for this—a hard-edged economic case. What is good for autistic people will be good for the rest of our society.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his excellent speech and his brilliant report. Does he agree that hospitality is an excellent sector for people with learning difficulties, autism and so on to consider, and will he join me on a visit to the Fair Shot café? I extend the invitation to everyone in the Chamber. It is a social enterprise run by a brilliant young woman, Bianca Tavella, who set up the organisation to train young people with learning difficulties to become baristas and café workers, and has secured jobs for dozens of people. Will he join me one day in Covent Garden to visit the Fair Shot café?

If there is tea and cake involved, I am there. I will happily do that. The point that my hon. Friend makes deals straight away with the stereotype that autistic people cannot socialise. That is nonsense. There are myriad types of presentation. The condition will sometimes present itself in that way, but not always. Plenty of autistic people can and do work in the hospitality sector, in an outward-facing, communications-based job that works really well for them.

Exploding some of those myths is important not just in this House but from an employer’s point of view. That is really at the heart of the report: turning risk into opportunity for employers, to get them to think differently. The terms of reference referred to autism, but I reassure people who initially wanted a wider reference to neuro- diversity that that was not forgotten at all. In fact, a lot of the recommendations have direct read-across to a wide range of neurodiverse conditions, from attention deficit disorder to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and dyspraxia—the whole family of neurodiverse conditions. There is clearly commonality in the challenges that people face with recruitment and retention.

In the time that I have, which I have to use economically, let us start with some of the facts that we uncovered. Only just under three in 10 autistic adults are in full-time or part-time work. It is the lowest rate across all disability classes, at about 30%, as opposed to 50% for those with a disability generally. In late 2012, I led a Backbench Business Committee debate on autism in this Chamber. I think it was the first debate on autism that we had ever had in the main Chamber. Then, fewer than one in seven, maybe about 14% of autistic adults, had full-time employment. There would seem to have been an improvement, but we are not comparing like with like. In the years since, we have seen people in the workforce start to reveal their autism in a way that they would not have before, which is encouraging, but let us not forget that we are still talking about the 700,000 or so who have a diagnosis. A large number of people—probably hundreds of thousands or even more—perhaps do not have a diagnosis, and do not even think of themselves as autistic or neurodiverse in any way. The figures therefore start to get a little unclear.

Progress has been very, very slow. There is no doubt that, as a result of Government action and intervention, there has been improvement, but we are still nowhere near where we need to be. The question is how we start to move the dial. More on that shortly. Autistic people have the largest pay gap of all disability groups. They receive a third less on average than non-disabled people. I am afraid that that is the experience of autistic graduates, too, who experience the worst outcomes of all disability groups. They are the most likely to be overqualified for their job. They are the most likely to be on zero-hours contracts or part time. That leads to under motivation, less pay, unhappiness and a lack of fulfilment. Some 50% of managers expressed discomfort with the idea of having autistic people in their workforce, and only 35% of autistic employees were fully open about being autistic.

My right hon. and learned Friend is making an excellent case. I recently attended a Worcestershire local enterprise partnership presentation, at which an employer talked about finding that his expectations of employing autistic people were completely wrong. When he discovered that one of his employees was autistic, his whole organisation learned and benefited as a result. It strengthened the organisation and increased its productivity. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that many more employers need to engage on this subject?

Stories like that can open up a whole new way of thinking to employers. That is really the beginning of the recommendations that we make in the report. The power of narrative, and linking that to creating a wave of change, lies at the heart of the recommendations. Let me make a final point about the current situation: about two thirds—61%—of disabled people said that their Access to Work claim took over three months, and 20% said that it took over six months. While Access to Work is a great principle, that is clearly too slow to help change the life of people who face an immediate job offer, or have an interview within days, rather than weeks or months.

What is to be done? I have talked about turning risk into opportunity, but a “universal by design” approach will make the most difference. We have heard a lot over the years about autism-friendly environments, and going out of our way to reach out, understand, and allow people to explain, but that will have only a limited impact, and only on those people who are comfortable talking, and prepared to talk, about their autism. Surely it would be better to have a universal change to the way in which we recruit and retain employees, so that it embraces not just those with a diagnosis, but those who do not want to disclose their diagnosis or do not have one. Suddenly, the number would then be not 700,000, but probably well over a million—and that might be a conservative estimate.

What about the recommendations? There are several groups within our 19 recommendations, but they can be summarised in the following way. The first group of three recommendations relates to initiatives to raise awareness, reduce stigma and capitalise on productivity. We are already working with people, autism organisations and employer-facing organisations to start that national campaign with good news stories like the one that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker).

In certain jobs, autistic staff can be way more productive than neurotypical staff; statistics show productivity improvements ranging from 45% to 145%. I am grateful to Autistica for its work promoting its new neurodiversity employers index, which will allow employers to measure themselves against best practice; it has an annual awards programme. That is the sort of approach that we have seen really make a difference in other walks of life. The index, with the support and approval of my hon. Friend the Minister, would give employers a degree of certainty, and a uniform framework within which we could see the dial start to move. By developing such small pilots and good practices, we are again using a “show and tell” method, and larger national and multinational organisations and representative bodies can then start to spread this work out.

The second bucket of recommendations, 4 to 8, relates to the support needed for autistic people to begin or return to a career. That is all about making sure that new programmes, such as the universal support programme, are designed in a way that meets the varying needs of autistic people, so that there are supported employment programmes available, as well as supported internships, which the evidence shows are a wonderful route through which autistic young people can develop the skills that they need. I am glad that the Department for Education is piloting an entry route into supported internships for disabled people without an education, health and care plan; that again embraces the “universal by design” approach.

As Chairman of the Education Committee, I completely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend on the value of supported internships. Does he agree that more broadly we need to look at the issue of people without an EHCP? We know that many autistic people do not require or have not had one. We should be looking to make supported internships, or extra support for apprenticeships, as accessible as possible, so that people can progress into work and training.

My hon. Friend is right about that. He might have noted the very interesting findings of the Nuffield Trust a few weeks ago, which makes the point that although we have to have a system of diagnosis, the EHCP system, which I was proud to support as a Back Bencher when we brought in the Children and Families Act 2014, is a very narrow funnel. It takes a long time to get children and people in. Instead of concentrating on the funnel, we need a more universal approach that can embrace many people who will not need an EHCP, but who have particular needs. That is why promoting cross-industry autism support groups and opportunities for work shadowing and volunteering has to be part of the solution. As recommendation 7 says, apprenticeships are key.

Finally, recommendation 8 is that the Government work with autism charities and other groups to ensure that more people know about Access to Work and improvements to the speed of that programme. If the adjustment passport and the Access to Work Plus pilots being run by Department for Work and Pensions produce positive results, then I say to the Minister: let us roll them out nationally as soon as possible.

The next group of recommendations, 9 to 13, are all about changing recruitment practices to support autistic applicants appropriately. We need to start with careers advisers in schools and colleges and the National Careers Service in England and its equivalents in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so that there is a better understanding of autism, autistic customers can be better supported, and more properly tailored advice can be given. We also need to increase the rigour of the Disability Confident work and develop higher levels; we need more assessments under Disability Confident and we need to build in a link to the new neurodiversity employers index, so that Disability Confident organisations themselves will be, in the eyes of autistic jobseekers, much better placed to help them. Online support with the employee health and disability service can also link employees to appropriate advice on best practice when it comes to recruitment.

The representative bodies have a role here. The Recruitment & Employment Confederation has a key role to play, because it can advise not only individual businesses, but recruitment consulting agencies. There are myriad agencies up and down our high streets that do the heavy lifting of recruitment for small and medium-sized enterprises, so we have to get into those agencies. It will be good for them, as it means they will have more success in placing autistic employees, and it will of course be good for wider business. Let us face it, these SMEs do not have big human resources departments and they will not be able to do that themselves. That is why getting into the agencies will be important. We must also not forget the self-employed, and ensure that we identify sources of information and support for people who want to get on with things on their own and set up their own business.

In the few minutes I have left, I will mention two more groups of recommendations—I will be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I want to finish covering this important report. Supporting autistic people already in the workforce is covered in recommendations 14 to 17; working with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to make sure that the 2018 “Neurodiversity at Work” guidance is published and accessible is at the heart of that. Finally, on career progression, we need to promote the value of employee resource groups and support networks within larger organisations and work with autism charities and the representative bodies to develop the training packages to allow autistic staff to progress.

A new task group will be set up in the weeks ahead— I say weeks, because I am working with colleagues in the DWP to identify an independent chair and suitably qualified members. We need to monitor progress, hold Government to account and audit the progress we are making. I want to see, certainly by the end of this decade, that number of one in three up to the disability average at least, and—who knows?—beyond that.

Let us be ambitious here. I call upon my hon. Friend the Minister to respond positively to the report and its recommendations with all the power that she can muster on behalf of herself and her Government colleagues. They are not the end; they are not even the beginning of the end; but they are the end of the beginning. Let us make progress.

I am very pleased to follow the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland); I congratulate him on securing this debate and on the report, which makes a very valuable contribution on this extremely important topic. The report does a good job of laying bare the obstacles facing autistic people in the workplace—obstacles that, as he rightly says, we need to overcome. I applaud the obvious passion that he has shown in presenting the report to us. I did not know about his own family link, and I am grateful to him for explaining that to us.

The Work and Pensions Committee has recently launched our own inquiry into disability employment, to follow up the report that we published in 2021 on the disability employment gap. We have just closed our call for evidence for that inquiry—I am glad that we have received evidence from Autistica, among others—and we will soon start to take oral evidence from disability charities and others. The review will help us to frame particular questions on autism employment in the context of that inquiry. As the review points out, the employment gap is much worse for autistic people than for disabled people more broadly.

A disappointing feature of the report for me, though, is the rather unambitious nature of the recommendations, which are along the lines of, “The Government ought to try a bit harder on this, and do a bit more of that.” There are no targets set out in the report, and nothing to help us to monitor progress. I fear that when, in two or five years’ time, we ask whether the recommendations have been delivered, the answer will be a bit unclear. I do not blame the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon for that—no doubt Ministers would not have gone along with a higher level of ambition—but I fear that the Government will be able to accept all the recommendations without really changing anything. It does seem to be a bit of a missed opportunity.

The report rightly highlights the huge size of the autism employment gap. By how much should we aim to reduce it? In his speech a moment ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that the aim should be to increase the rate of employment among people with autism at least up to the overall disability employment rate. That would have been a really substantial target against which to measure progress to include in the report, but it is not in there. My fear is that a lack of ambition has regrettably marked the Government’s efforts on disability employment for some time.

There was a moment not long ago when a higher level of ambition was announced. Government Members may well remember that they campaigned in the 2015 general election on a target announced by David Cameron to halve the wider disability employment gap. That gap fell sharply from 1998 to 2010 through the new deal for disabled people, but it has been stuck at around 30 percentage points ever since; it went down for a bit after 2015, but perhaps unsurprisingly during the pandemic it went back up. Unfortunately, the target of halving the gap was abandoned shortly after the 2015 election was safely won, which strikes me as the kind of move that gives politicians a bad name.

In our 2021 report, the Work and Pensions Committee called unanimously, on a cross-party basis, for that target to be reinstated. The report we are debating this afternoon refers in paragraph 2.7 to making progress on closing the employment gap, and I call on the Government, in responding to that report, to set an ambitious target for increasing the employment rate among people with autism—perhaps, as the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon has just suggested, up to at least the overall disability employment rate. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman spells out with passion in his foreword, at the moment, we are

“missing out on the skills and energy that autistic people could be contributing, to the detriment of us all.”

He is absolutely right about that. The danger, I fear, is that without targets against which to measure progress, the report may not really change things.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for engaging so closely. I absolutely agree that without a means of accountability, the work that we have done may well be lost. I think that the task group will play an important role; it will have the freedom to start developing some more hard-and-fast approaches where necessary, and to hold the Government’s feet to the fire—whatever that Government’s complexion. I hope that gives the right hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that intervention. Perhaps he could use his influence with the task group—I do not know whether he is a member of it; I am not sure how that will work out, but I am sure he will have influence with it—to urge it to adopt the target that he set out a few minutes ago, which I think could make a substantial difference.

I welcome the call in the report for

“processes and support mechanisms that enable autistic staff to be recruited and to succeed.”

In that context, I want to draw attention to a concept that is not mentioned in the report—I am a bit disappointed that it was not—but which has been referred to elsewhere, not least in our Select Committee report.

The concept of job carving means assessing a person’s skills and then tailoring an employee role to those skills. Catherine Hale, director of the Chronic Illness Inclusion project, told our 2021 inquiry that job carving was particularly effective in supporting people with learning disabilities; given the big overlap between autism and learning disability, I think that job carving could certainly help. The charity Mind says that job carving roles for people with learning disabilities can benefit employers by removing tasks from other employees and freeing up time. In its “Working Better” report, the Equality and Human Rights Commission described job carving as a

“a flexible way of managing a workforce, which allows employers to utilise their staff skills in the most productive way whilst enabling disabled people to make a valuable contribution to the world of work.”

Our 2021 report called on the Government as part of their then forthcoming national disability strategy to provide detailed guidance to employers and providers of employment support on how they could job carve roles for disabled people, and called on Jobcentre Plus to encourage local employers in their area to job carve. The Government’s response to our report did not pick up the concept of job carving, but Ministers could still pick it up in responding to the report we are debating this afternoon. I wonder whether the Minister, who I know takes a very close interest in this area, recognises that job carving could make a significant difference to the employment prospects of many autistic people.

One thing the Government response to our 2021 inquiry did refer to was the plan at that time to increase the number of places on the intensive personalised employment support scheme. IPES provides voluntary employment support to people with disabilities and complex barriers to employment. As we noted in our report, the guidance to IPES providers explicitly mentions job carving as an intervention that can help disabled people to find and stay in work. IPES is referred to in paragraph 2.11 of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s report, which rightly points out that referrals to IPES have now ended, as our Select Committee heard in a one-off evidence session last week on the Government’s back to work plan. There will be no more IPES referrals.

We were told by providers at our evidence session last week that the work and health programme, also referred to in paragraph 2.11 of the report, is also coming to an end. Those are two programmes that the report rightly identifies as providing valuable help for people with autism to move into employment which are being shut down. The Minister may want to comment on this in due course, but, as far as I can tell, it does not appear that any of the newer employment support programmes, such as WorkWell and universal support, will provide support comparable to that which is being closed down, and which the report has rightly identified as very helpful. The fear is that, despite the laudable aims set out in the report, which I know the Minister will endorse, we are in reality going backwards. The provision at the moment, which has been there for some time, is being removed. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us why IPES and the work and health programme are being closed down, and where the new initiatives are to close what looks like an emerging gap in provision for people with autism.

Employers are struggling at the moment to fill vacancies. The right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon is absolutely right that there is a big opportunity here to boost disability employment if we can just find a way to enable employers to tap into it. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) is absolutely right that employers are willing to do so, if only they knew how—it is a bit of a closed book to them. I do not think there is a lack of willingness on the part of employers, but there is a lack of information.

It was very interesting to read in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s review about Auticon, which I had not heard of before. It is an IT consultancy in which 80% of the workforce are autistic, highly talented IT consultants. The founders—I think they were in Scandinavia —recognised that many autistic adults have extraordinary abilities, such as pattern recognition, sustained concentration and attention to detail, which are valuable qualities in many employment contexts. However, autistic people need support to secure and maintain those jobs, and Auticon specifically provides that support, understanding the needs of its employees, and has built a successful business on that basis.

I am glad that the report also highlights in that respect the good work of GCHQ, which is a big employer in my neck of the woods. Another example along those lines is an IT security company in Worcester called Titania. Its chief executive is an autistic woman, and it has tailored its recruitment process specifically to address some of the challenges that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) has identified in his report, so that it can recruit more autistic people, who it finds are such valuable and productive employees.

That sounds like a wonderful model. The more of that kind of initiative around the country, the better.

The report makes the point that a line manager in a mainstream business may well not know that somebody they are managing is autistic. Whether the employer can agree reasonable adjustments for the employee, as is their right under the Equality Act, will depend on them self-disclosing their diagnosis to their line manager. As the review notes, whatever the level of understanding among company directors or senior staff, if the line manager is unable or unwilling to provide support, the employee will struggle to stay in their job.

The review is right to point out that at the moment there is no easily accessible guidance for employers and line managers on how to support autistic staff. Evidence to our inquiry so far suggests that, as the hon. Member for Worcester rightly said, employers want to do the right thing but often simply do not know how. When they are pointed in the right direction and try it, it turns out to be a positive experience. What can the Government do to give employers confidence in this area?

The review calls on the Department to

“Continue to develop Disability Confident, increasing the rigour of developmental work needed to achieve the higher Disability Confident levels”.

I think that is a very kind way of expressing the point. The noble Lord Shinkwin, who sits on the Government Benches in the other place and chaired the disability commission for the Centre for Social Justice, spoke for many of our witnesses when he said that Disability Confident

“is not making a measurable impact”

at the moment. Employers can, as things stand, achieve the highest level of Disability Confident accreditation without employing a single disabled person.

In response to our predecessor Select Committee six years ago, the Department said that it was developing proposals for an evaluation of Disability Confident. That commitment, first expressed six years ago, was announced again in response to our report almost three years ago in November 2021. However, I have still seen no sign of anything happening. Perhaps the Minister can update us. Is that evaluation of Disability Confident now complete, and when can we expect Disability Confident finally to be reformed?

The review is absolutely right to highlight the importance of Access to Work and to call for improvements there. It makes the point—I think the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon referred to this in his speech—that almost two thirds of disabled people stated that it took over three months for their application to be processed, and 20% said that it took over six months. He is absolutely right that that is far too slow. I agree that, as the review suggests, if the adjustment passport produces positive results, it should be rolled out nationally as soon as possible. However, in response to our Committee’s report three years ago in November 2021, we were promised that the adjustment passport would be piloted from November 2021 and, if successful, would be expanded to support all Access to Work customers. As far as I can tell, we seem to be no further forward in 2024 than we were in November 2021. When are these long-promised improvements actually going to materialise?

One other policy lever the Government could pull is mandatory disability workforce reporting, which was recommended unanimously, on a cross-party basis, in our 2021 report. There is a voluntary framework through which employers can choose to report, but in late 2021 the Government launched a consultation on whether to require large employers to report the number of disabled people they were employing. That work was then paused, but I understand that it has now been resumed, and that the Government plan to publish their findings and next steps in the course of this year. I wonder whether the Minister can update us on when we can expect to see that work. Does she agree that requiring employers to report on the number of disabled people they employ and, within that, perhaps the number of autistic people, could be effective in encouraging the employment of people with autism and other health impairments?

I very much welcome the report, which has highlighted important issues, and the opportunity to debate it today. I also welcome the positive approach that the right hon. and learned Gentleman took, when introducing the report earlier, in seeing the scale of opportunity if we get this right. However, laudable aspirations in this area are just not enough if delivery is delayed for years. We need an ambitious target to increase the rate of employment among people with autism and other disabled people. We need worked-up plans and timescales to deliver them. I very much hope that—perhaps as a result of the work of the task group that he mentioned—we will finally see some of that when the Government respond formally to this very welcome report.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Running through my mind are the words, “Follow that!” I thank the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for producing this outstanding report. His family’s lived experience has absolutely made for a much better report, and I thank him for all the work that he has done on it. To follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) is always a privilege and a pleasure—he has taken away some of my best lines, but I will carry on regardless.

It is a real pleasure to speak in the debate, which I signed up for immediately, having spoken many times in this place on the subject of autism. I think it would be remiss of me not to mention Dame Cheryl Gillan at the start of my remarks. One of the first debates that I spoke in was on the closure of the autism One Stop Shop in Motherwell back in 2015, and Dame Cheryl was so kind and helpful to me when I spoke to that important topic. I should point out that I am very close to someone with three autistic sons. My own youngest son has never been diagnosed, but I do not think there is much doubt that he is somewhere on the spectrum, and I think he would admit that himself. I also thank Ambitious about Autism and the National Autistic Society for their briefings, which are always helpful.

The current situation regarding employment for those with autism is simply not good enough across the UK. The UK Government have consistently banged on about reducing economic inactivity and encouraging people into work, but their rhetoric is still not matched with proper support, especially for the neurodiverse, about whom we are talking today.

As we have heard, issues with access to work and the provision of workplace adjustments mean that many autistic people are slipping through the gaps. This is certainly the case for those with autism: as we have also heard, only three in 10 working-age autistic people in the UK are in employment. That statistic is five in 10 for all disabled people, and eight in 10 for non-disabled people. Ambitious about Autism’s employment survey found that 71% of those unemployed would like to be in work, but less than a third were confident that they would find work within the next year. That signifies a huge gap in the support currently provided.

I have seen at first hand the transformative power of employment when autistic and disabled people are properly supported into work. I had the privilege of visiting University Hospital Wishaw to meet some of the participants in the supported internship scheme run by DFN Project SEARCH, and met some of the students on that scheme. Some of them have now found employment. Some of them have now married. The transformation in their lives and those of their families cannot be over- estimated—I literally had to be dragged off the scene, because that was one of the most uplifting visits I have undertaken as an MP.

Employment brings fulfilment, independence and purpose, and as I have said, it can positively transform the life of the employee if they are well supported. However, even when employed, autistic people face challenges and discrimination. The Buckland report finds that autistic workers face the largest pay gap of all disability groups, earning on average a third less than their non-neurodiverse counterparts. Further, the report notes that autistic graduates are twice as likely as non-disabled graduates to be unemployed after 15 months. Only 36% find work in that period, and autistic graduates are more likely to be overqualified for the job they have. They are the most likely people to be on zero-hour contracts and the least likely to be in a permanent role. All of those things require looking at properly, because the statistics are appalling.

Morally, we should be ensuring that autistic workers are supported when trying to find employment, but it is also incumbent upon Government, employers and other stakeholders to ensure that those with autism are adequately supported when they are in work. The SNP welcomes the publication of the Buckland review of autism and employment, and urges the Government to implement its recommendations to ensure that autistic people have the opportunities they deserve. I further welcome the report’s engagement with autistic organisations, as lived experience is vital when shaping policy. That is something the UK Government do not always have a good track record on.

A lack of access to good-quality careers advice, inflexible hiring practices and non-inclusive workplace cultures are just some of the barriers facing autistic people. Once employment has been achieved, autistic people can struggle when employers do not or cannot put in place proper adjustments to support them. Autistic people process information differently and experience a built environment in a totally different manner, which can impinge on their ability to carry out their work—too much bright light, noise, or social interaction can be overwhelming. Additionally, as has been said, autistic people might need more time to process interview questions. It is imperative that employers are aware of such differences and take steps to accommodate autistic workers—or any disabled workers, for that matter. A person close to me has an autistic son who wears a badge at work to indicate his mood to his co-workers. It is a simple thing: if he is feeling overwhelmed and does not want people to talk to him or to be interrupted, he turns the badge to indicate that.

From my own experience in further education, I know that my students benefited immensely when we had autistic students in class. At first they thought it was strange—they were a bit wary—but over the year they developed an understanding of autism and a real respect for the autistic students who sat next to them. The same happens in workplaces: if we can get people into the right place and the right job, everyone benefits. Not accommodating autistic workers wastes so much talent and skill. It makes no sense for businesses either—we have already heard about the special skills that autistic people can bring to the workplace. When businesses properly accommodate neurodiverse employees, the results can be amazing. I have visited the Barclays bank campus in Glasgow, designed by a woman architect who has autistic sons. The difference in that building is awesome: it is built with neurodiverse people in mind, with big open-plan offices with chill pods and a real understanding of what needs to happen. As a result, Barclays has great employees, and people are getting good work and proper jobs.

It is imperative that the UK Government act urgently to improve support for all disabled people, including those with autism, and tackle barriers to employment. We are really worried about the Prime Minister’s recent announcement on fit note reform: pushing people into work without considering what they are suffering and what they need is appalling. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I get very passionate about this topic, so I will try to rush through.

It is important that Access to Work is reformed, as the Buckland report calls for, and reforms to sick pay also need to be introduced for when people need time off. In Scotland, the SNP Government try our best. We are trying to be a fair work nation and are investing money in autism, as well as in simple things such as working within education to get initial teacher education courses that will teach trainee teachers about autism, because as we know, education is the gateway to employment. I will stop there, Madam Deputy Speaker. Again, I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon, and I want the Minister to take on board all the report’s recommendations and make life much easier for those with autism in the workplace.

I am the next in line to congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) on securing and opening this debate, but also—and particularly—on the contents of his report. His persistence in pushing to raise awareness of the barriers autistic people face in employment is greatly to his credit, and benefits this House and our understanding of these issues. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and colleagues for making such valuable and insightful contributions. In passing, I also put on record my admiration for Autism Together, formerly the Wirral Society for Autistic Children—a great local charity that has been around for 50 years and does very good work in this area, which has not always been fashionable for people to concentrate on.

As we have heard this afternoon, the Buckland review has been broadly welcomed by charities and other organisations. It has shone a light on the barriers that neurodivergent people continue to face when trying to get into, stay in, and get on in the workplace. It has also demonstrated that there is an increasing understanding of the benefits of ensuring that people with neurodivergence can get into work: they often have a unique view and unique talents. Not only does GCHQ know about those talents, but many other sectors could benefit if they only realised it.

The review is filled with statistics that make for grim reading, to say the least. Only 30% of autistic adults are currently in work—what a waste! Where they are in work, autistic people face the largest pay gap of all disability groups—that is simply not a fair reflection of the benefit they bring to employment. Autistic graduates are the most likely to be overqualified for their position and least likely to be in a permanent role. Our society and our economy suffer as a result of the waste that the Buckland review has outlined to the House. We ought to be anxious to do something about that.

The review highlights that a startling 50% of managers feel uncomfortable with the idea of hiring disabled people. Let us imagine someone wanting to work but being prevented from doing so because the hiring manager feels uncomfortable around them, does not understand the way in which they relate to the world or has preconceived ideas about their ability. That is pure discrimination. It is not always deliberate, but it must feel like it, whether it is suffered because of benign ignorance or bigotry. We must think about how to get rid of the ignorance that the report talks about, and we must give neurodivergent people the confidence that the law will support them if they are subjected to bigotry.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s report talked very much about the soft power end of tackling that, but we also have to think as a society about the harder end. We have discrimination law in place for people with disabilities. Perhaps we need to think about how to give that more bite. I admit that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not done that in his review, and it probably was not in the terms of reference, but it is important to remember that context when considering this issue. We simply cannot let generation after generation of very talented people be wasted in this way.

The review’s key recommendations are only a first step on the road to eliminating some of the barriers. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that, although he is appropriately passionate about what he discovered in his review. Undoubtedly, many of the recommendations have the potential to have a positive impact on autistic people’s experiences and open up those important vistas of opportunity for them in our society.

The review rightly has a strong focus on collaborating with autistic people, employers, employer organisations and specialist support groups. That is important because there are unique insights to be had. Clearly, the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s report has done that very well. For example, shadow Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), went to an event attended by BT a few months ago to highlight how to improve its hiring practices and workplace support for neurodivergent people. She told me that BT spoke highly not only of the positive benefits felt by autistic employees, but of how the company has been able to capitalise on the unique skills that they bring. There are many examples of that, some of which we have heard today.

The review has been largely welcomed, but we must ask how quickly it can be implemented and whether we can give it a bit more bite. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is very gentle in his way, and no doubt he has been sent down particular railroads by the Government in producing his report. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that other neurodivergent and disabled people benefit from measures similar to those outlined in the review? What can she say to back up the remarks made by the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), about increasing the predictability and speed of access to work, making it easier for people to know that they will be supported in a practical way if they make the step into work?

Over the last few years, the Government have brought a hodgepodge patchwork of piecemeal measures claiming to strengthen and improve the rights of disabled and neurodivergent people. There has been lots of activity, but very little effective output in terms of a change in the number of people with disabilities in work. We had the national disability strategy, which was largely viewed as tinkering around the edges. We had the health and disability White Paper, which raised more questions than it answered. We had the disability action plan—again, a smattering of well-received, small policy ideas. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham pointed out, we had the dropping of the target for increasing employment of disabled people more generally.

We have had consultation after consultation, pilots and various hearts and minds initiatives with employers, but little has changed, as we have seen in the Buckland review. We need proper action, not more gentle observations. We need to deal with the societal barriers that make the lives of people with neurodiversity challenging and their employment prospects far too narrow.

On inclusion measures, there was a contradiction that struck me when listening to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, between the bleak picture that the review paints of the continuing barriers that autistic people face while trying to get into work, and some of the other attitudes that can be discerned in the Government about how to deal with that. The Minister for Women and Equalities, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), is on the record saying that equality, diversity and inclusion measures have already gone too far, dismissing them as “snake oil” and performative, and deriding disability equality and inclusion measures in the economy as woke and something to be eliminated and driven out. That sends confusing and mixed messages about the Government’s approach.

I hope that the Minister’s response will include a far more positive approach, telling us that the Government intend to do something about the review. I hope that they will take up some of the issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham raised in his contribution about targets rather than nice words and warmth, which we all agree with. We want targets and a commitment to practical action, not just a repeat of the issues about Disability Confident employers. As my right hon. Friend said in his remarks, analysis shows that disabled people do not report better experiences working for Disability Confident employers compared with employers that are not part of the scheme. An employer can say that they are Disability Confident without employing a single disabled person. Is it not time for targets, and transparency about the numbers of people with disabilities who are in work? Is it not time for reporting, more rigour and, if needs be, an application of the law?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for introducing this important debate on autism employment. It is a pleasure to follow the Lesbian Visibility Week debate. I had the pleasure of hearing Dame Kelly Holmes talk about how it had changed her life at an Inspiring Leadership Awards this week. Let me take the opportunity to put on record our covenant that covers disadvantaged girls and vulnerable young women.

I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for mentioning Dame Cheryl Gillan. I pay tribute to her passion and commitment in championing autism and its opportunities, and understanding of the individual, which is so important. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon also does that so well. I firmly believe that autism should not be a barrier to starting, staying or succeeding in employment. I know that all Members present and those watching share that vision. Although not every autistic person can work, given the right long-term support—not just to get into work, but to progress in work—the vast majority could. One in 70 people is autistic, which is about a million people across the UK. Giving more autistic people the chance to get into work is incredibly good for them, as we heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon today.

There is a huge opportunity to tackle economic inactivity. The talent range and myriad potential must be realised, and I will do my utmost today to give an update on many of the questions raised and what comes next. We know it is good for employers, in building that diverse workforce, to work with more diverse customers. In my role, in answer to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), it is about proper inclusion and action, and turning warm words—not just from me, but from employers and sectors—into action. I can promise her that there has been no railroading on what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon should include in his review. I will come on to the next steps, and there will also be a further update on the disability action plan in July. Hopefully we are starting off well in answering questions.

In 2017 the Government set a goal to see a million more disabled people in employment by 2027. I am proud to say that in the first quarter of 2022 the number of disabled people in employment had increased by 1.3 million, meaning that the goal had been met within five years. In the first quarter of 2023 disability employment had risen by 1.6 million in total since the goal was announced. I am aware that progress has been good but not even. I feel this week I am under scrutiny again from the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms). I am focused on this next goal and how we review and shape what is next. Members should watch this space.

It is sad but true, as we have heard today, that currently only three in 10 working-age autistic people are in employment, even though we know that the majority of autistic people would like to be in work. Indeed, their families would love to see them progressing. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon says the dial needs to be moved on autism and neuro- diversity more widely, and we do need to move that dial. The design we are working on for universal support and engagement with the Department for Education, whether that is supportive internships or broader apprenticeships, has to work for young people and the people in our communities. Seven in 10 working-age autistic people being unable to access independence and the sense of fulfilment that employment can bring is far too many.

As the Minister heard, the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested a few minutes ago that there should be a target for raising the level of employment among autistic people at least up to the wider disability employment rate. Will she consider adopting that target?

I am absolutely looking at the right way forward, because for me, if someone acquires a disability, we need to be looking at how they are retained in work and whether they have a particular impairment or need. I am looking at that in the round. As part of the Disability Confident challenges, the new guidance for leadership, working with the CIPD, is important. We need to be talent confident. Many employers want to employ more inclusively. They just struggle with how to do it and so regress to the same old recruitment.

There is also an autism friendly employer award, which we should be looking at. I am proud to say that I have that—I am one of the few parliamentarians who do. It is worth raising that too.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important point for all of us. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) mentioned the Fair Shot café in Covent Garden. I think we will all be popping down for coffee and banana cake. My predecessor enjoyed his visit there, and I am looking forward to seeing more work like that, because these things are incredibly important.

The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, talked about job carving, and I call it job design. It is about working with employers, looking at the roles they have, interviewing in the way that suits people and giving long-term support. I totally agree with all the charities that talk about jobcentres always having that individualised approach. I promise the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw and all those watching that it is about the right role for the right person in front of us at DWP, so that we can actively change people’s lives. That is what we are in the business of doing; it is not just warm words.

The point on self-employment that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned links to the Lilac review and active, positive choices for disabled people. We recognise talent, ability and entrepreneurship. There is a positive choice there, and access to cash is important.

I will turn to my right hon. and learned Friend’s point on autistic people and the recruitment process. I thank Helen Tomlinson, the Government’s menopause champion, who is also the head of talent at the Adecco Group. Thanks to her support, my officials are working with Adecco and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation to develop new methods for recruitment that work effectively for both autistic and neurotypical applicants, ensuring that employers are more able to secure the talent they need to thrive. The Government are determined to provide the right support. I also note and agree with the point about career progression for autistic people.

Access to Work continues to provide grants for extra costs, and those adjustment passports are key. We are focusing on new employment. I recognise that there have been delays, and that is partly because more people know and understand the value of Access to Work. We are continuing to develop a universal support scheme. I recognise the point that the right hon. Member for East Ham has made, and I hope I have reassured him about the design on that. I cannot cover all the wide-ranging points he made in this debate, but I am happy to write to him on those.

On the challenge of being ambitious and on what comes next, and in terms of what we are looking to achieve, I can announce that my officials will shortly be going out to the autism community to seek expressions of interest in joining the group, starting with the role of chair. It will be a transparent, inclusive process, and the selection panel will be entirely independent of Government. I fully expect that that is where outcomes and what comes next will be realised when it comes to the review’s ambitions.

To conclude, this report is a big and extremely welcome step forward. It has not only produced a plan to overcome barriers for autistic people, but shows a path that can be followed for other groups facing barriers to employment and those with other types of neurodiversity and learning. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon once again.

The review made the point about the reform of Disability Confident. Can the Minister give an update on that? Has the evaluation been completed? When will the changes be brought forward?

There have been some changes, and I have mentioned some of the updates. There is more to come, which I think the right hon. Gentleman will be interested in and will welcome, if he can just bear with me. If I am not constantly in the Chamber being examined, I can get on with the bits that I want to bring forward to the House, if that makes sense to those watching. We are seeing some great progress and some best practice. Things always work best when there is real change in getting autistic people into employment. I agree with the hon. Member for Wallasey. I agree with the whole reason for the report, and I thank James and the charity and all those who brought the report together. We need to deliver for autistic people. This is just the start, and may we long continue to deliver on that ambition.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will exercise my prerogative, because there was a proper debate, with some challenge to the report and the approach taken. May I first say that I make no apology for the fact that the report did not, as is so often the case, make yet another call for a change in the law or ask for another slug of Government money? I just do not think that either will really cut it.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) to talk about the legal framework. We have equalities legislation, and we have a protected characteristic—namely disability—under which autism clearly comes, fairly and squarely. I am absolutely with her in making sure that employers and employees are much better equipped to understand the full ambit of that and what discrimination actually means. She is right that, more often than not, discrimination is not the product of deliberate, malicious or wilful behaviour, but the product of ignorance. I think that word “ignorance” underpins so much of the obstacles that autistic people and neurodiverse people face in the workforce.

Now, I am with the hon. Lady on waging a war on ignorance, but may I say to Opposition Members that they should not confuse perhaps a diplomatic or gentle approach with a lack of inner determination and steel to get change? That has always been how I have operated. I do believe in respect and courtesy, but underpinning that is a determination to hold the Minister to account and to hold Governments of a future complexion to account. That is why the task group has an important role.

I am grateful to the civil servants who work with the Minister for sharing the draft terms of reference with me. The debate can help inform that process further. The terms of reference, which emphasise the independence of the chair and the group, are a good start. We should make it absolutely clear in those terms of reference that the group is free to look at targets, timescales and the sort of approach that I have presaged in my speech and which the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), rightly presses us on. Let us take that away from the debate as something on which we must build.

I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for mentioning DFN Project SEARCH. DFN stands for David Forbes-Nixon, who is an incredible man whose own son is autistic. With the charity that he set up, he has built this incredible network. She was right to mention that.

I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for her remarks. She knows that I will be holding the Government’s feet to the fire on this matter. Let us use the review as the basis of progress. Let us get industry and business behind us, and let us move the dial on autism employment. Let us get on with it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the recommendations of the Buckland Review into Autism and Employment; and urges the Government, businesses and the wider economy to implement them.