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Employment: Disabled People

Volume 828: debated on Monday 6 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have for new initiatives to encourage business and industry to employ disabled people.

My Lords, a range of government initiatives are already supporting disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work. The Government are working to improve and better integrate resources for businesses, helping them to support and manage health and disability in the workplace. The Government are looking in detail at workforce participation, including discussions with business and industry, whose role is key to making the most of the talents of disabled people in the workforce.

I thank the Minister for his helpful Answer; I will follow up on some of the points that he just made. Just 5% of adults with a learning disability are in work. One way to change this is by offering more supported internships; the charity Hft tells me that this helps business better understand the benefits of employing someone with a learning disability. However, the problem is that supported internships are available to people only up to the age of 25. Will the Government consider extending this scheme to include learning-disabled people over the age of 25, which would enable many more to get into work?

I appreciate the noble Lord’s question and the work that he does in this area. I can assure him that the Government are committed to reducing the disability employment gap, including in relation to the young and interns. It is important that those who have a disability are given every chance to start on the path to a career. What I cannot do, I am afraid, is commit to the noble Lord’s point about extending the scheme beyond the age of 25, but I have noted it and will take it back to the department.

My Lords, what happened to the Government’s national disability strategy, which was declared illegal by the Court of Appeal a while ago? It does not seem to have been renewed. Moreover, many of the recommendations made by the committee on disability that I chaired have still not been implemented by the Government. When are the Government going to be proactive?

We have a disability action plan, but it is separate from the noble Baroness’s point about the national disability strategy. We are disappointed by, and strongly disagree with, the High Court’s finding that that strategy was unlawful; as the noble Baroness may know, the Secretary of State has been granted permission to appeal the court’s declaration. In order to ensure compliance with the court’s declaration, we are obliged to pause a limited number of policies referred to in the strategy or directly connected with it, which is a disappointment.

My Lords, I declare my interests in this field as set out in the register. What are the Government doing to make sure that businesses, particularly small ones, know that, if they employ a disabled people, they have somebody who is less likely to take time off work and less likely to change jobs frequently—both those things are proven—than a non-disabled person? This sort of information would certainly help to break down perceptual barriers.

Indeed, and this is very much a matter for Jobcentre Plus. Further training is being given to job coaches in jobcentres. It is very important that those with health conditions or disabilities receive the support and advice that they need to move into or to stay in employment.

My Lords, last December, research conducted by the economic and social inclusion unit revealed the huge benefits and the challenges regarding the working conditions, employment and retention of personal assistants for working-age disabled people to allow them to be economically active. This is the third time that I have raised this issue in the House, so hopefully it will be third time lucky. Has the Minister taken account of this useful evidence on service user need and experience? Will it inform improvements and, if so, how and when?

Yes, indeed, I am aware of the question. Although I do not have an answer to that point, I will certainly write to the noble Baroness about it. I am not sure that she has asked it three times, but maybe she did so with my predecessor.

My Lords, employment figures show that a significant number of older people have left the labour market. There is a large differential in healthy life expectancy across the country. Many people in their fifties and sixties are not well. Some may have left work due to ill health or disability but would be able to work part time. What more can the Government do to encourage flexible working to provide more help in this area?

As my noble friend will know, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working provided they have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks. As she will know, under the Equality Act, employers must make reasonable adjustments to ensure that workers with disabilities are not substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs. This could include a flexible working arrangement; for example, a change to the timing, hours or location of work. I assure her that in December 2022 the Government responded to a consultation that considered changes to this legislation to provide employees with better access to flexible working arrangements.

My Lords, given that a major challenge to the UK’s economic recovery is a significant labour shortage, not least because activity rates for the over-50 age group remain low, is it not in everyone’s interest that those labelled as disabled people should be looked upon for their abilities rather than their disabilities, and helped into the active workforce by the availability of every positive assistance that the state can provide?

The noble Lord is right. This is why we have the disability action plan, which, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is distinct from the strategy. A new disability action plan will be consulted on and published this year. It will set out the action that the Government will take this year and in 2024 to improve disabled people’s lives. The noble Lord is right that ensuring that the voice of disabled people is properly heard is a priority for the Government. We will run a fully accessible public consultation on the plan this year.

My Lords, on 12 January, the Disability News Service reported that neither the Secretary of State, Mel Stride, nor Tom Pursglove, the Minister for Disabled People, had signed up to become members of Disability Confident, unlike many previous Ministers. On 23 January, Mel Stride said that

“we have to ensure that employers see disabled people with eyes wide open—their abilities and the contribution they can make. That is why we promote Disability Confident”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/1/23; col. 735.]

Have the Secretary of State and the Minister for Disabled People now signed up to Disability Confident?

I can certainly confirm that a whole range of departments have signed up to this, including the Department for Work and Pensions. Although I cannot answer the noble Baroness’s question in terms of the individuals concerned, the department at least has signed up.

My Lords, for a number of years, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and I have worked together to improve the lives of disabled people. Motability has over 650,000 people. Importantly, what has changed is that now many of them are computer literate. What is more, instead of loneliness, they can work at an office. Many whom I know would love not only to do that but to feel that they can put something back into society, which has helped them over the years. How can we encourage employers to realise that, as was just said, this would help the economy?

I hope that I can help my noble friend by talking about the work that we are doing on communication. It is very important that a digital service is organised for employers and offers tailored guidance on health and disability. This is a key outcome of the “health is everyone’s business” consultation, which was rolled out in 2019. It is very important to use this as a vehicle to allow the people to whom my noble friend referred to move forward in their careers.

My Lords, following the original Question about the low number of adults with learning disabilities in the workforce, what are the Government doing to ensure that schools have adequately funded programmes available, so that young people with learning disabilities can have work experience opportunities and, therefore, develop their aspirations to be part of the future workforce?

The noble Baroness again raises an important point, which would go to the Department for Education, but I will answer on behalf of the Government. I have no doubt that there are some initiatives within that department that would help in this area. As I said earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, it is very important to ensure that those with disabilities can, as soon as possible, move seamlessly from school into work and can stay in work.

My Lords, several gardening charities do wonderful work with people with disabilities, whether mental or otherwise. Would my noble friend look at the opportunities that are offered in horticulture, which range from simple to degree-level qualifications?

I will certainly look at that. My noble friend raises a very good point and I happen to know somebody with disabilities who works in the gardening sector. I agree that this is a useful area, particularly for young people to start out in.