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Disabled People and Economic Growth

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018

I beg to move,

That this House recognises the potential talent pool within the disabled community; notes that there will be an employment gap after the UK leaves the EU and that there is ample opportunity to include disabled workers in economic growth; calls on the Government to act immediately on its commitment to get one million more disabled people into employment by 2027; and further calls on the Government to increase awareness within the business community of the benefits of employing an inclusive workforce.

I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee for enabling the debate to take place. I also pay tribute to the many organisations that continuously champion the rights of people with disabilities throughout the United Kingdom. Without their enduring commitment, we would not be debating his important issue today. I pay special tribute to Leonard Cheshire Disability, to Disability Rights UK—which acts as secretariat to the all-party parliamentary group for disability, which I chair—and to the Disability@Work group. That group consists of dedicated academics from Cardiff University, Warwick business school and Cass business school, and it contributed to the APPG’s inquiry report “Ahead of the Arc”. Since commissioning the report, the all-party group for disability has been pressing the Government urgently to address the disability employment gap, and I know the Minister is open and willing to listen to the report’s suggestions.

This Backbench Business Committee debate is a significant step forward in the fight for equal rights for disabled people. To my knowledge, this is the first time that people with disabilities will be debated in the main Chamber with a focus on their abilities and as contributors to our economy, and not just as employees but as entrepreneurs and as business leaders.

Does the hon. Lady agree that many employers need education, particularly about those who suffer from mental health difficulties, as many employers are scared or reluctant to take on somebody as they do not understand some of the issues such people face?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and only yesterday I was contacted by a number of people and organisations reminding me to highlight that very point. People with mental health difficulties, and often people with hidden disabilities or disabilities that are not always apparent, can find it a struggle to explain and raise awareness about their difficulties and the adjustments they require. We need heightened awareness among employers—and in Parliament, too, I would suggest. We must continue along that path to raise awareness, to make sure we can harness the skills and potential of everyone for our economy.

All too often, people with disabilities are portrayed as passive and unwilling to work, but that could not be further from the truth. I want to use this debate to change the narrative. I want to see meaningful action, rather than research and rhetoric. I want to see a welfare system that treats people with disabilities as a willing and able workforce. I want to see improvements to current access routes and the development of new workplace cultures that reflect a genuine appreciation on the part of employers of the positive contributions that people with disabilities make, and I want to see accredited business schemes that go further than ticking boxes. While I might not be able to cover all these points in my speech, I know that colleagues across the parties will be passionately advocating similar policy and attitudinal change, which is much needed. I hope the Minister will take on board all Members’ suggestions here today and that we will make progress moving forward.

I want to start on a positive, uplifting note. I have been greatly heartened over the past few weeks by hearing accounts of disabled entrepreneurs, employees and businesses that are champions of their fields. I would like to share but a few examples.

Hannah Chamberlain is a successful tech entrepreneur who recently won the £30,000 Stelios award for disabled entrepreneurs, which is run in conjunction with Leonard Cheshire Disability, after creating a video diary app that supports people to manage their mental health, called MentalSnapp. The app allows users to record short video diaries, rate their mood and name their feelings. It is an example of innovation at its finest, and I applaud Hannah for creating an app that will help so many.

John Cronin is an entrepreneur and now business leader who owns and runs his own sock company, which has made £1.4 million in its first year. John has Down’s syndrome. He runs the company in conjunction with his father and is the face of the brand. John is a business leader and manager, and nearly a third of his staff have a disability. John says his social and retail missions go hand in hand. He is a businessman and therefore is looking for good, reliable workers, and he believes the disabled community has a vast, untapped pool of great workers.

A number of larger corporations also understand the benefits of a diverse workforce. Corporations such as Channel 4 and Sainsbury’s are good examples of inclusive employers. Sainsbury’s and Channel 4’s workplace adjustment guides are second to none; both companies choose to focus on positive aspects of making adjustments, rather than their legal duty and minimal requirements to do so. Most importantly, these policies are distributed to all line managers, so everyone is aware of the adjustments they are entitled to, creating an open and inclusive environment and workforce in which both employees and company outputs can thrive. Channel 4 goes a step further by issuing “passports” for employees after receiving a workplace adjustment, so when the employee moves into a new role, or their line manager changes, the “passport” can be referred to and used in all future discussions with new line managers.

There are many other great examples of disabled business owners and entrepreneurs, and of inclusive employers, but I wanted to highlight those three, because each shows that in every corner of our economy, and in every type and size of business, inclusivity should be championed not just for ethical reasons, but because it makes good business and economic sense.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for the examples she has given of good practices in certain organisations, but is she aware that only 16% of people with autism are in full-time employment and only 32% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment at all? Does she agree that much more needs to be done to close the autism employment gap?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention highlighting the autism employment gap, which is far too large—much larger even than the disability employment gap. We must take extra strides to support people with autism into work, because they have great skills and abilities and they will be fantastic contributors to our economy given the appropriate opportunities.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and salute the work she does on the all-party group for disability. I serve on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and we are currently looking at how employers, work coaches and people with disability can better understand the assistive technology that is emerging. Does the hon. Lady think we can do more to bring those three interested parties together to help people enter and stay in the workforce?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important intervention. I am not a tech buff, but I am always heartened when we can see technology assisting people to achieve their potential and get into work. We need collaboration and to take those issues forward.

Examples of best practice are exactly that: they are examples to aspire to, and, as uplifting as they are, they are not a true reflection of the lived experiences of many disabled people. They do not reflect the systemic problems and barriers faced by many people with disabilities in looking for work or trying to retain it. It is time for Parliament to question why these practices, which move us forward and develop inclusivity, are not more commonplace.

In 2017, Scope published a report that found that one in two people with disabilities had experienced bullying and harassment at work and felt they could no longer take part in the workplace comfortably, and over half—58%—felt at risk of losing their job. So this is not just about getting people into work; it is about ensuring there is an environment that maintains people in work and helps them to aspire to and achieve their potential. Disabled people also have to apply for more jobs than non-disabled people before finding one; research shows that almost 60% more jobs have to be applied for. Lauren Pitt reported to The Independent in 2017 that she had to apply for over 250 jobs before securing one, so something is clearly not working correctly. We must ensure that employers are open to employing people with disabilities and to seeing their skills, abilities and value to the workplace and the economy.

The disability employment gap is large and enduring. The most recent figures from 2017 show that the gap currently stands at 31.4%. About 80% of non-disabled people of working age are in work, but the figure for people with disabilities is just 49%. This has been routinely recognised by the Government, and in their 2015 manifesto the Conservatives committed to halving the gap. However, research from the all-party parliamentary group for disability shows that, on the basis of progress to September 2016, that would have taken 49 years to achieve. Their 2017 manifesto replaced that commitment with a new commitment to get 1 million more disabled people into work in the next 10 years. Analysis suggests that this new target is weaker and is likely to be met simply because the number of disabled people within the working-age population is increasing. Even though the Government might well meet their new target, the size of the disability employment gap might not actually shrink. We must take account of that.

Most of the Government’s proposals for reaching their more attainable commitment are published in the Command Paper “Improving Lives”. A brief look at the paper shows that almost all the policies are dependent on further research or pilot schemes and cost very little to run, so I would ask that we have adequate resourcing and prioritisation. We cannot afford to sit and wait. Unemployed people with disabilities are entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else—now. Our economy cannot afford to sit and wait either. Scope has estimated that reducing the disability employment gap by just 10% would generate a further £12 billion for the Exchequer by 2030, so it makes absolute economic sense.

Finding a solution to the problem will involve going significantly beyond the Government’s current focus on welfare and benefits. We will not see significant increases in the number of disabled people in employment unless employers can be encouraged to up their game, to acknowledge the positive contribution that people with disabilities make in the workplace and to develop new workplace cultures and practices that are more accommodating. Reasonable adjustments are key.

I support what the hon. Lady is saying about businesses. Does she think that there could be a case for having larger employers report on the proportion of their workforce who have a disability, so that we could see which large employers were not pulling their weight and not taking advantage of the high-quality disabled employees who are in the market?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman on that point. It is particularly concerning that the Office for National Statistics has suspended publication of disability statistics from the labour force survey. We should ensure that that matter is addressed.

It is in employers’ self-interest to make a difference in this area, not least because it presents a solution to the labour market problems that this country is likely to face in the event of tighter controls on the free movement of people. The UK currently has a skills shortage, and it will become more profound once we leave the European Union. Indeed, KPMG recently published figures indicating that almost 1 million EU citizens, many of whom are highly qualified, are planning to leave following Brexit. We already have a willing workforce of people with disabilities whose skills are undervalued, and they should be trained in sectors that are developing and that will be much needed in the future. As has been mentioned, the health and tech sectors are extremely important.

This is fundamentally a labour supply issue. The Government will not be able to deliver on their industrial strategy if they do not have the capacity to do so, so we need to train our ready-and-waiting workforces across the UK. We need to see more investment in apprenticeships, as well as the targeted, widespread advertisement of current Access to Work schemes, to encourage the business community to utilise our workforce. The new commitment in the industrial strategy to increase the proportion of apprenticeships started by people with disabilities by 20% is an excellent start, and I commend the Minister for that, but it is not enough. It will form only part of the solution.

The Government acknowledge this critical role for employers, but their main policy in this area is to encourage more employers to sign up to the Disability Confident scheme. As I have argued previously in Parliament, the evidence on Disability Confident is varied. It shows that the scheme does not go far enough, and that it does not result in enough people being employed. It is particularly worrying, therefore, that the “Improving Lives” Command Paper uses the scheme as one of its central policies for achieving the Government’s target.

The all-party parliamentary group’s “Ahead of the Arc” report sets out a number of bold new alternative policy initiatives that the Government should pursue. These include using public procurement contracts as leverage by stipulating that such contracts will only go to firms that monitor disabled people’s employment and commit to adopting an inclusive approach to their recruitment and retention policies. To that end, Government initiatives should think of people with disabilities not just as employees but as entrepreneurs and business leaders. The Government must ensure that disabled entrepreneurs receive the support they need from business advisory networks such as the Federation of Small Businesses and local chambers of commerce, as well as the financial support they need from bodies such as Innovate UK and the British Business Bank.

I referred earlier to two great examples of disabled entrepreneurs. The notion that disabled people can be business owners and entrepreneurs as well as employees was completely missed by the “Improving Lives” paper. We must ensure that disabled people are not pigeonholed into one sector and that they have the opportunity to choose their own future and be masters of their own lives. That is why the Access to Work scheme should also apply to start-ups, to accommodate the talent and innovation of people with disabilities. The Government must also go further and fund specialist advice services on taxation and benefits for people with disabilities who want to explore the opportunities of self-employment.

As I have laid out today, the solutions are there in every corner of the economy, and if action is taken, the benefits could be felt by all in society immediately. But for this to happen, we need to change the current narrative and put good policy into practice, so that my constituents and those of other hon. Members throughout the land recognise that we need to tap into the under-utilised and important human resource of people with disabilities who are willing and able to work. The workforce are there and ready to fill the skills gap that will only grow once we leave the European Union. It is in the self-interest of employers and the Government to engage with this agenda and accommodate a diverse and inclusive workforce, but the reality is that far too many disabled people are facing no real prospects in today’s job market. That is simply unsustainable and, quite frankly, bad economics. I am pleased to have been able to bring this debate to the Chamber today, and I look forward to hearing other colleagues’ experiences. I also look forward to working together as part of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, and across the House, to take this extremely important issue forward.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker. I shall try to be better behaved today. I am truly grateful to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for leading this afternoon’s debate, for the tone that she has struck and for her constructive ideas. This follows a valuable Westminster Hall debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) on the Government’s Disability Confident scheme, to which she also made a thoughtful contribution. During that debate, Members highlighted some of the economic opportunities that would result if we increased the participation of disabled people in the workplace. We also focused on barriers to employment, the disability employment gap and the Access to Work scheme. I shall therefore not go into those subjects again, beyond suggesting that the disability employment gap is an issue every bit as urgent as other workforce diversity challenges. In so far as it results from a lack of employer awareness of the support available, we as MPs ought to take the lead in publicising the Government assistance offered. In that vein, I have now signed up as a Disability Confident employer, and I have discussed with my local jobcentre the possibility of offering a work placement for local disabled jobseekers with an interest in politics.

This afternoon, however, I wish to focus on the economic cost that we will face if we fail to unlock the potential of disabled people of all ages, as well as on the economic power of disabled people both as an active consumer group and as a motivation to develop new assistive technologies with broader application to our growing elderly population. I have previously highlighted the cases of two autistic constituents who desperately want to work but who struggle with the initial stage of any new job. In the past few weeks, I have met the families of autistic children who believe that we must focus our attention on earlier support and intervention. I recently visited First Step, a local charity that provides intensive developmental support to pre-school children. It can be an enormous shock to parents to discover that their child has a disability, and First Step assists not only with the child’s development, but in supporting parents in a non-judgmental environment. Caring for a child with disabilities can place a huge financial strain on a family, particularly if parents need to take time off work or do not have the right support network in place. However, as one local parent said,

“A failure to develop a child is not only a moral mistake, it is also a very expensive financial one. With proper, dedicated support these children could learn to talk and make a decent contribution to society. With no support, they will be left in adult day care centres or worse.”

Too often, local authority support is either entirely absent or limited and patchy. Early investment in the development and schooling of disabled children can lift the strain on parents, helping them return to the workplace, but it also increases the chances of economic participation when a child reaches adulthood and reduces the need for costly adult services later in life.

We also need to continue the steady improvements in accessibility to our transport system. The less daunting it is to leave the home, the more disabled people will be able to participate in the economy by working and spending. I commend the Government for their Access for All scheme, I support the Changing Places campaign, and I would be grateful if the Minister applied pressure on the Mayor of London to prioritise transport accessibility and facilities for disabled Londoners. Last week, Mr Khan found £6 million for new toilets for bus drivers. I wonder if he might make those facilities available to disabled transport users and also improve lift access to the District line, which runs through my constituency and is one of the most practical routes for disabled users to access.

With the advent of new assistive technologies, there is greater scope than ever for disabled people to contribute to growth, as well as colossal opportunities for UK tech and medical firms. As the Financial Times suggested in a recent article, 1 billion people across the world

“have some form of disability. As people live longer, often with conditions that reduce their ability to use their hands or to co-ordinate, the market will grow sharply. Accessibility makes good business sense”.

British businesses are developing more sophisticated prosthetic limbs, accelerating stem cell technology, improving websites for disabled consumers and building the Canute, which is like a braille Kindle for blind readers. Such technologies will be vital not just to quality of life, but to making it easier for disabled people to participate fully in the workplace.

In recent years, disability sport has been critical in changing perceptions of those with disabilities, and I hope that technological developments will continue that positive trajectory. Our role as politicians must be to create an environment that not only facilitates technological development, but embeds it in everything we do—whether that is the setting of new buildings standards, the design of public buildings and information delivery, or the integration of public services with technology. I shall be most grateful to the Minister if she will update the House on how the Government are encouraging accessibility and nurturing firms and charities that are developing assistive technologies, and I would appreciate her views on the points raised about the importance of early investment and transport.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability. I have been working on this issue on and off for over 20 years, so it is interesting that, despite all the efforts made by many people over the years, we still have just under 4 million people with disabilities who are called economically inactive, which means that they are of working age but not employed.

There has been some progress, however, and I remember working with others many years ago to support the then Conservative Prime Minister John Major in getting the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 passed. The DDA was an absolute game changer and created a regulatory framework to ensure that people could not discriminate against disabled people in goods and services or in employment. The reason why that was such a game changer is that disability discrimination is rather peculiar in that it is quite often tacit, quiet or nuanced. It could be what I call the “poor you” model. People may say, “You poor, brave disabled person. Here, have a benefit and do not worry about working.” We do not mean to do that—it is partly based on human nature and partly on a lack of understanding—but it can be incredibly difficult to break through. It was that way many years ago, and it can still be like that, although there has been some progress over the years.

The DDA worked well around goods and services. For example, if I have a restaurant and do not put a ramp outside, the disabled person in a wheelchair who cannot get in can sue me. It is very straightforward, and the situation is easy to fix. There may be cost implications, but most businesses got over that quickly, and as the chair of the APPG will know, when a business makes itself accessible, it often makes more than enough money to pay for the costs of improving accessibility.

Things are much harder, though, with employment, particularly if someone who is disabled is applying for job. If someone works for a company and acquires a disability, the DDA and broader knowledge in general mean that businesses, whether in the public sector or the private sector, are much more likely to make the necessary effort to keep them in a job. It is much harder for someone with a disability—they could be blind, visually impaired, deaf or have autism—to get over the threshold and get a job. I struggled with that issue many years ago with some good disability consultants, and I will mention them in the House because they have done so much over the years: Phil Friend, Simon Minty and James Partridge, a former chief executive of Changing Faces, which is a charity for those with a facial disfigurement. The four of us worked for many years in this area with the Business Disability Forum to try to break through, and it was difficult.

After losing my seat at the 2015 election, I went away and have now come back, and the APPG is still going great guns under the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. However, when I read the Government’s “Improving Lives” report, I still feel a little downhearted, which is not my nature. Anyone who is a Liberal and downhearted is in the wrong party, because we need to be optimistic, but progress is hard. However, I want to offer a little story of when things work, which can be game-changing for both disabled people and businesses. About 10 years ago, I was working with one of the big utility companies, and it had a large call centre in north London. I am sure that Members know that the turnover in call centres is always high, because it is a difficult job. The utility company had about 100 staff and, along with several others, I worked with the company to persuade it to take on 15 people with disabilities as call centre agents. It was hard work, but, to give the company its due, it did agree.

As I said earlier, the difficulty is not about people being anti-disabled; it is about fear, anxiety and people not knowing how to deal with circumstances that they do not understand. People often just lift the carpet and sweep people with disabilities under it, which I have always found frustrating. It makes me angry, and I know that other Members share that view.

Going back to the call centre, the company did finally agree, we found the right number of disabled staff to be interviewed, and 15 or so were hired. A year later, 14 of them were still there. Two years later, there were still 14 there. The point is that one of the fundamental advantages of hiring disabled staff is that they are often much more reliable than non-disabled staff for several different reasons, some of which are plainly evident. That makes the business case for hiring disabled people very strong, but they will need some guidance and support, not least because of their disability. My disability is hearing loss, so I need an induction loop, which I use in the Chamber, and a phone with a special volume control. It is just a matter of providing the right facilities, which is where Access to Work often comes in, to allow disabled people to shine.

Quiet discrimination is the much bigger issue. Disabled people may be viewed as not really capable, or employers may not know how to deal with a situation, so they may again sweep such things under the carpet. All those sorts of things are incredibly difficult to change, so where are we at? The Government’s Green Paper on improving lives was good because it highlighted some of the figures: 3.7 million disabled people are economically inactive. Another figure I have read is that if 1% of disabled employment and support allowance claimants gain employment, it would save the Exchequer £250 million and boost the economy by a further £260 million—that is £0.5 billion—which seems an awful lot of money from making an extra little effort to help people get jobs.

Every Government face disability challenges. It is hard for people to get back into work if they have been out of work for many years, but with the right levels of support, work is transformational for those individuals and families. A 2016 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that half of all households in poverty have at least one disabled member.

One of the reasons why many of us are MPs is that we know that helping people to get a job breaks the cycle of poverty, and that is certainly one of the main reasons why I got involved in politics. It just takes something focused. It is not enough just to say well-meaning things. I have been involved in this for years, probably more than anyone in the House, and well-meaning is not enough; regulation is needed.

I am tremendously appreciative of the fact that the Conservative Prime Minister John Major and his Government introduced the DDA—I do not often stand up in the House and compliment Conservatives—because it forced people to change. People with emotional attitudes often do not realise that they could be wrong or that they could be discriminating, which is why, even as a Liberal, there are certain times when I believe that we need to legislate. The DDA was one, and seatbelts was another. I am old enough to remember the uproar when seatbelts became compulsory—people said it was the end of the world as we know it. What happened is that people had to wear seatbelts, and they got busted by the law if they did not. Since then, as we all know, the number of people dying in car accidents has plummeted. It is the same with disability.

What needs to be done now, further to the DDA? All these years later, we still have not made enough progress. There need to be specific incentives for businesses to recruit disabled people. As the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned, there needs to be specific action on procurement. We need to be that prescriptive to break the logjam. The need is greater than ever because with Brexit, whatever side of the divide we sit on, we know that there will be substantial staff shortages over the coming years. In fact, a recent report identified that there will be 32 areas of staff shortages in tier 2 occupations. It has become ever more relevant to try to square this circle.

I will not let the Government off the hook completely. It was not the decision of the current Disabilities Minister—this is not personal—but this Government’s decision to change the work-related activity group of ESA so that people receive a lot less money is foolish and short-sighted. There are three areas of ESA: the support group, which is for people with a disability such that they cannot work; basic ESA, at the front end; and, in the middle, for many years there has been WRAG.

WRAG recognises that a claimant has a disability and pays them a bit of extra money, above and beyond the normal jobseeker’s allowance, because those claimants face extra costs due to their disability, but WRAG also recognises that those claimants are ready to work with support. That is really important, because it got people into the frame of mind of being ready to take a risk and leave the structure of the support group of ESA.

After the coalition, after the Liberals were defenestrated, George Osborne quickly cut WRAG by 30%. I was really depressed about it when the change came into effect in April 2017, because I knew what would happen. It is human nature. We should never underestimate the strength of fear for a person in the support group who has been disabled for years and who has been outside work but who is ready, with a little encouragement, to step into WRAG and to try to go for a job.

If I were that person, having been promptly told that my allowance is being cut by 30%, I would do whatever it takes to stay in the support group, because that is human nature. It is not rocket science. It is not bad. It is what people would do. It is what I would do. Even someone as intrepid as you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would do it because at least they would then be secure, with money for the roof over their head, for their children, for food and the rest. Reducing WRAG was such a foolish idea, and I am bitterly disappointed that the Government did it. It is a classic case of the Government cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Since being re-elected, I have had shedloads of post from disabled people trying frantically to get back into the support group, and I am supporting them. I would like the Minister to address that, and perhaps to take back to the Chancellor the fact that reducing WRAG was a bad idea. Perhaps we can change it.

Finally, where are we at? Again, I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow for securing this important debate that affects hundreds of thousands of people across the country. There is not an MP in this House who does not have hundreds, if not thousands, of disabled constituents. This is so important, as we know from our casework and from how many people with disabilities come to see us for help and support.

I would love to see this Government, or a Government, step up and do a DDA part 2 on employment that says businesses, the private and public sectors, organisations and charities across the piece have to do x to employ x number of disabled people, or at least to show that they have systems and processes and that they have interviewed the requisite number of people with disabilities for every job. I do not want it to be tokenistic, as a lot of people with disabilities have tremendous skills—they just need the opportunity. If that happens, it will transform the employment opportunities for disabled people and it will transform many millions of families living in poverty in which one or both parents are disabled. It will be the game changer that this nation deserves, and it might just possibly be something positive to come out of Brexit.

I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this Backbench Business debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), who is not just an hon. Friend but an actual friend.

We are all friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster made a powerful speech and stole at least half the things I was going to say.

People often ask, “Why did you go into politics?” I am sure we are all asked that, and we all have many reasons for going into politics, not just one. The most important reason I am in politics is to enable everybody to use their God-given talents, whatever they are, in the best way they can to contribute for themselves, for their family, for society and for the country. That is why I am in politics. People with disabilities are fully included in that, which is why this debate and this subject are of critical importance.

There will be those who say that many disability benefits should be more generous, and in some ways they probably should be. I know that the Minister, who truly and strongly believes in this brief, and Treasury Ministers will always do whatever they can to make sure appropriate resources are in place to help those who need them. But let us not kid ourselves. The subject of this debate is economic growth. What is important for people’s well-being and their lives is the opportunity to make the most of themselves in a professional, work, career capacity. That is crucial. Although benefits are important, we also need to do everything we can to get everybody who has a disability into appropriate work, where possible. That is what I regard as the heart of social mobility.

We often talk about social mobility in this House, in many different ways; we talk about it in debates about education, higher education, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We talk about it all over the place. The way we usually talk about it is by discussing an individual who has come from a poor background but overcome the odds to achieve something fantastic and get to the top of a profession. We should celebrate that—it is what Britain is about—but social mobility is more fundamental: it is about ensuring that our society uses the skills and innate talents of those with and those without disabilities to their fullest. That is true social mobility. It allows everybody the ability to use their God-given talents and make the most of their lives.

Where are we now from a policy perspective—from a governmental perspective? The Conservative party manifesto in 2017, which I read carefully—that is a good thing for a new candidate to do—stated:

“We will get 1 million more people with disabilities into employment in the next ten years.”

By my calculations, we need to raise the number of people with disabilities in employment to about 4.5 million over the next 10 years to achieve that target. That would mean a growth of almost 30% on the current level. I think we would all agree in this House that that is a big task. The Government and my party are very focused on that—indeed, I suspect we will find that Members from across the House agree on it.

In November 2017, the Government set out a 10-year plan to improve the situation and to deliver on that manifesto pledge. I am sure the Minister will elucidate further on the plan and where the Government are with it. Its main thrust appeared to be linking up the welfare system, the workplace and healthcare. As has been alluded to in the debate, it was particularly about bringing in new technologies, especially assistive ones, to help to turbocharge the growth we have been gradually seeing, so that people with disabilities can enter the workplace.

A 5% rise in employment among people with disabilities would bring an increase in GDP of £23 billion, with tax revenues up by about £5 billion to £6 billion. That is a considerable amount. Research by Scope, the disabled charity, has found that 58% of disabled people have felt at risk of losing their job because of their impairment or condition. It is clear to me, and probably to most, if not all, Members of this House, that we need to work much more closely and intensively with employers to drive change.

Several decades ago, many employers did not like to employ women. What happened over time was that this House, working with employers and through legislation, helped to drive change. A few decades ago, we did not find people who looked like me or like the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), in this place or in the other place, and several employers did not like to employ people of ethnic minorities. What happened was that this House, through legislation and by working closely with employers, helped to drive change. Now the time has come for those with disabilities to get much better access to employment opportunities. The Government need to work with employers, along with the legislation that is already in place, to help to drive change.

Disability Confident is a good scheme, which is welcomed generally across the business community, in government and in civil society, but we can go further. The Government should bear in mind the huge gains to be made—not only the economic ones, but the gains in terms of the life chances and economic potential of this huge group of people.

The Government need to work further on two main things to help to drive this change and this turbocharge. The first is to financially incentivise, perhaps through the tax system or in another way, employers to take on more people with disabilities, especially in industries where today they may not typically be found. For that to happen appropriately—businesses tell me this when I have the discussion with them—we need to be able to have a much better understanding of the different capabilities of different people with disabilities, so that we can make sure that we match the right employment opportunities with the right people. That is critical. If we do that properly, in combination with proper incentives for business, we will be able to see a huge increase in this area.

Once more people with disabilities not only get into the workplace, but progress within it—through promotion and by getting to the top of their businesses—they will show what they can do. They will show what they can contribute. That will send a powerful message, not only to them, to society and to this House, but to the country as a whole.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this debate on an extraordinarily important subject. It is a shame more Members are not here today, but perhaps there are competing things to do. However, we have some of the best here in the Chamber; as Miss Jean Brodie would have said, we can consider ourselves the crème de la crème.

I have a personal interest in this matter, which I make known to the House: my wife has been disabled since 1999, and that has featured large in our lives. As some Members may be aware, once upon a time I was a Member of another place—I do not mean down the Corridor; I mean in Scotland. As my wife was disabled, I quickly realised that the temporary Scottish Parliament at the top of the royal mile was completely unsuitable for anyone who was disabled, which was why I volunteered to serve on the small committee that was given the responsibility of building the new building. We put in place complete disabled access, including in the Chamber of Holyrood itself. That job very nearly cost me my seat at my second election, such was the controversy attached to the Scottish Parliament at the time. But that was then and this is now, and for the record, I must say that I am proud to have been involved in building such a disabled-friendly place.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow talked about examples, which are ultra-important. I wish to make two points on that. First, this summer’s May games—one of the northernmost highland games, which the Prince of Wales likes to attend, as Duke of Rothesay, and he will do so again in the summer—will have disabled servicemen taking part in the events for the first time. That is an historic first for the highland games in Scotland and for my part of the world, the far north.

The other example that will stay with me to my dying day involved a former Member of this place, Dame Anne Begg, who graced the Labour Benches for a number of years. I knew Dame Anne because she was in a cross-party group dealing with oil and gas; I was in the Scottish Parliament and she was in Westminster. I will never forget going to visit an oil installation in a fjord in Norway. We were in a semi-open boat with a noisy diesel engine, and Anne was there in her wheelchair. The weather can change very fast in the Atlantic, and in this particular Norwegian fjord, a storm came. The boat was going backwards and forwards, and lashing about. We had to lash Anne’s wheelchair to a thwart to prevent her from going overboard, but such was her courage and good humour that she never blinked once. That is an example of somebody who is disabled who faced adversity in life and yet got on with things. I will never forget that example of somebody who was very brave indeed. Based on those examples, the ambition is there, and I particularly pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) for bringing that point out; it is hugely important.

Today, my wife volunteers for the local museum in my home town, and she is involved in raising money for Marie Curie. The point is that these unpaid involvements enrich her life; I can assure hon. Members that they make everything much more worth while. If we can broaden these things out into employment, we can see the great gift that can be given.

The points that have been made about taxation and benefits are absolutely right. I was intrigued yesterday. I have an Irish son-in-law, who, perhaps not surprisingly, has the name of Paddy. He came by Westminster yesterday evening in search, I think, of a small refreshment in the Strangers Bar. He asked me what I would be talking about today, and I said it would be this issue of disability and using resources. He said that he is mixed up in a textile business in the Republic of Ireland and that there is a Government incentive scheme to encourage businesses such as the one he works in to employ people in the situation we are talking about. That struck me. I did not get into more detail, but I will do in the future. I think we could learn something from the Republic on that. I sincerely hope we can.

The point has been made by the hon. Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow and for Hitchin and Harpenden and by others that we are mugs if we do not utilise the skills, ability, ambition and enthusiasm that is out there. Goodness knows, in the next few years, we are going to have to mobilise everything we have in the UK, because it will be an ever more difficult and competitive world. Be it Brexit or be it remain, that will be the reality, and we will have to use every single person we have to do the best we can. People will relish that opportunity—I have absolutely no doubt about that.

I look forward with great interest to hearing what the Minister has to say. I think we are as one in this Chamber. As a not so new Member now—I have been here seven and a bit months, not unlike the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden—I think that what Westminster does best is get on to issues such as this. I am astonished that this issue has not been debated in the Chamber before, but never mind—here we are today. As I said, to quote Jean Brodie again, we are the crème de la crème.

It is as simple as this: there is a bargain to be struck here. Disabled people are offering to keep their half of the bargain, and it is up to the Government—not just the Government, but all of us in society in the UK—to grasp their hand, honour our half of the bargain and make their lives better.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this important debate.

I am delighted to speak in today’s debate on the role of disabled people in economic growth. Economic growth is built on investment, development and progress but most of all on people. People are the essential building block—manual workers, service workers, foremen or managers, entrepreneurs and innovators, females and males, all ethnicities, and the able bodied and the disabled.

I would like to stress today not only that disabled people should and do play an essential role in economic growth but that the wording of this motion is a little too crude. This is not just about needing disabled people to be in jobs to boost economic growth; most importantly, they deserve the same career opportunities, so this is a question of not just economics but equality.

Only half of working-age people in the UK who are disabled or who have a health condition are in work, while the employment rate for people without disabilities is 80.6%. We must rectify this inequality and ensure that employers see the benefits of diverse workforces and of hiring those who have overcome obstacles. We must empower and assist the disabled, so that they have the confidence and the tools to work on an even playing field.

That is why I fully back the Government’s commitment and strategy to get 1 million more disabled people into employment by 2027. I am delighted that 100,000 more people with disabilities were in work last year than in 2016. Working with employers is key to reaching this target, which is why the Government’s pledge to work with industry, alongside improved mental health training for work coaches, is so important.

Disabled people have overcome adversity and challenge and can often offer workplaces essential skills, such as determination. They also generally stay in roles for longer and have lower rates of absenteeism. However, studies show that, still, only half of employers have reported that they recognise the benefits for their organisation of employing somebody with a disability or health condition.

This is therefore about changing attitudes and cultures, especially in certain sectors. For example, the rate of employment for disabled people in science, technology, engineering and maths-related roles is severely low. The problem is twofold. It is about encouraging disabled people to believe they can do these jobs, but, crucially, it is also about ensuring that the jobs exist, so working with employers is essential.

The Disability Confident scheme, which has been mentioned today in the House, has done great work in this area, helping organisations to improve how they attract, recruit and retain disabled workers. As of 16 November last year, there were 5,359 employers signed up to the scheme, so we need to do work to ensure that more follow. Like many MPs, I am proud to be a Disability Confident employer.

One of the biggest hurdles in encouraging businesses to hire disabled people is the adaptations needed to their offices. Those hurdles are perceived to be high, as a Mencap review recently highlighted. There is also a lack of awareness that the Equality Act 2010 means that employers are under a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments. I am keen to hear from the Minister about how we plan to challenge these perceptions and this lack of awareness.

Adapting businesses is also important when a staff member has an accident or becomes ill. Creating a suitable and welcoming environment for them to return to is essential. In fact, the Centre for Social Justice “Rethinking Disability at Work” report found that the disability employment gap is partly driven by the large number of disabled people who fall out of employment, with one in 10 disabled people in work falling out each year, compared with only one in 20 in the non-disabled work population. Retention is therefore key. That is why I welcome the proposed sophistication of the fit note scheme, which will enable employers to better understand and support their employees’ needs.

It is important to note that there are Access to Work grants that can pay for special equipment, adaptations or support worker services, and I am delighted that these are now being rolled out to the self-employed. However, we need to raise awareness of them. Access to Work grants have been taken up by 25,000 people on average per year, but the figures have stagnated for the last three years, indicating that we really need to promote awareness. In addition, 65% of the grants given are to people aged over 40, implying that we really need to reach a younger age group.

I have spoken a lot about employers, but it is also crucial to give disabled individuals the confidence and support to apply for jobs. Mind stresses the point that physically disabled people also need emotional and mental health support when re-entering the workplace, and it is important not to forget that physical disabilities and mental health challenges are not mutually exclusive.

Does the hon. Lady agree that a disabled person in rewarding employment could be encouraged or paid to take time to act as a mentor to people who might follow in his or her footsteps, to show how it can be done?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent point, and I completely agree. Encouraging, inspiring and being role models for other people, and acting as mentors, is a wonderful idea, which we should pursue to encourage more people to have the self-belief and determination to progress their dreams and explore opportunities.

We should not treat physical disabilities and mental disabilities in silos; we need to treat them together to develop the best outcomes. I am delighted that the key focus of the White Paper, “The Future of work, health and disability”, includes that area and the roll-out of personal support packages with the recruitment of 200 community partners, 300 disability employment advisers, 100 small employers advisers and an extra 1,000 places in mental support services.

In conclusion, over the past two years, the disability employment gap has reduced by 1.9%, so we are on the right track. Finding work for an additional 1% of eligible employment and support allowance claimants in 2018-19 would save £240 million and provide a boost to the economy of £260 million. Therefore, getting more people with disabilities into jobs is essential. It would obviously be of great financial benefit to our country, but the main benefit would be to the disabled people themselves, and, in turn, it would make our society more equal. I shall end where I began and stress that it is an issue not just of economics, but of equality.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), and I thank her for her contribution. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—I hope that I pronounced her constituency correctly. [Interruption.] Ah, almost right. I will have to practise it. She is very clearly a champion for those with disabilities, and I am very pleased to be part of the all-party group for disability, which she chairs. Yesterday, I was able to participate in some of those things that she mentioned and give a Northern Ireland perspective on them. I will probably also give a Northern Ireland perspective today on where we are with this matter.

It is also nice to see the Minister in her place. We had an expression of her interest in this subject yesterday when we had the opportunity to take part in the disability confident campaign that the hon. Lady and the Minister organised. It was good to be able to support what the Minister was doing, but it also gave me the opportunity to increase my knowledge of the subject. The one thing about being an MP—in fact, the one thing about being any person—is that we can learn every day if we want to. Of course I want to extend my knowledge, and yesterday gave me a chance to do just that. I was also able to interact with those who were there and explain to them what we were doing. For example, we are doing a number of things in my constituency in relation to this matter—I mean that private business is doing a number of things. There are also policies and strategies in place. I wish the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), well and I look forward to her contribution.

It is a privilege to stand in this Chamber to represent and speak out for the many disabled people in our communities. We get our knowledge of this subject from our constituents, from our advice centres and from our everyday interaction in our communities. The briefing that the House of Commons Library so helpfully supplied said:

“Over 7 million people of working age (16-64) in the UK are disabled or have a health condition, and 3.5 million of these are in work.”

That is good news. It also stated that

“350,000 are unemployed (meaning that they are not in work but are actively looking for work)”.

I hope that this debate will provide us with the opportunity to see how we can achieve our goal. The briefing goes on to say that

“3.3 million are economically inactive (meaning they are not in work and are not looking for work).”

The fact is that some disabled people cannot work. That is a fact of life and must be accepted as such. However, for those who want to work, we should do our best to make that happen.

The employment rate of people who are disabled is 49.2%; the employment rate for people without disabilities is 80.6%. The employment rate for people with disabilities was 1.3 percentage points higher in April and June 2017 than in the same period of 2016. Over that same period, the number of people with disabilities in employment rose by 104,000. Clearly, a strategy is in place to try to address the issue, because more people with disabilities are in employment now than a year ago, so that must be good news.

Between July 2016 and June 2017, the employment rate—at 58.5%—was highest for people who were disabled in the south-west, and lowest in Northern Ireland at 36.7%. It is not often said, but the Library provides excellent information for us when we are preparing for these debates, which gives us a chance to do things well. I read the Disability Action report, “Hard at Work”, which was very interesting reading. As opposed to just citing the fact that there are only 33% of disabled people in work in Northern Ireland, it asks the question why, and I am going to ask that question in the Chamber today. I am very conscious that the Minister has no responsibility for Northern Ireland—I understand that—but to give some depth to this debate with facts and details, I want to add in the Northern Ireland perspective. Some things that have been done in Northern Ireland—or have not been done—can be put into practice on the mainland.

The overall employment rate in Northern Ireland is 5 percentage points lower than in Great Britain. For some groups, the gap is much wider—15 percentage points lower for disabled people in Northern Ireland compared with Great Britain. Thirty-three per cent of disabled people are in employment, which is less than half the rate of non-disabled people, and 50% of disabled applicants did not feel comfortable about disclosing their disability—I want to stress that point to the Minister because I am sure that it also applies to the UK mainland. This is something that we must address. I ask Members to forgive me for saying this, but we are all aware of the story that was in the press yesterday—I know that it is slightly different from what we are discussing today—about people having to disclose when they go for a job whether they are pregnant or intending to have a child. I think that it is wrong to ask that of anyone going for a job. The same thing applies to those with a disability. If a person does not say that they are disabled, they have a better chance of getting the job. If they say that they are disabled, will a wee box be ticked saying that they are not the right person for the job? Once in employment, disabled employees often do not feel confident about being open about their disability. Even when there is a problem in their job, they tend to keep it to themselves.

Research findings vary, estimating that between 20% and 50% of people with a disability feel that they face discrimination in employment, and less than half the respondents to one survey had asked for “reasonable adjustments”. Again, I say to the Minister that if people feel discriminated against, or if they are afraid to ask for reasonable adjustments, perhaps there is a big role for businesses to carry out. The reasons given for not asking for reasonable adjustments were

“not wanting to draw attention to their disability”

or because “it would be embarrassing” to do so. Of those who did ask, nearly a third said that they received little or no help following their requests. Perhaps that underlines the other issue. When people ask for something, they are not even sure whether they will get it, or whether it will be done. Again, that is something that we need to look at. Perhaps sometimes we have to enforce such things through legislation and through Government intervention. It is small wonder that many people with so much to offer feel like they are a burden and unwanted in the workplace. Those concerns have been referred to by other Members today.

Concerns among employers in relation to employing disabled people included perceived risks to productivity; financial and other implications of making workplace adjustments; and confusion or negative perceptions around legislation. Perhaps people need to be more aware of what the legislation means and what it means for business as well. Despite employers’ concerns about perceived financial implications, a survey of more than 1,000 employers found that the majority provided adjustments. Let us be clear about this: the majority of businesses try to do the right thing. I am talking here about flexible working patterns and hours with no associated cost increase. I would like to ask the Minister a question and perhaps she can respond when she has the opportunity to do so. Can she tell me whether financial incentives are available for businesses to make those changes? I think that, sometimes, the cost factor does concern some businesses. If there is some help for them to make those adjustments, it would be helpful.

A recent survey highlighted the fact that 40% of respondents said that the option of modified hours—such as flexible or part-time working—would be an important factor in enabling them to enter and to stay in work. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to look at what happens with the disability living allowance, which has now moved to the personal independence payment. Even if people are on DLA, they need therapeutic work. We must understand that, sometimes, people are not fully able to carry out their duties because of their disablement, but, therapeutically, it is good for them to have some work for a certain period of time. Perhaps the Minister could give us her thoughts on that in her response this afternoon.

Perhaps most worrying for this place is that we must get our own house in order. Let me just illustrate the problem by way of an example from the civil service, but I will not name the person involved. Disabled people in the public sector still report being passed over for development and promotion opportunities, and that their performance is unfairly assessed. This suggests that talent is being wasted and a culture of discontent is being fostered. If we have not got our own house in order in government—at all levels, wherever it may be: at this level, at regional level, at council level, and so on—that is the first step that we must address in this place.

I always say, with regard to expecting people with illnesses to be in work, that it is up to the Government to set the example. I often use the example, as I do now, of a young constituent of mine who worked in the civil service. She had her DDA form filled in, so her employer—the civil service—was aware that she had ulcerative colitis. She applied for a transfer to a Department closer to home to avoid the almost two-hour long rush-hour jaunt that she had to go through every day. She was not accommodated. She went to occupational health service meetings and was told numerous times that, yes, she should be off sick and should not return to work until the flare-up had settled down. She was then medically retired from work, as her employer felt she was unfit to work. She applied for benefits and was told that she was not entitled to ESA or DLA and that she should seek employment. This is the Catch-22 or chicken-and-egg situation—which comes first? The civil service expected someone to hire her, according to the ESA decision, just not itself.

Let us look at the process that she went through. At the age of 28, she was classified by the civil service as not fit to work but made to feel like a scrounger for feeling that if the civil service, with its hundreds of offices and roles and positions, could not facilitate her illness, then she would have no chance in the private sector. Thankfully, we were able to help with getting her ESA and DLA. Both claims went to appeals and reviews, but they were ultimately won. Every time she applied, we had to go through the same ritual because nobody believed that this girl could not work, despite the fact that she had been paid off because she was medically unfit. That makes absolutely no sense. We must lead by example. We must put into place initiatives that help disabled people to be confident in their abilities instead of feeling that only their disabilities are important. It is hard to expect small businesses to understand that a disability does not mean an inability to be a vital player in a team when we—I use the royal we, in terms of the civil service—are not able to do that, despite putting in place so-called protocols and schemes to prevent that from happening. This House is one place where I most certainly advocate that we get our house in order and do so quickly.

I look to my constituency and see the potential in our young people in Longstone School, which is one of the behavioural units where young people with disabilities as well as those with educational challenges are trained to work in what is sometimes, for them, a big, bad world. However, it is a world of opportunity, with so much more to offer, and we should be trying to move them towards it. Should we consider apprenticeships with financial support for those who have learning disabilities? I look to the Minister again. I have been looking to her for lots of answers; we are all doing so, because we respect her greatly. Would that help employers to think of employing disabled people as less of a gamble and to give them an opportunity? I am certain that many such apprenticeships would turn into employment.

What can we do to help those who want to work and have skills to offer, yet feel there is no place for them in the modern workplace? To me, that is what this debate is about. It is about giving them hope, vision and opportunity. If we can do that, we are moving in the right direction. I do not have the answers. My wife thinks that I have lots of answers, but I do not have answers to everything in the world. However, I try to seek out the answers, and that is the great advantage of this debate. I ask the Minister and her Department to consider this issue really seriously—I know that she will—and to come back to the House with more than a simple pledge to get disabled people into work. We need a plan to make this happen, starting with our own civil service.

I again commend the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow for her compassion and for her interest in disability. I also commend all the other Members who have come along here on a Thursday afternoon—the graveyard shift—to participate in a really important debate.

As another Member with a four-barrelled constituency name, I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on bringing this debate to the Chamber. I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for also attempting to pronounce her constituency; he did very well indeed. We heard from my hon. Friend a speech that was rich in detail, understanding and empathy. She really, truly understands the subject. I fully commend her for this very positively titled debate about the role of disabled people in economic growth. It is somewhat scandalous that we have not had the opportunity to debate this before, but that wrong has been righted today.

We in the SNP know that disabled people continue to make a fantastic contribution to our economy. All the words that we have heard here today show our empathy and the joint approach that we are taking to these issues, but comments that come from the Government themselves can do a lot of harm. Our approach to disabled people—the approach we have taken today—is in stark contrast to the UK Government’s Chancellor, who recently said that he thinks that disabled people are reducing productivity.

I would like to quote my hon. Friend, not from her speech today but from an excellent article she wrote recently:

“The answer is simple, invest in improving the pathways to work. Invest in disabled entrepreneurs, improve reasonable adjustment guidelines and encourage businesses to diversify their workforce. Create incentives rather than enforce sanctions. If the £108 million spent by the Government to deny disabled people the benefits they are entitled to was redirected to creating an apprenticeship schemes, entrepreneurship and training opportunities for example, then perhaps the narrative of people with disabilities could change.”

Those are very wise words.

I am most grateful to Scope for the briefing that it has sent along for this debate. Scope says of the Chancellor’s comments:

“We found the Chancellor’s statements before the Treasury Select Committee…on the negative impact of disabled employees on UK productivity levels to be entirely untrue and unacceptable.”

It underlines a fact that was brought out by my hon. Friend, saying:

“In fact, a 10-percentage point rise in the employment rate amongst disabled people would increase GDP by £45 billion by 2030 and result in a £12 billion gain to the Exchequer.”

I hope that the Minister, who I know to be a thoughtful person, will reflect on the Chancellor’s remarks and take the opportunity today to distance herself from them.

There is a real opportunity to make a positive impact on tackling the disability employment gap in the economy, delivering the reforms needed to support more people to enter, remain and advance in work, but progress up until now has been slow. Government and employers need to do more if we are to harness the economic benefits that an increased disabled employment rate will bring. Tackling the disability employment gap would mean, as I have said, that economic growth and productivity would increase.

Employing disabled people is an opportunity for employers, delivering significant benefits to business and the economy. It is important to underline the calls from the all-party parliamentary group on disability. They are all relevant, but I mention especially tailored and targeted support for self-employed disabled people from such bodies as the Business Bank, funding for reasonable adjustments for disabled recipients of tech start-up support from Innovate UK, and bringing forward requirements for sectors to plan for recruitment.

It is also vital to recognise the additional challenges that are faced by disabled people. My hon. Friend talked about the high numbers of applications required simply to get a job interview, let alone a job. She said that we cannot afford to sit and wait. Throughout this debate, we have heard many people agreeing on the need for action, and that is what disabled people now want to see.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentions the challenges and difficulties that disabled people face. One of those, depending on the form of disability, is that the fatigue element as the day progresses can be quite critical to the person. It would be best if employment opportunities could be tailored with specific reference to this fatigue, which can kick in after two or three hours of concentrated work.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is important to take into account the size and scale of the challenges people face, to make sure we are able to take full advantage.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow said, the UK already has a skills shortage, and the Brexit exodus of skilled labour means that the opportunity of training and apprenticeships must be embraced. As we have heard, the Government at the moment are not going far enough. Specialist advice services on self-employment are required, and we need to avoid stereotypes in these debates and the action that follows.

The additional challenges for disabled people also come down to hard cash and the extra costs that they have to cope with. New research from Scope shows that on average, disabled people have to find an additional £750 per month related to their condition, on top of any social security payments designed to meet those costs. The financial penalty locks disabled people out of being able to make a positive contribution to the economy. They need practical help, and the Government can help now. For example, the Government can help with motability, an issue that my hon. Friend is keen to bring up. Many people have seen their ability to move around or take part in employment and the economy hampered by motability issues.

It also comes down to the issue of PIP assessments. I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and agree with him that more money should be spent on disability payments. There should be more social security to support disabled people, particularly given their disadvantage. The recent Work and Pensions Committee report on claimant experiences of PIP and ESA assessments presented clear evidence that the assessments are failing a substantial minority of claimants, with claimant stories highlighting clear errors made in assessments, crucial information being omitted and assessors lacking knowledge and expertise. It is not just about putting more money into the system; it is about making the system work for disabled people, which too often it does not at the moment.

Friday a week ago, I had the chance to meet Capita officials in Northern Ireland. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and other Members that if it is possible to have such a meeting, it might be helpful. We were able to get a hotline to the people who can make the changes and to ensure that the people doing the assessments are up to speed, as he said. Capita needs to change some of the things it is doing. We are going to have a change in Northern Ireland, and Capita has committed to that. I suggest that others do the same in their own regions.

That is an important comment. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, having listened to me speak on universal credit, PIP and ESA on many occasions, can be reassured that I have indeed made that visit and gone through that process, and I know what is involved. I think his substantive point is that it is a good thing to do. It does not iron out the difficulties that people have had over years and continue to have, but it can help, and wherever it can help, we must do that.

Between April 2016 and March 2017, the Scope helpline saw a 542% rise in calls related to PIP payments, and 65% of claimants who challenge a PIP decision at tribunal are successful. There is much more that the Government can do to help.

I want to finish with some criticisms, but given that I know the Minister will be listening carefully and looking for ways to take action, I will also talk about how we are doing things back in our own constituencies, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, and how we are doing things differently in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully and take the opportunity to learn or think about how things might be done differently.

We have seen the impact that the UK Government’s system has had on disabled people in Scotland. In October this year, the Scottish Government found that between 7,000 and 10,000 disabled people per year are being affected by the removal of the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance. That is completely appalling and simply unacceptable. They also found that 40,000 disabled people claiming ESA have been affected by the bedroom tax. ESA is supposed to support disabled people into employment. The Government have said that the £30-a-week cut was to remove incentives to be out of work. That is an outrageous thing to do. It is pushing people into poverty and into crisis.

The Government’s PIP assessment process is failing disabled people. According to the DWP figures from December 2017, one in five claimants who had gone through mandatory reconsideration for PIP had their reward changed, meaning that 20% of those initial decisions were judged as wrong. I hope that the Minister will consider some of the actions that have been taken in Scotland, with the very limited powers that have been transferred to Scotland.

Disabled people should have equal access to employment opportunities in Scotland, and the Scottish National party Government are committed to reducing the employment gap by at least half. Disabled people’s skills, hard work and commitment are valuable to any employer, and practical and financial support must be available to businesses. It makes sense to recruit from the widest pool of talent possible.

Disabled people account for 20% of Scotland’s population, and at the moment they make up just 11% of the private sector workforce and 11.7% of the public sector workforce. The Scottish Government will work with both sectors to look at target setting and how to redress the imbalance. In April 2017, the Scottish Government introduced employability programmes delivered by a new service, Work First Scotland, including employment support for up to 3,300 disabled people. In July last year, a campaign was launched to boost awareness among businesses of the benefits of employing people with disabilities, specifically targeting small and medium-sized enterprises.

From April 2018, a new devolved programme will take a voluntary and person-led approach to ensure that disabled people are offered support that is appropriate and built on guaranteed service expectations from providers. Disabled people engaging with the programme will receive high-quality pre-employment support that identifies and develops their strengths and assets, while focusing on sustainable employment outcomes. Only today, the Scottish Government announced that people will no longer see a reduction in their benefit payments during the appeal process. In the Minister’s response, she might say whether the UK Government will consider taking that action, too.

I think the message from both sides of the Chamber today has been crystal clear: let us do all that can be done to realise and release the potential of disabled people for economic growth.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this important and timely debate. I commend her for the work she has led on the all-party parliamentary group for disability.

I would like to extend my thanks to a number of disability organisations, including Disability Rights UK, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability and Action on Hearing Loss, for all the work they have done on improving employment opportunities for disabled people and for the important briefings they have provided for today’s very important debate.

There are currently around 11.6 million disabled people in this country—people like me, who have factors that could act as a barrier to engaging in a wide range of valued activities, and not just economic activity, which is the focus of our debate. Disabled people make up around 16% of the working-age population, yet we face barriers in all aspects of life, including in education, transport, access to justice, access to voting, housing, health and, most importantly, employment.

Almost eight years of Tory austerity have had a disproportionate impact on disabled people. We know that half of those who live in poverty are disabled or live with someone who is disabled, in part because of the additional cost of their disability, but also because the labour market does not work well for disabled people who are able to work.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled people in accessing education, employment, housing, and goods and services is a key feature of the Equality Act 2010. However, we know from the 2015-16 House of Lords report on the Equality Act and disabled people that the legislation needs firm Government action to ensure that it is strongly upheld and to remove the barriers in society faced by disabled people who have a condition and/or an impairment.

It is a matter of serious concern that we have a Government who barely speak about removing barriers, while actually creating new ones through their austerity cuts and their punitive social security system. In their 2015 manifesto, the Tories pledged to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, but the TUC has found the Government to be years behind on that commitment. They have since dropped the pledge, and replaced it with a reduced commitment to getting 1 million more disabled people into work.

As we have heard, the rate of employment for disabled people stands at 49.2%, compared with 80.6% for the rest of the population in the most recent period for which figures are available, meaning that the disability employment gap lies at 31.3%. We know that the gap is even wider for specific disability groups. For registered blind and partially sighted individuals, only one in four people of working age is in work, and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) mentioned the employment gap for those living with autism.

The Office for National Statistics recently announced that it was suspending publication of the disability employment rate indefinitely. The motion notes the fact that there will be a disability employment gap after Brexit, and the current gap in the UK is considerably above the European Union average of 21%. That illustrates the extent of the Government’s failure to take meaningful and serious action. In the light of this, why have the Government weakened their commitment to reducing the disability employment gap? It would be helpful if the Minister set out the measures she is taking to improve the ability of disabled people to enter work and—on retention—their ability to stay in work?

Many barriers faced by disabled people are shaped by false perceptions about the role they play in the workplace. Research by the Scope charity found that almost half of disabled people have worried about making employers aware of their impairment or their condition. We know that one of the key barriers that has been highlighted is how we shape employer attitudes to employing people with a disability. What are the Government going to do to support employers—especially small businesses, given that they make up nearly half the workforce—to employ disabled people? How can small businesses access affordable and timely occupational health support, and how can best practice be shared?

I must say I was surprised that disability and disabled people were not mentioned in the Budget, giving a very negative message to the population about the role of disabled people in the economy and giving the regrettable impression that their contribution to the economy is not being championed or prioritised by this Government. Will the Minister offer an explanation for this omission? Opposition Members will build an economy that includes everybody, because that is how we can develop an economy that truly works for everybody, not just for a few.

I cannot stand at the Dispatch Box speaking on this subject without mentioning the comments made last December by the Chancellor of the Exchequer during Treasury Committee questioning, when he linked low productivity growth with the employment of disabled people. Unfortunately, there has been no apology for those comments, and his lack of remorse following the scapegoating of disabled people for a productivity crisis created by this Government’s failed economic policy speaks volumes. Does the Minister agree that there is a need for a clear and coherent message from the Government that employing disabled people can enhance productivity and make a real contribution to organisations and businesses across the UK?

Despite that, the Government finally managed to publish their long-awaited “Improving Lives” paper late last year. Some 90% of disability and long-term health conditions are acquired, so it is absolutely right to examine how employers can make reasonable adjustments to support an employee to stay in work if they become disabled. However, the paper did not set out how the Government intend to achieve or fund this aim.

To date, the Disability Confident campaign, launched in 2014, has been a dismal failure. It has made a negligible impact on the disability employment gap and has yet to produce any concrete evidence of results. Will the Minister confirm how many additional disabled people have found work as a direct result of the Disability Confident campaign?

The Access to Work programme, when it works well, provides invaluable support, but too often I hear about problems in relation to the administration and timeliness of payments, the cap on individual awards and the assessments. Ms French is a visually impaired person. Her experience of seeking employment is that when the subject of Access to Work came up, recruiters said that the employer was in too much of a hurry and would not be able to wait for an Access to Work assessment to be completed. As we all know, Access to Work is probably the best kept secret—it helps far too few people—and it will need significantly more resources if the Government are to get anywhere near the aim of getting 1 million more disabled people into work by 2027.

In the case of a deaf person, Mr Will, he was offered a job by a Disability Confident employer. However, once the employer realised that the Access to Work support would be capped and that they would have to meet the rest of the costs, the job offer was withdrawn. Will the Minister set out what substantive action the Government are taking to support people in work? What work have they done with disabled people to ensure that this support is flexible and responsive to need? More importantly, what additional funding will the Government make available, especially for Access to Work?

We have concerns about the language used in the Government’s “Improving Lives” paper, which centres on the idea that employment can “promote recovery”—the familiar sounding phrase, which says that disabled people and people with chronic conditions would recover if only they tried a bit harder, or were subject to an even tougher system. Will the Minister reassure people with disabilities limiting their ability to work and those actually unable to work that this is not the intended message her Government are trying to convey or that they believe in?

For nearly eight years, disabled people have borne the brunt of the cuts inflicted on them by this Government and the previous coalition Government. The cuts have had a detrimental impact on the lives of disabled people, cutting living standards and undermining their access to education, social care and justice. In 2016, the United Nations convened a committee to investigate state violations of the UN convention of the rights of persons with disabilities. Its report concluded that the Government had committed

“grave, systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities.”

That is a damning indictment of the treatment of disabled people by this Government—it shames us as a country—yet the Government have failed to act. We believe in a social model of disability and a society that removes the barriers restricting opportunities and choices for disabled people. We will incorporate the UN convention of the rights of persons with disabilities into law. I ask the Minister: why do the Government refuse to do the same?

Currently, 4.2 million disabled people live in poverty, and new evidence indicates that this number is increasing as a result of cuts in support. According to Scope, the Welfare Reform Act 2012 has cut nearly £28 billion in social security support from 3.7 million disabled people. Cuts contained in the Welfare Reform Act 2016 are adding to the suffering experienced by many disabled people, and that does not include cuts to social care, the NHS, education or transport—all of which have had a direct effect on disabled people.

Research by Scope that was published this week revealed that on average, disabled people face extra costs of £570 a month due to their impairment or condition, and that is on top of social security payments that are designed to help meet these costs. Extra costs mean that disabled people’s money simply does not go as far—£100 for a non-disabled person is equivalent to just £67 for a disabled person.

In addition to the four-year freeze in social security support, the 2016 Act cut financial support by £1,500 a year to half a million disabled people who had been found not fit for work, but who may in the future be in the ESA work-related activity group. Will the Minister provide the House with an assessment of the impact of social security cuts on disabled people and their ability to stay in work? The current social security system is not working for disabled people. Analysis this week by Demos into the treatment of unemployed disabled claimants revealed that they are up to 53% more likely to be docked money than claimants who are not disabled, and disabled people have been hit by 1 million sanctions since 2010.

Under this Government, the social security system has penalised people with disabilities by cutting much needed support and making it harder for them to access what support is available. The assessment processes for ESA and PIP are not fit for purpose, and trust in the system has been completely undermined. The widespread distrust of the assessment process by sick and disabled people is no surprise, with a record 68% of PIP decisions that are taken to tribunal being overturned by judges. Under private contractors, the assessment process is getting worse, not better. Why will the Government not act to end privatisation and replace the current system with a more holistic process?

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate all Members on their contributions. However, the Government must understand that for too many disabled people, the reality is a social security system that punishes rather than supports them and a labour market that shuts them out rather than being open to their potential and skills. It is incumbent on the Government to harness the potential of everyone and to create a truly inclusive society that works for the many, not just the few.

I add my congratulations to those already offered to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). I will not go through the names of everybody’s constituencies because I have so little time left, but she did a magnificent job in introducing this debate. I echo words from Members across the House about her commitment to this important issue, her sincerity, and the way that she opened the debate in such a positive way—sadly, that was in marked contrast to some of the later contributions. I praise the work of the all-party group for disability and all voluntary sector organisations that, in myriad ways, do so much to support its work.

It is important to hear voices from across the House, and we heard powerful, personal testimony from the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) about their lived experience of disability. They have all made significant contributions to improving opportunities for disabled people to play their full part in society. The hon. Member for Battersea raised some individual cases, and I would appreciate her providing me with the specific details so that I can resolve those matters.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) on becoming a Disability Confident employer. Yesterday she joined 78 Members of Parliament who have already done that, and there will be further such opportunities in the weeks and months ahead for those who have yet to take up the scheme. I praise her for and encourage her in the work that she will do in her constituency with Jobcentre Plus. Such work that we can do in our constituencies, by helping local employers to take seriously our desire to see more disabled people in employment, is important and powerful. She raised an important point about enabling disabled children to develop their employment skills and have the same opportunities as all other young people to gain work experience. She will be pleased to know that the Department for Education completely agrees with her, and it is increasing its commitment and funding to enable young people to have supported internships.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) made powerful speeches about the level of ambition that we all share to close the disability employment gap. They stressed the importance of working closely with employers on culture change, and I completely agree. We are considering the issues they raised about improving the Disability Confident scheme, although I refute what was said by the hon. Member for Battersea—this is not a failing scheme; it is a growing scheme. We are looking at what more we can do to incentivise businesses, and at publishing levels of disability employment, especially for large employers. We are also considering what more we can do to communicate the wide range of help that is available to support businesses and public sector organisations to employ disabled people.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on becoming a Disability Confident employer yesterday. He said how important it is that people feel confident enough to disclose their disability and for employers to feel confident in hearing that news, and he asked how we can work together to ensure that happens. Financial support is available to a disabled person through the Access to Work programme, as well as to employers who employ them.

I assure the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) that each and every year we increase our investment in benefits for disabled people and those with health conditions. This year alone we are spending more than £50 billion—more than the defence budget—and I am proud to be part of a Government who prioritise supporting disabled people. That is an increase of £7 billion since 2010. We are determined continuously to improve the processes and operation of the system that administers our disability benefits.

I hope that the Minister will also address the comments made by the Chancellor and distance herself from those. On her specific point, what does she say to those who have lost the severe disability allowance from their payments?

I was not going to dignify the hon. Gentleman’s remarks with a response, but since he has intervened on me I will not leave that point without comment. It is irresponsible of him deliberately to misrepresent what the Chancellor said at the Select Committee. We in this House all have a huge responsibility to be careful about what we say. We must honour the truth, and we must not make comments that scaremonger and will frighten some of the most vulnerable people.

I will not give way. I have been generous in giving way, and I will not indulge the hon. Gentleman any more in pursuing things that he has misrepresented and quoted out of context.

Let me return to the spirit of the debate, which the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow set so well. The House came together to speak to disabled people outside the Chamber, to show how much we value them and to say how much more we want to do to enable them to play their part in society and to enable employers to take people on. I will return to the tone so ably set by the hon. Lady. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respect his colleague and the tone that she set.

Last week, I visited North Devon District Hospital with the excellent local Member of Parliament. We met some young people who are doing really valued jobs in the hospital wards with patients and in vital support services, such as the engineering department. All those excellent young people had been supported by their local college and by Pluss through a Government-funded scheme. They were supported through work experience and placements in the hospital. The programme has been working for some five years. All the young people have learning disabilities, but their employers told me how valued they are. They were being employed not as an act of charity, but because of who they were.

I have the privilege, as Minister for Disabled People, to meet disabled people every week who do extraordinarily good work in every sort of workplace across the country. Just this morning, I was at Channel 4, which kindly hosted the first anniversary of our sector champions. Each sector champion is a leader in their industry and is working to improve access for disabled people to their industry, from financial services to retail, tourism, media and transport. Each sector leader is an inspirational leader in their field, driving real change in access for disabled people. They are doing that not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it makes good business sense.

There are an estimated 13 million disabled people in our country. Each year they spend an estimated £250 billion —the purple pound—so if businesses are not accessible they are missing out on a great deal of business. Accessibility, as Members have said, does not have to be expensive. Our sector champions are sharing best practice and information, so that more people are confident about employing disabled people. Disabled people are making huge contributions not only as consumers, but, as we have heard today, in all aspects of our society, including employment.

The Government are building a Britain fit for a future where no one is left behind. We have been very clear that we want our economy to harness the skills, talents and contributions of every person in society. We have made significant progress—there are now 600,000 more disabled people in work than there were four years ago—but we want to go further and faster. At the moment, even though our labour market is the strongest it has been for many years, with employment rates at record highs, we know that only half of all disabled people who would like to work are in work. New analysis shows that, over the course of a year, disabled people are twice as likely to fall out of work and almost three times less likely to move into work compared with non-disabled people. That is simply not acceptable.

Apropos of what the Minister has just said, does she agree that being disabled in a very remote area, such as my constituency, means that travelling to work poses very special and difficult challenges? The Government will have to think very carefully about that, so that my constituents are not disadvantaged.

The hon. Gentleman makes a really good point. I represent a constituency in Cornwall, so I completely empathise with the issue he raises. Access to work funding is available, including for transport to enable people to get to their place of employment. It is also very important that local enterprise partnerships work with local authorities to look at what more can be done to join up community transport with public transport. In areas such as the ones we represent, public transport is not as good a service as it is in urban areas, so there is more work to be done.

With more than one in six people of working age reporting a disability, it is really important that we do everything we can to make sure that their talents do not go to waste. That is why we have an urgent and comprehensive set of plans and actions. For example, we have a personal support package, some £330 million of funding, to arrange new interventions and initiatives for those in the WRAG, so that they can have tailor-made personal support to enable them to take the steps to work. We have already recruited over 300 additional disability employment advisers, bringing special advice and support into the jobcentre. We have begun introducing 200 new community partners who are able to share their lived experience of disability across our jobcentre network.

I am not going to take any more interventions, because I can see from the Chair a slight impatience. There is a second debate this afternoon and there are some points hon. Members have raised that I really need to address.

Our Work and Health programme has now launched. It has a contracted value of over £500 million to provide specialist support, including to disabled people. A very important point was raised this afternoon about the entrepreneurial spirit of disabled people. Our new enterprise allowance has helped nearly 20,000 disabled people to start up businesses. More than one in five of all businesses set up under the scheme are led by disabled people. We also have a small employer offer to help more disabled people into employment.

I encourage Members to read the “Improving Lives” Green Paper on the future of health and work, which sets out a very ambitious plan of detailed actions and investments the Government are taking, including in assistive technology. It is absolutely not what the hon. Member for Battersea said it was. We are not saying those things, which I am not going to repeat in this House because they are so fundamentally wrong. What we are about is recognising the talents of disabled people and making sure there are no barriers and no limits, so that their talents can take them as far as they possibly can.

I am absolutely delighted to say that the devolved Administrations are taking all sorts of different actions in different parts of the country. We are working very closely with the Scottish Government. We are jointly funding the Single Gateway project in Dundee and Fife, which is a really good and innovative programme. I am looking forward to working closely with it to see what lessons we can learn so that we can roll it out. It provides a single point of contact between the jobcentre, employers and disabled people. We will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations to see what more we can do.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow on bringing this issue to the House. Achieving our ambition of seeing at least 1 million more disabled people in work requires all of us to work together. The Government of course have a role to play, but so too do employers, the health service, local authorities, charities and the voluntary sector. MPs have convening powers and the power of championing in their local community. All have vital roles to play. I hope they will support me and the Government in delivering our very ambitious vision for a society in which disabled people can play their full part and go as far as their talents will take them.

I thank all Members, from across the House, who have taken part in this extremely important debate. We have done it justice, but this is just a starting point for the work ahead that we take together. I am extremely keen that people become Disability Confident employers. I encourage MPs to do that and to hold Disability Confident events in their constituencies to encourage local employers. I pay particular tribute to Mr Speaker, who has created an internship scheme, to run over the next five years, for people with disabilities to come and work in Parliament with MPs. It is extremely important that Parliament is a role model that leads the way and that we do not just talk the talk but walk the walk. He is a shining example in that regard. We are, as we have heard today, in politics to make a difference to enable. Together we can create the inclusive society that everyone deserves.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House recognises the potential talent pool within the disabled community; notes that there will be an employment gap after the UK leaves the EU and that there is ample opportunity to include disabled workers in economic growth; calls on the Government to act immediately on its commitment to get one million more disabled people into employment by 2027; and further calls on the Government to increase awareness within the business community of the benefits of employing an inclusive workforce.

We now come to the Back-Bench debate on cancer strategy. Before we begin, I remind hon. Members—some of the offenders have just left the Chamber—that we do not have unlimited time in this place. I did not impose a time limit in the last debate because I thought it would run naturally to finish about 15 minutes ago. It did not; it overran. The mover of the motion, all three Front-Bench speakers and two other Members significantly exceeded the time they ought to have taken. I was hoping that in a good-natured debate we might have some self-regulation, but that did not happen. In the next debate, therefore, I may have to impose time limits. Members in the next debate will have less time to speak because their colleagues in the last debate took longer than they ought to have. I will leave it to hon. Members—some of the offenders have left the Chamber, but I will find them later—to act honourably. As I call Dr Lisa Cameron, who is working very hard this afternoon, to move the next motion, I hope that she will do so in 15 minutes or less.