James Scales is a researcher at the Centre for Social Justice.
This week’s triggering of Article 50 has seen miles of column inches written on what Brexit will mean for jobs. Trade deals, immigration reform and legal changes will all have knock-on effects in the job market, and by 2019 these will be clearer. However, there is a much more immediate and resolvable employment matter to hand demanding urgent attention.
A million disabled people in the UK want to work, but are blocked from doing so. Just 48 per cent of disabled working-age adults are employed, compared to 80 per cent of non-disabled adults. This is one of the most striking injustices of our generation. It robs individuals of purpose and income, and our economy of employees and workers.
But it is possible to narrow the disability employment gap. The gap is higher in the UK than in 21 other European countries. Changing this requires concerted action. The Centre for Social Justice’s new report – Rethinking Disability at Work – sets out what is blocking disabled people from jobs and makes recommendations for change.
Businesses do not currently recognise what the evidence shows – that there is a strong case for hiring disabled people. Evidence shows that they are excellent employees, but the businesses we polled did not recognise this. More than nine in ten businesses we surveyed said there was not a business case for hiring a disabled person and almost two thirds see some sort of barrier to hiring disabled people. About half of these cite ability to do the job as a key barrier.
There are good examples of awareness campaigns that employers can respond to, and changes to working environments can often be made at little or no extra cost. But this is not just about employers. Government needs to do more, too.
First, the new apprenticeships levy will double the amount of funding available for apprenticeships to £2.5 billion. This offers a chance to create new employment opportunities for disabled people who, on average, have fewer qualifications than non-disabled people. We looked at current funding plans for apprenticeships, and found several ways in which the Government could support employers more effectively by, for example, encouraging employers to take on more disabled apprentices over the age of 25.
Second, we spend around £250 billion on public procurement each year. But hardly any of the decisions made to spend this enormous budget encourage the recruitment of disabled individuals. The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 provides a vehicle to do this, but is not used as much as it could be for this purpose, and we have found a new way to secure bidders’ commitment to employing disabled people.
Third, around 300,000 people a year fall out of work due to health conditions. There is not enough constructive engagement between employer and employee to prevent this happening. In Fit for Work, we have a national occupational health service – free at the point of delivery – and yet it was used just 9,000 times in 18 months. Access to Work is also a world-class support programme that covers the additional costs of hiring disabled people. It has been around since 1994, but only 25 per cent of employers know what it is. Our report identifies several ways to unlock these schemes’ full potential, so that the 300,000 people who fall out of work each year for health reasons can keep their jobs.
And, last, the current method that we use to assess employment support is fundamentally flawed, and should be overhauled. Our report recommends a more sophisticated assessment that will facilitate more tailored and effective employment support. We examine how the new Work and Health Programme could be refined to have a more substantial impact on supporting people into work, and how to help Jobcentre Plus coaches, whose roles in helping disabled people will become even more prominent in the near future.
There is nothing inevitable about low employment rates for disabled people. We can transform the lives of over a million disabled people and help businesses at the same time. We can build on our proud tradition of inclusion. And we can lead the world on disability. We just need a clear blueprint for change. And that is exactly what is on offer in this report.