Heidi Allen is MP for South Cambridgeshire.
As a passionate campaigner for people with disabilities, I was delighted by the commitments made in our manifesto to get one million more disabled people into work and to legislate for personalised and tailored employment support.
The disability employment gap – the difference between the employment rates of disabled people and non-disabled people – has remained stuck at around 30 per cent for over a decade. The Conservative Party, and this Government, believes in encouraging and enabling everyone to fulfil their full potential, and that means grabbing hold of this injustice and closing that gap.
Diverse workplaces benefit everyone. Some employers are already taking important steps to recruit and retain disabled employees but there is more to be done.
Not only is our economy missing out on the unique skill set disabled people would bring to the workplace, it’s important that workplaces represent everyone. Disabled people deserve to be recognised for their talents and abilities in the same way as non-disabled people. The Conservative manifesto recognised disability discrimination as a burning injustice and one that it is determined to address.
Many disabled people want to work and push hard to find jobs, but still they face far too many barriers. From poor employer attitudes to flaws in the WCA (Work Capability Assessment) and PIP (Personal Independence Payments) systems, there is an urgent need for radical reform. No-one is working harder than the current disability minister, Penny Mordaunt, to achieve this.
Access to personalised employment support for disabled people currently looking for work is limited, but I am convinced it holds the key to transforming their opportunities. Personalised support identifies the barriers disabled people face to work, and crucially, the support they need to enter the job market.
The WCA, the gateway to the out-of-work benefit ESA (Employment Support Allowance), does not identify all the barriers to work that a disabled person may face. The decision last year to stop ESA reassessments for people with chronic conditions was an excellent start. However, I believe we also need to look again at a claimant’s journey through WCA and PIP, streamlining where we can and making the whole experience more customer-focused.
But the challenge isn’t just about getting disabled people into work. New research from Scope last week found that, between October 2016 and March 2017, for every 100 disabled people who entered work 114 moved out.
We’ll find it difficult to meet our manifesto commitment unless we are able to support disabled people in work to stay there. There are plenty of ways we can tackle this and the benefits would be significant – over a third of unemployed disabled people say they would have stayed in work if they’d had temporary access to modified working hours.
Is it time to consider the availability of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) on an hourly, rather than daily basis? This would allow someone to work the hours they were able while managing their condition and receive SSP for the hours they couldn’t. This would support the worker and the employer. No employer wants to re-recruit if they can keep someone who understands the job already.
Expanding and advertising Access to Work would allow more people to get the vital support they need to work. Access to Work also needs to be ‘Access to Work Experience’ and ‘Access to Interviews’. You need to put fuel in the car at the beginning of the journey, not when you reach the destination.
Over half of disabled people have felt bullied or harassed at work and this must change. Workplace attitudes are vital in ensuring disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else.
In the last Parliament, the Government rightly consulted on these issues in the Improving Lives Green Paper. I myself held a roundtable with a number of leading national and local disability organisations including Scope, Disability Rights UK, and the Papworth Trust to gather their views.
The Government received over 6,000 responses, and this experience will provide an opportunity to bring about the reforms so badly needed to help disabled people find, stay and progress in work. This is an opportunity we must grab with both hands.
Tracking our progress by reporting on the disability employment gap must be the way forward. Reporting will be essential if we want to drive meaningful and sustainable change and understand how disabled people are moving in and out of work over time.
The disability employment gap varies across regions and by impairment type so data is everything. Closing the gap will require a sustained commitment over time and reporting will give us the information we need.
I understand that the General Election and the Great Repeal Bill have eaten into time, but disabled people up and down the country are tired of waiting. I implore the Government to respond to the Green Paper urgently. There is a budding partnership between Government, the third sector, employers, and disabled people just waiting to be unleashed. Let’s not just talk about it – let’s do it.