by Dick Barry
On 22 February the SNP member Dr Lisa Cameron introduced a debate on the employment of disabled people. Her speech is published below with interjections from Labour and Conservative backbenchers.
Disabled People and Economic Growth
Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP) 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.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab) 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?
Dr Cameron 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 of 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.
Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab) 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?
Dr Cameron 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.
Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con) 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?
Dr Cameron 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. That means that 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.
Alex Burghart 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?
Dr Cameron 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.