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Disabled People (Employment Opportunities)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

1.59 am

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury) : I am grateful for this chance to speak about employment opportunities for the disabled. Although I am not obviously disabled, as the House knows I suffer from kidney failure and require a dialysis machine to keep me alive. I make that point not to seek the House's sympathy but to underline the fact that disabled people are not just those in wheelchairs or who are missing a limb--that group makes up as little as 5 per cent. of the total. The disabled can be deaf or blind, they can suffer from epilepsy or be injured at birth or in an accident. They are a diverse and varied group and in some cases their disabilities may take the form of personality problems.

From disabled people I have met I have gained a strong impression that they all want to be useful. They can overcome their inevitable limitations if only they are given the chance. What is more, having something to do--like a job--drives out the introspection and despair that come to those who are struck down or incapacitated by serious illness or accident. I refer to the feeling that a person is finished and is of no further use to himself or his family. To that extent, employment opportunities for disabled people give them a dignity and value of a sort that cannot always be understood by the able-bodied. It cannot be overestimated, and employers should be aware of it when being asked to accept disabled people in their companies. Although it is not entirely clear how many people make up the disabled work force, the recent Office of Population Censuses and Surveys report stated that there are about 6 million disabled people in this country, of whom 70 per cent. are aged 60 or over. Some who were included under the heading "disabled" probably would not think of themselves in those terms, but whatever the case, it is not unreasonable to point out that about 1 million people, using the OPCS definition, are disabled and of employable age. To that extent, the duty laid down in the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944--that employers with 20 or more employees should draw 3 per cent. of their work force from the registered disabled--might seem reasonable, particularly as there are 25 million people in work in the United Kingdom. That would suggest that there is a pool of 700,000 registered disabled people to draw on. In fact, that is not so. My hon. Friend the Minister told me in a parliamentary reply last December that there were 374,238 registered disabled ; so the figure in the Act is unrealistic, to say the least. One wonders why we continue with it.

On the other hand, what about the 600,000 unregistered disabled? How many of them have employment, and how many cannot work? I do not know whether my hon. Friend can shed any light on that point, but it needs definition.

Registration as a disabled person is voluntary. It is open to any person who, on account of injury, disease or congenital deformity is substantially handicapped in obtaining or keeping employment, or in undertaking work on his own account. Registration means having a green card, and one's name is kept on the register of disabled

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people held by the disablement resettlement officer, who, in turn, is the interface with industry and the employment training scheme. Under the scheme, someone seeking employment training will see the disablement resettlement officer, who will either pass the person on to the training agent whose job is to assess his capabilities and produce an action plan, or direct him to an employment rehabilitation centre for a two-day assessment of his potential.

One of the employment rehabilitiation centres serving the Newbury area is at Egham, where there is a 12-week waiting list. That shows its popularity, and perhaps its need to expand. If the training agent decides that a person does not need to go to the employment rehabilitation centre, he can direct him to a training manager, whose responsiblity is to find him a training course or, ideally, a placement in industry. Some may go to workshops on the sheltered placement scheme.

Recently I visited Enham Industries, at Enham Alamein near Andover. The centre provides employment for disabled people in a range of occupations and serves my constituency. It is financed by voluntary bodies and is widely used by the employment training scheme. It provides sheltered placement, for which it receives from the employment services £3,150 for each person it takes on in its workshops. All of those whom it takes on are fairly severely disabled. Its liaison personnel help to place disabled people in ordinary jobs, going out and interviewing employers.

Enham believes in a very careful assessment of those who come to it and likes to do a two-week assessment--as it puts it--to discover the disabled person as an individual with all his or her problems. I think it feels that the two-hour assessment under the employment training scheme by the training agent is far too brief to be meaningful. I admit that its assessment costs £150, against £20 for the assessment by the employment training agent, but since assessment seems to me to be the touchstone for discovering a disabled person's capabilities I was sorry to hear that the local employment training initiative had no interface with Enham in the sense that it synchronised its efforts with those of Enham and that, if employment training bought training places at Enham, its budget enabled it to buy only four days a week. It was my clear impression that under the employment training scheme the provision of assessment and the training of disabled persons is underfinanced. Let me give just one example. The sheltered placement training total at Enham is currently 60, although there is room for 70 people.

What, then, of disabled people seeking jobs in industry? Everyone I have spoken to talked of the reluctance of too many employers to consider disabled people. As one handicapped person put it, it is as if "disabled" were a taboo word. It is said that many disabled persons prefer not to register, to avoid categorising themselves. I understand that the Spastics Society in England and Wales conducted a survey in which 50 people with disabilities applied for jobs, disclosing their disability. At the same time 50 able-bodied people applied for the same jobs. Invariably those who listed disabilities did not even get an interview. It may be that companies are not sufficiently aware of the £6,000 grant they can receive to adapt their premises and equipment for a disabled employee, but the fact is that a large number of disabled people still look to sheltered placement for employment. I do not belive that it has to be so.

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If I hold the view that more finance is needed for employment training in terms of the disabled and for sheltered placement I am also of the opinion that much more encouragement needs to be given to industry to think about employing disabled people and to recognise that "disabled" does not refer simply to people in wheelchairs. Recently I met Mr. Geoff Busby, the information technology project director of the British Computer Society. Geoff is a spastic with the sort of handicaps that might make it seem unlikely that he could ever work. In fact, he has three A-levels and 10 O-levels and a master's degree in computer technology from Essex university. Because he cannot use his hands, he turned to computers since he understands them and can operate them with his nose. He has been seconded from GEC Computer Services to his present job. Clearly he is the right person to head up an organisation devoted to the disabled and to getting them jobs. He is unequivocal in his belief that industry needs to be educated in the potential that disabled people possess, particularly in areas such as information technology.

I am aware that in 1984 the CBI and the TUC, together with the Manpower Services Commission, drew up a code of good practice on the employment of disabled people, but, as Mr. Busby told me, the equipment used for training the disabled is often old-fashioned. Training schemes are aimed too much at the severely disabled, and too many conferences about employing the disabled are attended mainly by the disabled. Like everyone I have spoken to, he believes that what is needed is a massive promotion campaign aimed at industry, particularly where it uses computers, VDUs and equipment with a keyboard that can be coupled to a voice synthesiser.

To sum up, what I am asking of my hon. Friend is that his Department provides more finance for training and education about the potential that disabled persons possess.

Lastly, I suggest that we look at the inducements available to a disabled person who gets involved in training. He or she will receive unemployment benefit, plus a £10 training allowance. Is it enough to persuade him or her to try very hard, particularly if the only prospect is a low-paid job with a salary not much above the level of benefit?

From a string of parliamentary answers it is clear that too many Government Departments, the House included, employ only a minuscule percentage of disabled people. If we are to give impetus to encouraging industry to create opportunities for the disabled, perhaps we should set an example ourselves. There may be no better place than in the Houses of Parliament.

2.10 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair- Wilson) on having secured this Adjournment debate on employment opportunities for disabled people. I fully understand his deep interest in the subject.

The Government have a long-standing commitment to ensuring that people with disabilities are allowed to develop their talents fully within the labour market. Indeed, it has been the policy of successive Governments

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to provide the help that such people may need to obtain employment, to develop their skills and expertise, and to achieve their aspirations at work.

It is important that people with disabilities should be able to bring their skills and abilities to bear fully in the labour market and to share in the benefits that able-bodied people obtain from work. The continuing growth in the number of employment opportunities and the emergence of skill shortages which will be exacerbated by current population trends reinforce this importance.

My Department has been actively engaged for many years in developing employment and training provision for people with disabilities. There is a lack of precise information about the employment situation for these people. However, it is clear that many of them enjoy a very satisfying working life. We are aware, however, that this is not the case for all people with disabilities and we are constantily trying, through the development of our programmes, to ensure improved prospects for people. To do this we need to take into account relevant issues such as changes in the general economic situation and the increasingly high, and quite justified, aspirations of many people with disabilities and their wish to live and work in an environment in which they are as far as possible integrated with their able-bodied fellow citizens.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that what I have to say this evening demonstrates that we have made significant progress over recent years in developing provision in this direction while also ensuring that separated, or sheltered, provision is available for those people for whom it is the only practicable answer to their problems.

It is evident from working in this area over a period that two things remain constant. First, not only do people have to contend with a very wide variety of disabilities but the extent to which disabilities handicap people in relation to employment can vary immensely. I am sure we all know of people with quite severe disabilities who successfully obtain and hold down jobs with little or no help from others. On the other hand, there are many who require more careful, and often continuing, support. Second, the impact of what we do turns on what others are able to do. The important role which employers need to play is self-evident, and I am encouraged by what I have seen of their efforts, particularly those who have gained recognition under the Department's fit for work award scheme. We also need, and are grateful for, the support of voluntary organisations. This is also a useful point at which to mention the Government's appreciation for the advice which is received from the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Disabled People and its chairman, Mr. Ken Baker. I particularly value the links with the national advisory service, which I have been able to develop through Mr. Baker since his appointment as chairman.

Despite all that has been achieved--and I believe that this has been considerable--the Government recognise the need for constant attention to this area of their activities. I shall return to this point when speaking of current activities within the Employment Department group to seek a clearer view of the people with disabilities who need

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help in obtaining and retaining employment, and to review all provision for the employment and training of people with disabilities.

Time does not permit a description of the entire range of provision available. The scope is very wide, as I know from visits to a large number of the facilities and organisations concerned, including in recent months the Barnsley Light Industries Sheltered Workshop, the Queen Elizabeth Foundation for the Disabled and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf's centre in Birmingham and indeed, later today, the institute's residential centre, Court Grange, in Devon. However, I would like to make a couple of broad observations about this provision before giving some more detailed information about its scale and nature. Services provided through the Employment Department's employment service and Training Agency are very comprehensive. They cover assessment, rehabilitation, training, sheltered employment and placing services. There are also, broadly speaking, two distinct types of service. There are those services available to all job seekers and those which are specifically for people with disabilities. Most of our disabled clients benefit from the first type of service, mainstream programmes. At a time when we are emphasising the importance of integration it is right that this should be the case.

In the period 1983-88 placings of disabled people into work rose some 50 per cent. to 94,000. Over the same period the number of people with severe disabilities placed into sheltered employment rose from 15,000 to 18,000. Levels of expendiure are also not insignificant. In 1987-88 some £126 million was spent on programmes specifically for people with disabilities. This included £86 million on sheltered employment and £23 million on employment rehabilitation.

We encourage people with disabilities to make full use of the mainstream services available at jobcentres. They can, for example, find out about job vacancies and the range of employment, training and enterprise programmes, as well as the special services for people with disabilities. Many of them find jobs without further assistance, and often quickly but others require a greater degree of help. Often training will be needed. For young people the youth training scheme--YTS--provides school leavers with a bridge between school and work. The Training Agency has introduced a wide range of special help to encourage young people with disabilities to enter YTS. This includes delayed entry, extension of stay, assessment courses and special help such as adaptations to premises or communication aids for deaf people.

For adults, our aim is that training should be available for those people with disabilities who need it to obtain or retain employment. Where possible they should be able to participate fully in mainstream training programmes, and there are relaxed eligibility criteria to enable them to do this. Most significantly, provision for people with disabilities is an integral part of employment training. The client-centred approach, with each trainee having a personal action plan, is particularly suitable in this instance. Furthermore, wherever possible, people with disabilities train alongside their able-bodied counterparts. The early results of this programme are very encouraging.

A range of special help is available to participants. This includes the loan of special equipment and financial assistance with adaptations to equipment and premises.

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There is also a personal reader service for blind trainees and a communicator service for people who are deaf. Residential training is also available if necessary.

In addition to the mainstream services there is a range of specialist help. For example, there are more than 400 specially trained disablement resettlement officers who provide an advisory counselling and placing service for those people with disabilities who have particular difficulty finding a job. Their commitment and expertise is the cornerstone of our success. Disablement resettlement officers are able to help people take full advantage of the range of special schemes which are available to help people with disabilities overcome problems which they may encounter in getting or keeping a job. To give brief details of these, may I say that the fares to work scheme offers financial assistance to people who are unable to use public transport as a result of their disability.

The special aids to employment scheme provides people with the special equipment needed to do their jobs. Many of the items issued are new technology based, including computers, desk top publishing equipment, and equipment providing speech output or large character display for people with visual handicaps. In some cases equipment is provided so as to enable people to work at home if they are unable to travel to work. The adaptation to premises and equipment scheme provides financial assistance to employers who need to make adaptations in order to employ a specific disabled person. The personal reader service helps towards the cost of employing a sighted reader to help visually handicapped people at work. Finally, the job introduction scheme allows employers to offer a trial period of employment, usually six weeks, to people with disabilities. The employer receives a grant of £45 per week for each disabled person recruited.

For some people the help offered by the Training Agency's employment rehabilitation service is essential before they can seek work. This service aims to assess the capabilities and preferences of people to help them decide what sort of work is most suitable for them. It is delivered in a number of ways. As well as the employment rehabilitation centres, of which there are 26 throughout the country, a network of mobile and more flexible facilities is being developed. There are also significant developments under way to improve the quality of rehabilitation by developing modules for learning job-search techniques, literacy, numeracy and core skills. For many people with severe disabilities, employment means independence, self- esteem and social contact and represents a major step towards integration into the life of a community. But in spite of all the help that is available, some people are just not able to compete in the open labour market.

The provision of suitable work arrangements for people with severe disabilities is an issue of particular importance. Towards the end of 1987 I chaired a very interesting and useful conference which explored this in some depth.

The employment service is providing support for over 18,000 people with severe disabilities under the sheltered employment programme. The majority of opportunities are in sheltered workshops and factories run by voluntary bodies, local authorities and Remploy. In view of its importance in this field, I take a close personal interest in the affairs of Remploy, holding quarterly meetings with its chairman, Ivor Cohen. There will clearly continue to be a need for such provision. However, the past three or four

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years have seen a rapid growth in the sheltered placement scheme which enables some severely disabled people to work in an integrated environment alongside able-bodied workers. The Government make good the deficit between the pay people earn as a result of their actual productivity and the normal weekly wage for the work undertaken. That the sheltered placement scheme has commanded widespread support is clear from the scale of its recent development. By the end of next month, 5,000 people will be supported under the scheme. I am hoping for further expansion in 1989-90.

I should emphasise that the scheme could not work without the considerable efforts of sponsoring organisations--local authorities, voluntary bodies and Remploy as well as the willing participation of host organisations, many of whom are private sector employers operating in a highly competitive market. What makes them so willing then to take on workers who may be quite severely disabled? There is probably no single answer to that question. One factor perhaps stands out here. The sheltered placement scheme is an initiative which recognises explicitly that some people cannot contribute to the productivity of the firm on level terms with fully fit colleagues. We therefore say to the employer, "You pay for that person's ability, we will pay for the disability". A simple enough concept perhaps, although not always easy to translate into practice. But it seems to work. The scheme offers the chance to work in what is, in effect, open employment alongside fit colleagues.

I have mentioned already the absolute importance of the role to be played by employers in improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities. It is crucial to the development of opportunities for all people whose disabilities put them at a disadvantage in the labour market.

There are two approaches to obtaining the support and involvement of employers which need to be considered. There is first the quota scheme, an issue which engenders deeply held but widely differing views. However, there is general acceptance that the scheme is not working as well as was intended when it was introduced in 1944. Indeed, it is believed by many people that it cannot work in its present form and is seen by many employers as unhelpful to the promotion of equal opportunities in employment for people with disabilities. The Government are committed to promoting equal opportunities by education and persuasion backed by practical help for individuals and employers. The code of good practice on the employment of disabled people was introduced in 1984 with the support of the CBI and the TUC. It is full of useful advice and guidance on recruitment, career development, retention of existing employees who become disabled, and so on. It was the first of its kind in Europe. Employers may also have access to one of the 71 local teams of the disablement advisory service which offers encouragement and help to adopt positive policies and practices in the employment of people with disabilities. It also acts as the access point for employers to many of the schemes to which I have referred earlier.

One particular stumbling block to the further development of provision is the general lack of information about the numbers, characteristics and needs of people with disabilities who are handicapped in relation to employment. The recently published second report of the OPCS survey of disability in Great Britain provides an estimate of the numbers of disabled people in employment

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and those who are unemployed. However, the report does not provide sufficiently precise information about economically -active people whose disabilities are relevant to their employability.

As I have said, we are not dealing here with a static situation. The programmes that my Department supports need to reflect those changes which are taking place, for example, in the composition and size of the labour market and in the attitudes of people with disabilities. I should like to close by referring to two important steps taken recently to review our policies and programmes in the light of such developments.

First, we have commissioned a major research project to establish the number of economically active people with handicaps that are relevant to their employment and to provide information about their characteristics, their experience of employment, their use of the employment service and Training Agency services and their need for employment-related assistance. The obvious sensitivities make this a very difficult area into which to inquire.

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However, the methodology for the survey is being developed and the results are expected in the second half of this year.

Secondly, as announced in the House on 9 March 1988 by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, we have initiated a wide-ranging review of the policies and services supported by the employment service and the Training Agency to help the employment of people with disabilities. This review is taking account of the advice received from various quarters, including the Public Accounts Committee in its report on employment assistance to disabled adults. It is now well under way.

The issues to be examined in the review are complex and it is important to the long-term interests of people with disabilities that we should take sufficient time to get it right. I hope, in particular, that the conclusion of the review and the consultation which I expect to follow will give us an appropriate basis for ensuring that people with disabilities receive the best possible support for getting and retaining work and for developing their full potential, as far as is practicable, alongside their able-bodied colleagues over the next decade.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Two o'clock.

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