The Government is aiming to halve the disability employment gap—the difference between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people. We welcome this new emphasis on work, where appropriate, for disabled people. This shift, away from a primary concern with benefit levels, towards employment opportunities and the benefits of working, should be seen as an important change in how government views the role of disabled people in our economy and society. The ambition of the Government’s target is clear. At current employment levels, halving the gap would require over one million more disabled people to be in work. Achieving this will require a clear focus on the role that employers and in-work support must play, as well as careful consideration of the necessary role of benefits.
The Government will struggle to achieve its objective if it cannot bring employers on board, and enhance in-work support. Employment opportunities must be opened up to more disabled people and employers helped to see how taking on disabled people, and retaining employees who become disabled, could be good for their businesses. Some employers may need additional financial support and incentives to take on disabled people, and a great many could benefit from access to more practical, tailored, specialist advice at the point of need. Finding out what works best for employers will require experimentation. Some evidence already exists via the Access to Work scheme. The Department should also continue to enhance its focus on improving retention rates and reducing exits from work due to ill-health. Both of these steps are crucial to sustainably closing the gap.
The development of the DWP and Department of Health’s Work and Health Unit is a welcome step, acknowledging that responsibility for improving disabled people’s employment rates extends beyond the DWP. To achieve the Government’s ambitions, however, a more co-ordinated and strategic approach to working across Departmental boundaries will be needed. The Government should, therefore, produce a Disability Employment Strategy that aims to bring together and develop the initiatives it has already announced across Departments, and to make our country a world leader in disability employment. A key focus of the Strategy should be promoting the employment of disabled people to businesses and other key external stakeholders, building on the Department’s existing Disability Confident campaign.
Tackling the gap and supporting over a million more disabled people into and in work will also require substantial, sustained and specialist practical support for disabled people themselves, including those who are currently out of work. Even with this in place, there will be no quick solutions. For those who have more complex barriers to work, there are doubts over whether Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is equipped, culturally or practically, to offer the support that is required—but there are many specialist organisations that could play a great part. Within JCP, the Department should also devote greater attention to protecting disabled benefit claimants from hardship related to sanctions, which may push them further from work. It should develop a code of conduct for Work Coaches on applying sanctions to disabled claimants, incorporating its existing safeguarding guidance and additional guidance on how to consider the impact on a claimant’s physical and mental health when deciding whether to make a sanction referral.
We welcome the DWP’s intention to reform the Work Capability Assessment which, for too long, has been a source of stress and anxiety for disabled people. As part of this process, the Department has committed to ending re-assessment of people with some severe conditions. It must clarify which groups of people this will apply to, and when it expects the change to be introduced. We also welcome the Department’s commitment to improving its offer to claimants in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Support Group, but emphasise that this must be implemented on a voluntary basis.
The Government intends to introduce a new, lower rate of benefit payment for new claimants in the ESA Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) than is currently in place, aligning this with the rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance. This was legislated for in March 2016, and will generate fiscal savings. There is a risk, however, that it will affect disabled people’s quality of life and likelihood of moving into work. The living costs that disabled people accrue as a result of their disabilities vary, depending on factors including impairment type and severity, and their individual circumstances. If the Department is to press ahead with this change, it must ensure that prior to its introduction it has set out a clear plan for identifying where new claimants have additional, unavoidable living costs relating to their conditions that they will struggle to meet with the new payment level, and how it will ensure that these costs are covered.
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of disabled people in work, but too many disabled people are still being left behind in the labour market. Many employers still fail to recognise fully the abilities and value of disabled staff, and disability all too often means dropping out of work entirely. At a time when low unemployment should increase employer demand for disabled people, the Government has a chance to introduce incentives and programmes to make sure that it achieves its goal. The Department acknowledges that improving disabled people’s employment rates must be a priority. It must now ensure that its programmes, resources and planning match its ambition.
30 January 2017