Disability employment gap Contents

4Impact of the coronavirus pandemic

Impact of the pandemic on the labour market for disabled people

126.During our inquiry, we heard that disabled people are more likely to be working in industries affected by the pandemic and are more likely to be facing redundancy than non-disabled people. Several organisations told us that disabled people are overrepresented in sectors that were forced to close during the national lockdowns, such as the hospitality, catering and retail sectors.218 Academics from the University of Sheffield and the University of York told us that the concentration of disabled people working in these sectors is likely to have long-term consequences that could worsen the disability employment gap, and that the adverse impacts will be particularly felt by those with mental health conditions. They said:

The shutdown sectors are dominated by hospitality and retail jobs (with a high occurrence of part-time and flexible work) and some of these firms will not survive the economic consequences of lockdown, meaning that these jobs will not be available in future. The prevalence of people with mental health disability in these sectors means that these workers are more vulnerable to the employment consequences of the pandemic than both non-disabled people and people whose disability is physical.219

127.The graph below shows the percentage of disabled people (including people with mental health disabilities and physical disabilities, labelled “MH disabled” and “PH disabled”) and non-disabled people working in sectors shut down during the pandemic. It shows that from 2018 to the third fiscal quarter of 2020, a higher percentage of disabled people were working in ‘shut down’ sectors compared to non-disabled people.220

Figure 4: Workers in “shut down” sectors

Source: Professor Jennifer Roberts, Dr Mark Bryan et al. (DEG0132)

128.Gemma Hope, Director of Policy at the disability charity Leonard Cheshire, told us that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on disabled people’s employment:

We have done our own research on this, which showed 71% of disabled people have had their work impacted by the pandemic. About 22% of people were in furlough, 25% of people had a reduction in working hours and a similar number as well have had a reduction in pay. We know that it has already had an impact and that is also reflected by what our employment advisers are telling us. […] We have worked with the Institute for Employment Studies, which does show that the impact is disproportionate, using the Labour Force Survey, showing that 10% more disabled people than non-disabled people have had their work impacted by the pandemic.221

Disability Rights UK told us that the pandemic has had a “catastrophic impact” on disabled people’s jobs, and that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by redundancies and reduction of hours.222 Citizens Advice, in its report An unequal crisis, looked at the impact of the pandemic on the risk of redundancies for disabled people. It found that of those who are facing redundancy, 51% have a disability or have a long-term health condition,223 despite disabled people only accounting for 20% of the working age population.224 Citizens’ Advice also found that some groups are more at risk of redundancy than others, with 45% of those considered “clinically vulnerable” to coronavirus facing redundancy, and for those who are considered “extremely clinically vulnerable”, 48% are facing redundancy.225 The graph below shows the percentage of disabled people, carers, and those in the shielded group facing redundancy compared to the working population.

Figure 5: Percentage of disabled people facing redundancy

Source: Citizens Advice, An unequal crisis, August 2020, p.11

129.Citizens Advice said:

The forthcoming waves of redundancies are likely to fall disproportionately on carers and disabled people. There are several possible reasons for this disparity. In part it may be because both groups are more likely to be working in sectors which are particularly vulnerable to the economic crisis. […] However, there is also a risk that unfair and discriminatory practices by employers when selecting people for redundancy will contribute to these unequal outcomes. Although there is a legal framework to prevent this, our experience advising clients shows that unscrupulous employers often don’t keep to these rules and that the effects of the pandemic may well exacerbate this long-standing problem.226

130.During our inquiry, we have heard concerns from disabled people about the impact of the pandemic on their employment prospects. One disabled person told us that they are worried that the pandemic will negatively affect employers’ attitudes towards hiring disabled people:

I do fear the impact that the pandemic has had on companies and organisations who will be looking at the bottom line and ruling out moving to more accessible premises, spending on improving access and indeed hiring someone with an impairment in case they have to spend more to enable that employee.227

131.We heard that the pandemic could have an adverse impact on the employment prospects of young disabled people. Fazilet Hadi, Head of Policy at Disability Rights UK, said that disabled young people will have “immeasurable problems” getting into work after the pandemic.228 Gemma Hope of Leonard Cheshire echoed these concerns and told us that a disabled young person is 3.5 times more likely to be unemployed than a non-disabled young person.229 Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs and Social Change at the National Autistic Society, said that young disabled people are struggling to access the labour market because many entry-level jobs are predominately in sectors that have been forced to close during the pandemic:

With some of the young people we are trying to support into work, they are trying to get into entry-level jobs in all of the industries that we all know have been most affected by the pandemic, so there is a much lower supply of jobs for those people, and that is really difficult.230

Impact of the pandemic on trends in the disability employment gap

132.We heard that it is too early to track what the long-term impacts of the pandemic will be for disabled people’s employment. Current data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), however, suggest that the disability employment gap “widened slightly” in 2020.231 Between October to December 2019 and July to September 2020, the employment rate for disabled people fell from 54.1% to 52.1%.232

133.Dr Mark Bryan, an academic specialising in disability employment, told us that the narrowing of the disability employment gap has “stalled in progress during the pandemic”.233 In written evidence, Dr Bryan and other academics told us that there had been “no statistically significant changes to any disability employment gaps” so far during the pandemic. They stressed, however, that as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has been extended until September 2021, it is still too early to assess the full impact that the pandemic has had on disabled peoples’ employment.234 They did, however, identify that gaps in other related outcomes, such as the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people who are classed as “away from work” and who are employed but are working reduced hours, have widened. The academics said that these widening gaps “may signal employment changes to come” once the CJRS comes to an end.235

Impact of remote working

134.The evidence we heard presents a mixed picture of disabled people’s experiences of remote working. Fazilet Hadi told us that remote working has been a “double-edged sword”. She said that disabled people with energy-limiting conditions, who may struggle to access transport, have benefited from not having to travel into work, but others, she said, have “struggled to move to digital”.236 Some of the disabled people we heard from said that accessing and using technology to work remotely was very difficult and could create difficulties for disabled people trying to enter the labour market. One disabled person said:

Working from home due to the pandemic has impacted [disabled people] as instead of doing things face to face it’s now all done using technology which isn’t always accessible. Also while my employer would be happy for me to bring my Access to Work equipment home I just don’t have the space for it.237

135.Several other witnesses and disability organisations said that accessing and using digital technology is a significant barrier to remote working for some disabled people.238 Data from the 2020 Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index showed that only 38% of disabled people have the necessary digital skills for work, compared to 52% of non-disabled people, with transactional data showing that disabled people are 40% less likely to have received digital skills training from their employer.239 The Good Things Foundation, a digital and social inclusion charity, told us that factors such as inaccessible websites and devices, as well as financial constraints, “means that people with disabilities miss out on employment opportunities and options for remote-working”.240

136.For some disabled people, however, remote working has had a positive impact. A report by the trade union UNISON, Covid-19 and disabled workers: Time for a home working revolution, found that 73% of disabled people working remotely throughout the pandemic felt that they were “more or as productive” working from home than in the workplace. UNISON said that the main reasons disabled people gave for increased productivity were “fewer distractions, no commuting, fewer sensory issues such as lighting and background noise, and the greater ability to manage issues such as pain and access to the bathroom”.241 One disabled person said that working from home had helped to reduce their stress:

I’m hard of hearing and struggle in an open-plan office. The quiet of my home allows me to work with less stress or pressure.

Another person said that they were able to manage their condition better from home:

I’m autistic and the office is a relentless sensory assault. Almost every day when I used to get home from work, I had to lie down for half an hour with my eyes closed because they ached. I can now work in a room that’s totally quiet.242

137.Responding to our inquiry, disabled people also shared their positive experiences of working remotely. One disabled person told us that working remotely had helped them to manage their condition better, although their employer had previously refused their requests to work from home:

One of the things that has been suggested countless times was to allow me to work from home a couple of days a week so that I could manage some of my symptoms a bit easier from home, and I was told constantly that it’s just not appropriate for my role to be allowed to work from home and then of course the pandemic hit and now I’m working from home full time and it turns out it’s completely possible for me to do my role from home. And it has had a positive impact on my symptoms, so being a lot easier to manage working from home, it’s just one of the things that my employer could have done to help me a little bit and just sort of chose not to.243

138.In its report, UNISON said that 54% of disabled people felt that they would benefit from remote working once the pandemic is over, compared to 25% who felt that remote working would disadvantage them. It also found that 37% of disabled people cited resistance from employers and the nature of their jobs as the main obstacles to being able to work remotely.244 It recommended that the Government should introduce a “new enforceable right to home working for disabled workers who want it”.245

139.Several other contributors to our inquiry have also called for changes to legislation on workers’ rights surrounding remote or flexible working.246 Currently, employees have the legal right to request flexible working if they have worked continuously for at least 26 weeks. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) said that flexible working will “make work more accessible and sustainable for all, particularly for people with some disabilities and health concerns”.247 In its report, Working well? How the pandemic changed work for people with health conditions, the Centre for Ageing Better said that more remote working will create new opportunities for disabled people in the labour market, and that employers should capitalise on the benefits of remote working that have been seen throughout the pandemic:

Employers would be wise to learn from this great natural experiment in home working to ensure that the benefits can be properly reaped by anyone who will want to continue to work remotely in the coming years.248

140.In its response to the Health is everyone’s business consultation, published in July 2021, the Government announced that it had decided not to progress with its suggestion of introducing a “right to request” workplace adjustments for all workers. It feared that this could undermine the existing duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act, and lead to requests being refused.249 For some disabled workers in some jobs, working remotely or flexibly could be an example of such a request. Instead, the Government said that it would work on providing clearer, easy to navigate guidance to employers on their duties to disabled employees and how to carry them out effectively.

141.In the same document, the Government said that:

Flexible working has the potential to help improve retention of staff who may otherwise fall out of work due to a (temporary or permanent) change in their health. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is taking forward the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto commitment to encourage flexible working and to consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. The consultation will be published in due course.250

142.The pandemic has led to a sharp increase in the number of people working remotely. It is clear from the evidence we heard that while remote working has created new access barriers for some disabled people, for many others it has aided their participation in the labour market. The evidence we heard suggests that the majority of disabled people want to continue working remotely after the pandemic. The Government should support their right to do so. The Government should work with employers to ensure that disabled people are supported to work in an environment that suits them best: whether this is from home or at their place of work. To that end, the Government should amend current legislation and give workers the statutory right to request remote or flexible working from of the beginning of their employment. In some industries or some roles it may not currently be feasible for workers to carry out their roles remotely. As with the existing right to request flexible working for employees with at least 26 weeks’ service, employers should follow Acas’ Code of Practice on dealing with flexible working requests in a reasonable manner, which should involve weighing the benefits of any changes against any adverse impact on the business. It should also work with employers to ensure that their places of work are inclusive and accessible for all, so that disabled people who do not want to work from home are well supported.

143.The Office for National Statistics has found that disabled people “made up 6 in 10 (59.5%) of all deaths involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) for the period to 20 November 2020 (30,296 of 50,888 deaths).”251 It notes for comparison that disabled people made up 17.2% of the study population, and concludes that this suggests that “disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic”.252

144.Disabled people were identified by the ONS based on their disability status as reported in the 2011 Census, with a distinction between people who reported that their day-to-day activities were “limited a little” and “limited a lot” as a result of a long-term health condition. The ONS refers to people in these two categories as “less-disabled” and “more-disabled”. Between 24 January and 20 November 2020 in England, the ONS found that “risk of death involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) was 3.1 times greater for more-disabled men and 1.9 times greater for less-disabled men, compared with non-disabled men; among women, the risk of death was 3.5 times greater for more-disabled women and 2.0 times greater for less-disabled women, compared with non-disabled women.253

145.The ONS used statistical models to adjust for personal and household characteristics, including residence type, geography, demographic and socio-economic factors (including occupation), and pre-existing health conditions. It found that a smaller but statistically significantly raised risk of death remained unexplained for more-disabled and less-disabled women (1.4 and 1.2 times respectively) and more-disabled men (1.1 times) but not for less-disabled men. The ONS concluded that:

This means that no single factor explains the considerably raised risk of death involving COVID-19 among disabled people, and place of residence, socio-economic and geographical circumstances, and pre-existing health conditions all play a part; an important part of the raised risk is because disabled people are disproportionately exposed to a range of generally disadvantageous circumstances compared with non-disabled people.254

146.There is no clear evidence which explains why disabled people have a considerably raised risk of death from coronavirus. There is a need for further research to investigate the extent to which disabled people’s experiences in the workplace may play a part in this. We recommend that DWP work with HSE to commission research to better understand whether there is a link between occupational settings and the raised risk of death from coronavirus for disabled people.

The Kickstart and Restart schemes

147.In July 2020, as part of its Plan for Jobs, the Government announced the creation of Kickstart, a new employment support scheme aimed at 16–24-year olds claiming Universal Credit. The scheme provides funding to employers to create 6-month job placements for young people to gain work experience and improve their employment prospects. As of 3 June 2021, 138,000 placements had been advertised and 31,000 young people had started a placement.255

148.In an equality analysis for the Kickstart scheme, the Department said that the scheme is not specifically targeted at disabled people, but that it has the potential to benefit this group. The analysis recognises that disabled people may face barriers to accessing the programme and said that the Department would mitigate these through:

149.In the November 2020 Spending Review, the Chancellor of the Exchequer allocated £2.9 billion of funding for Restart, a new employment support programme.257 The scheme will provide employment support to Universal Credit claimants who have been out of work for between 12–18 months. The Department has said the scheme will “break down employment barriers” that are preventing claimants from accessing the labour market.258 Referrals to the scheme will be made over a 3-year period and the Department has said that it expects the scheme to support over one million Universal Credit claimants. The scheme was launched on 28 June 2021 and referrals to providers were expected to begin on 12 July.

Data collection

150.In our Report, DWP’s preparations for changes in the world of work, we examined how well the Kickstart and Restart schemes will work for disabled people. We concluded, however, that longstanding deficiencies in the collection and storage of claimant data in the Universal Credit system meant that the Department cannot effectively measure, in real-time, how well the Kickstart and Restart schemes are working for different groups of people, including disabled people. In our report, we recommended that the Department should urgently make improvements to the Universal Credit system, to enable it to record and use data about claimants’ characteristics.259

151.The Department has said that it will publish data on the outcomes of different groups of people who participate on the Kickstart and Restart schemes, but only after evaluations of the schemes have taken place, rather than when the schemes are live.260 On Kickstart, the Permanent Secretary told us in November 2020 that the Department was “currently considering how to collect and aggregate sensitive information from Universal Credit claimants”. He told us that as part of the Kickstart evaluation, the Department was planning a “representative two-wave longitudinal study” to record whether participants on Kickstart have a disability.261

152.We pressed the Minister for Disabled People on this issue when he gave evidence to our inquiry. The Minister told us that it would be “helpful”, and he would be “interested”, to have more real-time data on the characteristics of Kickstart participants, but he reiterated that the Department will collect this data as part of its evaluation once the scheme has finished.262 We asked the Minister why the Department had decided to take this approach, he said:

My understanding […] is that you can have two types of data. We can have what is called management information, where we would ask everything we need at the beginning so we have it, or you get the information based on an evaluation of a scheme further down the line, where you will take a sample, you will ask those questions and then that will become the data that you use. The difference is that it is not 100% of people and, secondly, it is further down.

For me, it is helpful to have it earlier, but I absolutely accept—because I have to go on visits to jobcentres and talk to work coaches—that they do not want to spend a long time in that initial conversation. Remember that a lot of people going into a jobcentre for the first time will be anxious. One of the most important roles of a work coach is to build a positive relationship, build trust, and that is not helped if you are asking a series of what are non-personal questions. It is about that balance again.263

153.DWP has published data on results for its previous employment support programmes while they were running. For example, on the Work Programme, the Government’s previous main welfare-to-work scheme, the Department published statistics on job outcomes and performance of different customer groups quarterly until September 2017. After this point, the Department reported outcomes every six months, although this was stopped after the March 2018 release because of changes in the way performance information was recorded.264

154.DWP must ensure that the Kickstart and Restart schemes are accessible to disabled people. Before September 2017, the Work Programme reported quarterly on job outcomes for disabled people: the Department should be able to do as good a job with Restart and Kickstart. Publishing an evaluation of how well the schemes have worked for disabled people only after they have ended is not good enough. In our report on DWP’s preparations for changes in the world of work, we recommended that the Department should immediately improve how it collects data about claimants’ characteristics in the Universal Credit system so that it can monitor, in real-time, how well the Kickstart and Restart schemes are working for particular groups, including disabled people. We reiterate that recommendation now.

Creaming and parking

155.The payment-by-results model used in the Work Programme led to criticism that providers were prioritising their support to participants who were closest to the labour market, and therefore more likely to achieve a job outcome, than people who were further from the labour market and would need the most support, a practice referred to as “creaming and parking”. We wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Rt Hon Dr Thérèse Coffey MP, in January to ask how the Department would ensure that the practice of creaming and parking is not repeated under the Restart scheme.265 The Secretary of State told us that the Department has “learned from the failures of previous schemes” and has implemented four new measures to mitigate unintended practices. These measures include:

156.Work Choice was a specialist voluntary programme that provided employment support to disabled people. The scheme was launched in October 2010, replacing WORKSTEP and Work Preparation, and closed for new referrals across the United Kingdom by February 2018, when it was subsequently replaced by the Work and Health Programme. Participants on the scheme received tailored support to help them into employment. The Work Choice funding model included a significant upfront service fee (equal to 70% of a provider’s contract price) for each participant who started on the programme. The provider then received further outcome-based payments if an individual it supported obtained a job outcome, and a final payment if that job outcome was sustained for at least six months.267

157.An evaluation of Work Choice, carried out on behalf of DWP by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion in July 2013, said that the service fee element in the payment model was “important for a specialist programme because of the support requirements of the participant group”. The evaluation also said that the different payment models for Work Choice and the Work Programme “appeared to be driving different levels of resourcing for the two programmes” including Work Programme providers being more likely to “cream and park” participants. The evaluation said:

There were significant reported differences between adviser caseloads on each programme, with Work Programme caseloads several times larger than those on Work Choice, even within a single provider organisation. There was also some evidence of greater levels of target-driven behaviour on Work Programme, including some reports of ‘parking’ and ‘creaming’ of participants.268

In addition, the evaluation found that the upfront service fee was “overwhelmingly seen as positive” by providers and subcontractors. It said:

Providers gave examples of how service fee payments facilitated a more planned approach and supported investment in service delivery. Overall it was felt to have a positive impact on the type and level of support that they could provide. This was felt to be extremely important because of the nature of the target participant group of the programme i.e. those with significant and complex support needs. […] The service fee was also felt by some subcontractors to be a key factor in the financial sustainability of the contract and their ability to deliver it. […] When discussing the service fee, a number of providers compared Work Choice favourably to the Work Programme where there is a much greater focus on outcome-based (and therefore delayed) payments.269

In its recommendations, the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion said that “any future funding model for specialist disability employment services should recognise the importance of service fees for provision aimed at this participant group”.270

158.DWP must demonstrate that lessons have been learnt from previous schemes and ensure that the payment model used in Restart does not disincentivise providers from supporting those who are furthest away from the labour market, including some disabled people. Although Restart will not be a specialist disability programme, some disabled people will undoubtedly seek support from the scheme. An evaluation of Work Choice, carried out on behalf of DWP, highlighted the importance of paying providers service fees for provision aimed at disabled people. The Department should incorporate a service fee element into its payment model for Restart to ensure that providers are incentivised to support disabled people, and other cohorts, that may be furthest away from accessing the labour market.

218 Unity Works (DEG0001), Down’s Syndrome Association (DEG0125), Professor Jennifer Roberts, Dr Mark Bryan et al. (DEG0132), Scope (DEG0147), Q88 [Mr Kennedy], Q123 [Mr Harrison]

219 Professor Jennifer Roberts, Dr Mark Bryan et al. (DEG0132)

220 Ibid.

222 Disability Rights UK (DEG0097)

223 Citizens Advice, An unequal crisis, August 2020, p.10

224 House of Commons Library, Disabled people in employment, May 2021, p.3

225 Citizens Advice, An unequal crisis, August 2020, p.10

226 Ibid. p.11

227 Name Withheld (DEG0131)

231 Office for National Statistics (DEG0085)

232 Ibid.

234 Professor Jennifer Roberts, Dr Mark Bryan et al. (DEG0132)

235 Ibid.

237 Marie-Claire Barker (DEG0039)

238 Business Disability Forum (DEG0163), Leeds Autism AIM (DEG0145), Unity Works (DEG0001), RNID (DEG0120), Volition, Forum Central (DEG0133), Sense (DEG0130), Q163 [Mr Geaney & Mr Sigsworth]

239 Lloyds Bank, UK Consumer Digital Index 2020, May 2020, p.26

240 Good Things Foundation (DEG0159)

242 Ibid.

243 Transcript of engagement event, 22 April 2021, p.26

245 Ibid.

246 Scope (DEG0147), Disability Rights UK (DEG0097), Brunel University London (DEG0098)

247 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (DEG0135)

249 Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health, Health is everyone’s business: government response, July 2021, p.21

250 Ibid. p.23

255 PQ 11544

256 Department for Work and Pensions, Equality Analysis for the Kickstart Scheme, June 2021, p.6–7

257 HM Treasury, Plan for Jobs, July 2020, p.8–9

258 Department for Work and Pensions, How the Restart scheme will work, accessed 9 June 2021

259 Work and Pensions Committee, First Report of Session 2021–22, DWP’s preparations for changes in the world of work, HC 216, para.92–94

260 PQ 19701

261 Letter from the Permanent Secretary to the Chair, dated 21 November

264 Department for Work and Pensions, Work Programme statistical summary: data to June 2020, accessed 28 June 2021

265 Letter from the Chair to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, dated 18 January 2021

266 Letter from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to the Chair, dated 2 February 2021

267 Department for Work and Pensions, Work Choice statistics: background information note, accessed 28 June 2021

268 Department for Work and Pensions, Evaluation of the Work Choice Specialist Disability Employment Programme, July 2013, p.24

269 Ibid. p.108

270 Ibid.

Published: 30 July 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement