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Employment minister: Poor progress for workers with disabilities

Speakers at a Resolution Foundation event said that more must be done to boost the number of people with disabilities in the workplace

The UK has been successful in increasing employment levels but progress has been slow in helping more disabled people into work, according to Alok Sharma, employment minister and MP for Reading West, speaking at the launch of the Resolution Foundation’s latest report.

“Since 2010 the labour market has gone from strength to strength; with an average of 1,000 people a day moving into work. There’s 3.4 million more people going into work today than there were 10 years ago,” he said.

Stagnating incomes and living standards may have helped drive this high employment, said director of the Resolution Foundation Torsten Bell. “We have had an income shock, and the effect of that is that people protect their living standards by wanting more work than they wanted before the financial crisis. When we are richer we respond to that by working less hours,” he said.

But while progress has been made in wider employment, Sharma said that certain groups haven’t benefitted as much as others. He pledged to help people progress in their careers, particularly those with disabilities, from BAME groups, and from disadvantaged backgrounds: “We are not complacent. I want us to go further by helping people to go up the ladder in their jobs, helping people to achieve their full potential. If we are going to do this we need to be world leaders, because there are very few examples of this across the globe for us to follow.”

Liz Sayce, former chief executive of Disability Rights UK, agreed that disabled people still face significant challenges getting and staying in work. “There is some very good news, such as the 6% rise in employment of disabled people, and a significant rise for people with depression and people with physical impairments,” she said.

“[But] on disability, I wanted to mention a few clear challenges. First of all we still have a 30% disability employment gap, and only just over half [of people with disabilities] are working. That is a huge number of people who want to work and are not.”

People with learning difficulties and fluctuating health conditions are especially struggling to find employment, she said: “Some experiences of disability really drive down your chances of entering the workforce or staying [in it]. For example, if you have a learning difficulty the employment rate is just over 20%. If you have a fluctuating condition employers – quite understandably – see it as a risk to take on someone who might need to take time off sick.”

Policies and initiatives, including sanctions for those on benefits, have so far failed to resolve the issue, Sayce continued. “Most of the focus on disability is on the supply side; on big programmes [and] pathways to work. These didn’t have a significant success. But equally research suggests that, when it comes to incentives and disincentives for disabled people, sanctioning people on benefits may move them towards economic inactivity rather than into work,” she said.

“All this supply side stuff also doesn’t solve the fact that an employer might not wish take you on because you have had some time off sick, or you might need more than the reasonable adjustments listed in the Equality Act. So we need demand-side policy interventions, and I know this is something the DWP said it's working on.”

When asked about the use of sanctions Sharma said they had been an “effective” part of the welfare system, but agreed that more individualised support should be made available.

“Sanctions have always been part of welfare, that’s something you see across the world, but I think that what is really important is to emphasise that this is a regime that we make sure works properly and effectively; where people have the opportunity to come back and explain if they shouldn’t face a sanction,” he said.

“Liz is absolutely right that people need more individualised support, and the access to work scheme, where thousands of pounds can be made available to help people in the workplace or to help them get to work in terms of travelling.”

Sayce recommended a number of ways employers can better support people with disabilities in the workplace. These included: introducing funds for those with fluctuating conditions so they can take time off work and remain in employment, and publishing disability pay gaps.