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Unacceptable employment barriers faced by disabled people need radical overhaul

30 July 2021

DWP’s national programme for supporting disabled people to find and stay in work is not working and must instead be delivered at a local level as part of a renewed effort to break down unacceptable barriers disabled people face in the labour market, MPs say today.

In a report on the disability employment gap1, the Work and Pensions Committee also calls on the Government to re-adopt its previous target of halving the gap, which currently stands at nearly 30 percentage points. A new, more ambitious target of getting an additional 1.2 million disabled people into work by 2027 should also be introduced.

The National Disability Strategy, published on Wednesday (28th July) after the report was agreed, revealed that the Government first intends to reach its goal of helping one million more disabled people back into work, before working with disabled people ‘to think about how we can build on this success’. Despite assurances given to the Committee from the Minister for Disabled People, there is no consultation question in the Government’s health and disability Green Paper on how the target will be set.

The Committee’s report warns that issues of trust continue to hamper the relationship between DWP and disabled people, with the Department itself admitting that this is impacting on its delivery of services. During its inquiry, the Committee heard evidence of the difficulties disabled people encountered accessing support through Jobcentre Plus, including that some BSL users were not offered an interpreter, while visually impaired people sometimes found the centres inaccessible.

Chair's comment

Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:

“The past two weeks have seen DWP release a flurry of long-promised publications about its offer of support for disabled people. There is much in those documents that is welcome. But there are some areas in which the Government must be bolder in its ambitions.

The Government is not far from meeting its current target for increasing the number of disabled people in work. But it has largely got there because overall levels of employment have risen and the prevalence of disability has increased—not because of substantial progress in tackling the barriers that disabled people face. We had hoped that its new National Disability Strategy would chart a course to a more ambitious and stretching target. But, despite the Minister’s assurances, there is no new target—nor even a consultation on one. That is a major disappointment.

The gap between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in work has remained stubbornly high for years. The currently, overly centralised model of support simply isn’t working. We need a radical new localised approach. Support for finding and staying in a job that is much more personalised, flexible and effective should be delivered by groups of local authorities working with the NHS, training providers and charities.

Too often decisions affecting disabled people are made without them being meaningfully consulted or listened to. During the development of the National Disability Strategy, disabled people have said that the Government has failed to make its engagement accessible for them. Disabled people and their views must now be put at both the heart of decision making and service delivery. Only then can we start to break down barriers to employment and ensure everyone has equal opportunities when it comes to work.”

Main findings and recommendations

Supporting disabled people into work

Charities and disabled people’s organisations were critical of the DWP’s centralised approach to employment support, with its main programme, the Work and Health Programme (WHP) currently commissioned at a national level. The Centre for Social Justice Disability Commission said that only 14% of disabled participants on the Work Programme, the predecessor to WHP, were supported into work.

The Committee calls on the DWP to take a new approach, granting more powers and funding to groups of local authorities to set up their own versions of WHP.

It is unacceptable that some disabled people still face barriers when trying to access services through Jobcentre Plus. Charities and support groups including the Royal Association for Deaf People, Sense and the Thomas Pocklington Trust told the Committee of the problems faced by people they support. The DWP must expand its provision of alternative formats and provide more BSL interpreters.

DWP should do more to encourage employers to ‘job carve’ roles for disabled people by creating roles that best match the skills of an employee.

Targets and measures

Although the number of disabled people in work has increased since 2013, this is largely due to overall improvements in the labour market rather than substantial progress breaking down specific barriers. (p14)

The Government should both re-adopt its target of halving the disability employment gap and aim to increase the number of disabled people in work by 1.2million between now and 2027. This combined approach would benefit from the advantages of pursuing both absolute and relative targets.

Employers with more than 250 employees should be required to publish data on the proportion of workers who are disabled. This could be a highly effective way of holding employers to account and closing the disability employment gap.

Supporting disabled people in the workplace

Access to Work, which provides advice and support to disabled people and their employers, is dogged by a bureaucratic, cumbersome and time-consuming application process. DWP has announced some welcome changes. DWP should work with disabled people to redesign the process.

Disability Confident, a programme which educates employers on the benefits of recruiting disabled employees, needs to be urgently evaluated by the DWP. The Government acknowledged that it was not possible to know whether it was any measurable impact on increasing the number of disabled people in work.  The scheme was described by many as a tick box exercise.

Employers are required, under the Equality Act 2010, to make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled employees do not face disadvantage when doing their job. But evidence was heard that some employers may not understand their legal obligations or purposefully flout the law. The Committee welcomes proposals for an online information hub planned for August and also calls on the Government to consider ‘naming and shaming’ employers who continue to breach the law.

Impact of the coronavirus pandemic

Research by disability charity Leonard Cheshire suggests that 71% of disabled people have had their work impacted by the pandemic. The Committee also heard that disabled people are more likely to be working in sectors that were forced to close during the pandemic, more likely to be at risk of redundancy, and more likely to be working reduced hours than non-disabled people.

The Government must improve how the Universal Credit system collects data so it can monitor how the two new major employment schemes, Kickstart and Restart, are helping disabled people into work—without needing to wait for evaluations after the schemes have finished.

The pandemic has led to a sharp rise in the number of people working remotely. This has created new access barriers for some disabled people, while helping many others. The Government should ensure that workers have the right to request remote or flexible working from the beginning of employment and make sure disabled people are supported to work where best suits them, if they have jobs that can be done remotely.

The disability benefits system

The Committee agrees with witnesses, including Professor Dame Carol Black, that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for people applying for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) is not fit for purpose. The fact that a majority of appeals against fit for work decisions are successful is evidence that it is not achieving its aim of supporting disabled people who can and want to work into employment. The assessment process can also create anxiety and distress for claimants, pushing them further away from the labour market in the process. The Committee is to look at the issue in more detail in a future inquiry later this year.

DWP’s engagement with disabled people

Giving evidence to the Committee, Conservative peer Lord Shinkwin, Chair of the Centre for Social Justice Disability Commission, said he was ‘mortified’ by the way that the DWP treated disabled people ‘with such palpable disrespect’, warning that there was a culture of ‘doing things for disabled people rather than with them’.

The Government must accept the proposal of the Social Security Advisory Committee for a protocol for engaging with disabled people.

Further information

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