Employment Retention

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 29th January 2008.

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Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 3:36 pm, 29th January 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to an employment retention assessment to determine entitlement to a period of rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change;
and for connected purposes.

This is the third time in the last few years that I have raised this subject in a ten-minute Bill and I can say that there has been firm consensus across the House that support should be provided to ensure that someone who develops an impairment or becomes disabled can remain in work. The Government have acknowledged that if they are to meet their target for an 80 per cent. employment rate and the requirements of public service agreement 8, they cannot ignore this issue. 2008 sees the latest strand with the Department for Work and Pensions employability campaign.

Yesterday, four days into the job, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions outlined reform of the welfare system to move more people from benefits into employment. Today, three attempts into my campaign—and, I hesitate to say, having seen off two Secretaries of State—I find myself once again making the point that we need to focus on retention in order to prevent people from falling into the welfare system in the first place.

The widespread support I have always received for these Bills is testament to the fact that the matter is not confined to the margins of society. Every quarter, about 600,000 people become sick or develop an impairment as defined in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and within one year 13 per cent.—78,000 people—have left work. Out of those, about 25,000 people permanently leave employment each year due to illness or disability, never to return. That works out at more than a quarter of a million people since the Government came to power in 1997. That more than cancels out the creditable achievement of the Department for Work and Pensions in helping 200,000 disabled people into work over the last decade. As a result of this and other barriers, a disabled person is nearly five times more likely to be out of work and claiming benefits than a non-disabled person, and crucially, we know that once out of work, they are far less likely to return to employment.

Behind those statistics lie people's lives—lives that often become suddenly unrecognisable as they have to come to terms simultaneously with a permanent life-changing impairment while facing the prospect of losing their employment, their source of income and in some cases even their home.

Last week, I listened to a speech from an inspirational man, Roger Lewis, and I think that his story says more about this Bill than my contribution ever could. Just under four years ago, his sight deteriorated to a point where he felt unable to work either effectively or safely without support through workplace adjustments or special equipment. Roger's employer, a local government social services department, suggested that he go to the doctor and be signed off sick. Following his refusal to do so on the grounds that he was not unwell, he was sent home on full pay and told not to return.

Roger did not hear from his employers again until 12 months later, when they began a redeployment process to find him another position. Their only assistance was to provide him with a magnifying glass. A year later Roger, an employee for 20 years, had been given his notice and was left waiting by the phone, 10 minutes from redundancy. The call to prevent it came from his union only after the threat of a hearing at an employment tribunal forced his employers finally to change their approach. Subsequently, he was given three months away from work at one of the specialist colleges of the Royal National Institute of Blind People to train in using specialised computer software for visually impaired people. Only now has he been given the necessary support and equipment to enable him to do a job that he has always been capable of doing.

That process, which would have—and has—broken many others, was described by Roger as

"4 years of distress, depression, chaos and pressure, to demonstrate that despite being blind, I was still capable of doing my job."

His is by no means an isolated experience. The questions that must be asked are: why does this have to happen, and why do we let it happen?

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of a disabled employee to ensure equality in his or her treatment with that of a non-disabled employee. That may involve providing a period of leave for treatment and rehabilitation, and to enable the employee to learn new skills in order to return to work. The non-binding code of practice illustrates the way in which the law is intended to operate when that provision kicks in. It envisages two employees, both of whom are out of work for six months. One, who is absent owing to a broken leg, returns to work once it heals, but the other, absent owing to a long-term disability, is dismissed. In that scenario, the employer would have breached his or her duty to the disabled employee.

The Government's approach to the high unemployment rate among disabled people has been to increase awareness of the current law among employers. We welcome the employability campaign, but it misses a number of fundamental issues relating to the support that is needed to keep someone in work. Although the Disability Discrimination Act provisions are born from the principle and the arguments for employment retention, they remain inadequate when it comes to delivering it in practice.

As there is no prescribed system of assessment to determine entitlement to interventions, including a period of rehabilitation leave, there is considerable uncertainty for both employers and employees, accentuated by the number and the broad nature of the conditions attached to such interventions. As a consequence, employment retention policies are rarely granted. They are more often the grounds for legal dispute at a tribunal that takes place too late, when someone has already lost his job, or subjects that person to a tortuous process in order for him to keep it. Furthermore, the lack of a system of assessment means that the Disability Discrimination Act places the onus on the two parties to resolve the situation.

The importance of employment retention for a disabled person, for whom it is considerably more difficult to find work, is such that it is a free-standing justification per se. The Social Market Foundation estimates that improving the employability of disabled people would be worth £13 billion to the economy, and analysis by Lloyds TSB has shown that the financial benefit of retaining a typical manager who becomes disabled, weighed against the costs of making him redundant and hiring a new member of staff, amounts to £9,000.

It is important to note that the current law does not actually secure equality of treatment for all disabled employees, because discrimination will occur only on the basis of an individual company's policy. Two people treated in exactly the same way by different employers will have entirely different entitlements.

The Bill's main pillar is to introduce an assessment to determine whether disabled persons can be supported in the workplace, for example through "access to work", or whether in more serious cases they need a period of leave, as Roger Lewis did for three months. That would secure far greater structure and certainty for both employers and employees. The Bill would also provide a much-needed vehicle to remedy the problems with the current provisions' link to discrimination, which I have raised.

I started by saying that there was broad consensus in the House on the need to ensure support for people who become disabled while in employment, and already 133 Members from nine parties have attached their names to a motion in support of my Bill. While Members' support is gratefully received, what is more pressing—and will, I hope, cause every Government member to get behind the Bill—is the fact that 25,000 people this year alone will, like Roger Lewis, be in need of these changes.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Robertson, Jim Sheridan, Mr. David Blunkett, Miss Anne Begg, John Bercow, Paul Rowen, Mr. Mike Weir, Julie Morgan, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Dr. Richard Taylor, Ann McKechin and Mrs. Sharon Hodgson.

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J

My namesake's bill is excellent and I hope it turns the tide of employment law, which is too much about the final dismissal and not enough about the naffness first.

Many public funded managers prefer to keep a distance and ease-out troublemakers, or act on distant reports and follow slow expensive procedures. The case of Fu v. Camden (http://tinyurl.com/26242r) describes a housing office where elephantine procedures were in place, but the team leader claimed not to know the differences between different kinds of office chair or why tenant files should be close to the housing workers' desk. I can't find a link to the original report which was even sillier than the report in a text book, linked-to above.

Submitted by John Robertson