Department for Work and Pensions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:49 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 2:49 pm, 2nd July 2019

I congratulate Alison McGovern on securing this important debate. It is always good to have the opportunity to debate the vital work of the DWP.

The hon. Lady set us a really good challenge because—I hope I have got this right—she was basically asking, “What is the DWP for?” She articulated well Beveridge’s aspirations in the creation of the welfare state, but in addition to what she said about ensuring the smoothing of income and providing a good safety net for people when they need it and for those who are unable to work, the DWP is also about promoting the health and wellbeing of people in employment. It is that important part of the DWP’s work that I will spend some time discussing today, because it seldom gets debated in the House.

The health of the nation’s workers has never been more important. Modern society and the world of work are changing rapidly, bringing new challenges for our physical and mental health. We all spend at least a third of our lives at work, so employers have an important role to play to help workers stay healthy. Fulfilling and meaningful work can be a huge source of wellbeing and having a supportive employer can make a real difference to someone grappling with a physical or mental health condition. Crucially, four in five UK workers say that support from their employer could help them to recover quicker from an illness. Much is being done by employers but, of course, there is so much more that we can all do together.

Recent research conducted by the John Lewis Partnership revealed that, by working together, Government and industry can unlock £38.1 billion for the UK economy by 2025 through fast access to psychological services and physiotherapy for employees grappling with a physical or mental health condition. We know that the main two reasons for people falling out of work is poor mental health or a musculoskeletal condition.

The Working Well coalition is a new and growing group of MPs, charities, employers and think-tanks, and together we are committed to do more to improve the health of the nation’s workers. To achieve that, we all need to play our part. We need businesses to take a leadership role in promoting good physical and mental health at work, and I saw during my time at the DWP what some of the UK’s best employers are doing, supported by the Health and Safety Executive. Business can be a real force for good in society, and we want to do more to support other employers, large and small. We want to galvanise others behind the business case for action and to work in partnership with our public services to promote a healthy society.

The Government have an important enabling role to play to make free occupational health services for workers a non-taxable benefit in kind to promote investment from employers. Currently, such services are subject to employment taxes at an effective rate of 40%. Government and employers need to explore and draw together practical advice on physical and mental health to help employers, building on existing good practice. Many employers want to invest in health and wellbeing, but they just do not know where to start.

The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership has started a beacon project, backed by £500,000 of DWP investment. It was launched last September at Cornwall’s GrowthFest, and it aims to provide businesses with tailor-made support to enable them to build inclusive workforces. The Evident Agency is developing a scalable digital project that will deliver advice and ongoing support for businesses, working with the Cornwall growth hub and other partners to provide a single point of contact for employers developing an inclusive work place.

With record employment, many businesses in my constituency and across the country are struggling to recruit. We want to make it easier for businesses both to find the right person and to support existing employees who may have a disability or long-term health condition. In developing a digital solution, Evident Agency has engaged with several local businesses through surveys and face-to-face interviews to explore how businesses respond to mental health and disability in the workplace. It is clear that no two businesses are the same and that a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. Navigating businesses through the range of advice and support and following through with ongoing support is key. Developing a peer to peer network will be part of the solution, as will the support that large businesses could give to small businesses in their supply chain.

I welcome the recent announcement made by the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions of a consultation on new measures to help employers better support people with health conditions in work. Much-needed reforms to statutory sick pay will enable it to reach those on the lowest incomes, to be more flexible, and to offer the support that people need to help them return safely to work. The Government propose to extend occupational health so that more employers are able to offer the service, and I hope that my suggestions about changing the tax system to incentivise those changes will be taken into consideration as part of that consultation, because this is the perfect opportunity to spark a revolution in workplace health and wellbeing.

A healthy society underpins a healthy economy, and we hope that this can be the start of a new dynamic partnership between the Government, employers and charities to support the physical and mental health of our 32.7 million workers and, most importantly, to close the employment gap for people with disabilities and health conditions who really want to work and play their full part in society. Surely that is a goal that everyone across the House can unite in achieving.