Employment of the Disabled

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:24 pm on 16 October 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 8:24, 16 October 2001

My Lords, perhaps I may open by taking issue with a comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in the last part of his speech. He said that what he really wanted from us was a philosophy. Listening to the speeches tonight, I do not believe that there is a philosophical divide between any of us. We all seem to share a common concern to ensure that disabled people are recognised as a fruitful area of customers and clients for the tourism and hospitality industry as well as being valued employees of that industry. Far from me talking about philosophy, which we have done in many general debates on disability issues, it seems to me to be important to talk about the practical steps and aspects of funding which have been raised tonight. Some of the questions raised, which are new to me, will be followed up in correspondence.

However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord, Addington, that we must continue to help to challenge the stereotypical thinking about disabled people. As my noble friend Lord Ashley stated, we should not assume that they are marked by white sticks and wheelchairs. Learning disability, mental health disability, depression and some orthopaedic and angina problems are not easily visible or recognised. Very often in helping one group we may add to the problems faced by another. We may, for example, seek to lower cambers on roads for wheelchair users, thus making it difficult for people using white sticks always to be able to manage the inclines. The problems are not always straightforward, as was recognised by my noble friend Lord Ashley.

My noble friend Lady Wilkins made the point that we shall be successful only if we act in partnership with interested groups ranging from the Disability Rights Commission to disabled people, their representative organisations and the business sector. Employers have to consider making changes to working practices or premises which place disabled people at a substantial disadvantage. As your Lordships have said, and as we know, though it bears repeating, that can be something as simple as being flexible about working hours or holding a meeting in an accessible room. Many disabled people need no adjustments to be made at work. Many adjustments, when necessary, are made at little or no extra cost.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, pressed me on the reduction of the small employers' threshold. He is right; we did fight shoulder to shoulder on this issue in your Lordships' House. I am delighted to reinforce the comments of my noble friend Lord Ashley. The small business exemption is due to end in October 2004. It will not be reduced to two people but will simply be abolished. As a result, 7 million additional jobs and around 600,000 disabled employees will come within its scope. As your Lordships recognise, the hospitality and tourism industry is very much one of small companies and small firms.

I turn to what we are doing to help disabled people to enter the tourism and hospitality industry so that they come equipped with real skills. There are around 600 specialist disability employment advisers based in jobcentres who should understand the needs of disabled people. They know their local labour markets and are able to work with employers to find appropriate jobs.

My noble friend Lord Harrison produced fascinating examples, with which I was much taken. Perhaps I may also give an example. In Cumbria, disability employment advisers arranged for a man with a visual impairment to attend a tourism job fair, at which he met a local employer with vacancies. The adviser was able to follow up the initial contact and arrange a package of support for that individual. At the beginning of October this year, that person started work as a hotel administrator.

Some disabled people with more complex needs may not be immediately ready for independent work and will require sustained support. That is why for many years we have had a programme of supported employment. That programme has been modernised and became Workstep from April this year. Workstep is a £161 million programme to which in June was added a further £37 million over three years to pay for an additional 2,000 places.

Equally, I am sure noble Lords will be familiar with the name Remploy, which is the largest employer of disabled people in the UK and the largest single provider within the Workstep programme. Remploy operates as a commercial company and receives an annual grant of £94 million from Government to provide jobs and training for disabled people. Remploy trains and employs between 80 and 100 people in the Manchester area in its managed services division working at some of the top hotel chains; namely, Quality Hotels, Marriott, Renaissance, Copthorne and Titsa, mainly in behind-the-scenes jobs as cleaners and chambermaids, and so forth. It is worth adding that Remploy, I am pleased to say, pays well above the minimum wage.

The Government also fund residential training provision for disabled adults. A number of places are specifically aimed at training for the tourism and leisure industry. Not all the places on offer are currently filled. Therefore, there is a real opportunity for unemployed disabled to move into training and work. If those places remain unfilled, either through a lack of adequate publicity or possibly inappropriate training packages, I should be very grateful to hear from your Lordships who may have first-hand experience of it, so that we can tailor them more effectively.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, asked what provision is made in jobcentres for hard of hearing potential employees. It is again worth emphasising that disability employment advisers can arrange for British sign language interpreters or communicators to attend adviser appointments with hard of hearing clients; and it would help to know in advance whether that service would need to be used.

I was asked whether employers were receiving good advice on reasonable adjustment. There is a code of practice in existence, and many information leaflets are available. The DRC has a helpline that provides advice to employers and others, and Bert Massey emphasised how well it is used by employers. Employers increasingly understand that adjustments are not expensive and are a matter of common sense. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, said, if adjustments draw on the skills of disabled people for access to physical space, for example, they in turn make adjustments that are used not only by disabled people but by parents with small children in tow and in buggies, older people struggling with shopping bags, and the like.

Twenty years ago I was involved in drawing up brochures for my city of Norwich, which has a wealth of heritage buildings, to create access to 18th century nonconformist octagon chapels and 19th century listed bank buildings in ways that provided enhanced access to, but did not distract from, the importance and quality of those buildings. A large swathe of the city's people was then able to enjoy those buildings.

It is clear that, with the right sort of support and encouragement, disabled people can work as effectively as non-disabled people in the tourism industry. We look to employers to recognise that if someone has a physical, mental or sensory impairment, it does not prevent them from making a real contribution to work. The tourism industry, which is a major employer--there are 1.8 million people working in hotels, restaurants, caravan parks, tourist attractions, resort towns and heritage sites, and at arts events and festivals--has regularly suffered severe skill shortages. That, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, rightly said, is partly due to its reputation for low skills and low pay.

The tourist industry, as it goes upmarket, will need to invest in people with the skills that it requires. That investment combined with the flexible hours that the tourism and hospitality industry can offer may well make such jobs particularly attractive to disabled people, who in turn repay in spades in terms of loyalty and commitment. These can be high quality jobs in terms of the skills required--management and supervisory posts, or telephony--as well as more modest jobs ranging from catering to ground maintenance, which can be valuable for people who have been away from work for a long time and who, as my noble friend Lord Ashley said, may have had an interrupted educational background on their way to adulthood.

I echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, said about widening access to tourism, which was the theme of an earlier debate tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in February 1999, in which many of your Lordships participated, in talking about Tomorrow's Tourism and access for all.

My noble friend Lady Wilkins asked whether Ministers would encourage regional tourist boards to make links to accessible UK websites. The ETC has an excellent accessible website, and we will consider adding to that website if it proves to meet the required standard for accessible accommodation. I shall take away and follow up the noble Baroness's other point about access groups.

Increasing access is an important aspect of the English Tourism Council, recognising that disabled people who are customers as well as employees are a valuable resource. The council has reviewed, in partnership with IndividuALL, which is the renamed Hoteliers Forum, the ways in which people with disabilities can obtain work and how to improve their findings and how to make the industry more accessible to disabled people. The noble Baroness also mentioned that the Heart of England Tourist Board has been running the Access 21 three-year project with five local pilots, leading to a national guidance document at the end of the project term.

More needs to be done. That is why we are establishing Jobcentre Plus and why we are helping disabled people to return to work through the New Deal for Disabled People, as well as providing all the support services of the new deal and the disabled persons' working tax credit. All that can only be of benefit to the tourism industry, disabled people and the country as a whole. Disabled people not only have rights but also a huge practical gain to offer us all both as employees and as users of the tourism industry.

I am confident that in 2003, the European year of disabled people, we shall have a story to celebrate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for introducing this debate today.