My Lords, the Government's pledge to halve the rate of unemployment for disabled people is very welcome, but I question whether their proposals will deliver that promise. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to report back to Parliament on progress towards full employment, apprenticeships and work with so-called troubled families, but there is no mention of reporting back about progress on halving the disability employment gap. Why? What of the action the Bill proposes to support disabled people into work?
The biggest barrier to overcoming the disability employment gap is employer attitudes. Most disabled people lose out on a job because of the way employers perceive their disability. Employers may sign up to the guaranteed interview scheme for disabled people, and I recognise that the public sector leads the way on this, but real-life experience suggests that this is all too often a tick-box exercise that simply raises false hope.
Take the example of a young man I know who is blind. He left university with an excellent degree. His interpersonal skills and his writing ability are second to none, and he has excellent computer skills, yet he has spent much of the last 12 years searching for paid employment. He could paper the walls with the rejection letters he has received in that time. His experience in interviews has left him convinced that even the most enlightened employers see disabled applicants as simply too risky. The Bill does nothing to tackle the discrimination that people like him face when looking for work.
The second barrier to work for disabled people is inadequate support to help them find work. The Work Programme has a very poor record of supporting disabled people to find work, and the feedback that I have received from disabled people suggests that disability advisers at jobcentres—if available at all—are less than good. The majority of employers are small enterprises, which will not necessarily have practical adaptions such as disabled toilets or lifts, which are essential for people with disabilities. Employers who employ disabled people therefore need to be certain that specialist support and accurate practical advice are available from government, easy to access and professionally delivered. A poor experience will simply reinforce employment prejudices against disabled people. Without a coherent, consistent and locally tailored service to support disabled people into and in work, Ministers will fail to make real progress in cutting the disability employment gap.
Not only does the Bill not do enough to tackle the barriers that disabled people face in finding work, it does nothing to fix the woeful record of the work capability assessment. The failure of the assessment has been bought home to me by the experiences of a close friend. Injured in a motoring collision, my friend Ann has endured years and years of successive operations and chronic back pain. Her pain clinic judged her unable to stand for more than three minutes at a time, yet, despite that, she was classified by the government system as fit for work until her consultant was so concerned that he waded in and helped to get her reassessed.
While doing nothing to confront the frequently inaccurate assessments, the Bill does address those who are considered unfit to work now but who may be fit to work at some time in the future—the work-related activity group. For the sick and disabled people in this group, Ministers plan a £30 a week cut in the employment and support allowance, claiming that this will incentivise them to find work. If the Government’s tough, not to say harsh, assessment regime has judged them unfit to work, what do Ministers expect the £30 a week cut to do? Do they think it will act as some kind of miracle cure for their illness or disability?
The language of the Bill, and that used by Minsters, in talking about incentivising disabled people to work is patronising in the extreme. Disabled people want to work; disabled people do not need to be incentivised. What disabled people need is for government, and society as a whole, to work at removing the barriers placed in their way—barriers that hundreds of thousands of disabled people who are in work overcome every day, often with Herculean effort, energy and patience.
The Bill as drafted will move disabled people further away from the workplace and act as a disincentive for people in the work-related activity group. In addition, it does not answer the fundamental question: what do the Government plan to do to educate non-disabled employers and recruiters about employing disabled people? I look forward to addressing these issues further in Committee.