My Lords, before I progress with my speech I should remind the House of my declared interests—I am president of the British Dyslexia Association and work for Microlink plc—because what I will say refers to both areas. I will talk about the range of disabilities. I thought I would be alone, but the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Wheatcroft, have beaten me to the punch. However, having a little bit of the ground in front of you ploughed always helps.
In my experience, historically, when you talk about full employment for a period of time, you know, first, that it will not last, and, secondly, that people start talking about improving skills in certain hard-to-reach groups, such as offenders, ex-offenders and various disability groups. We are in that process at the moment, and I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, may well have fallen under sod’s law by having this debate today, when a series of redundancy figures were suddenly announced, as my noble friend Lord Shipley referred to. We have been here before and, likely as not, will be here again.
One thing that has changed is technology. For most disabled groups, technology will improve their employability and enable them to have productive jobs for far longer. I have a huge personal interest in this as a severely dyslexic person who depends on voice-to-text technology to operate. Without it, I could not function normally in this age of computer-driven communication. I am not alone in this; it is not just about dyslexic people but about anybody who has any problem with the keyboard. The technical capacity is out there to deal with this problem. It also works the other way round: it will take text and read it to you. Are we making sure that most people will get this quickly enough and well enough? The answer is no. We are not utilising the capacity there. It is a type of technology that will help virtually everybody.
One of the groups I have found myself dealing with through my connection with Microlink is that of people who have degenerative conditions, to look at how you can step in and support them at work. If you cannot use a keyboard, voice recognition suddenly becomes important to you. Your eyesight may suddenly start to disintegrate. When we deal with disability, we tend to have the idea of someone in a wheelchair or somebody who is blind or profoundly deaf, but most people are not. They have a problem in these areas but there is not an absolute brick wall. The technology can get in and help them, even if they have a deteriorating condition, so they can have longer periods in work. The important things are to make employers realise that this is not a barrier to their employment—recruitment comes in here as well—and to make sure that, once they are in there, we give them the assistance to make sure that they maintain their employment.
The fact is that the disabled worker is the least likely to take days off sick if he gets assistance and help. They are also not liable to move jobs very quickly. That may be an indictment of the entire system, because such jobs are difficult to find, but if you support these people they will not move jobs quickly. The cost to an employer of having to replace somebody, let alone having to take them through a series of legal challenges to get rid of somebody who is stopping functioning, is incredibly high. The cost of intervention is comparatively small, and the Government have recognised this.
I am afraid that I will give the noble Baroness who is to reply rather an unfair challenge. Somebody reminded me that there was to be an upgrading of the Access to Work scheme to make sure that employers received more of the money, and in certain cases all the money, for all the assistance needed. This seems to have disappeared. It was announced in April last year—what has happened to it? From my experience of working in the field, it seems it has disappeared. If you are not going to take on this support, you are making sure that there will be greater problems.
I am reminded of the appalling record that certain jobcentres and some people have in dealing with disabled people. The various work tests seem designed to get the lawyers an easy hit when you appeal, because most appeals get through. If you can get this tech or knowledge in place, and make sure that people undertake to use it, you stand a much better chance of getting people into jobs that they can do, and they can retrain with it.
Are we going to embrace this? If we do not, we will continue to have the problem of a group of people who are commonly unemployed or, more commonly, underemployed, and stuck in jobs below their capacity. This is very true of my own neurodiverse sector of dyslexics; you avoid things because you cannot handle the paperwork. This assistance has to come in. The Government have examples of good practice, including the Civil Service. What are they doing to disseminate that, at least within the government sector? If we do not do that, we are making this group incredibly vulnerable, and making them a problem when we could make them an asset. Can we please have some examples of doing sensible things with the advantages we have at the moment? We have enough problems here without shooting ourselves in the feet all the time when we have an answer to making sure that people not only get employed but stay employed and reach their capacity.