Mental Illness: Job Security and Inequality - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:21 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench 2:21 pm, 4th July 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bird for calling this debate. I remind the House of my interests as listed in the register.

In 2016, the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, which has already been mentioned, stressed that mental health problems disproportionately affect people living in poverty, people who are unemployed and those who already face discrimination. In 2018, the report on mental health at work by the Prince’s Responsible Business Network highlighted the links between financial insecurity, poor mental health and poor work performance.

My concerns are for those who struggle the most with all these issues: people with learning disabilities, of whom less than 6% are in paid employment compared with nearly three-quarters of non-disabled people. These are some of society’s poorest and least empowered people, people who are often left without a voice and without hope.

I trust that the Minister’s response will recognise that the concerns highlighted by my noble friend are most severely experienced by persons with learning disabilities. I have spoken before about some of the barriers to employment that they face, such as the low aspirations of many employers, teachers and parents and a scarcity of role models—people like themselves in work—all of which lead to low aspirations among people with learning disabilities themselves. They also face other challenges, such as in managing time, money and travel.

I declare an interest as the editor and co-author of several wordless books about work, funded by the DWP as part of its drive to reduce the disability employment gap. The books were published by the charity Books Beyond Words, which I founded and chair. With simple tools such as these and the provision of training to Jobcentre Plus staff and employers in how to use them, an otherwise marginalised group can be empowered to overcome the barriers that I have described. We can help people to embark on a journey to inclusion and prosperity, and help employers to become more confident in employing people with different abilities and understanding the cultural value of their inclusion in the workplace.

Let us consider for a moment some of the unequal aspects of life faced by people with learning disabilities and the consequent effects on their mental wealth and mental health—for example, the dangers of loneliness that for any of us accompany exclusion from ordinary life chances, including work or other meaningful occupations.

Last year, I co-launched the BELONG manifesto, which includes six ways in which people can feel good about themselves: for example, having a reason to get out of bed in the morning. They are the same determinants of good mental health as were spelled out in the report of the special rapporteur in the 41st session of the Human Rights Council last month. The manifesto says —let us think about this in the context of people with learning disabilities—that we would all belong when,

“the institutionalisation of people … has ended … there is enough money to spend on food and essentials … there are opportunities to make some choices in life … there is an end to being bullied … and everyone can access healthcare, education and employment”.

The ability to earn money as opposed to being on benefits can give a sense of independence and self-esteem that can lead to a sense of purpose in one’s life; a secure job can provide routine and structure. However, the attributes that persons with learning disabilities can bring to a job are too often underrecognised. We know that job insecurity contributes to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and social isolation. These are health issues that persons with learning disabilities and autism experience to a higher degree than the non-learning-disabled population.

The Government’s statistics already indicate that just under a million more disabled persons have entered the workforce in the last five years. In a recent adjournment debate in the other place on the topic of unemployment in people with autism, the Minister for Disabled People confirmed that the Government are working with the Office for National Statistics to factor people with autism into the Labour Force Survey. I hope that the Minister will take this up so that it might be applied to people with learning disabilities too. Simple considerations by employers such as recognising the difficulty people may have in completing online applications or performing at interviews designed for those without disabilities should be readily addressed.

There are examples of good progress in encouraging and supporting people into work, such as the Government’s Access to Work scheme. Such schemes are welcome because they can address the need to provide for individual, often complex, needs and provide coaching and work experience opportunities. The Autism Alliance has developed a disability toolkit providing information on autism and other impairments for jobcentres.

There are also exemplary employers who successfully tap into this ready and waiting pool of workers. Dimensions, a nationwide support service for people with learning disabilities, has employed people with learning disabilities in campaign adviser and quality auditor roles. My Life My Choice based in Oxfordshire employs people with learning disabilities as experts by experience to review care provision for suitability for persons with similar needs to their own.

One may say that these are specialist employers, but that need not be the case. In the United States, Walmart has pioneered the employment of disabled people, including those with learning disabilities, in its stores and distribution centres. There could be a greater drive to encourage similar, employer-led, larger-scale schemes here too.

Can the Minister describe what proportion of intended spending to realise the vision of Improving Lives is earmarked for people with learning disabilities and autism? Will Her Majesty’s Government commit to specifically include learning disability within their poverty and labour force data collection, so as to measure success in supporting this group of people to access work and escape poverty?

Relatively small, short-term costs in the form of adequate training, mentoring schemes and other bespoke support provision can reap great, long-term rewards for the people I have talked about, their communities and our economy. I suggest that the Government need to do more to address this pressing need.

People may have particular needs which must be met if they are to be present and play a part in the workforce. A very moving moment for me was when I heard about an employer working with a Mencap scheme who thought he was doing a favour by offering a work placement to a man with a learning disability but discovered that the presence of this man in the office led to a change of culture and people generally being nicer to each other because of his inclusion. This led to the organisation determining that it would always include someone with a learning disability in the office environment. Sometimes, the focus on productivity and efficiency can mean that we forget some of the softer skills that people can bring to the team environment in the workplace.