Arthritis and Employment

Part of Secondary School Standards: East Cleveland – in Westminster Hall at 5:19 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 5:19 pm, 21st May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I pay tribute to all the speakers—perhaps with the exception of the last one—for their very proactive and constructive speeches on this incredibly important subject. It reflects well on the brilliant opening speech given by my hon. Friend Bill Grant, who demonstrated a real passion, knowledge and interest in this area, that it was picked up and reflected in each and every speech. People who have listened to the debate will be encouraged at the great level of interest—it is not as if nothing else is happening in Parliament today. It is brilliant that this issue has captured so much interest.

My hon. Friend was spot on when he quoted Dame Carol Black, who said:

“The evidence is clear that most people with these disabling conditions want to work. Indeed, with the right support and working arrangements, usually with modest adjustments, they can do so and be valued employees.”

He made the powerful point that there is a misconception that this impacts only on older people. In fact, it can affect people throughout their lives. One in six people will develop a disability or long-term health condition, and many of them will be of working age. This is a common challenge and barrier that people need to overcome. I welcome Ruth Jones—with her expertise in this area, I am sure that she will be a valuable addition to Parliament.

Despite the previous pre-written speech, the reality of the disability stats is that there are now 947,000 more disabled people in work in the past five years. We have taken disability employment from 44.2% to 51.7%, which is a record high. For the first time, more disabled people are in work than not. However, it is not enough. We are an ambitious Government, and we set out two years ago our ambition for a further 1 million disabled people to be in work. In those first two years, over 400,000 more disabled people are in work. We are ahead of schedule, but it is still not enough.

We will continue to do everything we can to empower businesses to have the confidence to tackle the barriers and take advantage of the huge amount of talent that is all too often overlooked. I do not just preach as a Minister; I say that as an employer. Before I became an MP, my own business benefited from employing disabled people and having the confidence to make small changes. Actually, I benefited. I have been in a series of stakeholder meetings and events today, and everyone was united in saying we have to ensure it works for everyone.

The majority of today’s speeches focused on Access to Work, and I recognise that it is right to challenge the scheme. However, we must recognise that 33,800 people were helped last year—up 13%, and a record high. My hon. Friend Douglas Ross asked whether funding had been increased or decreased in this area. We do not record that specifically, but people who listed conditions that relate to the arms and hands, legs and feet or back and neck—we would expect those to be covered predominantly in this area—as their primary medical condition accounted for about 10% of our spend, which was up 2% on last year.

I recognise hon. Members’ broad point that more people need to benefit from the Access to Work scheme, especially in this area—particularly as technology plays an increasing part in removing barriers and creating opportunities, which I have seen on visits. Angela Crawley discussed her caseworker and explained how she is benefiting from small changes that can be replicated right across the board.

The key is improving the awareness of Access to Work. We are looking at improving awareness in jobcentres, so that in the initial conversation we take into account everybody’s unique opportunities and challenges, particularly on health, and that it is ingrained in all our frontline staff that this is an option to help unlock barriers. That goes right to the core of the principle of the Joint Work and Health Unit. I had a meeting about that earlier, and we recognise just how important it is. We need to work more closely with stakeholders to promote this to their members as something that can be utilised. We should work with GPs and health professionals to ensure that they are aware of the opportunity.

On fit notes, GPs can highlight the fact that there are fluctuating health conditions that can limit the amount of work someone can do. I understand the point that was made, and we are working with medical professionals to look at what more can be done in that area. We need to look at our health and work providers and ensure they include it—it should be embedded in their options. Through the Disability Confident scheme, we are now at 12,000 businesses—a record high. We have ambitions to increase that rapidly and are looking at putting additional requirements on the highest level of Disability Confident. We should perhaps look at signposting from general benefits. If we have identified people with health conditions through disability benefits, we could perhaps signpost people for additional local support. It is not something that they must have, but providing such information could be helpful for people.

There is one area where I think we can make a real difference. Justin Madders made a really good point: how can we be sure that businesses have an understanding? For many, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, this is not necessarily a common occurrence, and they like to have confidence. There is an opportunity through the Health and Safety Executive. It is a pretty good given. As part of the Health and Safety Executive, we lead internationally on safety. We have just recruited a new chief executive, and I made it very clear to her that the real priority going forward has to be looking at health. The HSE is brilliant at engaging with businesses of all sizes as part of those assessments, and they can identify areas of improvement within working environments. A one-stop shop can be a portal to signpost additional support, particularly on not letting people slip out of work. It is a darn sight harder to get people back into work than it is to keep them in work in the first place.

I was very interested to talk to my Access to Work team about ways in which we can help. Initially, I thought it was perhaps simply about technology. I was looking at some case studies—we cannot give names, for obvious reasons—and in some cases it is about technology. It is sometimes about making adjustments to the equipment that people use. Access to Work will talk to an employer and perhaps suggest changing the working hours or recognising that there might be times when they will have to limit them. Perhaps they could even look at changing people’s roles, which is incredibly important. If someone works for a big employer that has HR and personnel teams, we would expect them as a given to get this right. However, 40% of private sector jobs are in small and medium-sized businesses. They do not necessarily have bad intentions, but they do not have the confidence or expertise. Through organisations such as the HSE we can do a lot more.

I pay tribute to Versus Arthritis, with which I will definitely be working very closely. I will be speaking at its event in July. It is one of our key stakeholders in the Access to Work scheme, which goes through, line by line, how we are doing and what improvements we need to make. The Versus Arthritis report was very proactive and helpful.

I was genuinely impressed by how proactive and constructive the speeches we have heard. There is a real cross-party commitment to get this right—it is such an important issue. Not everybody is looking for a full-time job or career. I have met young disabled people for whom simply being able to do one hour is a life-changing opportunity. Wherever there is a barrier, we as a Government are absolutely committed to remove it. We want businesses to have the confidence to take advantage of the huge amount of talent that, I am afraid, is all too often overlooked. We are heading in the right direction, but we are ambitious to do more. I thank each and every hon. Member for what they are doing to highlight all the opportunities that people can take advantage of.