Will halving the disability employment gap be a key test of “compassionate Conservatism”?

What do you think:

  • Did “disability vote” turn referendum in to democratic revolution?
  • Will halving disability employment gap be the test of BREXIT success?
  • Practical UK action better than EU strategies?

I’ve just been reading a rather bleak assessment that suggests that BREXIT risks removing much of the hard won protection of people with long-term health conditions and disabilities.  Yes, of course, the EU has been great in championing inclusivity and equal opportunities for us as a right rather than being optional.  But has all of this worked?

Even the Clear Company commentator acknowledges that “the objective of the European Commission’s European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 is to significantly raise the number of people with disabilities working in the open labour market. They represent one-sixth of the EU’s overall working-age population, but their employment rate is comparatively low at around 50%.”  So the EU as a whole hasn’t succeeded in this area and the numbers mirror the UK situation – not much evidence of success anywhere after decades of membership.

So do strategies and policies, directives and legislation really make a difference?  With the Equality and Human Rights Commission report from January this year suggesting that over 50% of UK small and medium sized businesses still discriminate during recruitment, the answer seems to be a resounding NO!  Perhaps we need to accept that all those words, worthy and well-meaning as they are, are little more than optimistic incantations.  So what could change reality?

  • Power to the people. It would be perfect if everyone facing work-place discrimination knew all about their rights, could get through employer processes and, if necessary, have easy access to a tribunal.  Wouldn’t it be sensible if they had to show that all of this is underway before being able to claim benefits? That way, publicly-funded support becomes the backstop to individual and employer responsibilities.  But life doesn’t quite work like that: people mostly ignore their rights until it is too late and ill-health makes it all too difficult; complaint procedures are often deliberately so daunting and interminable to deter anyone, let alone those already sick; successive Governments have effectively distanced the tribunal option – disabled people are well-known to have least means to cope with the contest and cost.  Legal stick is there but, in practical terms, is out of reach for most disabled people unless backed-up by a trade union or other support group.
  • Market pressure. Another perfect solution: unemployment so low that employers are scrabbling around for workers to the extent that they overcome their innate prejudices.  If BREXIT doesn’t create the fear-factored recession and there are no longer migrant workers filling the jobs that no-one else wants, there could be jobs aplenty for disabled people as long as they can accept the associated pay and work conditions.    Perhaps it was the “disability vote” that turned the referendum in to a democratic revolution – hoping that turning off the tap of worker supply would force employers to give more value to those already on their doorstep?  Entry-level jobs can be the start of new careers as employers discover that their fears were just based on ignorance.
  • Political will. Politicians, of whatever hue, will want to show that the new EU-free UK can successfully stand-alone for every part of society.  Failing any group would risk revealing the UK as institutionally unfair (and reinforce the EU sense of good riddance). And, having emphasised the “compassionate” agenda, there is no room to exclude the most vulnerable.  The short-term economic benefits may be less obvious: disabled people getting back to work will contribute to the overall economy and come off benefits but many may rely on tax credits and/or pay little tax.  But the longer term gains are more powerful: people progressing to more sustainable jobs, work ethos replacing inter-generational benefit dependency, more tolerant employer attitudes plus all the hearts-and-minds of caring politics.  With the Opposition benches in turmoil, the current Government has the time luxury to reap those economic benefits, evidence non-elitism and prove that it isn’t the Nasty Party.

So what might be the top tactics to move this all forward?

Target the willing.  If every disabled person who wants to work was helped to do so, we would be a long way down the road to halving the employment gap and more employers would know that we can do the job.  Instead of benefits sanctions, perhaps there should be penalties for employment support providers who fail their clients?  Plans to prevent “parking and creaming” within the forthcoming Work and Health Programme may still not be enough to make sure that every participant has more than a 50% chance of sustainable job success – but it all takes time, money, the right approach and, above all, employers willing to take on disabled people.

Upskilling.    Re-tool the learning and training providers so that they have the awareness and skills to improve the basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills of disabled people and help them translate existing work experience in to new vocational attributes.  The plans to make apprenticeship Maths and English eligibility more accessible is only a first step and won’t work if those training and employing the apprentices aren’t ready to play their part.

  • Tackle employers. There’s a whole business and trade Department that can persuade – with stick or carrot – and should be held accountable for changing employer behaviour.  Employers are the “elephant in the room”:  there can be pressure on individual benefit claimants, incentives for those who support them and funding for new programmes but, if employers still discriminate, it is rather like hitting your head against a brick wall.
  • At least double the Access To Work support funding and promotion. Show employers that the Government is confident that disabled people can contribute to the workplace in the most practical way they will understand,  put the whole system on a statutory basis so that employers know how the system , decision-making and disputes work, and promote everywhere.

So simple!

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

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