Last week the Learning and Work Institute and the Shaw Trust published a collection of 11 essays titled “Opportunity of all”, on the challenges and opportunities involved in getting more disabled people into work and closing the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people. You can download the full collection here, but I wanted to pick out several things from the essay and from the panel discussion that launched the collection that Kate Pieroudis and I attended.
One of the panel discussion speakers, Neil Coyle, the Labour MP for Bermondsey and secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability, pointed out the apprehension many disabled people have about disability policy reform, particularly benefit reform, as almost all recent reforms have seen many people lose out on support. Many disabled people no longer trust the government, and this distrust is perfectly reasonable; one need only look at the government’s recent responses to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) to see why. This lack of trust has many consequences, most significantly it makes disabled people, reluctant to engage with the government on disability issues. Why waste time and energy responding to a government consultation to have your views ignored, or even worse, belittled by the government?
Several essayists, notably Ben Baumberg Geiger writing on the Work Capability Assessment and Gemma Hope on the future of disability employment generally, call for co-producing policy changes and putting disabled people at the heart of policies that affect them. The issue is that co-production requires trust between everyone involved, and the trust simply is not there. Rather than embarking on co-producing policies, a co-production process undertaken in bad faith from the views of disabled people, the government needs to take unilateral action to regain enough trust with disabled people to be able to undertake meaningful policy co-production on disability employment. This could take many forms, and should be across several policy areas. For example, pay interest to people wrongly denied disability benefits, remove the cap on Access to Work, implement Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 on socioeconomic equality, or any number of recommendations from the UN and DPOs from across the UK.
The most contentious essay is “The future of employment support for the disabled” by the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead. He criticises the government’s failure to provide proper support to ESA claimants to help them with the higher costs associated with disability, highlights the need for more practical and specialist support from Jobcentre Plus to help boost disabled employment, and criticises the decision not to expand the specialist Work Choice programme for unemployed disabled people. This is all robust but boilerplate criticism of government policy, but the recommendation headed “More bold thinking required” is rather alarming.
The idea of paying disabled people – typically people with learning difficulties – less than minimum wage is not a new one. The parents of people with learning difficulties, government ministers and backbench MPs have all floated the idea in recent years, but for the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee to do so is disappointing in the extreme, as is the hubris needed to describe such a lazy idea as “bold thinking”. Field justifies paying some disabled people less than the minimum wage because other groups of people can also be paid less than the minimum wage, namely under 25s and apprentices, without ever considering that these exemptions are also unfair to under 25s and apprentices, or that, in the 18 months since introducing lower wages for under 25s their unemployment rate is little changed and still several times higher than that of older workers. The existence of one bad and unfair policy does not justify creating another bad and unfair policy.
There is little evidence – and nothing provided by Field – that the low rates of employment amongst disabled people is because employers are worried disabled employees will not be productive enough to justify receiving minimum wage. Paying disabled workers less than minimum wage does nothing to foster inclusion; if anything, it would further segregate disabled people, apply downward pressure on wages for other workers and be wilfully abused by unscrupulous employers. The policy is also unworkable from a technical perspective, the UK struggles to enforce its current minimum wage laws, introducing further complexity and exemptions into the system helps no one.
If employers are reluctant to hire disabled workers because of real or imagined lower productivity, the answer is not lower minimum wages but wage subsidies, ensuring that disabled workers receive fair pay for their work. But existing research suggests that wage costs are not a major barrier to disabled people’s employment. For example, a recent literature review for Mencap found that workers with learning disabilities had lower absentee and turnover rates than non-disabled employees, and that it is the potential costs of reasonable adjustments, perceived health and safety risks, and a lack of awareness of what disabled workers can do that pose the biggest obstacles, obstacles that can be overcome through providing better information and properly promoting the Access to Work programme.
A lower minimum wage will not increase employment rates for disabled people, it will simply make them, and other workers, more open to exploitation. To call this “bold thinking” appears disingenuous, and it is worrying the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee is so open to undermining minimum wage laws, and appears so unaware of the potential consequences of doing so.
Bold thinking on disability employment is welcome, and the “Opportunity for all” collection has plenty. Multiple contributors – including Liz Sayce, Kirsty McHugh and Dave Simmonds – call for better integration health and employment of services, which if done properly could greatly improve both health and employment outcomes for disabled people and save substantial amounts of public money. Paulette Cohen’s contribution on Barclay’s efforts to become the most accessible FTSE 100 employer is particularly interesting, as it shows how employing large numbers of disabled does not require doing anything radical or unusual, and has been a benefit to the business, allowing them to access new pools of talent.
My fear is that this collection, like so many before it, will simply be ignored by the government. Our Deputy CEO described the government’s recent responses to the UN CRPD committee as like “a very poor job application,” but I would be surprised if anyone in government even responded to this collection. There was no one from the government or the Department for Work and Pensions in attendance at the collection’s launch (although shadow DWP minister Margaret Greenwood and Neil Coyle were there), and it seems likely the government’s intransigence on disability issues will continue. Despite all the work done and ideas suggested by DPOs, think tanks, academics, campaigners and civil society generally, closing the disability employment gap requires real, tangible action by the government, to engage in good-faith co-production with disabled people, and to enact the policies and programmes needed if the UK is truly to be “a country that works for everyone.”