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Mind the gap: cutting poverty among disabled people

"On current trends, the disability employment gap will take 200 years to halve"

By Stephen Evans  

This article was produced in association with Learning and Work Institute

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New figures show that one half of people living in poverty are either disabled or in a household with a disabled person. On current trends, the disability employment gap will take 200 years to halve. Benefit cuts won’t help: ultimately better support is needed to cut the employment penalty disabled people face in both finding work and building a career.

The employment rate of disabled people is 32 percentage points below that of non-disabled people. This locks Britain’s almost seven million people with a long-term health condition or disability out of opportunity and into low incomes. This “poverty premium” is exacerbated by benefit cuts, caps and freezes, as well as an increased likelihood of disabled people who do work being in low paid jobs.

The 2015 Conservative manifesto committed to halving the disability employment rate gap. This would mean an extra one million disabled people in work, roughly the number that say in surveys they would like to work.

But the fact that the gap in employment opportunities will take 200 years to halve on current trends, according to Learning and Work Institute analysis, has a cost to the taxpayer too: despite various cuts, caps and freezes, the Office for Budget Responsibility has consistently increased its estimates of the cost of disability benefits. Perhaps not coincidentally, supporting an extra one million disabled people into work was also the aim of the previous Labour Government: few areas have been more beset by constant “reform” and there’s a real need to learn the lessons of history.

A change has got to come

“A country that works for everyone”—the slogan of the Conservative Party’s conference in October—needs to apply to disabled people too. Theresa May said in her conference speech that a change has got to come. And perhaps nowhere is it more true than here.}

So what to do?

The good news is the Government knows this is a big challenge and is consulting on a Work and Health Green Paper to try and get it right. For me, there are three priorities.

The first is to get the benefit system right. This means looking at the assessment people go through when they first claim benefits, ensuring benefit levels provide a decent standard of living and reflect the extra costs that can be associated with having a disability, and that assessments and payments are accurate and timely. Challenges with the upfront assessment process, and the speed of getting the right support to the right people at the right time are well documented. The Green Paper’s commitment to work with disabled people’s groups to get this right is welcome.

The second is to massively increase the quantity and quality of employment support. The Learning and Work Institute estimate that only one in ten out-of-work disabled people are getting help to find work and only one in five of these will find a job. Just one in five Employment Support Allowance claimants, the main out-of-work disability benefit, get any employment support at all, and for most of these this is limited to 90 minutes with a Jobcentre Plus advisor each year. The remaining two million have no regular advisor support at all. And even for those that do get support, ninety minutes is not enough time with a skilled advisor to talk about work and find opportunities that will work.

We need more investment so that disabled people have access to advice when they need it. Every disabled person looking for work should be entitled to the advisor time they need. And we need to test new ways of working to see what works: the new £115m joint Work and Health Unit, run jointly by the Department for Health and Department for Work and Pensions, gives a chance to do this.

The third is to make this a cross-government, pan-society issue. Work can often be good for people’s health, so we need to make sure that health services recognise this where appropriate. Manchester provides an interesting example: their Working Well pilot is trying to integrate health and employment support. London is now following suit with its Working Capital programme. But employment services and health services continue to talk different languages, commission different programmes and reach often the same people but at different times and with different, uncoordinated support.

Employers have a central responsibility too, both to open up their recruitment to disabled people and to do all they can to support employees who develop disabilities to stay in work. Many employers I speak to are willing, but don’t know where they should start. Encouraging more employers to sign up to the Government’s Disability Confident standard could help, as could employer commitments to open up apprenticeships, work experience placements and internships to disabled people.

More than one in six people are disabled or have a health condition. Their employment prospects and career aspirations are too often capped as a result. We have so much further to go. But we can do better and we must do better.

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