“We must close the disability employment gap.” It was a simple enough statement made by the Minister for Disabled People Penny Mordaunt on her website last year. A consultation on ‘work, health and disability’ and a commitment to halving said employment gap in 10 years was announced by the government a short while later. From a party that has passed ruthless reforms to disability benefits, it’s likely that it had a few disabled people scratching their heads. Have the Conservatives finally started to care about a group in society which they have cruelly targeted for years?
One only has to look at what was announced on Wednesday this week for the answer. The disability employment gap the Tories planned to work on cutting down has stayed at 31.3%, lingering above the 30% mark for a decade. If they really wanted to tackle the issue, then the changes would be visible – be it in the statistics or in public announcements. James Taylor, Head of Policy at the disability charity Scope, said ‘these figures should be a wake-up call to the Government’ and he is absolutely right. The latest data shows the Conservatives’ current approach is indolent, lazy and slothful.
Granted, it can be argued that ministers have 10 years to get somewhere close to closing the gap, but the fact that there have not been any significant updates since the consultation closed in February is a cause for concern. The Brexit argument is likely to be an excuse given by some for this work taking a back seat during the middle of the year (following the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March), but it’s always worth mentioning that there are other burning issues and injustices that need to be addressed whilst also focussing on those all-important negotiations in Brussels. A crumbling NHS, the housing crisis and many other social issues can’t be brushed under the carpet because of our vote to leave the European Union. Ministers are yet to provide an explanation as to why the disability employment gap remains at the current level, but no excuse is valid.
So what could possibly cause a lack of disabled people in employment? As much as it comes down to the current benefits system, a more ideological issue is the stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability that have been generated from years of Conservative policies. Confusing and complex regulations and assessments have degraded disabled people – presenting them as inconveniences or numbers to meet a particular quota.
Whilst assuming all employers see a disabled candidate or employee as a pain in the backside in terms of paperwork and workplace support is a completely inaccurate and flawed judgement, it’s likely that some employers are unaware of how they can support disabled people in their company. The communication between the government, firms and workers about such things is inefficient if not non-existent. It’s part of the reason why I’ve always been reluctant to tick the ‘are you disabled’ question on an application form. Aside from the fact that I don’t really consider myself disabled (except under ‘the social model’), the possible discussion about workplace support if I did mention it always felt daunting – where would I start?
Although the ‘work, health and disability’ consultation intends to look at how health and work interconnect, more needs to be done to address attitudes and improve communication. The communities of disabled people in society must continue to call for better support when it comes to employment – only then will we have the chance to wake Conservatives up from their slumber when it comes to addressing the needs of the community of disabled people.
Now, one can hope that a stat-obsessed government which always likes to shout about increased employment or a stronger economy will notice one of the more concerning pieces of data that has come from the Office for National Statistics’ latest release. If the state of the disability employment gap led to a planned reform of the Work Capability Assessment, then here’s hoping that the gap remaining static will finally prompt the Department for Work and Pensions to take action. Enough is enough.