On 14th December 2015 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill in its third day of Committee.
The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith spoke in support of two amendments that would require the government to report annually on progress towards halving the disability employment gap. The amendments were withdrawn after the debate.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I rise briefly to support Amendment 65 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, and Amendment 67 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, which would legislate for a disability employment gap reporting obligation.
If we are to take the Government at their word—that the measures in the Bill reducing benefits for the disabled are about incentivising work, rather than simply cutting the cost of the benefit budget—I freely applaud the intention, if not necessarily the execution. The disability employment gap is, of course, a sad indictment of a society that has for perhaps too long been willing to ignore the aspirations of the disabled to engage fully in society through work. As the Government’s own impact assessment found, 61% of those in the work-related activity group want the opportunity to earn a living. It is quite right that the Government have committed to this laudable aim of halving the disability employment gap. We all applaud that.
There are, of course, measures within the present Bill that the Government claim will contribute towards reducing the employment gap by incentivising paid employment; the WRAG cut is the obvious example. However, as was evidenced in this Chamber last week, there are quite a few people with a great deal of experience in this area who have grave concerns about the effectiveness of the measures. This kind of carrot-and-stick approach cannot be a substitute for the proper strategic, joined-up thinking across the departments that will be required if we are to help disabled people overcome the considerable challenges they face in entering or re-entering the workplace.
I acknowledge that the Government are making good progress on this issue on some fronts. For example, I welcome the announcement in the spending review of the new work and health programme. However, a proper reporting obligation will bring much needed clarity and transparency to the issue of disability employment, as well as allowing the Government to think more strategically about how best to allocate resources in an effort to close the gap. This obligation is made even more essential, given the seriousness of the implications of measures like the ESA WRAG cut for those who currently rely on such benefits. If the WRAG cut does not facilitate increased numbers of disabled people moving into work—or, even worse, makes it harder for them to find employment, as a number of charitable bodies have suggested—we need to know about it. These amendments would cost the Government almost nothing, but would give them a sound platform going forward as they seek to fulfil this excellent pledge to close the disability employment gap. I therefore hope that they will support some form of these amendments as we go forward.
Lord Freud: The first part of Amendment 63, along with Amendments 65 and 67, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Manzoor and Lady Hollins, and the noble Lord, Lord Low, would require a separate annual report on the progress being made towards halving the disability employment gap. The latter amendments would also require some specific information, such as the employment rates of different groups of disabled people. However, as progress against the disability employment gap commitment is a key factor of our overall commitment to full employment, these amendments are not necessary, as that progress will be reported in the annual report on full employment in any case.
The point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, on how we need to bring together employment, health and social care to support disabled people into work is one that we accept. One of the things that we are proposing, which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has called for, is a radical reform of how we provide this support, which is what we intend to do with a White Paper in 2016 which will set out our proposals in this area.