Welfare Reform Bill: Bishop of St Albans supports amendment on Disability reporting

StAlbans171115On 25th January 2016, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton led a debate on an amendment she had tabled to the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill. The amendment, at the Bill’s Report Stage, would require Government to commit to statutory reporting of the disability employment gap. The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in support of the amendment. It was withdrawn after the debate, following assurances by Government. The Bishop’s speech and extracts of those by the Minister and Baroness Campbell are below. 

Amendment 1: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“Disability employment gap: reporting obligation

(1) The Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament annually on the progress which has been made towards meeting the commitment to halve the disability employment gap.

(2) The report under subsection (1) must set out—

(a) how the Secretary of State has interpreted “halving the disability employment gap”;

(b) the factors that the Secretary of State has used to determine whether progress has been sufficient, including the extent and speed at which progress has been made; and

(c) if progress under subsection (1) has been insufficient, what remedial steps will be taken.

(3) The report under subsection (1) must contain data on—

(a) the overall rate of employment, and

(b) the progress of the rate of employment of people at working age with—

(i) a learning disability;

(ii) autism;

(iii) mental health problems;

(iv) visual impairments; and

(v) any other disability as the Secretary of State may by regulation specify on the grounds that the people with the disability are marginalised from the labour force and require a specific focus.”

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I, too, support the Government’s aim of getting people out of and back into employment and I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification in Committee that reporting on the disability employment gap will be included as part of the Government’s overall employment reporting. However, like other noble Lords, I fear this commitment may not go quite far enough.

If the Government are to stay true to their commendable aim of halving the disability employment gap, detailed data and thorough reporting are absolutely crucial to achieving it. Particularly important is the breakdown of how unemployment rates differ across disability groups. If the government reporting looks only at the disability employment gap as a whole, it will be extremely difficult to see which disabled groups are making progress and which are not. I am concerned that this would make it possible for the employment gap to drop significantly through government interventions targeting only those with the most limited impairments.

We know anecdotally that those with physical impairments tend to find it easier to return to work than those with mental health problems and learning difficulties. While it might therefore make economic sense to target programmes and interventions at this easier group, I am sure the Minister will agree that this will go against the spirit of the Government’s manifesto commitment. Any government reporting needs to look at the range of barriers faced by those in all disability groups and work to combat these barriers across the board.

We need work programmes that are properly targeted to address the needs of all those who are seeking employment across different disability groups. Statutory reporting of the disability employment gap, using the metrics outlined in this helpful amendment, would put such programmes on a clear footing and will provide a clear rationale for the way forward. Anything less than this would be a missed opportunity for the Government. I hope the Minister will consider carefully the points that have been raised.

Lord Freud: My Lords, Amendment 1 would build on Clause 1, which sets out the Government’s commitment to report to Parliament annually on the progress made towards full employment. Producing an annual report which illustrates progress towards full employment across the UK demonstrates this Government’s clear intention and continuing commitment to building a strong economy, growing business and ensuring labour market opportunities for all.

The purpose of this amendment is to require a further annual report to Parliament on the progress that has been made towards narrowing the disability employment gap. The amendment would also require the report to include how the Government have defined the disability employment gap, how they will assess whether progress has been sufficient and what remedial action will be taken if progress is insufficient. The amendment also requires that the report should include data on progress in increasing the employment rates of specific groups of disabled people, including people with autism, a learning disability, mental health problems and visual impairments.

I hereby formally commit the Government to report on our progress towards halving the disability employment gap in the annual report on full employment—no ifs, no buts. Halving the disability employment gap is a crucial part of achieving our full employment aspirations and a key priority for this Government in its own right. I hope also that, following my meeting with Peers on this very subject last week, they are assured of my commitment and that of my honourable friend, the Minister for Disabled People, who was also at that meeting.

There is no need to include a reporting duty in the Bill to drive progress or signal commitment in this area. We have already said that we will publish a White Paper later this year to set out our plans for improving support for disabled people and people with health conditions, to further reduce the disability employment gap and to promote integration across health and employment. Last summer, we established the new work and health unit between the two departments, the DWP and DH, to bring together and drive progress in this area. Clearly, to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, employers are key in this. That is what the Disability Confident campaign is about, which has shown some good success.

On the detail of the full employment report that we are talking about, the Government have already said that we will use the first annual report to set out a framework for considering full employment in a modern economy. However, I must make a point about specifying the particular groups that this amendment does. The Government are acutely aware that many of the most vulnerable in our society are affected by multiple conditions. Reporting progress against specific groups would draw focus away from others while failing to reflect this nuance. We are committed to enabling all disabled people to fulfil their potential.

I offer assurance, particularly to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, that our treatment of progress on the disability employment gap will include information that will allow people to understand the key drivers of changes in this vital area, such as changes in the prevalence of disability and health conditions and demographic changes. For this reason, the amendment is unnecessary. We have, I think, encapsulated its spirit in my formal commitments.

Baroness Campbell of Surbiton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply to my amendment, which I shall come to in a moment. First, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, and of course my noble friend Lord Low for putting their names to my amendment and believing in some of the arguments that I put forward in Committee. I would also like to thank everyone else, but they are too numerous to mention. I am thrilled to get that amount of support for the amendment.

I am fully aware of the Minister’s and the Government’s good intentions towards helping disabled people gain fulfilling employment. They were and, I believe, still are very serious about wanting to halve the disability employment gap. I welcome that, but I remember thinking the day I heard it, “My God, that’s going to take some work!” and, “Goodness me, we are really going to have to understand what lies behind the lack of mobility and movement within the unemployment field as it concerns disabled people”. I am aware that it will be tough—it will be really tough.

I hear what the Minister says about committing to making sure that disability is properly scrutinised in the annual reporting system. He will probably even get them to give a dedicated chapter to disability, but I also know that this will not do what it needs to for disabled people in really beginning to address that 30% gap.

I have been involved in writing and being part of generic reporting many times in my life. I have often been asked to do the work on disability for general reporting on health and social care. One very clear example struck me when the Minister was speaking—from when the Disability Rights Commission and the reports written by it was amalgamated into the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a lovely generic body where we would all work together on addressing the barriers that everyone faces with getting into work, housing, and so on. I am currently sitting on the post-legislative scrutiny committee on disability to see how well it is doing under the Equality Act and the commission. I have to say that we are receiving overwhelming evidence that the generic approach is simply not working. Disabled people are complex creatures; we are all so different, and all our support is different. Understanding why we are not entering the employment market will take something else—something more than a chapter in a generic report. However committed the Minister is that it should reflect the situation, I am afraid that it will not. That is why I was very keen—and I am keen—that something more should be put forward to address this intractable problem, as unemployment among disabled people is probably one of the biggest.

I am very tempted to test the House, but I am not sure that it would work—and, if it did, I am sure it would be overturned. So I am looking to the Minister to go back to the Government and to departments other than the Department for Work and Pensions, which, frankly, will write the report. Who will collaborate with the department across government? Which departments will really throw their weight behind this? I am sceptical, because they have not done very well so far on other issues. I would like the Minister to go back to the Government and say, “Okay, this will be part of the generic report, but I want it to be a substantive part, and I want more than a generic report with a chapter on disability that tells us all the things that we already know”. For that reason, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

(via Parliament.uk)