Mind the gap: the step change needed to halve the disability employment gap
First the good news, then the maths.
The good news is the government’s unequivocal commitment to halving the disability employment gap.
Now the maths.
The disability employment gap currently stands at around 43 percentage points. To halve the gap means moving around 1.2 million more disabled people in work. In the last five years, the number of disabled people in work has risen by just 23,000.
Halving the gap also means keeping people in work. According to the ONS, over 400,000 disabled people each year lose their job and fall into unemployment or inactivity. One in six of those who become disabled while in work lose their employment during the first year after becoming disabled.
What’s more, the challenge is increasing. The ONS predicts that by 2020, over a third of the workforce will be over fifty, and more than half of the over-50s workforce will have a disability or impairment.
Like all really effective aspirational statements, the government’s pledge sets an almost unachievable goal. Almost, but not quite. It raises the bar. It demands that we think differently, that we make some brave choices.
Like President Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 that Americans would land on the Moon by the end of the decade, the idea of halving the disability employment gap is do-able because, perhaps naively, we can imagine a world in which it is possible.
Many people believed that a Moon landing was possible, but not all of them understood the level of commitment, resilience and willingness to innovate that was needed to realise the goal in 1969. I believe we can, if we choose, get a million more people with disabilities into work and, importantly, keep most of them there - but not without an almost unimaginable level of commitment, resilience and willingness to innovate on the part of government and the partners it chooses to work with.
As the flagship initiative to deliver the government’s pledge, the challenge for the Work and Health Programme is that, for a majority of its customers, `any job` won’t be good enough, and for many a job start will, at most, represent only half of the journey. We’ll need to have primes in place who understand the critical nature of specialists in delivering outcomes on the programme, who can build and contract manage a team of specialists with local credentials and partnerships that are integrated with local health systems, in particular mental health, to support the journey back to work.
At £130 million a year, the Work and Health Programme will have around 20% of the combined resources of Work Programme and Work Choice, and will help upwards of perhaps 10,000 people a year to enter the workplace. It will set an important tone. But to reduce the disability employment gap by any significant measure will require a step change across half a dozen complementary areas of work.
First, government should explore ways of developing a robust retention service that meets the needs of both employers and disabled employees in a much more proactive way than the Fit for Work Service and Access to Work provision is currently able to do.
Second, we should ensure that the strategic and commissioning weight of LEPs, City Deals and Growth Plans are used in a co-ordinated way to maximise the opportunities of disabled people to enter local labour markets.
Third, I endorse the calls of a number of organisations for Government to explore the potential for ‘disability leave’ as a way of more constructively managing the fluctuating conditions of some employees. 40% of all employed disabled people say that modified hours have enabled them to stay in work; 36% of those out of work say that modified hours could have helped them retain their job.
Fourth, we need to find ways to support people who cannot access DWP provision to re-enter the labour market. Providing employment support is not a statutory requirement for local authorities or CCGs The four DWP mental health and employment pilots about to commence are welcome, but they take place against a background of dwindling funding for locally commissioned supported employment programmes, making it vital that government finds ways of incentivising local authorities to retain employment services for people in receipt of adult social care who are unlikely to gain access in large numbers to a capped Work and Health Programme.
Fifth, a significant percentage of disabled people falling out of the workforce are from professional, technical and managerial positions with acquired disabilities and health conditions who have long careers behind them and who will choose not to access JCP. Government and other stakeholders should urgently explore the potential for an intervention designed to support this cohort of people to rapidly re-enter the workforce.
Sixth, we need to get to grips with the transitions agenda, finding ways to help talented young people with learning disabilities and hidden impairments onto apprenticeship routes and supported internship programmes as part of a national unified drive to ensure that every young person with a disability who wants to transition into work can do so.
Finally, we need a step change in the way employers are engaged and supported to be part of the solution. We need to build on the Disability Confident initiative - from a promising PR campaign driven by committed providers and seventy active employers into a national movement which is identifiably driving the agenda, holding to account and championing innovation across each part of the plan.
Achieving remarkable things isn’t easy. We shouldn’t pretend this is a quick fix, or that more and more can magically be achieved with fewer and fewer resources. But a challenge has been set. Now we need some brave decisions that will move us from a visionary slogan to a detailed roadmap.
Read Pluss’ full submission to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into halving the disability employment gap.
Steve Hawkins is Chief Executive Officer at Pluss.