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Employment

What do disability rights experts make of government plans to boost employment?

Reported plans to reform disability benefits to get more people into work do not go far enough, campaigners have said

Britain needs more workers, both to fill the gaps left by Brexit and the pandemic and the exodus of people who’ve decided employment is no longer working for them and called it quits post-2020. 

There are half a million more people out of work due to long-term sickness than before the pandemic – 2.5 million in total.

Nearly half of people with a disability are not in work, compared to 18 per cent of non-disabled people. While there were under 600,000 people claiming disability benefits in the early 1990s, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, there are roughly 2.2 million today, largely driven by mental health conditions.

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With the government facing urgent calls to get more people into the labour market, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride is planning to shake up the disability benefits system by reforming or scrapping the “work capability assessment” system used to assess eligibility for benefits. The government reportedly wants to get rid of the “perverse incentive to prove how sick you are” and replace it with a system that focuses on what work claimants might be able to do.

The Treasury is also looking at the feasibility of giving tax breaks to people who return to work, and also allowing them to keep claiming benefits. A senior government source told the Times: “People could be given a bigger tax allowance during the first few years they are back in work.”

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Labour has also come up with a plan to address the shortages, with a greater focus on increased support. Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth said there needed to be “genuine tailored help for those out of work to overcome the barriers they face”. 

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He promised that a Labour government would create more flexibility around fitness-to-work tests, while Jobcentres would be tasked with brokering flexible work options with employers to better accommodate people with disabilities or chronic conditions. 

Labour would also make it easier for people claiming sickness benefits to restart their payments if a job doesn’t work out. The current system requires claimants to have to repeat the work capability assessment they initially took to determine what benefits they are eligible for every time they leave a role, which can be a disincentive when it comes to taking roles they fear might not work out. 

Disabled editor, journalist and activist, Rachel Charlton-Dailey told The Big Issue: “While it’s great the government wants to use incentives like increasing the tax-free allowance, it’s not enough, what happens after the exemption period is up?

“There also needs to be more than cash incentives. That’s not the reason disabled people aren’t working. We need legislation that protects disabled people in the workplace and better job security.”

While she welcomed Labour’s plan for flexible working agreements brokered by the Jobcentre as “great in principle”, she questioned how the plans would be enforced, and what repercussions there would be for employers who didn’t hold up their side of the flexible working agreement.

The government has long promised to give British workers the right to request flexible working from day one in the job, with the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill currently making its way through parliament. 

This would in effect mean employers have to justify their reasons for requiring employees to work specific times in specific locations. Campaigners argue that greater flexibility would enable working parents, people with disabilities or health conditions and carers to balance their additional needs and commitments with work. 

Charlton-Dailey wants to see specific legislation to enforce flexibility and accommodations for disabled workers.

“The workplaces need to be doing the work instead of putting the pressure on the disabled people, because that’s what seems to be at the moment”, said Charlton-Dailey. 

Initiatives such as Project Search have proven that given the right support and workplace accommodations, people with learning disabilities can fill much needed roles, including in the NHS. But across the country, just 4.8 per cent of adults with a learning disability are in paid employment.

Katy Wright, head of Big Issue recruit, said scrutiny of the current system of sickness and disability benefit was welcome, but agreed the creation of greater financial ‘incentives’ only addresses one of the barriers faced by people seeking to re-enter the job market.

“Our experience tells us that a range of factors affect people’s ability to come back to work from confidence and resilience to flexibility to skills,” she continued. 

“At BIR, we identify all their needs and goals, remove their barriers and facilitate the necessary skills and support to enable them to gain and sustain employment.”

Louise Rubin, head of policy and campaigns at disability rights charity Scope, echoed the concerns.

“Scope is broadly supportive of the concept of disabled people being able to gradually return to work without losing financial support,” she told The Big Issue. “But we encourage all parties to bolder and go further, and to build a system based on flexibility and trust, not tick boxes and forms. There are 14 million disabled people in the UK and it is not a homogenous group. A good system would be one that recognises people as individuals and understands their particular needs and circumstances. 

“We want to see all parties commit to wholesale reform so that the welfare system works for disabled people first time.” 

Rubin said there is no “golden ticket” to help disabled people into work, and a combination of support is needed, including a more tailored benefits system, disability awareness training for employers, a shift in attitudes and understanding, and more flexibility in the workplace.

“We need to stop seeing disabled people who are out of work as a ‘problem’ to fix and start putting disabled people and their needs front and centre,” she added.  

“Any plans that the government puts forward should include disabled people from the start. It should draw from their expertise and build a system that works for disabled people, not against them.” 

Big Issue Group has created the person-centred recruitment service,Big Issue Recruit to support people facing barriers to employment into sustainable jobs. To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.

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