Monday 29th May 2017
Marie Rimmer, Shadow Minister for Disabled People and Labour MP for St Helens South and Whiston
The hallmark of this Conservative Government is their scapegoating of disabled people, who for seven long years have borne the brunt of Tory austerity. Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people are, as a result of additional associated costs, while social security is a key source of income to prevent real hardship. Disability charity Scope has estimated that those additional costs amount to approximately £550 a month.
The Government’s often repeated ambition is to halve the disability employment gap, which currently stands at 32 per cent. The employment rate for disabled people is only 48 per cent and the nature of this employment is often transient, low paid and insecure. Disabled people are tired of broken promises; they desperately need to be treated with respect and dignity, not plunged further into poverty or worse.
The Tories are failing disabled people. The Government’s recently announced changes to Personal Independence Payments, and its refusal to stop the cuts to ESA WRAG and the related Universal Credit’s Limited Capacity to Work, which come in this April, will, undoubtedly, exacerbate the disability poverty gap, by increasing the numbers of disabled people living in poverty, which will threaten their health and wellbeing. There are some discretionary funds available, such as the Flexible Support Fund and Access to Work; however, there is no guarantee of support and they are limited in what they can be used for.
The timing of those cuts, when there has barely been a reduction in the disability employment gap, is difficult to comprehend. The Green Paper on Work, Health and Disability rings alarm bells, too, for people in the ESA Support Group are the next to be targeted through conditionality. Linked to that, the new Work Capability Assessment reassessment criteria, which the Government announced last September (after Labour committed to scrap the Work Capability Assessment), will be published later this year. That will give a clear indication as to what the Government’s real agenda is.
The Government’s Green Paper, the consultation for which closed this February, just six weeks before the ESA WRAG cuts come into place, makes the bold claim that “employment can promote recovery.” I believe that that implies disabled people, and people with chronic conditions, would recover if only they tried a bit harder. Just how much more pressure does the Government plan to pile onto disabled people?
The Green Paper discusses the need for employers to invest more in workplace health and occupational health support. That is, of course, very important; 90 per cent of disability and long-term health conditions are acquired, so it is absolutely right to examine what can be done to reduce the risk of employees falling ill and how employers can make reasonable adjustments to support an employee to stay in work, if they become disabled. However, the Access to Work programme only helped 36,000 disabled people stay in or access work in 2015, out of the 1.4 million disabled people who are fit and able to work.
Disabled people deserve to have access to meaningful, well-paid employment if they are able to work. However, under this Government, disabled people from disadvantaged backgrounds are also far more likely to be out of work.
It is becoming clear that the Government’s flagship Disability Confident Campaign, launched in 2015, has been an utter failure, making an insignificant impact on the disability employment gap. Although a change in employer attitudes and behaviour is imperative to increasing levels of disability employment, disabled people also need practical support and guidance by the Government. Real questions need to be asked about what exactly the Government is doing to support employers, especially small businesses given that nearly half the workforce is employed by them. How, for example, can a small business access affordable, timely occupational health support?
Labour will stand shoulder to shoulder with disabled people, and we will continue to hold the Government to account on their manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap. We are developing meaningful, alternative approaches with disabled people, employees and employers, as part of our Disability Equality Roadshow. If this Government is committed to a fairer society, they should stop trying to rebuild the economy off the backs of poor, sick and disabled people. Enough is enough.