The Department for International Development (DfID) is co-hosting the first-ever Global Disability Summit in London with the Kenyan government. In order to lead the world in ensuring greater rights for disabled people, the Government must first address the barriers that prevent disabled people from reaching their full potential here at home.
I think the UK has avoidable low levels of disabled people in employment. The gap in the employment rate between disabled people and the general population stands at 30%. It has remained almost exactly the same for the past 10 years. The Conservative manifesto promised to get one million more disabled people into work by 2027, but current trends show that the country has made little progress towards meeting this target.
Closing the disability employment gap is a moral imperative. But it is also increasingly necessary to ensure the British economy continues to thrive. Employment levels have reached record highs in the UK, while net migration is falling and is expected to fall further when the Government ends freedom of movement after Brexit.
In order to ensure employers can continue to access labour and avoid skills shortages, we must and should turn to groups of individuals who have traditionally been underemployed, such as ex-offenders, those with mental health conditions and - of course - disabled people.
The last Conservative election manifesto committed the Government to giving employers a year-long National Insurance Contributions (NICs) holiday if they employed someone with a disability or chronic mental health problem. This is a step in the right direction but the Government can and should go further. The Government should instead scrap employers’ NICs on each disabled person an employer hires permanently, where the disabled employee earns less than £866 (gross) per week. This would be in line with the reforms introduced for employers of young apprentices in 2016.
The Government should also incentivise employers to hire disabled apprentices. Disabled people remain significantly underrepresented in the number of people completing apprenticeships. To address this, the Government should provide a financial bonus to employers for every disabled person that successfully completes an apprenticeship at their firm. This bonus could be financed from revenue generated from the apprenticeship levy.
One of the key reasons many employers are reluctant to hire disabled people is because they fear the cost of making adjustments to their premises might be too high. However, these fears are often misplaced with adjustments costing less than an employer anticipates. To allay fears, the Government should provide free ‘Access Audits’ to employers. These audits would reveal if an employers’ premises was suitable for disabled people and, if not, the cost of making adjustments.
Likewise, prospective disabled employees can sometimes be concerned that a future employer may not accommodate them. The Government could redress this by reforming the ‘Disability Confident’ scheme. The scheme rewards employers who are particularly accommodating of disabled employees with government accreditation. Yet, currently employers can reach the first two levels of the scheme simply by assessing themselves. The scheme can and should become more robust. In order for employers to become ‘Disability Confident’, they should be externally-assessed rather than self-assessed. To ensure the scheme remains popular with employers, only ‘Disability Confident’ employers should be able to access the aforementioned employer bonus for every disabled person who successfully completes an apprenticeship.
The Government should be congratulated for bringing global focus to the crucial issue of the rights of disabled people. But, here in the UK, far too many disabled people are prevented from reaching their full potential. This is a burning injustice where the Prime Minister needs to be louder and bolder.