One public policy strand which has remained consistent over the years, irrespective of which party is in government, is the focus on employment as a way to lift people out of poverty and improve physical and mental health. More recently this narrative has been overlaid with a harsher one, largely driven by austerity and the need to tackle the welfare bill, not least the £41bn spent each year on incapacity, disability and injury benefits. As a result, disabled people have felt singled out for opprobrium if they are not working and treated less than sympathetically by a welfare system which seems to regard them more as "shirkers" than "strivers".
So, it is easy to see why the proposals in the government's green paper aimed at halving the 32% disability and employment gap are met with cynicism. Such cynicism is compounded by the knowledge that in several of its actions, if not its words, the government plans to reduce resources that support disabled people into work. It seems counter-intuitive to extol the virtues of work whilst reducing programmes like access to work, relevant employment and support allowances and the number of disability employment advisers.
The time has come to seriously tackle the persistent employment gap, working with government and its agencies as necessary but - importantly - grasping this nettle in the social care sector. Skills for Care data describes a sector that employs around 1.55 million people, but there are some 90,000 vacancies in social care at any one time and an estimated need for an additional 275,000 roles in the next decade. In addition, the UK's withdrawal from the EU raises significant concerns about securing the future supply of workers, just as the number of social care workers coming to the UK from EU countries is already falling. So it is both morally and economically imperative for social care employers to do more to address the disability employment gap.
Of course there are those who think it would be counter-productive for social care employers to lead the way on this. For example, because they fear it could stereotype the issue of employment for people with learning disabilities and autism as a "social care issue" and nothing to do with mainstream employers, who would thereby be "let off the hook". It is right to voice such concerns but to allow the dominance of this negative view would, paradoxically, let social care employers off the hook. Surely it is better to harness the energy and enthusiasm of those who are already committed to improving the lives of disabled people? And if social care organisations do not respond proactively to this agenda, why should others?
Project SEARCH is one successful solution to bridge the disability and employment gap. SEARCH is a pre-employment program for young people with learning disabilities based at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, involving VODG member Hft, and other partners. The project helps young people with learning disabilities gain the skills they need to get meaningful paid jobs. The hospital provides induction and a variety of placements that teach core skills. Interns gain over 900 hours of on-the-job work experience each year. Alongside this, people receive classroom time and complete a qualification in employability skills. The goal is to support people into finding full-time paid employment, and last year's employment outcomes for its graduates reached 66.7%.
The issue is one VODG focused on in detail in an earlier report which demonstrates what can be done now, given the right approach and employer mind set. But whilst eschewing cynicism, it is important to not be naïve either. The green paper clearly sets out the many barriers that make it harder for employers in all sectors to employ more disabled people. These include, crucially, the attitudes of employers, practical problems around access and support to do the job, concerns about employee reaction, and benefit difficulties. Many of these concerns prove to be ill-founded once a disabled person is taken on but making the initial hiring decision can be problematic. In addition, people who become ill or disabled whilst in a job often face difficulties from both employer and staff attitudes and in adapting their role or workplace to enable them to stay in work.
In the face of such challenges, it is always easier not to do something than to do it. But given that social care providers already have many of the right attitudes and attributes to make progress with this agenda there is an important opportunity for us to do better. Skills for Care led a coalition of the willing and have produced resources to support social care employers make a step up in addressing the disability and employment gap:
These practical resources will help the social care sector to play its part in addressing the disability and employment gap. Providers have the opportunity to address staffing difficulties - creating a win-win situation - by employing disabled staff with values aligned to social care and the increased likelihood that they will retain their position for some time once in post. Moreover social care providers are setting an example to others - not waiting for government's pronouncement on the results of its green paper consultation - but instead committing to tackle the employment gap which impacts negatively on so many.
We cannot back the principles of personalisation, choice and control whilst ignoring the reality of worklessness and its effects on the self-esteem and health of people who use social care services.