In the latest Family Resources Survey (2019/20), over 14 million people in the UK (one in five) reported a disability, which was an increase of 2.7 million since 2009 to 2010. Around 7 million people in the UK are of working age with a disability or long-term health condition.
The government first announced a national disability strategy at the 2019 general election to ‘look at ways to improve the benefits system, opportunities and access for disabled people in terms of housing, education, transport and jobs’, and this was supposed to have been published last year. Some of the policy areas covered in the strategy are devolved within the UK and each nation has its own approach and policies, but the aim is to reflect the experiences of disabled people across the whole of the UK with a collaborative approach between the governments.
A public survey ran from January to April 2021, seeking feedback on lived experiences of disabled people in the UK, although this was strongly criticised by disability campaigners who felt the format of communication was flawed and excluded many disabled people (for example, there was no with no sign-language video). There were nonetheless around 14,000 responses to the survey.
What does the new strategy cover?
The new strategy announced by the government covers a broad range of themes including education, housing and public transport, with several of its measures concerning the world of work. Among these are certain specific commitments from the government aimed at making the workplace more accessible and inclusive:
- improvements to the Access to Work scheme, including the piloting of a work-related ‘adjustment passport’ to make it easier for disabled people to move between jobs;
- an online advice hub for employers and disabled employees to access information and guidance on disability related workplace issues;
- a consultation before the end of the year on potentially mandatory disability workforce reporting.
These are discussed in further detail below.
Access to Work adjustment passports
The strategy says that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will make the Access to Work scheme a digital service, as part of which an ‘adjustment passport’ will be created and piloted this year. This will be designed to give employers an overview of the support available from Access to Work and build understanding of what adjustments are needed. It is hoped that this will reduce the need for repeated assessments (where the needs are unchanged) and enable disabled people to transition more smoothly to new roles and new employers.
The DWP will pilot the passports using school leavers, those going back into training and education, veterans leaving the armed forces and freelancers and contractors moving between job roles. The passport will presumably be in the form of an electronic record, although several details remain unclear – such as who will complete the adjustments needed and be responsible for updating, how much medical information will be included and whether the individual would have to request the passport or give consent before an employer can access it.
Disability advice hub
The new online advice hub was launched at the end of last month through a joint partnership between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas). Its remit is to provide clear, accessible information and advice on employment rights for disabled people. The hub provides advice and information on employment issues such as disability discrimination, flexible working and reasonable adjustments, and also includes sections on supporting mental health at work and employing people at high risk from Covid-19.
The hub is accessible to all via the conciliation service Acas website and will provide advice for people in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, advice is available through the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
Disability workforce reporting
Following the introduction of gender pay reporting requirements, the government is considering introducing a similar scheme for disability data. The minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, has acknowledged that the current voluntary scheme encouraging larger employers to report on disability, mental health and wellbeing in their workforce yields insufficient data and evidence.
A consultation on disability workforce reporting will therefore be launched later this year, following which the government will publish its next steps. It appears the consultation will explore both voluntary and mandatory reporting and consider:
- how employers can better understand the disability profile of their workforce;
- using a standard question when asking employees about their disability status;
- what information and data employers could collect and how to standardise results;
- what information may already be held and cost issues;
- tools and guidance to help employers report in a consistent and effective way;
- lessons learned from existing reporting frameworks (e.g. gender pay gap reporting);
- ways to maximise take-up and employer engagement;
- what might be reported to the government, and whether it should be published.
In tandem with the consultation, the government will continue to raise awareness of the voluntary reporting framework.
What response to the strategy has there been?
The national disability strategy is described by the government as ‘the most far-reaching endeavour in the area for a generation or more’, yet there has been a mixed and muted response. Conservative peer Lord Shinkwin, chair of the Centre for Social Justice disability commission told Radio 4’s Today programme that the strategy was ‘more of a mixture of a to-do list and a should-have-done-by-now list’. He felt that in respect of employment, the government should be focusing more on reporting the pay gap between disabled and non-disabled people instead of recording the number of disabled people in employment.
Mark Hodgkinson, chief executive of the disability equality charity Scope, welcomed the consultation on mandatory disability reporting but questioned what the government was going to do about closing the disability employment gap which currently stands at 28.6%. His feelings are shared by many disability campaigners who, while welcoming some of the measures contained in the strategy, say that it currently lacks scope and ambition. This could be because a good deal of detail is yet to come, with many of the commitments being to consult and consider rather than setting targets with actual consequences.