The minister for disabled people has said that Britain would become a “world leader” in securing jobs for disabled people if it manages to meet its target of halving the disability employment gap.
The prime minister, David Cameron, has put his weight behind a campaign to halve the gap between the proportion of disabled people and non-disabled people in employment, from its current figure of about 30 percentage points.
Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, said such an ambition would mean about a million more disabled people in work, which would put the UK “ahead of anywhere else in the world”.
Tomlinson (pictured at last month’s Conservative conference) was speaking at a seminar held to mark Disability Rights UK’s annual general meeting.
He pointed to a new “reverse jobs fair” that he co-hosted with the charity Shaw Trust and the social enterprise Pluss, which saw 25 organisations with expertise in disability employment offering advice to local employers, reassuring them of the “huge amount” of support and advice there is to help them.
Tomlinson said he would be “challenging” every MP in the country to hold a similar event, and hoped his initiative would create “interview opportunities further down the line” for disabled job-seekers.
He had earlier spoken about the jobs fair at a joint meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group (APPDG) in Westminster, before heading across London to speak at the DR UK event.
Tomlinson told the APPDG that the benefits system was “quite good” at identifying disabled people, but when disabled people found work they often “disappear” because they do not want to tell their new employer about their impairment.
He said that 300,000 people with mental health conditions every year drop out of employment after becoming unwell.
He said he believed that, in a “Utopian world”, if all businesses knew about all of the “challenges” facing their employees, a “lion’s share” of those 300,000 people would not lose their jobs.
But Mike Smith, chief executive of the London disabled people’s organisation Real, told Tomlinson he had largely been discussing “solutions to support businesses feel more confident”.
Smith said he had offered “less of a flavour of the macro environment, the wider societal attitude that creates the discrimination disabled people face in the first place”, and asked if he had any plans to “strengthen people’s rights under the Equality Act to combat the direct discrimination that disabled people so frequently experience”.
Tomlinson did not appear to offer an answer to Smith’s question.
Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said it was “positive that businesses and employers are engaging” with the government, but she pointed to “woeful” figures – revealed by Disability News Service – which showed that there were just 68 “active partners” for Disability Confident, and of those at least 33 were disability or diversity organisations.
She said: “If there is a real sincerity about helping the 1.5 million people able and wanting to get into work we need to be looking at specific measures beyond the Disability Confident scheme, and beyond the 35,000 disabled people who have had support from Access to Work.”
She also pointed to the ratio of just one disability employment adviser in jobcentres to support every 600 disabled job-seekers.