A government plan to strengthen its discredited Disability Confident employment scheme, and force leading employers to report on how many disabled people they employ, has had to be scrapped just days after it was announced.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, who has only been in her post for two months, announced on Friday that employers who achieved the highest membership level of Disability Confident would have to publish a report showing how many disabled people they employ.
But four days later, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) quietly released a new version of the press release, which removed the words “and report how many are”.
DWP described the words it removed from the original press release as an “inaccuracy”.
Now those employers who have achieved the level of Disability Confident Leaders – the most advanced of its three levels – will only need to “practice what they preach” and ensure they have disabled people on their payroll.
But the requirement for them to report how may disabled people they employ has been dropped.
Coffey (pictured) claimed her announcement marked the third anniversary of Disability Confident, even though the scheme was actually launched by the then prime minister David Cameron in the summer of 2013, but had to be relaunched three years ago after three years of fierce criticism.
Coffey also announced that it would soon be “explicit” that Disability Confident Leaders must actually employ disabled people, and that DWP was extending membership to three years for new members.
But there was further confusion surrounding the changes today (Thursday) as the latest version of the press release still has the department suggesting that the changes will include “requiring” Disability Confident Leader businesses to “publicly report” on their disability employment, although only by using a “voluntary” reporting framework.
DWP’s press office has refused to explain how publicly reporting these figures could be both a requirement and voluntary.
It has also been unable to explain how Coffey was planning to extend membership to three years when Disability Confident web pages – not updated since March 2018 – state that members are already allowed to use the scheme’s badge and DC material for three years after signing up.
And there are further questions over how the number of members signed up to Disability Confident has leaped from “over 14,000” on 28 October – nearly three years after the scheme was relaunched – to “over 15,000” just five days later.
A DWP spokesperson insisted the amended press release was now accurate but said he could not comment further because of “purdah”, the period after an election is called which means civil servants have to follow specific rules relating to government business.
David Gillon, a prominent disabled critic of Disability Confident since its launch in July 2013, who pointed out the leap in numbers, said: “When I saw Disability Confident was going to insist Disability Confident Leaders employed disabled people, and report it, I was delighted.
“This is something I’ve been campaigning for since the scheme was launched. For them to weasel out of that commitment in under four days is unbelievable cowardice.
“Withdrawing the reporting requirement means we won’t know if Disability Confident Leaders are ‘practising what they preach’ until they start quietly disappearing from the lists as they fail their reassessments.”
He added: “It simply isn’t credible that this is a mistake or ‘inaccuracy’.
“Civil Service press releases of this type go through multiple reviews before they are released.
“The only possible conclusion is that someone objected after it was released, and the only feasible suspects are the Disability Confident Leaders themselves.
“The only reasonable presumption for this action has to be that some powerful Disability Confident Leaders were going to be profoundly embarrassed on revealing their numbers of disabled employees.
“If they won’t talk publicly about that, then by definition they are not Disability Confident.”
Only last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that the Disability Confident scheme appeared to be growing increasingly less successful at persuading employers to offer jobs to disabled people.
Figures secured by DNS through a freedom of information request showed that the 13,600 employers that had signed up to the scheme by 13 September had pledged to provide just 8,763 paid jobs for disabled people between them, an average of just 0.64 jobs per employer.
Members of the scheme include many large employers such as local authorities, government departments, manufacturers, national charities, banks and retailers, including the big four supermarkets, more than 100 NHS trusts, and high street banks.
But employers can reach the first two levels of the scheme simply by assessing themselves on their own performance, after which DWP will send them a badge and a certificate that they can use to promote their “disability confidence”.
It is only if they want to become a Disability Confident Leader that their self-assessment must be “validated” by another organisation.
DWP itself was declared a Disability Confident leader on 4 November 2016, just days before the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities found it guilty of “grave” and “systematic” violations of the UN disability convention.
Asked to explain the decision to change the original press release, a DWP spokesperson said it was due to “an error which has since been corrected”.
And asked why ministers had needed to make changes to Disability Confident, he said: “These changes will ensure employers have more time to understand how Disability Confident can support them in attracting, recruiting and retaining disabled people, and hold them accountable for their record.
“With more than 15,000 employers now signed up, it’s right that we review the commitments we ask them to make.”
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