The government is considering offering financial incentives to employers to persuade them to recruit more disabled employees, as part of a 10-year strategy to secure jobs for one million more disabled people by 2027.
The long-awaited Improving Lives strategy includes proposals across social security, the workplace and healthcare, in response to a consultation that produced about 6,000 comments, including more than 3,000 emails.
In the workplace section of the joint Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department of Health strategy, the government says it is considering offering employers a temporary “holiday” on national insurance contributions, alongside other “employer obligations and incentives” to take on disabled employees.
It says that any measures must “avoid creating excessive burdens on employers that could discourage recruitment” and must be “appropriately targeted”.
The strategy aims to increase the number of disabled people in work from 3.5 million to 4.5 million by 2027.
There was disappointment that, as with last week’s industrial strategy, there were no proposals on how the government might use public sector procurement to insist that contractors provide training and job opportunities for disabled people.
The strategy admitted that some responses to the green paper had called for public procurement to be used “to drive culture change and increased recruitment of disabled people in supply chains”.
But DWP promised instead only to “work with its suppliers to encourage them to become Disability Confident to recruit, retain and develop disabled people” and to “encourage other government departments to do the same”.
The government will also bring together public sector leaders for a Work, Health and Disability Summit by spring 2018, to “drive work [on disability employment] in the wider public sector”.
The government said it had accepted all 40 recommendations of the review of mental health and employers by Lord (Dennis) Stevenson and Paul Farmer, although many of the responses to the Stevenson/Farmer recommendations saw the government “encouraging”, “supporting”, “exploring” or agreeing recommendations “in principle”, rather than pledging to enforce them.
One of the recommendations it has agreed from the review is to bring together information and advice on mental health, wellbeing and disability for employers, although it is researching how best to do this.
The strategy also includes proposals on how to improve the Access to Work (AtW) scheme, including trials of “managed personal budgets” to provide “even greater personalisation” – which has caused alarm among some campaigners – and the introduction of a “personalised service” for those with the highest support needs.
There will also be “a new expectation” that equipment provided through AtW “will be portable and move with the individual when they change jobs”, while disabled people will be able to apply for support earlier so that it is in place by the time their job starts.
But there was no suggestion of an end to the highly-controversial cap – set to rise to £43,100 in April – on annual AtW support packages, with DWP now facing legal action over its imposition (see separate story).
There appears to be an admission that DWP’s much-criticised Disability Confident scheme for employers needs improvement, with the strategy promising to increase its “reach and effectiveness”, although not saying how this would be done.
The strategy also says the government will “improve advice and support” for employers on how to “recruit, retain and support disabled people”, which employers feel is currently “fragmented and difficult to access”.
There is no clear proposal for how this will be achieved, with the strategy saying instead that the government will “start by researching and identifying potential solutions”.
Ellen Clifford, campaigns and policy manager for Inclusion London, said the strategy showed a “continuing failure to tackle any of the substantive barriers to work that Deaf and disabled people face, with reduced spending on the types of employment support that Deaf and disabled people actually need”.
Nicky Evans, from the StopChanges2AtW campaign, said: “The proposals for how the government plans to ‘enhance’ Access to Work go nowhere near the radical overhaul of a failing service that is needed, while we have serious concerns about the consequences of measures such as the introduction of the cap.”
She said she was also concerned about the report’s pledge that AtW recipients with the highest needs “will be offered new managed personal budgets as well as workplace assessments involving their employers, to help them meet their needs within their award levels”.
Evans said this sounded “very much like the ‘job redesign’ that was previously attempted by AtW and heavily criticised.
“Deaf people are having their jobs changed to accommodate the budget available for support – this goes against the original aims of the scheme to enable Deaf and disabled people to enter employment on a level playing-field with non-disabled employees.
“Unfortunately, many of these so-called improvements will not solve the issues created by recent government changes to the scheme which, prior to 2010, was considered the government’s ‘best kept secret’.”
Kamran Mallick (pictured), chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “There are many principles to be welcomed in the government’s announcement on getting more disabled people into work – we particularly welcome the idea of personalised employment support, for example, and the recommendations of the Stevenson/Farmer review being accepted and acted upon.
“But this is against a backdrop of cuts in support to disabled people in and out of work, and missed opportunities.
“[Last] week’s industrial strategy was a chance for the government to insist public sector contracts would only be awarded when bids included a mechanism which led to employment or training opportunities for disabled people. It ignored that possibility.
“We’ve heard many positive platitudes from governments about the employment of disabled people over the last 20 years but little change in reality.
“To meet its ambitious target of more than one million additional disabled people in work by 2027, this government needs to make sure its ambition is matched with the resources and culture change required to make it happen.”
Frank Field, Labour MP, chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee and a former work and pensions minister, was also critical of the strategy.
He said: “Progress on reducing the disability employment gap in the last decade has been glacial, and the measures announced today offer little prospect of picking up the pace.”
He said the government needed “a radical new system to incentivise employers to take on and retain disabled workers”, while the strategy was just “a first step in the marathon distance” the government would need to travel if it wanted one million more disabled people in work.
A DWP spokeswoman said that almost 600,000 disabled people had entered work in the last four years.
She said: “The manifesto commitment to get one million more disabled people in work over the next ten years now gives us a clear, ambitious, and time-bound goal.
“We have outlined specific actions across three settings: welfare, employers and health, to ensure that we have a comprehensive approach to achieving this commitment.
“We are taking action across a range of areas. And we are clear that we need to build our evidence of what works before we take further decisions.”
She said the government had also taken action over the last year, including rolling out the new personal support package, ending repeat work capability assessments for people with the highest support needs, “boosting the capacity and capability of our work coaches”, and completing an internal review of the fit note.