Striking – but unexplained – new official figures show there has been a large fall over the last year in the proportion of disabled people who are unemployed.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that the percentage of disabled people counted as unemployed dropped to 7.3 per cent of those who were economically active (those seeking employment and available to start work) in April-June 2019.
This compares with an unemployment rate of 8.8 per cent during the same time period in 2018, and a rate that was as high as 13.5 per cent in 2013.
The proportion of those economically inactive (not available for work) fell slightly over the same period, from 44.4 per cent of working-age disabled people to 43.3 per cent.
It means there has been a fall of about 17 per cent in the unemployment rate among economically-active disabled people in just a year, while the unemployment rate for non-disabled people actually rose slightly from 3.3 per cent to 3.4 per cent over the same period.
The figures (see table A08) are likely to raise questions about the impact of the government’s welfare reforms on disabled people, and whether the fall could be linked in some way to the introduction of the much-criticised universal credit benefit system.
There will also be questions over whether the fall was at least partly due to increasing numbers of disabled people being forced into self-employment and part-time jobs (of at least one hour a week), or government training and jobs programmes. ONS includes all three in its measure of “employment”.
Figures secured from ONS last year by Inclusion London showed that nearly half of the increase in disability employment in the previous four years – between 2013-14 and 2017-18 – had been due to disabled people becoming self-employed or taking part-time jobs of as little as one hour a week.
Mike Smith (pictured), a former commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and now chief executive of the east London disabled people’s organisation Real, said: “I don’t believe the employment environment has suddenly become more welcoming.
“I suspect some employers are getting better, but it might also be because people on the periphery of struggling to work are struggling even more to survive on benefits, and so have been pushed into work.
“What the stats don’t tell you is anything about the quality of the work, the wage levels, the hours of work, the job security, etcetera.”
There was also a call for research into the cause of the fall by Manchester-based Breakthrough UK, a disabled people’s organisation which provides employment support for disabled people.
Peter Jackson, Breakthrough UK’s deputy chief executive, said the figures needed “more scrutiny” and research to identify what had caused the fall in the unemployment rate, including whether the rollout of the government’s universal credit benefits system was playing a role.
He said: “Somebody needs to drill down into that data to get a better understanding of the impact of the very diverse range of factors involved.”
He added: “We have not seen any significant difference in terms of the employment market and the experiences of our clients on our employment programmes.
“Our experience in working with disabled people who we are supporting to secure employment in the open jobs market has not changed. It is still very challenging.
“People are generally experiencing the same types of barriers.”
He said there had been increasing contact from employers who have signed up to the government’s Disability Confident employment programme.
He said: “It’s certainly got traction from employers.”
But he added: “Whether that gets translated into real outcomes impacting on their workforce is an entirely different matter.”
Jackson also compared the ONS figures with his own day-to-day experiences in Manchester.
He said: “If you walk the streets of Manchester on any given day, the level of deprivation and marginalisation is slapping you in the face.
“The number of homeless people sleeping in shop doorways – that is my barometer in terms of how well the economy is functioning.”
Asked to explain the striking fall in the unemployment rate, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “The number of disabled people in employment is the highest on record, showing great progress towards making our workplaces more inclusive and ensuring those disabled people who want to work are given the opportunity to enjoy a fulfilling career.
“By encouraging employers to become Disability Confident and providing more funding than ever before for the Access to Work scheme we are removing barriers so that more businesses can reap the rewards of being inclusive and more disabled people can find and stay in work.
“Though welcome, the reasons for the improving disability employment rate are complex so it is impossible to put this down to one cause.”
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