The government’s repeated claims that its policies have transformed the employment prospects of disabled people over the last seven years have been challenged by academics who suggest their figures are simply the result of a statistical quirk.
Disabled activists have been left bemused for years as official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) appear to have shown disabled people becoming increasingly likely to find work in comparison with non-disabled people.
The figures continued to come despite a decade of government austerity policies and allegations of a hostile environment created by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Justin Tomlinson (pictured), the minister for disabled people, has repeatedly bragged that the figures show the government has slashed the disability employment gap (the difference in the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people of working-age in jobs).
In July, he said this had fallen by more than five percentage points in six years (from 33.8 percentage points to 28.6 per centage points).
But academics from Cardiff Business School – part of the Disability@Work group of researchers – have now shown that these figures appear to simply reflect an increase in the number of people reporting that they are disabled.
In a Disability@Work briefing note, Professor Victoria Wass and Professor Melanie Jones have shown that, between 2013 and 2020, an alternative indicator, the proportion of people prevented from working due to disability, has remained stable.
One potential explanation for the figures repeatedly quoted by ministers over the last few years is that there has been a sharp rise in the proportion of people describing themselves as having an impairment that limits their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.
This is the indicator used by the government to measure whether someone is disabled in its employment figures, which are collected by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Between 2013 and 2020, the percentage of working-age people describing themselves this way rose from 16.5 per cent to 19.7 per cent.
Wass and Jones believe this increase is because increased public awareness and acceptance have led more people to “recognise and acknowledge that they have a health condition and/or that it is limiting”.
They say this change in the “disability prevalence” rate is particularly relevant to those with mental health conditions.
Their research has been passed to DWP for “welcome discussion” on how to interpret these findings.
Their conclusions are given further weight by a 2015 RNIB study which showed that the proportion of people who were registered as blind and partially-sighted and had jobs fell by 21 per cent between 2005 and 2015, whereas, using the ONS definition, the employment rate for those with visual impairments rose by 23 per cent between 2005 and 2012.
Once the increase in the rate of people describing themselves as having an activity-limiting impairment is taken out of the ONS figures, they show that the prevalence-corrected disability employment gap actually rose slightly between 2013 and 2020, while it fell significantly under the last Labour government, between 1998 and 2009.
The authors conclude: “The prevalence-corrected measure suggests all the narrowing in the [disability employment gap] from 2010 is accounted for by the expansion in disability prevalence and not by any reduction in underlying disability employment disadvantage.”
They urge the government to enhance data collection on disability prevalence so that it can explore these findings.
They also point to government research (PDF, see pages 10-12) which suggests that the increase in the number of disabled people in employment – which Tomlinson says reached 1.4 million between 2014 and 2020 – was due not simply to a narrowing of the disability employment gap, but also to a steady increase in the working-age population, an increase in disability prevalence, and a rise in the overall employment rate.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “We remain concerned about the lack of internal data on disabled people in work and the frequency it is collected.
“If we are to close the disability employment gap we must make sure the data captured is accurate and transparent.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Before this pandemic the number of disabled people in work had increased to over four million and as we begin to rebuild, our continued support for disabled people will not be diminished.
“Through our Plan for Jobs and tailored schemes like Access to Work we will continue to support disabled people to find, retain and remain in work to help unlock their full potential.”
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