Mounting evidence suggests that years of government employment policies have had little or no impact on reducing the discrimination disabled people face in the jobs market.
Government figures and new analysis show instead that disability equality for disabled people has remained almost static when it comes to finding and keeping jobs.
Ministers have repeatedly boasted that the number of disabled people in employment has increased substantially over the last decade, including by two million between the third quarter of 2013 and the third quarter of 2022.
They often suggest that that increase is a result of interventions such as the Work and Health Programme, the discredited Disability Confident scheme, the Access to Work programme and “work to further join up employment and health systems”.
But disabled people have repeatedly accused ministers of failing to take meaningful action to address the employment barriers they face, such as the lack of enforcement of disabled workers’ rights to reasonable adjustments or the flaws in the Access to Work system.
Tom Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, admitted earlier this month – in response to a question from disabled Labour MP Marsha de Cordova – that the increase in disability employment was “driven primarily by rising disability prevalence and a strengthening of the overall labour market”.
Government figures released in January found that 60 per cent of the increase in disabled people in employment was simply due to a sharp rise in the number of people identifying as disabled.
Those government figures estimated that only 15 per cent of the increase in disabled people in work was due to a narrowing in the disability employment gap – the difference in the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in jobs.
But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now admitted to Disability News Service (DNS) that it cannot prove that even this small proportion of the increase was due to government policies.
Pursglove had previously argued that the impact of factors including government policies to tackle the disability employment gap accounted for about 25 per cent of the increase in the number of disabled people in work.
But when DNS asked in a freedom of information request for any evidence to show that government policies directed towards reducing the gap had managed to do so, DWP replied: “We confirm that we do not hold the information requested regarding the effect of government policies on reducing the disability employment gap.”
It argued that “isolating the direct effect of a single policy on the disability employment gap is complex” and it partly blamed the impact of “external factors” and the interaction of different policies with each other.
The January figures also showed that the disability employment gap was now at its widest point since 2018, at about 30 per cent, just four percentage points lower than in 2013.
Now analysis by the Disability@Work group of academics suggests that even the 15 per cent of the rise in disability employment caused by a narrowing of the disability employment gap may not be due to a fall in discrimination.
Professor Victoria Wass, of Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, pointed out that the National Audit Office (NAO) had previously found that the increase in people identifying as disabled “was a particular feature of those in employment”, with the NAO saying (PDF, paragraph 19) it was “only people who are in employment where the trend has happened”.
She said: “In these circumstances, a falling disability employment gap does not support a claim that equality for disabled people has improved in the area of employment.”
Earlier analysis by Disability@Work has previously reached the same conclusion.
That analysis showed last year that an increase of 1.3 million in the number of disabled people in work between 2017 and 2022 was “meaningless” when it came to the inequality disabled people faced in the jobs market.
Wass also pointed to government figures from January’s report which found that, between 2014 and 2021, disabled workers moved out of work at nearly twice the rate (8.9 per cent) of non-disabled workers (5.1 per cent).
The report also found that workless disabled people moved into work at nearly one-third of the rate (9.7 per cent) of workless non-disabled people (26.8 per cent).
Wass said: “These differences indicate that disabled people are more likely to leave employment and very much less likely to enter employment than non-disabled people.”
De Cordova told Disability News Service: “The Tories in government have completely failed disabled people by creating a hostile environment over the past 13 years.
“As the minister’s response to my question shows, the increase in disabled people’s participation in the market was ‘driven primarily by rising disability prevalence and a strengthening of the overall labour market’ rather than the government’s non-existent policies to remove employment barriers that disabled people face.
“It’s time for the government to get real and meaningfully act to remove employment barriers faced by disabled people.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “The government is committed to supporting disabled people and people with health conditions stay and succeed in work, and a range of initiatives have contributed to the disability employment gap closing by 4.8 per cent and the disability employment rate rising by 9.5 per cent since 2014.
“Our £58 million Individual Placement and Support in Primary Care scheme not only helps disabled people and people with health conditions move into a job that suits their needs, but also provides them and their employers with wraparound support during their work to help them sustain employment in the long term.”
Picture: Tom Pursglove (left) and Marsha de Cordova
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