Will the National Disability Strategy close the disability employment gap in 2022?

160

Rouzbeh Pirouz is Co-Founder and Senior Partner at London-based Pelican Partners, a real estate and private equity investment firm. 

In July 2021, the UK Government launched a new National Disability Strategy (NDS). In essence, this strategy represents a commitment by the Government to implement the kinds of changes that are desperately needed to break down barriers and give disabled people opportunities on a par with everyone else. 

The disabled community in the UK has been waiting a long time for the Government to develop something that will improve opportunities. More than 14.1 million people in this country live with disabilities, and the historical level of employer support has been woeful. 

While the Government says that the employment gap for disabled people is closing, it’s worth looking closer at the statistics. 

How the strategy ties in with the national disability gap

The NDS uses the disability employment gap as a metric for success and progress, stating that the gap has closed significantly over the last few years. However, this can’t be used as a definitive measure of true progress as people today may be identifying as disabled because they are properly recognised, while they wouldn’t have been in the past. 

Unfortunately, progress, in general, has been very slow. And while we can accept that expectations should perhaps be managed due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the pressures of Brexit, these problems for disabled people in the UK have been endemic for decades. We should, in my opinion, be much further along. 

For example, the Government is only just reaching the stage of consulting on whether there should even be mandatory reporting of unemployment for disabled people. 

Initially, the Government pledged that the consultation would be complete by the end of 2021. In reality, the consultation document was only published in mid-December. 

NDS consultation is now underway 

The NDS consultation paper is aimed at employers and employees and asks whether disability reporting should be made mandatory. Consultation is only being held with employers who employ at least 250 people. 

As we stand, the disability employment gap is at 28.4% (however, we must consider the changes in people who identify as disabled today compared with ten years ago, as explained above). 

The idea of the consultation, according to the Government, is that better transparency in reporting should help employers create a more inclusive workplace. In theory, with better data and understanding of the issue, employers would then recruit more disabled people and narrow the disability employment gap. 

The kinds of things in the consultation include: 

  • How much the companies already collect data regarding disabled employees, what it contains and how exactly it’s collected. For example, is it published externally, and how much does it cost to collate the data? 
  • Whether the disability voluntary reporting framework provided by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is useful and whether they’re all even aware of it. 
  • If they think that more transparency surrounding disabilities will lead to more inclusivity. 
  • Whether there are any risks to reporting disability statistics. 
  • Whether mandatory reporting should be implemented to ensure a standardised approach. 
  • Whether the stats collated should be published or reported to a regulatory body. 

Is there time to make meaningful change in 2022?

The consultation outlined above is scheduled to run until 25 March 2022, with the Government pledging to publish its response by 17 June 2022. As you can see, this is nearly a full year after the strategy was launched, and it’s still very much at the basic level of whether to even collect rudimentary data. 

It’s also worth noting that the consultation doesn’t even touch pay gap reporting, and in fact, the NDS makes no mention of this at all. In my opinion, this is urgently needed if meaningful change is going to happen for the disabled workforce. 

Several pledges are missing from the NDS in terms of commitments to Government procurement to ensure that disability employment is improved. By this, I mean that while the NDS does commit to using “Government procurement spend to drive improved outcomes for disabled people”, there is little specificity. 

Methods include the guarantee that disability will be considered when contracts are awarded, the changing of metrics regarding disability when making decisions about contracts, insisting on company-wide changes rather than only contract workforce and having a system to hold those who do not progress to account, I hope, will be included. 

The pandemic has made the need to address problems more urgent
We can’t ignore, of course, the devastating impact of the pandemic on disabled people. Figures from the House of Commons Library research briefing on the disability employment gap analysed data up to the first year of the pandemic. 

They show that the employment rate for disabled people between April and June 2020 was 53.6% and non-disabled was 81.7%. This gives a gap of 28.1%. the same report says that compared with the same time period in 2013, this represented a reduction of 5%. 

To make meaningful change then, we need to see a sea-change in the way that public policy dictates employment practice. The disability employment gap does, of course, link to much more than how many disabled people are in work. 

Policy changes must consider quality of life

Policy changes must also consider the quality of disabled people’s working lives. According to the 2021 CIPD annual UK Working Lives survey,  which looks at the way the pandemic has impacted working lives, there are now even more disadvantages facing disabled employees than there were in 2019. 

For example, workload has increased for disabled people compared with before the pandemic. In addition, disabled people are more likely to have their physical health impacted by work – this gap has increased since March 2020 when the pandemic hit. There is, however, no marked difference in the impact of work on the mental health of the disabled workforce – according to that report. 

Much more must be done in this area

A separate report from Citizens Advice shows that 27% of disabled people faced redundancy in 2020 and 2021, compared with 17% of the general population. For those that reported their disability as having a major impact on their daily life, that figure jumps to 37%. A clear bias within the labour market, driven by difficult circumstances of course, but one that must be reversed. 

Figures from a survey by Leonard Cheshire show that, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, more than 70% of disabled people were impacted by the pandemic in terms of their job. This means they either lost income, were made redundant or were furloughed. 

Ultimately, so much more must be done. But it’s also the case that one policy will not fix this. There must be significant changes in the confidence levels of employers, and particularly with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that they can recruit and retain disabled workers. 

I hope to see the national strategy achieve much more throughout 2022.

BUSINESS NEWS DAY