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Public procurement should be delivering opportunities for people with disabilities

Monday April 17th, 2017

Reading the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ)’s report on employment for people with disabilities (or perhaps more aptly ‘lack of employment for people with disabilities’) Rethinking Disability Work, I was reminded that although we have made progress in this country in terms of rights for people with disabilities there is a long, long way still to go.

John Tizard

John Tizard

The CSJ report identifies that there are a million disabled people in the UK who want to work, but are effectively ‘blocked’ from doing so. This is wrong Just 48 per cent of disabled working-age adults are employed, compared to 80 per cent of non-disabled adults. Shamefully, the gap is higher in the UK than in no fewer than 21 other European countries.

The report rightly states that this is one of the most striking injustices of our generation. It robs individuals of purpose and income, and our economy of employees and workers. It is immoral.

Rightly, the report calls for concerted action to tackle this inequality and injustice.

Over twenty-five years ago, I had lead responsibility at a national disabilities charity for promoting employment rights and for managing services that supported people with disabilities to be appointed to jobs, and for advising employers. Reading this report, it is incredible that so much more still, after all this time, remains to be done.

For a start, employers should act – and act from social responsibility, moral and business perspectives all at once.

Government can and should do more to encourage (and even require) companies and the public sector to employ more people with disabilities, just as it should promote the employment of people with mental health challenges. A civilised society should expect no less. An efficient economy requires no less.

The Government has to be ready to fund and support programmes. It has to ensure that the benefits system facilitates employment and enables people with disabilities to work, as well as to be supported with the additional costs of transport and care. And it has to do this in ways that are equitable and fair, and not by penalising people who are disabled or treating them somehow as unreasonably seeking financial assistance through benefits. And, of course, people who ‘cannot’ work because of the severity of their disability or illness should not be treated to the horrors, humiliation and gross indignities of the current assessment and benefits regime. There should be no pressure on people who cannot work to have to work or be continuously reassessed. This too is immoral.

The CSJ report, as others have done over the years, identifies a number of actions that Government and employers could (and I strongly believe, should) adopt.

Where necessary, Government can support employers who face physical and productivity challenges when they employ people with disabilities, but this should not be a back door subsidy, and neither should it be an excuse not to pay any employee less than the right rate for the job: no two-tier pay or reduced remuneration on account of disability or only making certain jobs available.

Encouragingly, the CSJ report finds that the current ‘Access to Work’ is a ‘world-class’ support programme that covers the additional costs of hiring disabled people. That’s the good news but only so far as it is being used.

The bad news, however, is that astonishingly, whilst the Access to Work programme has been around since 1994, only 25 per cent of employers know what it is. So there is much more to be done.

The report identifies several ways to unlock these schemes’ full potential, so that the 300,000 people who fall out of work each year for health reasons can keep their jobs. It also finds that the current method that we use to assess employment support is fundamentally flawed and should be overhauled. It recommends the introduction of a more sophisticated assessment that will facilitate more tailored and effective employment support.

However, this is not just a matter for Government. It occurs to me that the entire public sector has a role to play. It is a major employer and should properly fulfil its responsibilities as an employer.

It also can and should use the power of its procurement of services and goods. There is good reason to expect companies and others that contract with the public sector to be exemplary employers in every respect, and this should include being equal opportunity employers. This is permissible under public procurement regulations although it is far too little applied, not least because of a desire to push down price at the expense of employment rights and conditions, and consequently service quality. Such narrow-minded and short-sighted practice has to stop.

I have heard some argue that the public sector could use the Best Value and Social Value legislation to require suppliers of services (the Act currently does not apply to the procurement of goods) to employ people with disabilities. This may be one way, although frankly, this issue is more about human rights rather than ‘social value’.

Still, if pragmatism means that social value is one way of promoting justice for people with disabilities, let’s use this route but let’s also aim for the public sector only ever to contract with organisations (from whatever sector) that are decent and responsible employers, with good equal opportunity policies and, even more importantly, excellent equal opportunity ‘practices’.

A rich economy intent on developing and employing more people with skills, and in a country that would claim to be civilised and socially just, should not and must not tolerate the current prospects for people with disabilities and long term illnesses. But let me repeat this is not a call for a harsh ‘workfare’ approach or compulsion.

Action is required, and public procurement can lead by example.

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