HC Deb 28 November 1968 vol 774 cc885-94

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Mr. Speaker, I greatly appreciate this opportunity of raising the question of the disabled unemployed. I must say frankly to my right hon. Friend, and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is to reply to the debate, that I am not raising this issue on the Adjournment simply to provide an opportunity for the reiteration of the unsatisfactory Answers already given at Question Time. I am raising it to challenge the Answers, to criticise the policy, and to invite the Government to change it.

The House will be conscious of the high standards set by my hon. Friend and of his deep personal concern for the unemployed and disabled. The same applies to my right hon. Friend, though she is unable to be present tonight. But, though their hearts are in the right place, their policies are all wrong. As a result of their policies the unemployment rate for the registered disabled is over four times the national average and now stands at the disgraceful figure of 10.1 per cent.

I make it perfectly clear that I am not speaking of people who are bedridden and I am not asking for jobs for people who are unable to do them. But every single person on the register has been classified by my hon. Friend's Department as capable of work. A proportion of these can work only in sheltered employment, and there are 9,000 of these unemployed seeking sheltered employment. But of the 655,000 registered disabled, 633,000 were classified—again by my right hon. Friend's Department—as capable of working in open competitive industry. So we are not talking about bedridden cripples; we are discussing men and women who are disabled but willing arid able to do a job of work but who are denied the opportunity. They cannot get jobs, despite the elaborate machinery which has been painstakingly built by this House over many years and which is designed to ensure that all em- ployers with over 20 employees should employ a quota of 3 per cent. disabled.

What has gone wrong with the machinery? The House has elaborately built it but 10 per cent. of the disabled are unemployed. In the first place, I suggest that my right hon. Friend is committing a serious error of judgment in allowing too many firms to evade their quota of 3 per cent. disabled. No less than 53 per cent. of firms employing over 20 workers are failing to employ their quota. The figures are bad but the trend is even worse. In 1964 the proportion of employers not fulfilling their quota was 45.2 per cent.; in 1965 the figure had risen to 46 per cent.; in 1966 it was 48 per cent.; in 1967 it was 52 per cent., and in 1968 it was 53.7 per cent.

With all the good will in the world towards my right hon. Friend, I am bound to say that this trend is an indictment of her policies and a clear indication of her failure to ensure that employers employ their quota of disabled. I can understand that some employers are unable to find the necessary skills from among the disabled unemployed, but I cannot accept, and I do not believe that the House will agree, that 53 per cent. of employers—34,000 firms in all—are unable to take even one of the 55,000 disabled unemployed.

I therefore suggest that my hon. Friend should conduct an inquiry into the reasons why an increasing proportion of firms are not fulfilling their quota. I know that some firms have an enlightened attitude towards the disabled and that many go out of their way to accommodate them, and I pay my tribute to those firms. I have already acknowledged the fact that some firms require special skills which are not easily available from among the disabled unemployed. The Act has provided that some firms may employ less than their quota of 3 per cent., but only by a special permit from the Ministry.

But again I must criticise my hon. Friend's Department. It has been throwing permits around like confetti. In the year up to last June it issued permits to 21,000 firms at a time when there were 55,000 unemployed disabled. Could none of these firms employ any of the disabled? Is that the Secretary of State's case? If it is I would sooner she argued it than I. If it is not, why has she allowed the permits to be issued? I hope that she would not seriously suggest that none of the 21,000 firms could fit in any of the disabled unemployed.

But a further 13,000 firms need special investigation. They are not employing their quota of disabled. They are not seeking permits from the Ministry. They are not, surely, all working with a static labour force, so if they are taking on undisabled people they are committing an offence and my right hon. Friend's Department is allowing them to get away with it. Perhaps my hon. Friend who will be replying to the debate could tell the House what the Department intends to do about it. Now the facts are known, I suggest that action should be taken.

Finding the facts about the disabled is a difficult business. Apart from a few dedicated organisations and individuals like Professor Townsend, Megan du Boisson and Mary Greaves, whose recent report I commend to my hon. Friend, there is a general indifference to the plight of the disabled unemployed.

Many employers are negligent but the trade unions cannot avoid their share of the responsibility. They are champions of the under-privileged and some officers try to help, but the general trade union attitude to the disabled is not characterised by marked enthusiasm.

Employers and unions have a responsibility, but tonight I ask my right hon. Friend to give a lead. Her main responsibility lies in implementing the Acts and ensuring that employers fulfil their obligations, but she can make a further contribution by improving the number of disablement resettlement officers and giving them a career structure of their own. Theirs is the crucial job of fitting the disabled into suitable employment. If their work is successful, the disabled unemployed can be integrated into suitable jobs where their disability is irrelevant, but, with an under-staffed service and a high rate of turnover, they work under enormous difficulties.

In a previous answer, my hon. Friend rejected my suggestion that there should be an experimental scheme in one region to increase the numbers of disablement resettlement officers, to ensure that they are full-time and to reduce their high rate of turnover. In the light of the serious situation I have revealed I invite my hon. Friend to reconsider his answer and to adopt this suggestion. I am not asking for the moon, nor for charity, but simply for a change in the attitude of Government and industry to the disabled unemployed.

I am also asking for a change of Government policy on the lines I have outlined tonight. If there is to be a long hard struggle ahead to improve the prospects of the disabled unemployed, it will not be evaded, but I am looking forward to my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend displaying their usual understanding and warmth towards the unemployed and the disabled and I hope they will implement these changes so that the disabled are spared the additional scourge of unemployment.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

I hope that the Under-Secretary will carefully consider what his hon. Friend has said, since the latter has made a very special study of the problems of the disabled and makes a point of bringing these matters to the attention of the House, for which the House is grateful.

Safety is, of course, of immense importance. But the differences in disability mean that some disabled, who can do some jobs perfectly safely, cannot do others. We should not exclude all disabled from all such jobs. With care, it is possible to fit certain jobs to certain types of disablement and they can be done efficiently.

I trust that the Government will encourage and help industry to find the right sort of jobs for particular categories of disabled.

11.6 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (Mr. E. Fernyhough)

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) has impressed the House with the forcible way in which he has stated his case and the vigour with which he has attacked my Ministry. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for having raised this subject.

Next year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act—the legislative foundation of my Department's services for the disabled—and it is fitting that at this time we should be looking, as my hon. Friend has, critically at the continuing relevance of the Act's provisions and at the effectiveness of our resettlement services. Against this background we must ask—as, indeed, my hon. Friend has asked to light—are the disabled getting their fair share of employment opportunities; and is the Department of Employment and Productivity doing all it can to facilitate this?

All our efforts at present are directed towards greater productivity; the tempo of work is greater, organisation more streamlined and industrial processes are continually susceptible to technological change. In this situation, we must ask ourselves. is the handicapped man or woman finding it increasingly difficult to fit in?

My hon. Friend is deeply concerned about their situation and he has failed to find reassurance in the available statistics which show that 10 per cent. of those registered as disabled are at present unemployed; and that more than half of those employers who have a statutory obligation to include 3 per cent. registered disabled persons among their total staffs are failing to meet that obligation. As my hon. Friend indicated, unemployment among the registered disabled has risen in the last two years, as indeed has unemployment among the general working population, and we all deplore that situation. However, the rate of increase in the numbers of disabled unemployed over the last year has happily lost its momentum. Nevertheles, the current figures must still cause us concern as they do my hon. Friend, and I do not want to minimise their significance.

It is interesting to compare the present situation with 1964, which was a time of high employment. The overall percentage of unemployed in 1964 was 1.5; for the disabled, it was 7.6. In 1968, unemployment was running at 2.4 per cent. For the disabled it was 10.1 per cent. That the proportional increase should have been lower among the registered disabled indicates that the quota system and the goodwill of employers have had some effect in ensuring that the disabled are not discriminated against in a period of economic difficulty.

Indeed, our special consideration of the effects of the Selective Employment Tax on the employment of the disabled has supported this view. But the fact remains, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that there are 66,249 registered disabled persons unemployed. In this situation why are so many employers failing to meet their quota obligation?

In placing on employers with 20 or more employees an obligation to employ a percentage of registered disabled persons among their total staffs, the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act recognised that employers must accept some responsibility for the disabled. When the Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Piercy, reviewed the Act in 1956, it considered that the main value of the quota scheme was in providing a sound basis for publicising among employers and workers the industrial value of disabled persons. I cannot emphasise too strongly that there is goodwill among most employers towards the disabled and, by and large, they have learned the lesson that disabled workers can be good workers. The experience of our officers working in the field continually reaffirms this fact. Why, then, are so many short of the numbers they should employ?

Regulations made under the Act have fixed the standard percentage at 3, but the Act does not lay down that all employers within the scope of the scheme must employ that proportion. It is a standard which employers must try to achieve. In fact, the Act makes special provision for those who cannot reach their quota. It recognises what some who have discussed this question appear not to recognise sufficiently—that available people and vacant jobs do not necessarily match. This is clearly demonstrated in the general employment sphere, where large numbers of unfilled vacancies exist side by side with high unemployment registers. The Act accordingly provides for a system under which employers with less than their quota may recruit other than registered disabled persons provided they have a permit from my Department to do so. A condition of the issue of this permit is that no suitable disabled person is available for the job on offer.

Under the standard system, we have provided for estimated vacancies to be covered by a standard permit current for a period up to six months. But, again, a condition in these circumstances is that vacancies as they arise must be notified to the employment exchange. By this means our officers are continually able to test the validity of the situation. In determining the suitability of disabled persons for particular jobs, our officers are enjoined to discuss with employers where necessary possible minor modifications to processes or procedures which will facilitate the disabled person's ability to do the work on offer. In so doing they can and do enlist the help of the Department's technical officers.

If we take all the facts, including the number of registered disabled persons unemployed, we know that an overall level of compliance of 3 per cent. is not obtainable. Some may argue from this that we have set our sights too high. Although 3 per cent. is a standard which many employers can and do achieve, its real significance is that it represents a threshold beyond which specific controls about the employment of the disabled begin to operate—for instance, the permit procedure which I have already described and the provisions of the Act about the discharge of a disabled person without reasonable cause.

It is perhaps worth noting that the overall level of compliance in the private sector of industry is at present 2.4 per cent. The Disabled Persons Register, which at present includes some 650,000 persons, represents approximately 2.6 per cent. of the insured population. As my hon. Friend has said, there is no absolute guarantee that those firms who are below quota and who have not been issued with a permit have not in fact taken on someone other than a disabled worker. To do so is an offence under the Act. We do what we can to ensure that such a situation does not arise. Our disablement resettlement officers visit firms below quota to check on the situation; we maintain a closer watch over firms known not to be co-operative; we scrutinise vacancies notified to the employment exchange to see whether they arise with under-quota firms; we make a sample check on the jobs which fit workers registered for employment at the exchange find for themselves to see whether the firms involved are in fact under quota.

Registration as a disabled person is voluntary, and potentially suitable persons elect not to register for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the desire not to be categorised—an independence of spirit which I am sure my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members must respect. I am sure no one will want to change the voluntary system, but it does sometimes result in employers who are successfully employing substantially handicapped persons not fulfilling their obligations under the Act because only registered disabled persons count towards quota. The more secure the employment—and this is something the Act seeks to promote—the less some people are inclined to register. This fact is, of course, not without its effect on the calculated rate of disabled unemployment, since, although not all potentially eligible disabled persons in employment in fact register, the majority do so when they become unemployed. I mention this not because I refuse to accept that there is no room for improvement in the situation—I know that there is—but to demonstrate that many factors have to be taken into account in assessing it.

The quota provisions and the administrative procedures through which they are enforced, are regularly reviewed by the National Advisory Council on the Employment of the Disabled, which advises the Secretary of State on resettlement questions. The Council has never recommended a departure from the quota system nor from the concept of voluntary registration.

I should now like to say a word about disablement resettlement officers, whom my hon. Friend mentioned. I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly that these officers should be carefully selected and trained, that they should be kept on the job as long as possible, and that they should all be full-time officers. In answer I say, we do select them carefully; we give them special training; we try to keep them on the job for five years, but to keep staff in the job for too long is not in my view necessarily advantageous since the work requires initiative and imagination, and in their exacting task disablement resettlement officers can run out of steam.

I accept that the full-time officer operating on an area basis is likely to be the most effective way of organising the service. We hope to achieve this when staffing resources permit this to be done; at present they do not, so we support those officers who spend only part of their time on resettlement duties with group disablement resettlement officers who have had considerable experience in dealing with the disabled.

My hon. Friend repeated tonight a request he made in a Parliamentary Question last week, that we should establish an experimental scheme in one of our regions to assess the improvement in the services of disablement resettlement officers which might be obtained by increasing their numbers, by ensuring that they are full-time officers, by reconsidering their methods of selection and grading, and by reducing their high rate of turnover. We have, I might say, been actively considering these matters for some time, but my inclination was at first that an experiment at this time was not opportune. I will, however, have another look at this matter.

I think it is sometimes forgotten how many disabled persons we do in fact place in ordinary employment. Since the passing of the Act, well over 2 million jobs have been found through the agency of m0y Department; in the last 12 months alone 71,000 jobs have been found. But it would be foolish to suggest that satis- factory resettlement of the disabled is an easy matter. The pattern of industry changes. While mechanisation lightens the physical task or work, the introduction of continuous process and assembly lines can well speed up the work process and make adherence to time schedules of greater significance. This can react against some of the disabled and the elderly.

We have therefore to be on the alert for new developments in industry, and our officers working in the field are always looking for possible openings for the disabled. We have it in mind to mount a special exercise on this theme in one region.

It only remains in the minute I have left to say to my hon. Friend once again how grateful I am to him for raising this subject. I appreciate how deeply he feels about it. I hope he will believe me when I say that I share his concern, because no family has been more the victims of this problem than my immediate family. I hope that he will continue to peg away. He will not find me resistant, but in criticising the Ministry because he feels that we have still a long way to go I hope he will not forget that already we have come a very long way in the post-war years.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Eleven o'clock.