HC Deb 10 December 1975 vol 902 cc459-68
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future of sheltered employment and of the quota scheme for disabled people. Statutory responsibility for sheltered employment is divided between central and local government and the consultative document published by the previous Administration in 1973 suggested that there would be advantages in a more unified system.

It is clear that there is no form of unification which would command sufficiently widespread support and the Government have, therefore, decided to retain the present statutory responsibilities. The Government are, however, anxious that the main policy aims set out in the document, which have commanded wide support, should be actively pursued and consider that this will be best achieved if the Manpower Services Commission takes over my Department's administrative and co-ordinating functions in this field. Arrangements for this transfer, to which the Commission has agreed, will be made as soon as possible.

The Commission will be taking steps to promote the closest co-operation between all those concerned with the provision of sheltered employment, to encourage its rehabilitative aspects and the more extensive provision of enclave arrangements and to review the priority suppliers' scheme.

The Government have decided that the quota scheme should be retained and have agreed with the Commission, which is already responsible for much of the scheme's administration, that it should, as soon as possible, take over full responsibility, including inspection and enforcement. The present quota percentage will be retained at least until the Commission has gained experience of administering the scheme and is able to put forward views on this issue.

This unification of functions under the Commission will, I am sure, be more satisfactory than the present division of responsibility between the Commission and my Department.

The Government believe that greater public knowledge of the quota position of individual employers is desirable and will be exploring the possibility of placing a statutory obligation on employers to make information about their quota positions publicly available. Meanwhile, figures for Government Departments will in future be published annually and other employers in the public sector will be asked to agree to similar arrangements.

I am asking the Commission to consider the issue of a code of practice on the employment of disabled people for the guidance of employers and also to consider, in the light of the lessons learnt from the recent programme of stricter enforcement of the quota in selected areas, what more can be done to bring home to employers the need to employ more disabled people.

At the same time the Government will themselves be taking steps to promote the employment of more disabled people in the Civil Service and will be asking other employers in the public sector to review their employment policies towards the same end.

I shall also be asking the Commission to introduce a scheme under which employers who modify their premises or install special or modified equipment to enable disabled people to enter or remain in their employment will be eligible for capital grants.

The National Advisory Council on Employment of Disabled People, to whose work I should like to pay tribute, will remain statutorily responsible to my right hon. Friend, but in practice most of its advice will need in future to be directed towards the Commission which will, therefore, be strengthening its already close relationship with the Council.

Mr. Hayhoe

On behalf of the Opposition I welcome the Government statement, particularly since it would be shameful at a time of record high unemployment if we did not pay especial attention to the employment prospects of the disabled. Am I right in saying that unemployment among the registered disabled is about double the national average? Does the Minister consider that the new administrative and co-ordination arrangements which he has announced will lead to a higher fulfilment of the quota scheme established under the 1944 Act?

Has the National Advisory Council on Employment of Disabled People been consulted about these new arrangements, and has it agreed to them? May I, on behalf of all hon. Members, wish the Manpower Services Commission well in the discharge of its new responsibility?

Mr. Walker

I thank the hon. Member for the welcome he has given to the statement. Certainly none of us can be satisfied with the unsatisfactory level of unemployment among the disabled. The position is even worse than the hon. Member suggested. I think the unemployment rate among the registered disabled is between 12½ per cent. and 13 per cent. But we can derive some small comfort from the fact that it has not risen nearly as sharply as for other people. Nevertheless, none of us can be happy with the high level of unemployment.

The National Advisory Council has been fully consulted all along. I do not pretend that the statement faithfully reflects its views on everything. It had different ideas about the level at which the statutory quota should be set. The hon. Gentleman will know the difficult obstacles to the higher fulfilment of the quota. Not least of those are some of the statutory provisions which prevent a more rigorous enforcement, and perhaps I have had to learn that the hard way over the last 18 months.

If we take the steps I have outlined, not least of which are the obligations for a fuller disclosure of statutory compliance, that will help. I am convinced that if only we can oblige employers to make the position clear to the public and to their workers, there will be some red faces and considerable pressure upon them to do better.

Mr. Ashley

My hon. Friend the Minister and I have exchanged some acrimonious words about this subject. Although I welcome the retention of the quota scheme and the constructive proposals he has put before the House, I feel that it is very late in the day to produce such phrases as "exploring possibilities" and "considering in the light of". Is he aware that the only solution to this scandalous problem of thousands of disabled people being unemployed is to require every employer to pay for his 3 per cent. quota whether or not he employs that quota? It is no good tinkering with the problem as my hon. Friend is doing. He must require the employers to pay, and then they will be asking disabled people to work for them rather than the other way round.

Mr. Walker

My hon. Friend is right to remind us that he has campaigned vigorously and robustly on these issues. This is not an area where, as my hon. Friend suggests, there are ready answers. The problems are more easily identified than they are solved. The proposals he has put forward have been carefully examined by the National Advisory Council.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

I welcome the proposals which are continuing the work of successive Governments, as the Minister was generous enough to point out. I do not quarrel with the retention of the quota scheme, although that was not in our original proposals. Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance in seeking higher fulfilment, which I entirely support, along with the new obligation on employers to publish their quota, that this will be achieved by the employment of more disabled people and not by forcing those who are not registered to register?

Mr. Walker

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I welcome his remarks. He was right to point out that one of the consequences of more rigorous enforcement and of some of the other ideas which have been properly pursued may be not the employment of mon disabled people but more disabled employees being registered. That would be unhelpful. The objective must be to try to get more disabled people into jobs.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Is my hon. Friend aware that he has given a pleasant hostage to fortune to myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) in the sense that he has made promises to us. We shall be chasing him to make sure that he fulfils those promises. When I say "he" I do not mean him personally, because I know that the Minister's heart is in the right place on this issue. Does he agree that, basically, technology can assist severely disabled people to earn a living and to pay income tax? What we need is back-tip support from the Department. We should also be thinking in terms of employment for those who want it whether it be in the home, in sheltered workshops, or in open employment.

Mr. Walker

I am not quite sure which hostage I have given to fortune. I must qualify what I said about direct financial incentives for employment. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, who has special responsibility for the disabled, is proposing to issue a discussion document in the New Year, in consequence of last year's White Paper, in which this whole idea will be more thoroughly explored.

Mr. Marten

May I join in the general welcome for what the Minister said, and recognise his own personal interest in this matter? Will the Minister ask the Manpower Services Commission to take a look at a proposal which I made but which was turned down? I suggested that the Queen's Award for Industry should be given only to those firms which fulfilled their quota. I believe that it was turned down merely because there had been a recent review of the system, which will not be looked at again apparently until 1980. That is going too far. Can we not have a special review of this point now?

Mr. Walker

I was aware that the hon. Member had pursued this idea. We had two ideas in relation to awards. One was, as he has described, to use the Queen's Award for Industry to put pressure on employers. The Queen's Award for Industry Committee recently looked at the idea and turned it down. I was not aware that we shall have to wait until 1980 before the system is reviewed again, and if there is scope for the Manpower Services Commission to seek to reopen the question I shall draw that to the Commission's attention. Our other idea for a separate award scheme was looked at by the National Advisory Council, which was not at all enthusiastic about it.

Mrs. Bain

I welcome the moves announced by the Minister although some of us believe that they do not go far enough. With the transfer of responsibility to the Manpower Services Commission, will there be an extension of financial resources to increase training facilities for the disabled, because in many areas these are sadly lacking? Will the Minister indicate what percentage increase he envisages in the numbers employed by the Government and the Civil Service?

Mr. Walker

I would be unwise to try to guess an answer to the hon. Lady's latter question. Like her and, I am sure, the whole House, I hope that this move will result in an increase in the numbers, with more Government Departments complying with the 3 per cent. requirement.

The Training Services Agency identified the priority areas for training in its five-year plan. It did not include in its priorities the need for training disabled workers, but it is carrying out a review with the intention of giving a high place in its priority lists to the needs of disabled workers.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that he will ensure that Government Departments become active in this respect. Could he say to what extent the Government Departments at the moment have a shortfall in their quota? Will he either now or in the Official Report give details of the extent to which the higher Civil Service is taking up its quota? I have in mind particularly those Government Departments concerned with clerical and administrative higher grade work. I am told that there are very few physically disabled among the top civil servants, who, by the way, receive very high retirement pensions.

Mr. Walker

I am not sure that I can usefully comment on or constructively take up the latter part of my hon. Friend's question. I have no figures at present which indicate the distribution of disabled persons throughout the Civil Service, and I am not sure that they can be made avaliable without disproportionate and very expensive efforts.

On the more general point that my hon. Friend raised about compliance by Government Departments, we published some details in reply to a Written Question recently. I regret that I cannot give the date offhand, but my hon. Friend will find all this in Hansard. I am aware that a number of Government Departments are not complying and they are under considerable pressure to comply. As I have said, we shall now publish the figures annually so that if people want to point a critical finger they will be at liberty to do so. I feel I ought to say that we should make sure that our own house is in order, and I mean that in the most literal way. The returns of Parliament itself make very depressing reading indeed, and I hope the House will look at its own record in this respect.

Mr. Burden

I believe that there is a great deal of compassion in the country for the disabled but that there is an unawareness of the extent to which they could be helped. Will the hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of advertising or devising a television programme similar to the driving programme sponsored by the Department of the Environment, drawing the attention of employers to the need to help the disabled and also acquainting employers with the fact that they can obtain a list of disabled people in their areas from the local authority? This might be helpful.

Mr. Walker

I welcome the general tenor of the hon. Gentleman's approach. We in this House should make clear that the stigma which is sometimes attached to disabled people is wholly undeserved and that, indeed, in the great majority of occupations they can perform as well as, and in some cases better than, persons who are not disabled.

I will consider the suggestion for wider advertising, but the hon. Gentleman will, no doubt, understand the constraints within which the Government are working at present. Nevertheless we shall consider that point.

Mr. George

Will my hon. Friend say what steps have been taken to promote the employment of disabled persons in the public sector? Will he also explain the reference to the priority supply scheme, of which I know nothing? Will the result of the surveys about quota compliance in the six areas, of which Walsall was one, be published? Can my hon. Friend say also whether the derisory number of prosecutions of firms and public bodies will be increased as a result of this new initiative?

Mr. Walker

I will try to take those questions in order. I have already mentioned what the Government are doing in connection with the various Departments. The Civil Service is undertaking an extensive review of employment policies in connection with disabled people in the Civil Service. The nationalised industries and the National Health Service, on which the Under-Secretary of State for Social Services who is responsible for the disabled made a public announcement recently, will be asked to undertake similar steps. The local authority associations will be consulted about the publication of similar figures and about the best way to encourage a similar review of employment policies among local authorities.

With regard to the priority supply scheme, this is an arrangement under which sheltered workshops and factories are given a certain degree of preference when contracts are placed by Government Departments. Nationalised industries and Government Departments are encouraged to take part in these arrangements. We are asking the Commission to review the scheme with the National Advisory Council with the objective of seeing whether more disabled persons can be placed with the sheltered workshop factories.

With regard to the areas selected for more rigorous enforcement last year. I am not sure whether in its present form the report would be suitable for publication. Perhaps my hon. Friend will leave the matter with me and I will see whether we can respond to his suggestion.

On the point about prosecutions arising from that exercise with the six areas, we recently had two prosecutions. That may not seem very many, but much more has been done in recent years and in more areas. Indeed, I have been called a bureaucratic madman.

Mr. Hannam

Is the Under-Secretary aware of a major new threat to the employment of disabled people through the implementation on 1st January of the legislation relating to fire precautions in offices, shops and factories? Will the hon. Gentleman discuss with the appropriate Minister in the Home Office the best means of avoiding the turning away of many disabled people if the Act is implemented in its present form?

Mr. Walker

There may be a problem here, but I think it is easy to exaggerate it. Certainly I will undertake the consultation for which the hon. Gentleman asked. I hope that the capital grants scheme which I have announced will enable employers to overcome some of the difficulties which that legislation may create.

Mr. Craigen

Is the Under-Secretary aware that the proposed new rôle of the Manpower Services Commission will be generally welcomed by those involved in the Scottish Blindcraft workshops as being in line with their own representations to him last year? Could he give an indication of the extent to which his Depart- ment has encouraged local authorities and other public bodies to allocate contracts with those engaged in sheltered workshops?

Mr. Walker

My hon. Friend will be aware of the statement I have just made about the review of the priority supply scheme. That is relevant to his question. Of course, he is quite right to remind me that the proposal to transfer the responsibility to the MSC found support in Scotland, not only in the area to which he referred but also among the local authorities generally.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard the Minister's statement. In the knowledge that for many years—30 years, I believe—you have been interested in helping the disabled, may I ask you whether you took note of the Minister's reply to a question about the situation in Parliament? In so far as it affects your personal responsibilities, and knowing your influence with other Departments which may not come under your own direct control, may I ask you to exert pressure in order to put right the situation which the Minister has mentioned?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member. I had noted what the Minister said.