HC Deb 21 December 1982 vol 34 cc922-8

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

10.2 pm

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State was the opening speaker at a conference called by the Disablement Income Group and the Industrial Society to launch a research report by Diana Robbins called "The Chance to Work". What struck me about this unusually valuable report was its bias towards the practical and the attainable.

I raise this subject to find out what has happened since September. I emphasise the words "practical and attainable". I fully understand the drive of DIG and others towards the far-reaching solution to the difficulties of the disabled both at home and at work. As a result, they persevere with campaigns for a national disability income or a disablement cost allowance. Some are now moving in the direction of more anti-discrimination legislation on the lines of race or sex.

I am not seeking to argue the case for global solutions. Anti-discrimination legislation is, in my view, undesirable and unlikely to achieve the expected effect. Other ideas such as the national disability income are at the present time not practical politics. Concentration on such matters carries with it the danger that is always before us—that the pursuit of the best prevents us from doing something worthwhile in the meantime. I narrow my gauge and ask whether there are practical ways in which we can help tackle the sad problem of unemployment among disabled people.

In September, the figure for disabled registered unemployed was about 76,000, about 17 per cent. of the disabled registered. Others not registered will swell that number.

If we are honest, we must recognise that there will always be a higher proportion of disabled people unemployed than in the population generally. It is a waste and a cruelty if this disproportion is not cut to a minimum. Never is this more important than in times of recession. It is bad enough being able-bodied in a recession and to face the continuous fear or experience of unemployment. How much more depressing it is to share this general problem with the added burden of disablement.

It is important to emphasise that what we should seek is not preferential treatment for disabled workers but a fair opportunity in good times and bad to bring them a little closer to the position enjoyed by the fully fit worker.

The disabled face a number of hurdles in their pursuit of work, and each hurdle takes slightly more effort to overcome and provides a little more temptation, or weariness, to settle back and opt out. That wastes much talent and is destructive of both the disabled themselves and their contribution to the community.

The report to which I have referred provides a number of sensible, down-to-earth approaches to some of these hurdles. It contains a survey of the views of employers. They are not out-of-touch politicians or representatives of vested interests but employers who received an award from the MSC's fit for work scheme. They had met the practical challenges of employing disabled people and knew the problem at first hand. Their suggestions were not grandiose. They did not want new legislation or large grants. Instead, they wanted some sensible modifications where they thought that they would be useful and, above all, they wanted the MSC to pay attention to the detail and to the local situation.

I begin with that point because it lies within the Minister's area of influence. The disablement resettlement officer has a central role to play in contact and understanding, but essentially, it is a local role. The MSC is in a similar position. If training, rehabilitation and links between schools and employers are to reflect the local circumstances in which the disabled are to function, the responsibility must fall on the MSC.

Such responsibility applies not only to the schemes that are specifically designed for the disabled but also to remembering the disabled in schemes that have a wider purpose for everyone. It was gratifying that when considering the youth training scheme the MSC has recognised that disabled young people may come on to the labour market later than other youngsters. It has therefore allowed such young people to come in above the age of 16 or 17. I also believe that those disabled young people can stay in the scheme for longer than 12 months. That is a valuable approach, and I urge that other schemes, such as the community programme or the job-splitting scheme, be operated with the same attitude of mind.

The report outlined a number of specific points made by the employers. The MSC provides grants of up to £6,000 to help towards the adaptation of employers' premises to enable them to take on disabled persons. Only a small proportion of employers have used that scheme, partly because good companies undertake such adaptations, about which I am pleased. Another difficulty is that it is necessary to have taken on a named disabled person to qualify for grant.

Would it not be sensible and relatively inexpensive to make such grants available before the employment is undertaken, so that the premises can be made ready and some of the employers' worst worries removed? That would encourage employers to take on disabled persons.

The employers commented on the job introduction scheme which provides grants of £40 a week for the first eight—or in exceptional cases—13 weeks of the placement of a disabled worker in a new job. I believe that attempts at refinement of these schemes can create more problems than they solve because the bureaucracy becomes more burdensome than the rough justice of the scheme. I therefore understand the reluctance to deal with this matter.

However, the employers felt that they would benefit from a more flexible administration of this scheme. Would it not be possible to tailor the scheme's operation more to the particular needs of individual workers? It is quite clear that some need longer periods of adaptation and training than others. Is it not possible for the scheme to operate in a more flexible manner?

Third, although the scheme involves a payment to the employee, not to the employer, there were comments about minor changes in the MSC's fares to work scheme. Unlike the mobility allowance, help with fares is available to people who are only partially immobile on their way to work. They can claim three quarters of the cost. It sounds generous, but when taxis are the only reasonable means of travel, even one quarter of a large bill can be a big disincentive. Some people argue that any fares are the last straw for people who already have the additional costs that are associated with disability. I do not take that view. Fares to work are a major problem among low wage earners in general. To cover all fares would be a most expensive commitment. However, for those who cannot rely on the normal public services and have to rely, for example, on taxis, cannot we look again at the reimbursement that we make because some of the sums involved are very large?

Before I come to the fourth matter that I want to raise on the report, I want to mention one small point which I hope that the Minister can clear up, and which frankly, I did not understand. The report claims that a significant number of disabled people believe that they will lose their attendance allowance if they work, and they are not always disabused of that belief by the DHSS officials. My understanding is that they would not lose the attendance allowance, and I hope that the Minister will clarify the matter.

Finally, I come to the report's main recommendation. It sets out the central issue in the words quoted from the Pearson Commission: It seems to me that the time has come to consider extending the invalidity benefit provisions in the United Kingdom so as to end the disparity of treatment between the person who is totally incapacitated and the person who is capable of work. The proposition that a person is either ill and incapable of work or fit and able to work is inherently absurd and belies common observation. Difficulties of travel, a tendency to get tired, mental strain and progressive disorders can be daily observed as distinguishing those who can work a little from the rest of us who can do a full day's work. For years, many people have tried to get some payment for partial disability to top up earnings from part-time work.

The report is fair in its analysis of the evidence. I shall not go through it all now. Among other things, it confirms that the system that we operate in this country, without a partial disability scheme, does not necessarily leave the disabled person in a worse position than people in countries where there is such a scheme. The benefits structure is so complicated that one cannot make a generalisation of that kind. It makes it clear also that the evidence available to us in assessing these matters is patchy, and that therefore more should be sought.

Nevertheless, I want to press on my hon. Friend one suggestion, because it seems to make sense. If a disabled person is thought to be able to benefit medically from doing some work, he is allowed to do therapeutic work. "Therapeutic" is defined, in effect, as work that brings in less than £20 a week, although that is not its official definition. In practice, if not in theory, such work has ceased to be part of therapy, and the £20 is widely regarded as an earnings limit. That is not altogether bad, as in most circumstances both society and the disabled person would benefit from his increasing participation in the world of work. However, it would help if we were substantially to raise the therapeutic earnings limit, and then wait to see what happens.

If there is a substantial increase in the work for the partially disabled, that will surely be a good thing. On the other hand, if we find that that is not the case we shall have gone some way towards a better assessment of the problem. To increase the limit will not necessarily cost a lot of money. If we raise the earnings limit for retirement pensioners, the Treasury stands to lose tax revenue. However, if we raise the therapeutic earnings limit the people who earn more might be contributing more tax and all that we shall be losing—if that is the right word—is the notional value of the pensions or the payments no longer made for people who go over the limit. Therefore, this is a scheme which we could undertake which would have a considerable benefit for disabled people, helping us to ease them more into work.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to discuss with his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Health and Social Security the possibility of raising the therapeutic earnings limit to, say, £50 and to report back to the House. I have put to my right hon. Friend four specific points—earlier payment of capital grants to employers; greater flexibility in the job introduction scheme; changes in the fares to work scheme; and an increase in the therapeutic earnings limit. We all know that that will not solve the problem. There is no solution in that sense. We must keep pegging away at making improvements where we can. Those matters in the report which my right hon. Friend supported when it was launched are worth consideration and I am simply asking tonight whether he can give them a gentle shove.

10.16 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Alison)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this short debate on the important topic of the employment needs of the disabled. The concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silverster) is well known, not only in the House but among his constituents.

There is general agreement that improving the employment prospects of disabled people must remain a priority for our society. The sad fact is that disabled people, alas, cannot be isolated as a group from the effects of the recession. High levels of unemployment are affecting all groups in our society and almost all other industrialised countries. Unemployment among disabled people has increased in the last few years—my hon. Friend gave some figures—though, I am glad to say, not as rapidly as the rate of unemployment generally. Both the Government and the Manpower Services Commission are committed to maintaining the level of assistance which is provided for disabled people and the commission operates a wide range of services and special schemes to help such people into jobs.

A great many disabled people are helped to find work each year through their local jobcentre where there are special disablement resettlement officers, as my hon. Friend knows. More than 35,000 disabled people found jobs in that way in 1981–82. About 16,000 people a year attend rehabilitation courses and more than 4,000 disabled people a year complete training courses for open employment. In addition, practical and financial assistance is available to both disabled people and their employers through a variety of special schemes run by the MSC. My hon. Friend has touched on some of them.

Under the job introduction scheme which my hon. Friend mentioned, employers who recruit certain disabled people can be paid £45 a week for a trial period. The aim of this scheme is to encourage employers to give disabled people an opportunity to prove their suitability for the job. I noted what my hon. Friend said about the flexibility of administering the scheme ad I shall certainly reflect on that. Assistance may also take the form of help with the cost of travel to work, and my hon. Friend commented on that; or of adaptations to employers' premises to improve access or to ensure that the work environment does not place disabled people at an unfair disadvantage. My hon. Friend questioned whether we might not do a little pre-emptive work there rather than contemporaneous work. Again, I shall certainly reflect on that. Finally, it may take the form of the issue of special aids to help disabled people to do a particular job of work.

But it is becoming more and more evident that it is not just the number of jobs available for disabled people that is important but the prospects open to them when they are in jobs. For that reason, we are committed to promoting equality of opportunity for disabled people once they are in work—by influencing employers' attitudes regarding the quality of jobs available, by encouraging employers to provide suitable training and career development opportunities for disabled employees and by focusing employers' attention on the benefits of retaining newly disabled employees, who have become disabled when they are on the job, as well as recruiting unemployed disabled people.

The Disablement Income Group's report to which my hon. Friend has referred also directed itself to the task of improving the quality and availabity of jobs for disabled people. I was very pleased to be asked to speak on the occasion of the launching of the report, which was organised jointly with the Industrial Society. Joint approaches between voluntary organisations and industry of this kind are very important. They offer the prospects of the sort of improved understanding and co-operation that can only benefit the cause of disabled people.

Much of the report is about the system of social security payments that are paid to disabled people. My hon. Friend has made a number of interesting points and has raised one or two questions on that subject. He noted that the answers to the questions that he raised must lie with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I have noted carefully the points that he made. I shall see that they are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend. Either he or I will write to my hon. Friend on specific points of detail about variations in social security payments.

I know that the DHSS has acknowledged the force of the case for helping disabled people with permanently reduced capacity and those who are planning a gradual return to work. However, apart from extra benefit cost, we must recognise that any scheme involving a more complicated medical and occupational assessment that the present so-called "sick of fit" system, to use the DIG' s description, would call for additional administration and medical staff. However, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has many of those problems under consideration.

My hon. Friend mentioned our new job-splitting scheme. It will be relevant to disabled people who want part-time work. Under the scheme, which will come into effect in January, a grant will be paid during the first year to employers where the spliting of a job results in the recruitment of an unemployed person who is claiming benefit. It is widely recognised that part-time work can be of particular worth to disabled people, and we shall want to make sure that employers and disabled people themselves are aware of the existence of the scheme, which will be widely advertised in any case. To ensure that as many as possible participate, the full range of the MSC assistance, such as special aids and adaptations to premises, will be made available for part-time jobs as well as the normal full-time jobs. My hon. Friend made a valuable suggestion about how we might administer the job-splitting scheme vis-a-vis disabled people. I take note of that and will reflect on it.

The final part of the Disablement Income Group's report, on what employers want from Government, is particularly relevant to the central issues concerning the employment of disabled people. The comments in the report on MSC policies and services are thought-provoking. I was particularly interested to see the views that employers expressed in the study. So much of our policy in this area is directed at encouraging employers to adopt the sort of policies that will be of most help to disabled people, and I am very much aware of the importance of their views on those policies.

The studies were, of course, on a fairly small scale, but we and the MSC have certainly taken note of the suggestions—and will consider them sympathetically within the ambit of resources available to us. In this context, a number of important reviews of MSC services have been undertaken or are underway to ensure that the best possible use is made of the resources that we have. For example in 1979, the MSC undertook a wide-ranging review of its employment rehabiliation services. As a result, six experiments have been mounted to investigate alternative methods of providing rehabilitation to meet the needs of disabled people as effectively as possible.

More recently the MSC has carried out a major review of its other assistance to disabled people. Its report was published last month and has been widely circulated to interested parties for their comments.

This latter review provides a framework for the reorganisation of the commission's services for disabled people. It intends to provide what it thinks—I think that it is right—will be a more effective service for disabled people and their employers by a programme for concentrating the specialist advice provided by MSC disablement resettlement officers on that smaller number of people—for example, blind people, paraplegics and the newly disabled—whose need for assistance is pressing and specialised.

The more general employment service will be developed and strengthened to provide the placing service for those disabled people whose problems are not significantly different to those of able-bodied clients. However, although they do not need specialist help they may need extra help and that will be provided at the jobcentres.

As a result of the review, the Manpower Services Commission will also be introducing special teams, with the particular task of improving contacts with employers to help develop their policies and to increase the opportunities for disabled people at work. The teams will provide specialist advice and support and promote interest and awareness among existing and prospective employers of disabled people.

I have already referred generally to the range of Manpower Services Commission services and schemes designed to promote the employment prospects of disabled people. There are one or two particular aspects of the programme about which I should like to say a few words tonight. The first is a new personal reader service for visually handicapped people which was introduced as recently as October. Under the provisions of this scheme, the MSC contributes towards the costs of engaging a reader for up to 15 hours a week. That contribution can be made available for up to two years depending on individual requirements. It has been estimated that some 900 blind or partially-sighted people may be eligible to benefit immediately from the provision of that service. I welcome the development of that service.

A second area of provision that I should like to mention now, because it reflects the approach of the DIG report, is the allowances payable to assist disabled people who cannot use public transport with the additional expenses incurred in travelling to work. It was a point made trenchantly by my hon. Friend in his speech. The fares to work scheme can help towards the transport costs incurred. Help under the scheme can be made available to disabled people already receiving mobility allowances.

I note what my hon. Friend said about the impact of taxi fares and the considerable initial inertia that the disabled person has to overcome and the hindrance placed in his way by expensive fares. The fares to work scheme is important and my hon. Friend's comments will be carefully noted.

The MSC will also need the full co-operation of employers, particularly in running the new youth training scheme, which my hon. Friend mentioned, which is being launched to equip all young people for work. The Government and the commission agree that it is vitally important for employers to give young disabled people every opportunity to take part in the youth training scheme. The MSC will give guidance and training to sponsors to help them make the most of the positive opportunities of young disabled people.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this subject. All hon. Members want to do what they can to promote the employment prospects of disabled people. I have spoken tonight of the range of services and, in particular, some new developments which are designed to contribute to that objective. Of course there is always room for improvement. We and the Manpower Services Commission are ready to listen to new ideas, and in a number of areas, as I have shown, new ideas and arrangements are being tried out. My hon. Friend has put forward a number of further interesting proposals along these lines which I shall note carefully.

It is important to be realistic about what is possible, at least in the short term. Until the British economy has been restored to competitive health and the world recession has ended, this country will continue to suffer severe unemployment problems. I am afraid that this will affect all groups in the economy. Moreover, the resources that can be made available for this or any other programme are not unlimited. As I have said, however, both we and the MSC are committed to maintaining the level of assistance provided to disabled people.

I hope I have made it clear that we are actively looking for ways to use resources more effectively, and indeed, to bring in new services where we can. Employers' attitudes and actions will, however, remain the key to success in making employment opportunities available to disabled people and we shall continue to give every encouragement to employers to give disabled people a chance to show what they can contribute.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.