The disability employment gap: ambitions vs targets

The Conservative Party’s manifesto last year promised many things, but few people expected the Party would be in a position to deliver on them without compromise. Cast your mind back to before the general election. You may recall that everyone was becoming an expert on seat calculations and what constitutes a viable, working majority for a government. Well the electorate said otherwise and the Tories’ outright majority caught all onlookers by surprise, not least Cameron’s frontbench. Now they had to implement the manifesto he was expecting to bargain chunks away in coalition negotiations.

Of the many expected and true blue elements of the manifesto, there was also an ‘ambition’ to halve the disability employment gap (the difference in employment rates between disabled and non-disabled people). Many may be surprised by this pledge, expecting it in other parties’ manifestoes, but this very progressive, pro-disabled people promise was offered by the Conservatives, with the other main parties offering less ambitious pledges.

Halving the gap is a monumentally large task given the figures. By the end of 2015 80.3% of non-disabled people aged 16-64 were employed; while for disabled people this was 46.7%. This means that for the Government to match its ambition it needs to get a further 1.2million disabled people into work. Given the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted in 2015 that there would be approximately 900,000 more people in employment by the end of this parliament in 2020, then each of those jobs needs to be taken by a disabled person and that would still leave the Government 25% short of its ambition. This demonstrates why it was an ‘ambition’ and not a target.

This demonstrates some of the double-speak of manifesto language. A target is something journalists and campaigners can throw back at you if you miss it – just ask George Osborne about his deficit targets – whereas an ambition is a something to aim for and can at least claim credit for trying. However, there still needs to be a plan and, to date, the Government can be accused of being long on talk and far shorted on action. Indeed, campaigners have called this ambition into question when elements of the Personal Independence Payment package – which helps disabled people with their mobility and hence getting to their place of work – were threatened with cuts, leading to Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation as Work and Pensions Secretary, and a screeching U-turn by the Chancellor. This, coupled to significant cuts to funding for the next iteration of the Work Programme; the Work and Health Programme which the Local Government Association decried in November 2015, has left the disability community in pessimistic mood.

Against this background, the same question remains: how to tackle this huge employment rate gap?

The Government has promised a Green Paper by the end of 2016 with policy suggestions for public consultation, and various policy shops have put forward their own thoughtful ideas, such as the Resolution Foundation’s report this week, ‘Retention deficit – a new approach to boosting employment for people with health problems and disabilities’. This report sets out some interesting options to tackle this gap, ranging from ways to support people into work as well as helping them retain their jobs. However, without the budget behind them even the most innovative policy solutions will struggle to succeed, and since the general election this Government is yet to provide evidence it will grant the money to disability employment policies to even get close to this ambition. So we wait on the Green Paper, the White Paper that follows and then policy pledges which flow from them, while cutting the disability employment ambition remains very much that: an ambition as far from being realised as it has ever been.