People with Disabilities: Access to Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:15 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Llafur 1:15, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I join others in the Chamber in thanking my noble friend Lady Hughes for securing this debate, which has given us an opportunity to raise a whole range of matters that affect people with disabilities. No one took greater advantage of that than the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson; so many of the things she talked about, which many of us in the Chamber take as quite normal and natural to use, present challenges to people with disabilities. We are grateful to her for that hugely important contribution.

In Britain today, fewer than three in 10 people of working age with learning disabilities are in employment. That means that seven in 10 are denied the opportunity of an independent life and the sense of life-fulfilling achievement that work can bring. Businesses across Britain are denied the benefit, enthusiasm, skills and commitment of this group of our fellow citizens. And it is not as if we are not aware of this injustice. It has been on our agenda for decades; Governments, including the present Government, have genuinely committed to reducing the disability employment gap. In 2017, the Government set the goal of helping 1 million disabled people into work by 2027 and, to be fair, there has been progress as a result—but it is simply not enough.

A year earlier, in 2016, the National Autistic Society, of which I am a vice-president, an honour I share with my noble friend Lady Browning, produced a report on the autism employment gap. The image on the front cover bears the words:

“I’m not unemployable, I’m autistic”.

This image makes me despair because, despite the Government’s good intentions, millions of people with learning disabilities and autism are still without a job. No matter our ambition to make a seismic change to help disabled people into employment, people with learning difficulties and autism still find it hugely challenging. I passionately believe that the right to a life with a job—an opportunity to be independent and self-supporting—is a basic human right. Those who are denied that are being denied their human rights.

In February, the chair of the Autism All-Party Group, Sir Robert Buckland, published a most detailed review of the employment of people with autism. Robert was my Conservative opponent when I was elected to the other place in a by-election in February 1995, and I have nothing but admiration for his commitment to supporting people with autism. For me, the recommendations in the report can be summed up in one sentence that Robert wrote:

“These recommendations are mostly aimed at changing employer behaviour”.

For me, that is the essence of the challenge we face—changing employer behaviour. If we want to reduce the level of unemployment among people with learning disabilities and autism, we must change employer behaviour.

I have spoken to many businesspeople about this and in almost every case there is a willingness to help, but also a reluctance. “How will my staff cope with working with a person with a learning disability?” I am asked. “What if they don’t fit in?” “What support do I have to provide for them?” “Is there any financial support for me to help employ a person with a learning disability?” “Are there any examples of where employing a person with a learning disability has worked out?” These are perfectly reasonable questions—and, in answer to the last question, yes, there are good examples of employers who have employed people with learning disabilities. I will mention two.

The Fair Shot Cafe in Covent Garden is well worth a visit. It is a social enterprise charity that aims to change the lives of young adults with learning disabilities and autism. It offers a year-long hospitality programme, training skilled baristas and cafe assistants. The cafe is an accredited London living wage employer. At the end of the year, it finds paid employment for its graduates and continues to support those graduates and the employer for a further six months. Since it was set up in December 2021, 36 young adults have been trained and are now in employment. More than 10,000 hours of training are completed each year, and the Fair Shot Cafe has 15 employment partners dedicated to creating inclusive opportunities for people with learning difficulties and autism. Its 2023 impact report estimates that the employment programme it is offering has saved the taxpayer £210,000 in benefits; 80% of their employment partners state that they would now employ another neurodivergent person; 100% of the graduates report increased confidence and improved mental health; and, moreover, the Fair Shot Cafe has a 4.8-star rating on Google. To learn more, look at its website or, better still, go there, have a cup of coffee and find out for yourself.

The phs Group is the leading hygiene services and commercial cleaning services provider in the UK. I visited its headquarters in Caerphilly a while ago. With help from Hft, an amazing learning disability charity, it operates the Project Search scheme. It recruits interns with learning disabilities and autism and offers training, with a view to them gaining full-time employment in a job at the end. The company say it has been a most valuable experience. For the students, what is on offer is life-changing. The phs Group first became involved in the programme as an initiative to give back something to the local community. The company told me that, as the interns learn from phs staff, they in turn provide just as many opportunities for phs staff to learn, develop and understand the problems that people with learning disabilities and autism face. By becoming mentors, phs staff are learning new skills every day, as well as learning about disability in the workplace. They learn how to make reasonable adjustments and remove any barriers faced by the interns. The phs Group says that the scheme brings diversity of individuals and thought, and, as evidenced by how many interns it offers permanent roles afterwards, a fantastic team of people to its staff. The phs Group says it is a better business because of this project, and would recommend that all businesses look into providing more opportunities to students like those it employs.

We need more companies like these two to operate similar work chance schemes, and we need companies such as these to act as mentors to encourage other companies. I believe we need a nationwide scheme to make real progress, and a national strategy with a clear and achievable objective. That objective can be summed up in a sentence: it is to change employer behaviour.