Employment strategy: same old story

Employment strategy: same old story

The Government’s latest employment strategy to reduce the unemployment rate among disabled people is destined to fail because it repeats mistakes of the past, says Mike Oliver.

The Government has recently published its new disability employment strategy which calls for a more personalised approach to the issue of getting disabled people back into work. Many of the disability chattering classes seem to welcome this approach while raising doubts about the government’s willingness to implement it properly.

But what we should be saying is that this strategy is the same old approach that successive governments have been peddling since 1945 and it really is time that they and the disability chatterers moved on. After all, the current unemployment rate among disabled people is a national disgrace and a scandalous waste of the talent and skills that exist amongst the ranks of unemployed disabled people.

We need a radical solution and one has been available ever since the inception of the social model of disability. The solution focuses on the external barriers that prevent disabled people from getting work. So for the past 30 years we have known that the two main barriers have been the social organisation of work and the operation of the labour market.

The first of those is beginning to disappear thanks to new technology which facilitates a myriad new employment possibilities from flexitime through working from home and onto the decline in manual jobs. These have all made it easier for disabled people to get into work. So that leaves the main focus on the operation of the labour market.

Attempts were made as far back as the Employment Act (1944) to exert some control over the labour market by imposing a quota on employers. But it was never properly implemented because successive governments chose to try to persuade employers to operate within the spirit of the Act rather than to enforce the letter of the law.

This failed policy was exposed by the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People (CORAD) Report in 1983 when it called for government to force employers to change their behaviour rather than educate and persuade them to change their attitudes. Nothing much happened and in 1995 the Employment Act was replaced by the Disability Discrimination Act.

The Disability Rights Commission was established to oversee the implementation of this new legislation and it chose to stick to the old, failed approach of persuading and educate employers not to discriminate against disabled people. When I challenged this approach at one of the Commission’s lunchtime seminars, the then chief executive assured me that their approach would succeed and that within five years it would make a substantial impact on the unemployment rate among disabled people.

Being a gambler and knowing a good bet when I see one, I placed a wager of £50 with him that his strategy would continue to fail as it had in the previous 50 years. It did fail and continues to do so, hence the new paper from the government. Oh, and I’m still waiting for my £50.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that personal support for disabled people in work should be withdrawn. Far from it. Without that support I would not have managed to work for 35 years. But personal support should be an adjunct to social model employment policies and not a substitute for them.

The reality is that employment policies have palpably failed to ensure that disabled people get fair treatment in the labour market ever since the end of the second world war and the sooner governments and the chattering disability classes recognise this the better. But will they? Anyone want to bet?


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