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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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People who want to work

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

During the debate in the House of Commons on the Welfare Reform Bill Meg gave the following speech.


I want to concentrate on those people who want to work, but who, because of the prejudice of others or the lack of appropriate support, find it difficult to get into work at all. I will concentrate primarily on people with a learning disability, but many of the issues also apply to people with physical disabilities and people with health problems, including mental health problems


Mencap tells us that there are 800,000 people with a learning disability of working age in the UK. They are the disabled group most excluded from the work force and when they do work it is often for low pay and part-time hours. The estimated rate of employment for people with a learning disability is only 17% compared to 49% of disabled people as a whole and 74% for the working population. A study has shown that, in contrast to this low figure, 655 of people with a learning disability would like to work.


The Government have taken a lead on issues of equality and signalled that no one should be left out because they have a disability. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 was welcome because its emphasis was on what people could do and on allowing them to do it, rather than assuming that because a person might not be able to manage one aspect of their life they could not manage any other. The introduction of the disability equality duty—a requirement that public bodies promote the equality of disabled people both in the services they provide and in their employment practices—was also important.


As we are experiencing significant pressure on the economy and job losses, as many hon. Members have mentioned, it is easy to see how getting learning-disabled people into work might become a lower priority. But if we are serious about equality, we cannot allow that to happen. I welcome the focus in the Bill on helping disabled people. Clearly, many people will struggle to get jobs, so it will be important to have a realistic assessment of the skills—both work skills and life skills—that will increase the likelihood of employment. There needs to be consideration of the opportunities for learning and the development of skills that will be needed when the economic situation improves.


As I pointed out in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, much of the literature around this Bill refers to getting people back to work. Many disabled people may never have worked before, or their experience was a long time ago which means that the world of work is now entirely different. It is not therefore surprising that the proposals as they are portrayed in the media often frighten people who envisage that they are going to be forced into a situation in which they cannot cope. It is therefore essential that the promise of personalisation is real. To start with, we need to find better ways of describing what it means.


I understand how terms are developed to describe processes, but they can easily sound to ordinary people—and, indeed, to Members of Parliament—like a foreign language. Personalisation must mean giving people the help that they need in the way that they find most helpful. That might mean the use of advocates. Attention must also be paid to the process by which people are moved from invalidity benefit to employment support allowance, as it is likely to be a trigger point for anxieties.


I seek an assurance from the Minister that the regulations made under the Bill will be subject to consultation. Many people fear what this legislation might mean for them, and reassuring them that there will be opportunities for them and organisations that represent them to comment on regulations is one way in which the Government can lessen that fear.


I am pleased that the DWP has produced an easy-read version of the report on conditionality rules, although it is a long document. I would encourage the widespread advertisement of its availability and the selection of relevant bits, otherwise it is quite confusing. I also advocate the production of easy-read versions of other important documents, perhaps with leaflets that focus on particular issues that will affect learning-disabled people.


It is also important that safeguards are put in place to ensure that disabled people are not sanctioned inappropriately. Personalisation will mean nothing if advisers are not adequately trained to understand the needs of disabled people. For example, concern has been expressed about the provisions on failure to comply without “good cause”, and I seek assurance that “good cause” will include failure to understand what was expected or the lack of adequate support to enable a claimant to comply with the requirements.


Many people with learning disabilities who have had the support to enter and stay in work enjoy the positive aspects that we all experience, including a sense of purpose, self-esteem, financial reward, the social aspects and the opportunity to use the skills and abilities they have. But, as I said at the outset, for too many people that can mean low-paid or part-time jobs, so I urge the Government to ensure that there is real equality for people with learning disabilities. They should be able to work at not just any job, but one that they have both the skills and abilities to do and one that they aspire to do.


Support for employers can also be an essential part of taking on a new employee who has a disability, and this needs to be part of the work that is undertaken. I was pleased to see in the White Paper recognition that volunteering can be a legitimate and effective way for people to acquire work skills. In the right setting, someone who has not been in employment for some time or at all can use the opportunity to experience conditions akin to a work place, to learn new skills and to experience the disciplines of the working environment. I recently visited the charity Emmaus in Sheffield which has developed a social enterprise that helps homeless people with accommodation and work. They take volunteers, including adults with learning disabilities, to work alongside the residents and give them the opportunity to experience a productive working environment. That can be a useful and important step into paid employment.


My final point is that with such a low employment rate for people with learning disabilities, we are clearly a great distance from achieving equality. I urge Ministers to pay attention to the needs of those people when developing the systems set out in the Bill. Many people approach the issue from the standpoint of fear of the unknown, but it should rather be an opportunity to offer people with learning disabilities more help and support than they have ever had. May I urge the Government, in seeking to offer that support, to ensure that they draw on the experience of organisations that have extensive experience of such work and can show that they have supported people into meaningful long-term work? I urge the Government to recognise that such skills may be found in small local organisations and not just in larger organisations that may initially appear better equipped to bid for contracts. 

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