It was Ed Miliband in his Hugo Young lecture earlier this year who set out the defining purpose of politics: reducing inequality. It’s a matter both of social justice and economic good sense: the more equal a country, the more successful it is across a whole range of indicators, as the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett has shown.
Under this government the need for a focus on inequality has become ever clearer, as the impact of coalition policies has borne particularly harshly on those who experience the greatest discrimination and disadvantage. Women, young people, those from ethnic minority backgrounds and disabled people have borne the brunt of the Tory led government’s policies. It will be Labour’s task to reverse this injustice.
A recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission laid bare the cumulative impact of government policy on different groups in society. Families with a disabled member fare particularly badly. Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. The employment rate of disabled adults is around 30 per cent below that of non-disabled working age adults, and progress under Labour to narrow the gap has stalled. Despite making up 1 in 6 of the population, disabled people are significantly underrepresented in public life, holding just 4% of public appointments. Most shamefully, they continue to suffer abuse and harassment because of their disability, with hate crime on the rise.
Too often, however, the approach to these inequalities is to focus on mitigating the impacts on disadvantaged individuals, rather than looking at why these barriers persist across society. As disability campaigners so often tell me, they want to participate – in the workplace, in public life, in their communities, but society places barriers in their way. This can be through a lack of accessible technology, public spaces that aren’t open if you happen to be in a wheelchair, or not being given appropriate information and support.
But while it goes without saying that disabled people must enjoy the same chances and opportunities as non-disabled people, and enjoy the same access to goods and services, reducing inequality isn’t simply a matter of improving processes, if disabled people nonetheless remain unequal. Our purpose must be to narrow the difference in outcomes experienced by disabled people and non-disabled people across a range of life experiences.
Perhaps the most striking example of the way we still haven’t caught up with the need to enable disabled people to participate on an equal footing relates to employment. Improving the employment experiences of disabled people was the top recommendation of the independent taskforce on breaking the link between disability and poverty, chaired by Sir Bert Massie. Of course, not all disabled people can work, and we must properly protect those who are unable to do so. But many could work, and would love to work, to have the opportunity to progress in their careers and develop their skills. Yet the present government’s policies to increase the employment of disabled people have proven an abject failure.
The government’s flagship work programme has got just one in 20 disabled people into sustained jobs, worse than if there wasn’t a programme at all. Access to work, which helps with adaptations to enable disabled people to function in the workplace is often described as government’s best kept secret, and ministers seems determined to keep it that way. We hear repeated reports of bureaucratic obstacles, lack of awareness among employers of the support that’s on offer, and a culture of refusal among officials rather than a willingness to help more disabled people in the workplace. Meanwhile half of former Remploy workers remain out of work two years after the factories in which they were employed were closed, and promises of funding and support have turned out to be hollow.
The right to work goes to the heart of what our party stands for, for disabled and non-disabled people alike. So we will implement policies to increase disabled people’s labour market participation. We’ve already said we will commission employment support at combined authority level rather than continue with the top down, centrally driven work programme that has so dismally failed disabled people. That will enable us better to connect disabled people to the job opportunities, support services and specialist providers that exist in the local area. And we will take action to promote access to work, and ensure it operates smoothly and effectively.
In the end, our policies will be judged on whether the gap in the employment rate between disabled and non-disabled people is reduced, and the employment experience of disabled and non-disabled people becomes more equal. That will be the measure of our success, and the goal that we must strive for.