The government has set out its strategy to transform the lives of people with disabilities, but will anything change? Joanne Moseley and Hayley Bruce investigate.
On 28 July 2021, the government published a policy paper setting out its national disability strategy. It outlines a number of areas where improvements need to be made to help to transform the everyday lives of people with disabilities, including work and housing.
In the context of work, it reports that of the 7m working-aged people with a disability or long-term health condition, only 55% are in work. To improve this, the government plans to do the following:
1. Set out proposals to improve the support available to people with disabilities to help them to start or remain in work
This will mainly be driven via Job Centres.
2. Encourage employers to recruit, retain and progress employees who have disabilities
The government wants to create inclusive workplaces by reviewing its Disability Confident employer scheme, promoting the voluntary reporting framework and disseminating best practice guides to employers (which will be aimed at SMEs).
The Disability Confident scheme has been in place for several years. It supports employers to make the most of the talents people with disabilities can bring by “providing them with the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to attract, recruit, retain and progress disabled people in the workplace”. It also requires employers to commit to offering to interview people with disabilities that meet the minimum criteria for the job. The review will consider how well the interview requirement is working in practice and explore further ways of “encouraging” employers to progress through the scheme effectively.
Any changes to the scheme will be in place by the end of this year.
The Voluntary Reporting Framework was introduced in 2018. It was designed to help organisations to record and voluntarily report information on disability, mental health and wellbeing in their workplaces and was aimed at employers with at least 250 employees.
The government is “considering” making this type of reporting mandatory for large employers and will start a consultation to consider how employers can find out how many people in their organisation have disabilities and to consider what information they need to report and whether that information should be made public.
3. Strengthen workplace rights
The government also wants to “encourage” flexible working and “introduce carers’ leave”. These are not new proposals.
The 2019 Queen’s speech outlined the government’s plans to make flexible working the default position unless employers have a “good reason” not to. In 2019, it launched the Flexible Working Taskforce (a partnership across government departments, business groups, trade unions and charities to encourage employers to consider advertising jobs at all levels and pay grades as flexible). Then, in March this year, Liz Truss called on businesses to “normalise” flexible working by giving employees the option to work part-time, flexi-time, from home and via job shares. It also published new research that indicated that offering flexible working arrangements increases job applications by 30%.
The government has now said that it will launch a consultation by the end of the year on making flexible working the default position.
The government has previously pledged to introduce one week’s unpaid leave for carers to help those people who are informally caring for people with disabilities to balance this with their work commitments. The policy paper states that the government will set out the steps it intends to take to achieve this by the end of this year.
4. Transform the Access to Work Scheme
The Access to Work Scheme was designed to help workers with disabilities remain in work and provides grants to enable people with disabilities to obtain the equipment they need and, in some cases, to help them get to and from work.
The commitment is to fully digitalise the service and “radically improve employers’ and disabled people’s experience” of using it.
It will also introduce an “Access to Work Adjustments Passport” which will provide an “indicative overview for employers of the possible support available from Access to Work, which will help build employer understanding of disability and adjustments”. The DWP will pilot the passport this year with a view to rolling it out more widely at a later date.
In the context of housing, the government identifies that many people with disabilities wake up in a home that is not adapted to their needs.
The strategy considers itself a “wide-ranging portfolio of practical actions” cutting across departments to deliver an all-inclusive approach and comes after the government’s UK Disability Survey found 47% of disabled respondents report having at least some difficulty getting in and out of where they live. It also makes reference to the “English Housing Survey 2018 to 2019: Accessibility of English Homes”, which found that the proportion of homes in England with key accessibility features doubled between 2009 and 2018, but this still only amounts to 9%. The same survey found only one in 10 homes in England have at least one adaption for people with disabilities. Overall it is clear that, in terms of housing, there is still much to do.
The main questions are what can be done and is it being done quickly enough?
In terms of immediate actions, the government will boost the supply of housing for people with disabilities by raising standards for new homes, increasing affordable homes and improving the efficiency of local authorities in awarding Disabled Facilities Grants to adapt existing homes. This may impact developers that are in the process of securing planning permission and they will be asked to make more disabled-accessible properties.
However, the key will be to align the other parts of the strategy, for example by providing better access to employment so that people with disabilities can secure an income necessary to purchase a property. Without this alignment, there could be an abundance of suitable but empty properties and the same problems prevail.
As the cost of construction continues to increase, if developers are obliged to provide disability-friendly property at an additional cost, they will want to recoup that in the sale price. Property prices are continuing to increase and this may prevent people with disabilities from purchasing property.
There will also be geographical considerations. For example, if these properties are developed in city centres which are not equipped for people with disabilities to access transportation or are located away from the family or carer support that a person needs, they are again as useless as if the properties were not provided at all. The strategy does not provide details as to how these issues are to be addressed.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has committed that 10% of the homes built through the Affordable Homes Programme 2021-26 will be for supported housing. However, this is no change from when the programme was launched in December 2020. Furthermore “supported housing” is not solely for people with disabilities but includes a range of specific client groups, such as the homeless, people at risk of domestic violence and those with drug and alcohol problems.
There is also a promise to ensure the safety of people with disabilities in emergencies. Although the Grenfell Tower disaster was over four years ago, the ramifications are still being felt with cladding and fire safety issues still a main concern for property owners. The government has been criticised over the administration of its Building Safety Fund. If properties need to be adapted to ensure disabled residents’ safety, the question will again be asked, how is this to be paid for and, if this is through government funding, will the same difficulties be encountered?
In terms of the long-term objectives, the strategy makes reference to new guidance for local authorities, improving frameworks, new research, consultations and a new shared-ownership framework. Much of this work will be led by Eddie Hughes, who has been named ministerial disability champion for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
However, how these will translate into the everyday experiences and housing needs of people with disabilities is unclear. Many disability organisations and social housing providers have claimed that the strategy has missed the mark, some describing it as “a damp squib of a non-strategy”, with the promises of future change not enough to address the difficulties and disadvantages people with disabilities are facing today.
Will anything change?
Many of these changes could make a real difference to some people. But the majority are couched as “proposals”, “considerations” and “encouragement” and are unlikely to have any major impact unless they are backed up with legal requirements that employers, landlords and housebuilders have to follow.
Joanne Moseley and Hayley Bruce are practice development lawyers at Irwin Mitchell LLP. This article first appeared in Estates Gazette