Last Updated: 03 July 2019
Created: 03 July 2019
North Swindon MP and Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Justin Tomlinson, has used his speech in response to an important debate on employment support for people with Autism, to highlight the vital cross-party work that helping to bring about real change.
In his role as the Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health, Justin has been working with MPs from all parties to improve employment support for people with Autism. Working with MPs from all sides, the Government has made real progress in improving the tailored support available. Justin was delighted to respond to this cross-party debate in which all sides agreed to work together. Particular thanks go to Marion Fellows, the MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, for securing this important debate.
Text of Justin's response to the debate
Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Justin Tomlinson): It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). She made a very well-thought-through, constructive and challenging contribution, with which—apart from perhaps the odd comment about the Government’s record—I wholeheartedly agree. I am not surprised at the quality of her speech, because I and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), were just commenting on how the hon. Lady is probably the most prolific Member on parliamentary questions in our Department and keeps us very active when we arrive at the office every day. There were four asks—I will cover all four—and it is a yes across all four. First, as a Government we are proud that there have been an additional 950,000 more disabled people in work in the last five years alone, and we hope to see a further 1 million by 2027. The hon. Lady is right that we do not currently record statistics on people with autism in the labour force survey. The National Autistic Society has done its own survey, and it has estimated that 16% of the 700,000 adults with autism are in work. We are now working with the Office for National Statistics so that we can make that part of the labour force survey. I would welcome that, as the Minister for Disabled People, and we are very much on that. Parliament often rallies round to raise the profile of cross-Government improvements that are needed to support people with autism. The all-party parliamentary group on autism has more than 200 cross-party members, and the Westminster Commission on Autism brings together senior parliamentarians and leading members of the autism community. There are also several national and local autism-supporting organisations, which are key stakeholders that support various Departments.
Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): I thank the Minister for giving way and for a very constructive response to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). Does he agree that it is extremely important that parliamentarians undertake the autism awareness training that the all-party parliamentary group has provided? I believe that more than 100 MPs have already done so. I was very pleased to do it. Does he also agree that MPs should undertake the Disability Confident training to ensure that they are Disability Confident employers?
Justin Tomlinson: The chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability has highlighted two incredibly important asks of all Parliaments and parliamentarians, and I wholeheartedly agree that they should all have that training, and that they should all sign up to Disability Confident. Many parliamentarians have done so and many enthusiastically support both those campaigns, but it does no harm to remind people that, even with busy diaries, that is incredibly important. The majority of the speech of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw focused on employment opportunities, so that is where I will start. In the jobcentres, we are grateful for the work of the Autism Alliance, which helped develop the disability toolkit, providing comprehensive information on autism and hidden impairments. We also now have the bite-sized autism awareness learning that jobcentres are looking at. From that, many examples of good practice have developed locally, which we are sharing across the jobcentre network. They include calm and quiet sessions for claimants.
We also have the disability passport, “About Me”, which encourages disabled claimants to disclose their disability and health conditions at an earlier stage. That improves communication, ensures reasonable adjustments in advance and allows individual challenges to be explained only once. That issue was clearly highlighted in the hon. Lady’s speech. We have done more intense training on autism and hidden impairments for 1,000 of our frontline staff to ensure that there is a high level of understanding in every jobcentre. We will continue to do that, and that was one of the hon. Lady’s asks. I would like to invite her to meet me and my team to look at that particular area so we can have confidence that we are doing everything we reasonably can in all jobcentres.
As part of our support for people who could be classed as being further away from the workplace, we have: universal credit personalised support, which could simply be signposting following the first conversation; moving on to the Work and Health programme; the personalised support package, which now includes 800 disability employment advisers and leaders; or the intensive personalised employment programme, which will be launched at the end of the year. The latter is highly personalised and tailored to the individual’s needs. That is important, because every autistic person experiences autism differently and many have complex needs or other conditions, such as a learning disability or a mental health condition, so the programme has to be tailored and personalised.
One of the best levers that we have as a Government is the Access to Work programme. Again, while we celebrate the fact that 33,800 people—a record number, up 13%—benefited from Access to Work last year, as with the labour force statistics, we cannot record autism. However, once that comes in to the labour force statistics, we will also have it within Access to Work. I know that it is not an exact comparison, but last year, there was an increase of 22% in claimants with a learning disability where there was a crossover. There was also a 28% increase in young claimants who benefit from the Access to Work scheme. That is important because Access to Work has only recently broadened out from simply supporting people with a physical disability or sensory impairments, and we have now stepped up significantly support for mental health, learning disability and autism.
However, it is a journey and we have a real commitment to go much further. We are working with organisations such as the Autism Alliance and Exceptional Individuals to ensure that our staff have specialist knowledge, so that when they talk to employers and the potential or existing employee about how we can provide support, we have the best knowledge of the available technology and the way in which support workers can help, particularly in the interview process. Probably the most powerful part of the hon. Lady’s speech was about interviews and adapting the interview process. I have employed disabled people. I understand that interviews are a strange old process, because they bear little relation to what happens next and generally everybody just claims to be very active at sport. The real question is how they will fit those roles. We talk to employers who are struggling to fill skills gaps about being a little bit smarter. Also, through the Access to Work programme, we can look at travel, which is important, particularly if people are anxious and would find public transport difficult. We will be doing far more.
We are looking to build evidence in this area. We are working with a supported business alliance—57 supported businesses across the country—to provide a greater level of additional support. In return, we can gather the evidence to see how we can break down the barriers and provide long-term sustainable opportunities with career progression.
Neil Gray: As had been said, I appreciate the constructive way in which the Minister is responding to the debate. Alongside the barriers that people with ASCs have to the workplace, they are also, sadly, more likely to be exploited. One of my constituents was affected by unpaid work trials in B&M Stores. In light of this debate, I wonder whether the Minister might consider the Government’s position to oppose the 10-minute rule Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) to ban exploitative unpaid work trials, so that people with autism and Asperger’s, such as my constituent, are not exploited in such a way again.
Justin Tomlinson: I am conscious of time, so I will have to look into the details. It is right that we absolutely have to do more to enlighten businesses of all sizes about the opportunities. Small changes and good practice can benefit not just individuals with autism, but the organisations that take them on.
This is my second time as Minister for Disabled People and I am very proud that, in the final few weeks last time, I was able to push through the opening up of disability apprenticeships, removing the need to get a grade C in GCSE maths and English for people who would qualify under the disability apprenticeship. That is an important way that we, as a Government, are trying to remove barriers, but we must look at providing additional support within the workplace to go beyond the interview, so that people have an opportunity to demonstrate their skills.
Through our Disability Confident campaign, which now has more than 12,000 businesses of all sizes signed up, we are looking to share best practice. I think we can go further than that, not just by recruiting more organisations to the Disability Confident campaign, but by looking at organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive. To a certain extent, that will help support the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray). It is very proactive in engaging with businesses on safety, so it is a given that the workplaces will have a safe environment. We are world-leading on this—other countries look to our expertise—but we need to do the same on health. That includes empowering small and medium-sized businesses in particular that do not have personnel or HR departments, so that they can have the skills and the confidence to make small, reasonable adjustments. That would be a win-win for all.
I had the pleasure on Friday, as part of Employability Day, of meeting employers and individuals who had overcome those barriers. That was transformational for those individuals who were enjoying the opportunity to contribute, and to the employers who had struggled to fill gaps and were now benefiting as an organisation.
Jim Shannon: I was just sitting here thinking about the best way of doing this. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) has made some suggestions. When it comes to organising training for the potential employer and the young person with autism, would the Minister consider using the influence of parents and families to enable the training process to be easier for the person who has autism as well as for the potential employer?
Justin Tomlinson: I agree. In all parts of accessing services and applying for jobs, having supportive individuals is a reasonable adjustment that a good employer, a good organisation and a good Government should take into account and should encourage.
In the final moments, I wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw. It is fantastic to see so many Members supporting an Adjournment debate. I think that is a recognition of the quality of the speech that was delivered on a really important topic. I think there is much agreement across the House and I would be very happy to meet further to discuss what more we can do. The Government are determined to make a real difference in this area. I am absolutely thrilled to see that there is cross-party support for that. Together, we will do everything we can to unlock every individual’s talent, so that everybody can benefit from the growing economy.