Disabled People and Economic Growth

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Bim Afolami: I thank Dr Cameron for securing this Backbench Business debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Julia Lopez, who is not just an hon. Friend but an actual friend.

Lindsay Hoyle: We are all friends.

Bim Afolami: We are all friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster made a powerful speech and stole at least half the things I was going to say.

People often ask, “Why did you go into politics?” I am sure we are all asked that, and we all have many reasons for going into politics, not just one. The most important reason I am in politics is to enable everybody to use their God-given talents, whatever they are, in the best way they can to contribute for themselves, for their family, for society and for the country. That is why I am in politics. People with disabilities are fully included in that, which is why this debate and this subject are of critical importance.

There will be those who say that many disability benefits should be more generous, and in some ways they probably should be. I know that the Minister, who truly and strongly believes in this brief, and Treasury Ministers will always do whatever they can to make sure appropriate resources are in place to help those who need them. But let us not kid ourselves. The subject of this debate is economic growth. What is important for people’s well-being and their lives is the opportunity to make the most of themselves in a professional, work, career capacity. That is crucial. Although benefits are important, we also need to do everything we can to get everybody who has a disability into appropriate work, where possible. That is what I regard as the heart of social mobility.

We often talk about social mobility in this House, in many different ways; we talk about it in debates about education, higher education, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We talk about it all over the place. The way we usually talk about it is by discussing an individual who has come from a poor background but overcome the odds to achieve something fantastic and get to the top of a profession. We should celebrate that—it is what Britain is about—but social mobility is more fundamental: it is about ensuring that our society uses the skills and innate talents of those with and those without disabilities to their fullest. That is true social mobility. It allows everybody the ability to use their God-given talents and make the most of their lives.

Where are we now from a policy perspective—from a governmental perspective? The Conservative party manifesto in 2017, which I read carefully—that is a good thing for a new candidate to do—stated:

“We will get 1 million more people with disabilities into employment in the next ten years.”

By my calculations we need to raise the number of people with disabilities in employment to about 4.5 million over the next 10 years in order to achieve that target. That would mean a growth of almost 30% on the current level. I think we would all agree in this House that that is a big task. The Government and my party are very focused on that—indeed, I suspect we will find that Members from across the House agree on it.

In November 2017, the Government set out a 10-year plan to improve the situation and to deliver on that manifesto pledge. I am sure the Minister will elucidate further on the plan and where the Government are with it. Its main thrust appeared to be linking up the welfare system, the workplace and healthcare. As has been alluded to in the debate, it was particularly about bringing in new technologies, especially assistive ones, to help to turbocharge the growth we have been gradually seeing, so that people with disabilities can enter the workplace.

A 5% rise in employment among people with disabilities would bring an increase in GDP of £23 billion, with tax revenues up by about £5 billion to £6 billion. That is a considerable amount. Research by Scope, the disabled charity, has found that 58% of disabled people have felt at risk of losing their job because of their impairment or condition. It is clear to me, and probably to most, if not all, Members of this House, that we need to work much more closely and intensively with employers to drive change.

Several decades ago, many employers did not like to employ women. What happened over time was that this House, working with employers and through legislation, helped to drive change. A few decades ago, we did not find people who looked like me or like the Opposition Front Bencher, Marsha De Cordova, in this place or in the other place, and several employers did not like to employ people of ethnic minorities. What happened was that this House, through legislation and by working closely with employers, helped to drive change. Now the time has come for those with disabilities to get much better access to employment opportunities. The Government need to work with employers, along with the legislation that is already in place, to help to drive change.

Disability Confident is a good scheme, which is welcomed generally across the business community, in government and in civil society, but we can go further. The Government should bear in mind the huge gains to be made—not only the economic ones, but the gains in terms of the life chances and economic potential of this huge group of people.

The Government need to work further on two main things to help to drive this change and this turbocharge. The first is to financially incentivise, perhaps through the tax system or in another way, employers to take on more people with disabilities, especially in industries where today they may not typically be found. For that to happen appropriately—businesses tell me this when I have the discussion with them—we need to be able to have a much better understanding of the different capabilities of different people with disabilities, so that we can make sure that we match the right employment opportunities with the right people. That is critical. If we do that properly, in combination with proper incentives for business, we will be able to see a huge increase in this area.

Once more people with disabilities not only get into the workplace, but progress within it—through promotion and by getting to the top of their businesses—they will show what they can do. They will show what they can contribute. That will send a powerful message, not only to them, to society and to this House, but to the country as a whole.

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