Recent years have seen increased attention from UK and Scottish policy-makers to tackle the disability employment gap. On one of the last sitting days of the Scottish Parliament in 2022, the Economy and Fair Work Committee announced its own inquiry, looking to identify barriers to disabled people accessing employment. 

The Committee is looking for views on the level of progress that has been made so far, the impact of COVID-19, the remaining challenges, and any policy measures that should be introduced to support disabled people and employers to increase participation rates. 

Our members are very well placed to contribute to this topic. In preparation of our response, we sent out a short survey to our Public Policy Forum that informed the submission. 

Progress so far

Encouragingly, the most recent statistics show a narrowing of the disability employment gap across all four nations of the UK. Scotland has made faster progress than Wales and Northern Ireland, with the employment rate of disabled people rising from 39.7% in 2013/14 to 49.9% in 2021/22. England’s progress has been similar, improving from 45.5% to 55.7% over the same time period.

Scotland ranks second in the disability employment gap statistics, with the gap standing at 31.6 percentage points - compared to England at 25.4pp, Wales at 32.3pp, and Northern Ireland at 42.9pp. 

The statistics suggest that the impact of the pandemic on the employment of disabled people was not as negative as feared at the outset. This is probably down to a combination of the scale of Government intervention, the speed of labour market recovery, as well the expansion of flexible working practices.

COVID-19 impact 

Perhaps the most obvious impact of COVID-19 was that many disabled people were in a higher risk category and were therefore required to self-isolate, impacting on their work and personal relationships. It also meant that disabled employees were more concerned about an eventual return to work. Research that the CIPD conducted over several months at the outset of the pandemic exposed these differences for Scottish employees:

  • 56% of disabled employees said they felt anxious about returning to their workplace because of COVID, compared with 40% of those without disabilities.
  • 49% said they felt anxious about commuting to work, compared with 25% of those without disabilities.
  • The same survey also showed the impact of the pandemic on disabled people’s financial security as well as their health was worse than for those without disabilities.

A secondary impact of the pandemic has been the emergence of considerable labour and skills shortages across most sectors following the reopening of the economy in early 2022. Tight labour markets force employers to expand their talent pools and sees them take additional steps to recruit and retain. Removing barriers to employment and seeking to reach those furthest away from the labour market, opens opportunities to disabled people.

One such barrier can be a lack of flexible working and this is the one area where the pandemic has had a very direct positive impact. The shift in employer and employee attitudes to home and hybrid working has the potential to be a significant boost to job quality, inclusion, and productivity across the UK. There is an increasing amount of research – not just from the CIPD – about the positive relationship between flexible working and job quality as well as performance. 

What else do employers and governments need to do?

When it comes to narrowing the disability employment gap, many areas of public policy intertwine – health care, employability support, skills development, and employer policies. Given our membership, we focused our comments on the last two of these, especially the employer dimension (recruitment, workplace practices and retention). 

Most of the CIPD members who responded to our pulse survey argued that there are persisting gaps in inclusive recruitment as well as in line management quality. This is in line with previous CIPD research which found that around three-quarters of UK organisations experienced challenges in managing people with a disability. The two most significant of these are, first, employers’ and line managers’ lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding of disability and the many different types of disability and, second, lack of knowledge about reasonable adjustments and how to implement them. 

This suggests that employers still require greater awareness and understanding of disability and how to manage/support people with a disability. The disability employment gap will only close when employers and managers are confident in this area. Our Working Lives Scotland report has shown that disabled employees report poorer relationships with their managers across some areas (for example in being treated fairly and with respect), which underlines the need for line manager training across organisations. 

The dissemination of guidance on how employers can make reasonable adjustments, including supportive workplace changes that go beyond their statutory responsibility, can make a real difference. We also need to shift the negative misconception about adjustments being onerous and costly – many can be simple and low-cost, and can make an enormous difference to enabling people to perform to their full potential. All of our pulse survey respondents mentioned the importance of easily-accessible advice and support, especially important to SMEs who often do not have dedicated HR teams.

One of the interventions that the Scottish Government put in place was the creation of the Apt PSP (Public Social Partnership) in 2020, of which CIPD is a member. The PSP supports employers to have the skills they need to attract, recruit and retain disabled people and has been positively evaluated by employers who engaged with it to date. The PSP is a small scheme, but with a big potential impact. As things stand, however, there is no long-term financial commitment from the Scottish Government for its delivery on top of the £1 million committed until the end of the 2022/23 financial year. 

The Scottish skills development system also offers an opportunity to improve disabled people’s employment prospects. Careers services are pivotal in ensuring those who have disabilities and long-term health conditions from a young age are aware of the opportunities available to them and the steps they need to take to access these. Ensuring our apprenticeship frameworks are inclusive or improvements to employer recruitment incentives are other ideas we floated in the submission.

Maintaining focus

Of course, it is not only many areas of public policy that intertwine – the mix of devolved and reserved policy responsibilities means both of Scotland’s governments need to continue to work on closing the disability employment gap. The Disability Confident scheme, Access to Work and Statutory Sick Pay are just three reserved policy areas where reform could make a difference.

The most important thing is to keep looking for further progress. That’s why maintaining a focus on the disability employment gap was one of our 2021 Scottish Parliament Election Manifesto policy asks. It is great to see it high up on the agenda again.

About the author

Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser for Scotland

Marek joined the CIPD in October 2019. He leads the CIPD’s public policy work in Scotland, focusing primarily on fair work, skills and productivity. Prior to joining the CIPD, Marek spent nearly a decade working at the Scottish Parliament as a political adviser responsible for policy-making across devolved areas of public policy.

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