Alan Johnson – 2005 Speech at New Beginnings Symposium


Below is the text of the speech made by Alan Johnson, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to the New Beginnings Symposium on 15th March 2005.

It’s a great pleasure to be here at the New Beginnings Symposium and to have this opportunity to talk to you on one of the most important political issues of our time.

Making the UK a World Leader in Disability means achieving three things:

– Building legislation that gives disabled people comprehensive and enforceable civil rights

– Creating employment opportunity with personal tailored support for those who want it; and

– Achieving a step-change in public attitudes that empowers disabled people to live independently and to be recognised and indeed respected as equal members of society.

I’d like to say a few words about each.

When we came into office in 1997 – despite 14 previous attempts to bring forward effective legislation – only the most outrageous forms of direct discrimination against disabled people had been outlawed and there was no protection at all for the disabled employees of small firms.

The 1995 Act lounged on the statute book doing very little and with no champion to help people to enforce their rights, or to provide advice and guidance to employers about how to meet their duties.

We’ve created that champion – The hugely successful Disability Rights Commission – and we are now working to ensure that the DRC’s championing of disability remains at the core of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

We’ve also set about implementing the most profound extension of disability civil rights this country has ever seen.

Last October saw protection against discrimination given to an additional 600,000 disabled workers. And it saw a further 7 million jobs and 1 million employers brought within the scope of the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Our current Disability Discrimination Bill – which has its Second Reading in the Commons a week tomorrow – takes us even further. When enacted, the new Bill will extend the coverage of the DDA to at least another 175,000 people – and extend the definition of disabled people to a number of new groups by, for example, removing the requirement that mental illnesses must be “clinically well recognised.”

The Bill will end the anomaly of transport not counting as a service under the DDA and will allow us to set an end-date of 2020 for all rail vehicles to be made accessible to disabled people, including wheelchair users.

It will also place a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people. This will be vital in helping to eliminate the institutional disadvantage that many disabled people still face.

For the first time, disabled people can have confidence that their needs will be at the forefront rather than being considered as an afterthought.

For example, local authorities won’t be able to consider closing facilities like libraries or leisure services without thinking first about how disabled people in the area would be affected.

This promotion of equality is central to our vision of a truly fair society offering opportunities for all. And it underlies much of our efforts to empower disabled people to realise their ambitions in the workplace as well as in society as a whole.

Exclusion from the workplace has a damaging impact on individuals depreciating their skills and their self-esteem. It places a financial cost on society and a taxation burden on business – hitting both profitability and competitiveness.

New Beginnings has played an important role in joining together employers and disability organisations.

The business case is now so compelling that employing disabled people can no longer be seen as purely an ethical responsibility – but as a business imperative.

But disabled people need personal tailored support to fulfil their employment aspirations.

Since 1997, through our investment in Jobcentre Plus and the New Deal, we have begun to transform the welfare state from the passive one-size-fits-all inheritance to an active service that tailors help to the individual and enables people to acquire the skills and confidence to move from welfare to work.

The New Deal for Disabled People has seen nearly 55,000 job entries since its launch in 2001. But our other New Deal initiatives – for lone parents and young people for instance – have also been effective.

Altogether, nearly 200,000 disabled people have been helped into work through our total package of New Deal programmes.

And we are seeing very encouraging early results from our Pathways to Work Pilots – cutting edge proposals bringing together Jobcentre Plus, the Health service, GPs and employers to improve the package of support we offer to people on Incapacity Benefit.

The latest Pathways statistics show that the number of recorded job entries for people with a health condition or disability has almost doubled compared with the same period last year; and there are up to six times as many people taking steps to get back into work in Pathways areas compared with the rest of the country. On a national basis this early success would be equivalent to over 100,000 IB claimants being helped into work each year.

All of this has contributed to the rise in the employment rate of disabled people – up 5 percentage points since 1998 to 50.3%. This really challenges the old pre-conceptions because now more than half of disabled people work and therefore a disabled person is, for the first time, more likely to be in work than out of work.

But none of us can rest on our laurels. We believe that any individual who wants to work should have the personal tailored support to fulfil this aspiration.

As a society, if we are to meet the challenge of an ageing population with a falling birthrate, we can not afford to be denied the skills and contributions of those who want to work but who remain outside the labour market.

That’s why my Department’s recent Five-Year Strategy sought to build on the highest employment rate of any G8 country by establishing the aspiration of moving to a new employment rate equivalent to 80% of the working age population.

Central to this strategy, is a fundamental reform of Incapacity Benefit that builds on our investment in Pathways to Work, the New Deal and Jobcentre Plus and focuses on what people can do rather than what they can’t.

Let me make this clear – It’s not about cutting – or time-limiting – benefits. Neither is it about forcing anyone to apply for jobs they aren’t able to do.

It is about enabling people to fulfil their aspirations. We know that up to 1 million disabled people on benefits want to work – our reforms are about giving people a framework of health and employment support and a benefit structure that supports and incentivises them to return to work. It means radically changing the benefit to enable it to reflect all that we have learnt about work aspirations and supporting the needs of those on IB.

The new system will provide a basic benefit below which no-one should fall. A speedy medical assessment linked with an employment and support assessment. Back to work help available to all – with increased financial security for the most chronically sick; and more money than now for everyone else who takes up the extra help on offer.

Such change can only work against the backdrop of a nationally-rolled-out Pathways to Work programme and a ground-breaking partnership with employers and the medical profession:

With the medical profession increasingly seeing work as a route back to good health and encouraging their patients to do likewise; and with employers ensuring good occupational health in the workplace and thinking about the rehabilitation support they make available. We will need to shape these reforms on the basis of the evidence of what works – with piloting playing an important role. And we will consult carefully and thoroughly with all of you.

We intend to publish a Green Paper in July which will allow us to consult formally on our more detailed thoughts in areas such as:

How the new benefit system and the distinction between its different elements will operate

How we can best ensure the individual and their Personal Advisers can frame an action plan which is realistic for the individual and how the Employment and Support Assessment can facilitate this

What people will be required to do in the future to access the higher rates of benefit

What safeguards and appeals processes should be in the system to make sure that the new requirements operate fairly

But right from the start – i.e. today; I am keen to involve you in the shaping of these reforms. And I am particularly interested in starting to develop a consensus around 4 issues.

Firstly – what should be the content of the “return to work activities” that we recognise as beneficial in helping people to get back to work?

Secondly – how can we minimise the risks people face when they want to move into work and ensure people have every incentive possible to take the traumatic first step?

Thirdly, what can we do to signal that being on the Disability Sickness Allowance for the most chronically sick doesn’t mean someone is written off or has no interest in working – but does recognise the severity of their sickness or disability?

Fourthly – what key features does the system need to ensure that it works effectively for people with mental health conditions?

Although the formal consultation won’t begin until the Green Paper in July, I would appreciate people writing to me on these four issues – return to work activities; minimising the risk of moving into work; shaping the signals given by the Disability Sickness Allowance; and enabling the system to work effectively for people with mental health conditions.

Your views will be very helpful and will inform the writing of the Green Paper.

Improving the support and incentives for getting and staying in employment was a cornerstone of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit report earlier this year.

This set out an ambitious 20-year strategy to improve the life chances of disabled people by promoting independent living supported by individualised service delivery.

It recommended new ways of ensuring more co-ordinated policy making across Government, specifically through a new Office for Disability Issues, and it sought to enable disabled people to participate in policy design and service delivery.

Our commitment to advance the civil rights of disabled people is not confined to these shores but has an important EU and international dimension.

DWP will be making disabled people’s rights one of the key themes of our presidency of the EU later this year. We’ll be holding a conference here in London dedicated to making a reality of disability rights in all member states and we hope this can be a further stimulus to co-operation between disabled people’s organisations across the 25 countries of the EU.

But ultimately, no Government action, legislative or employment support programme will be sufficient unless it is accompanied by a step-change in public attitudes.

Empowering disabled people is about more than legislation. It’s about people’s equal worth as individuals so that they are not disabled by the preconceptions of others.

This is the great emancipation issue of our time. In years to come, I believe that the mis-treatment of disabled people typical of the last century – and still too often the case today – will be seen as the affront to humanity that it is.

We must all work to raise awareness of rights for disabled people; to promote equality and challenge individual and institutional attitudes that threaten our vision of a society of equal rights and opportunities for all.

This is a vision worth fighting for. It’s a vision that I believe we are making significant progress towards. And it’s a vision that together we can deliver. Making this vision a reality will truly make the UK a world leader in disability issues.