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Promoting an inclusive workforce and closing the disability employment gap

In Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly there are almost 50,000 working age people whose day-to-day activities are limited by a long term illness or disability.

That’s just over 15% of the working population, and well above the national average of 12%. We have above average numbers of people claiming benefits because of sickness, disability or mental health issues.

Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the independence and security that work can bring.

We know that the right type of work is good for an individual’s physical and mental health, creating a sense of purpose and self-esteem. But we collectively need to understand what society stands to gain by including people, and how inclusion can make such a difference on a personal level.

A disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life. And this is not about inclusion based on pity, it is about the right for anyone to play a full and active role in their chosen community.

But the truth is less than half (48%) of people with disabilities are in employment, compared to 80% of the rest of the population. That’s a huge gap. And despite the current record-breaking labour market, 4.6 million people with disabilities and long-term health conditions in the UK are out of work.

Transforming their employment prospects is therefore a priority for the Government and the LEP. There are many more people with disabilities and long term illness who want to work, but we need to improve the system to make this possible because it can have such a positive impact right across society.

It’s also a growing issue because one in three of the working age population in England report having at least one long-term health condition, and according to Public Health England this will have gone up to 40% by 2030.

Tackling long-term conditions and barriers to employment are vital to individual wellbeing because without inclusive employment many people remain cut off from the benefits that works brings.

Health and wellbeing of the workforce is also critical for businesses to achieve growth and improve productivity. Every year around 131 million days are lost to sickness absence and the combined costs of sickness absence and lost productivity is put at £100 billion a year, more than the annual budget for the NHS.

But if employers are to be encouraged to take on people with disabilities and long-term health needs, we need to address the barriers to making that happen.

That’s why the LEP, working with Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, the University of Exeter and the Federation of Small Businesses, was asked by Government to pilot a programme of work with small and medium-sized business owners last year to feed back on some of the challenges and opportunities in relation to work and health.

Because of Cornwall’s devolution status there is local control over a number of important areas including employment and skills, business support, and the integration of health and social services – all vital components to tackling the disability employment gap.

So we are better placed than many to do something about it, and we have the support of Government.

What our work with the business community uncovered was a general fear of the unknown in employing someone with a disability or long term condition. No business that we spoke to felt that they would ever discriminate deliberately, but many business owners perceived a greater risk, both of increased absence, and also fearing saying or doing the wrong thing.

There was also a distinct lack of awareness from businesses about the support currently available to them, and comments that the services which are available could be better co-ordinated.

A recurring theme was the potential for better matching the skills of individuals to the opportunities in the workplace – something that would, in fact, benefit everybody.

All these issues and more will be discussed at a business-focused conference in October that is being organised by the LEP with Cornwall Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and Truro & Falmouth MP Sarah Newton.

Called ‘Lighting the Beacon’, the aim is to help businesses to recruit with confidence when considering people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, and to find out more about the wide-ranging help that is available.

There will be representatives from the Department from Work and Pensions, NHS and JobCentre Plus taking part, providing an opportunity for local businesses to help shape future Government policy around health and work.

And we hope to be joined via video message by Penny Mordaunt MP, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work.

The conference takes place on 26th October at Truro & Penwith College in Truro from 10am to 1pm. To book your free place visit the LEP’s events page here.

Lucy Edge is a Board member of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership and General Manager at Avanti Goonhilly.

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Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, PO Box 723, Pydar House, Pydar Street, Truro, TR1 1XU
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