Government downgrades minister for disabilities – but what does that mean for disabled workers?

Charities say move is a ‘retrograde step’ amid growing pay gaps for employees with disabilities

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The government announced on Thursday (14 December) that the role of minister for disabilities had been scrapped after the previous minister, Tom Pursglove, was made legal migration minister.

It had initially said the position would be absorbed by an existing minister, and would no longer be a standalone role.

However, the government reinstated the role within the Department for Work and Pensions after receiving criticism from charities and campaign groups, but the post has been downgraded from a minister to an under secretary of state – the most junior level.

Mims Davies will now take on the role after having previously held the post of parliamentary under secretary of state for safeguarding.  

Hannah Nicholls-Harrison, policy manager at learning disability charity Mencap, told People Management: "Disabled people in the UK deserve a representative at the top table of government focused on addressing the inequalities that they face every day of their lives.

“Downgrading the post, at a time when there are so many critical issues for that ministerial role to deal with, is a frustrating sign that this important work isn't considered to be a priority.

"We know 86 per cent of unemployed people with a learning disability want a paid job and aren’t being hired. We want to see Mims Davies really understand the barriers facing people with a learning disability and invest in supporting them to work."

The news comes as the TUC warned that the wage disparity between non-disabled and disabled workers was larger than it was a decade ago, after it found non-disabled workers earned 14.6 per cent more than colleagues with disabilities.

“By downgrading the disabilities minister role, the Tories have shown they have no interest in improving the lives of the 16 million disabled people living in the UK,” said Quinn Roache, policy officer for disabled workers at the TUC.

“Being disabled shouldn’t mean you are given a lower wage – or left out of the jobs market altogether. Without fair pay or proper reasonable adjustments, too many disabled workers are being held back at work. And too many disabled people who are out of work are not getting the benefits support they desperately need.” 

Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum, said: “The chancellor said in his autumn statement that he wants more disabled people to enter the workplace.

“If the government is serious about creating more work opportunities, there needs to be someone championing the needs of disabled people at the highest level of government.

“With this announcement, the government is saying one thing and doing another. We urge the prime minister to reverse this decision and give disability inclusion the priority it needs.”

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, told People Management: “The government’s approach to the appointment of a new disability minister fails to demonstrate commitment to tackling the enormous challenges disabled people are currently facing.

“Leaving the post vacant for a week, allocating it to someone with existing responsibilities and downgrading its status, all signals a lack of priority.”

However, she said the announcement was “unlikely” to make any “significant difference”.

“The disability employment gap continues to stand at almost 30 per cent, the disability pay gap is 14 per cent, the Access to Work scheme has excessive delays and there is no sign that the law will be tightened on reasonable adjustments or that mandatory disability workforce monitoring will be implemented,” Hadi said.

“The new minister for disabled people needs to be pressed to take forward these important actions to create a more accessible labour market.” 

A government spokesperson said: "Minister Davies will build upon this government’s track record of supporting disabled people, having delivered millions of cost of living payments and helped [more than] one million more disabled people into work five years earlier than planned.

"The minister will help ensure there is always a strong safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, while tearing down barriers so that every disabled person can realise their potential and thrive.”