This article was first published in The Birmingham Brief on 13 July 2017.
Disabled people, for example, did not merit a single mention in the draft modern industrial strategy on which Ministers are currently working. This is a significant omission because disabled people, the firms that employ them, the ventures they found and the under-championed growth economic sector that their technological needs and current spending power represent, form a ‘sector’ of huge and varied potential. In a report published this week with the think tank Localis, I argue that that potential is so significant that it now needs not just a nod from decision-makers but its own ‘disability sector deal’ at the heart of the industrial strategy.
Whilst wider than in 2010 the ‘disability employment gap’ has begun to close, but too slowly…Less than half of disabled adults are in employment (47.6%) compared to nearly 80% of non-disabled adults. The pay gap between disabled and non-disabled people is widening. The UK labour market isn’t taking advantage of disabled workers and when it is we’re not paying them fairly. In turn, the substantial disability community advocacy, focused almost entirely on social benefits, means that a new generation of disabled leaders – around 8000 of them in HE right now – do not get the tailored backing that black and female entrepreneurs and rising stars now enjoy to help them crack and break ‘glass’ and other employment ceilings. Employers and investors are missing out on an important opportunity to grow their businesses and send a positive message to consumers. 77% of the public would think more highly of a company which made an extra effort to employ someone with a disability.
Indeed, there is meaningful resource in play here: The ‘purple pound ‘ – that is the economy sustained by the consumer spending by and for disabled people – is valued as being in excess of £220 billion. That is bigger than aviation. Government spends more on benefits for disabled people than it does on defence. And as technology becomes more sophisticated, new world-beating companies are growing up to meet the needs of disabled people and an ageing population: The Chinese government calls this ‘assistive technology market’ a potential world niche, suggesting that its market needs will increase to $100 billion per annum while that same tech niche in the US is experiencing 6% per annum compound growth rates . The UK ‘assisted tech’ is already valued at close to £1 billion.
In the report my co-author and I argue that a ‘disability sector deal’ ought to comprise a number of steps: First, National Insurance remission for those firms taking on disabled workers. Second, enhanced tax reliefs for investors backing ventures launched by disabled people. Third, a new interest on disabled leaders with enhanced work to explore the current and future disabled contribution to FTSE and other boards mirroring work that BEIS and the EHRC have done for others but not disabled people. Government can do more with its procurement policies to require suppliers to create jobs for disabled people. Mayor Andy Street wants to use West Midlands public investment to encourage investment for young people but why not disabled people also? The enormous investment represented in HS2 provides a particularly striking opportunity in this regard. Finally a ‘disability deal’ ought to be about exports too, so government should establish a specialist unit or team to champion British ‘assisted tech’ globally. In the latter regard the risk at the moment is that ‘assisted tech’ gets lost in wider efforts to champion large pharma companies and hospital based technology under the blanket term ‘life sciences’ at the expense of ventures that not only add value but are more likely to be located outside London in the Midlands, West and North than those others.
So the Taylor Review only goes some of the way. And as it presently stands an industrial strategy that adopted it would still having a gaping hole at its economic and moral heart by not joining up with the wider need to more creatively create the conditions where more disabled people can flourish as part of a recognised and valued sector unleashing potential and pulling its social and economic weight. Speaking at our launch the Minister for Work, Penny Mordaunt MP, seemed to concur. ‘An industrial strategy without a ‘disability deal’, she said would be lacking. One hopes that the Prime Minister will share her view too.