Disabled campaigners have given mixed reviews to a new version of the government’s Disability Confident employment scheme, with one saying he was “genuinely shocked” by how weak it was.
Disability Confident – which has urged employers to “see the ability, not the disability” – has attracted criticism since its launch three years ago for focusing on “communications”, but ignoring institutional discrimination in the workplace.
It is seen as a “key” element in achieving the government’s pledge to halve the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people, but attracted just 40 mainstream private sector partners in three years after its launch by the prime minister in 2013.
The stated aim of Disability Confident was to “debunk the myths around employing disabled people and encourage employers to take advantage of the wealth of talent available”.
But successive Tory ministers for disabled people – Esther McVey, Mike Penning, Mark Harper and Justin Tomlinson – failed to persuade more than a tiny minority of businesses to take the scheme seriously.
Disabled activists with a focus on employment issues even argued that Disability Confident was actually encouraging employers to ignore the access needs of potential disabled employees.
Now the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has quietly published a new version of Disability Confident, although it has yet to relaunch it publicly because it first wants to ensure that the “systems work as planned”.
Employers will be able to apply for one of three levels: Disability Confident Committed, Disability Confident Employer and Disability Confident Leader.
But employers can reach the first two levels by just assessing themselves on their recruitment of disabled people and how they support existing disabled employees, after which DWP will send them a badge and a certificate.
It is only if they want to become a Disability Confident Leader that this self-assessment has to be “validated” by another organisation.
Large businesses will have to pay for recognised accreditation, while a small or medium-sized business can use more “informal methods”, such as involving an existing Disability Confident leader organisation or asking a disabled people’s organisation to “validate” their self-assessment.
But there are already concerns that the new scheme is too close to DWP’s much-criticised Two Ticks, which allowed employers to describe themselves as “positive about disabled people” while getting away with discriminating against disabled staff and potential employees.
Two Ticks employers had to sign up to five commitments around employing disabled workers, but researchers concluded in 2014 that it was “little more than an ‘empty shell’, where employers display the two ticks for impression management purposes to take advantage of its potential reputational benefits rather than because of a genuine concern for disability issues”.
Disabled activist David Gillon, who has been a vocal critic of Disability Confident since its launch, said he was “genuinely shocked at how bad” the new version was.
He said: “Two Ticks became a laughable example of all that was wrong with business attitudes to disability.
“Businesses would sign up, put its logo on their paperwork to show what good citizens they were, and carry on mistreating disabled employees in the same way they always did.
“Disabled people were promised the replacement would be better than that. Instead we see a multi-tiered system, where tier one lets companies used the Disability Confident logo, while signing up to do far less than Two Ticks, and with no checks whatsoever on their implementation.
“This is worse than Two Ticks, which most disabled people wouldn’t have believed possible.
“Tier two is marginally better, and roughly equivalent to Two Ticks, but still consists primarily of companies agreeing to do what they are already legally required to do under the Equality Act 2010.
“It is unlikely disabled people will see companies agreeing not to break the law as a major step forward in disability rights, especially when it is still solely self-assessed.
“Tier three simply adds external assessment to tier two, but that assessment could come from another tier three company, rather than an external expert.
“This creates a system in which even Disability Confident Leaders may be getting the accreditation through the ‘old school tie’ network, rather than ever being examined by anyone with a real understanding of disability discrimination.”
Gillon also said there was no mention of discrimination, even though “workplace disability discrimination lies at the core of the issues Disability Confident is supposed to be addressing”.
He said: “I wasn’t expecting much from Disability Confident, but I’m genuinely shocked at how bad this is.
“It’s worse than Two Ticks, and Two Ticks was a laughing stock amongst disabled people.”
Mike Adams, chief executive of Purple (formerly ecdp) – and a member of the taskforce set up by the former minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, to look at how to improve Disability Confident – was more positive.
He said he would have liked to have seen the new version of the scheme “much stronger and more ambitious”.
But he said he accepted that “if you set the bar too high” it might put off some businesses from engaging with the scheme.
He said: “I see it as an opportunity, a tool to engage with companies who hitherto have not engaged with disability before. Would I have liked to see it stronger? Yes, of course.”
But he said this “probably” would have acted as a disincentive for businesses to get involved in the scheme, and he added: “Have they struck the right balance? We will see.”
He said he hoped that some larger employers, like Essex County Council, might start pushing members of their own supply chains to become Disability Confident – which is mentioned in levels two and three of the new scheme – which would then see it “starting to be much more powerful than Two Ticks”.
Adams said that offering businesses the “validation” of being a Disability Confident Leader would offer organisations like Purple – by charging to carry out an assessment – a way of “engaging those companies in conversations around disability”.
But he also said the new Disability Confident was “a missed opportunity”, because it had failed to address how businesses could also make themselves more open to disabled people as consumers and not just as employees.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “We think that the new version of the Disability Confident scheme is an improvement on the earlier campaign that was based only on communications; and we hope it will stimulate employers to open up many more employment opportunities for disabled people.
“We also think it will need further development. As it stands, it could be possible for an employer to get to level three without actually employing disabled people.
“We understand that a small employer might not happen to have any vacancies in a given period – and agree that they should be recognised for (for instance) improving their internal processes – but we would advocate measuring employers on the proportion of any recruitment or promotions that go to disabled people.
“This would mean larger employers would genuinely be judged on their record in employing disabled people at all levels.
“We will be working with employers, offering disability confidence training and advice – and at the same time urging DWP to further develop the programme.”
Sayce said that as 60 per cent of DR UK’s staff live with an impairment or health condition, and “we learn from our own experience and draw on that learning in our work to support employers to improve their employment practices”, it already “goes beyond the steps in the Disability Confidence scheme”.
She said: “We support many employers to improve their practices and offer challenge and assurance.
“We are seeking discussion with our members and other DPOs on use of the scheme itself by disabled people’s organisations.”