UK to extend rights and labour market support for disabled people

Legislative protection and labour market support are to be extended for people with disabilities in the UK. Regulations to come into force from 2004 will increase the coverage of current anti-discrimination law, it was announced in March 2001. Furthermore, following a successful pilot programme since 1998, the New Deal for Disabled People is to be extended nationally.

According to the Labour Force Survey (winter 1999/2000) there are 6.64 million people with long-term disabilities (3.48 million men, 3.16 million women) in the UK - 18% of the working age population. Of these, 5.47 million have work-limiting disabilities (2.92 million men, 2.55 million women). Disabled people are seven times as likely as non-disabled people to be out of work and claiming benefits. The government minister with responsibility for disabled people, Margaret Hodge, said recently that "people in receipt of incapacity benefits are the largest group of economically inactive people in Britain – 1 million would like to work and 400,000 could work now given the right support". The government is encouraging the increased employment of disabled workers through two main avenues – legislative protection and labour market initiatives. These are considered below.

Legislative protection

Protection against discrimination on the grounds of disability is provided by the Disability Discrimination Act () 1995 (TN0102201S). The Act defines a "disabled person" as a person with "a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities". It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a disabled person in respect of recruitment, terms of employment, promotion, transfer, training, any other benefit and dismissal, or to subject them to any other detriment. Where a disabled person is placed at a "substantial disadvantage" in comparison with people who are not disabled, the employer has a duty to make "reasonable adjustments" to prevent that effect. Under the DDA, "reasonable adjustments" include:

  • making adjustments to premises;
  • allocating some of the disabled person's duties to another person;
  • transferring the person to fill an existing vacancy;
  • altering the person's working hours;
  • assigning the person to a different place of work;
  • allowing the person to be absent during working hours for rehabilitation, assessment or treatment;
  • giving the person, or arranging for them to be given, training;
  • acquiring or modifying equipment;
  • modifying instructions or reference manuals
  • providing a reader or interpreter; and
  • providing supervision.

The Act enables employers to justify their failure to make such reasonable adjustments if the reason is both material to the circumstances and substantial.

The DDA, effective from December 1996, has been the subject of a review by a Disability Rights Task Force. Its report From exclusion to inclusion, was published in December 1999. The task force, consisting of representatives from business, trade unions and disability groups, made 156 recommendations for legal and other action to improve the civil rights of disabled people. The government has decided to implement most of the task force's recommendations – although it is consulting until June 2001 on its proposals, entitled Towards inclusion – civil rights for disabled people, published in March 2001. The key employment-related changes are outlined below.

Extension of coverage

The government proposes to extend the coverage of the DDA to all organisations, with the exception of the armed forces. The DDA currently excludes employers with fewer than 15 employees and this is to be repealed from October 2004. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) welcomed this proposal but expressed disappointment that it would not have immediate effect. The current exemption of police officers, firefighters, prison officers or employees who work on board ships, aircraft or hovercraft will be dropped, which will leave the armed forces as the only exemption. The minister with responsibility for disabled people indicates that these changes would extend the rights of 600,000 existing workers and cover almost 7 million jobs previously excluded.

Coverage of the Act is also to be increased through a redefinition of disability. People with HIV infection are to be counted as disabled from the time of diagnosis. People with cancer will be treated as disabled from the time that diagnosis indicates that substantial treatment is required. A third extension to the scope of the Act relates to a legal duty that is to be placed on public bodies to provide equal opportunities for disabled persons.

Extension of reasonable adjustments

The government intends to add two further actions to the above list of "reasonable adjustments" that employers must make for disabled people: training in disability issues or in the use of equipment; and providing support or access to external support. It also intends to remove the justification defence available to employers for failure to make reasonable adjustments, relying solely on the test of "reasonableness".

Labour market support

The main government-funded labour market initiative aimed at boosting the employment of disabled people is the New Deal for Disabled People (NDDP). This is a voluntary scheme, designed for people who have a disability or long-term illness and who are claiming incapacity benefits but want to work. The scheme has been piloted since 1998 and is supported by the TUC and Confederation of British Industry. Non-governmental organisations play a large part in the scheme, which has two main elements: the "personal adviser service" (PAS) and the "innovative schemes" (IS) project. PAS helps people with disabilities and those with long-term illness to overcome barriers to work. It has been piloted in 12 areas, covering nearly 250,000 people on incapacity benefits. PAS has enabled 5,322 participants to move into work, with 3,968 people being on the PAS caseload. The IS project explores how best to help disabled people move into or remain in work. A total of 24 schemes have been funded. In the month of January 2001, the IS project provided a total of 36 jobs.

A total of GBP 195 million was allocated to NDDP in the 1997 budget. By January 2001, a total of 6,568 participants had started work through this scheme. An interim evaluation of the NDDP indicated there were high levels of satisfaction among clients and a relatively low drop-out rate amongst participants - although the PAS invitation letters had an extremely low uptake (3%). The government announced in November 2000 that the NDDP would be extended nationally from July 2001 with the intention to help 30,000 disabled people back to work. The scheme will be extended to provide a national network of "job brokers". Job brokers can be private, voluntary or public sector organisations (or a combination) which will work with employers to match vacancies with the skills and potential of clients, and achieve lasting paid employment for disabled people.


The initiatives outlined above introduce a number of new rights and opportunities for disabled people in the UK. According to the Shaw Trust, the total cost of all benefits to disabled people of working age who are not working now exceeds the money spent each year on schools (GBP 40 billion), or on the National Health Service (GBP 34.5 billion). Supporting disabled people to move from welfare to work therefore carries a significant financial benefit, as well as fitting in with European Union strategies for people with disabilities (TN0102201S). Labour market initiatives, such as the NDDP, have long-term benefits for individuals but are resource-intensive. Of the 400,000 disabled people who could work given the right support, the NDDP is intended to support only 30,000. This leaves a high number requiring other forms of support.

In agreeing to many of the changes recommended by the Disability Rights Task Force, the government is starting to respond to the implications of the recent EU equal treatment framework Directive (2000/78/EC) (EU0102295F). Although the DDA generally meets most of the requirements of the Directive, there are two main implications for UK disability legislation: the original DDA's exclusion of organisations employing fewer than 15 employees would not be permitted by the Directive; nor would the the provision for employers to justify failure to make a reasonable adjustment. As indicated above, the government has already proposed legislative amendments in these areas. Member States have until 2 December 2006 to comply with the age and disability discrimination aspects of the Directive, so the 2004 date set by the government for these changes is ahead of the EU's schedule.

The most significant legislative change relates to the repeal of the DDA's exemption of small businesses. Since some 90% of UK businesses are small, lowering the threshold from 15 to two employees will have a significant impact – although this change will not take place until 2004. The government will be consulting on any further changes required by the equal treatment framework Directive. Although there is no definition of disability or disabled person in the Directive, these definitions are a very contentious part of the DDA. The Disability Rights Commission, trade unions and other pressure groups are seeking clarification of the existing definitions. The TUC would like the DDA to be "replaced with civil rights legislation based on the social rather than the medical model of disability" but given the compatibility of the Directive with the UK framework, this is not a likely outcome. (Anne McBride, IRRU)

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