Like all terrible Christmas pantomimes, cringe-worthy, mindless and wearyingly soul-destroying, the General Election campaign of December 2019 delivered one of the most discreditable and uninspiring performances in UK electoral history. Brexit and egos battled to take centre stage whilst the contents of party manifestos were commented on as if they were all but a negligible detail.
Nevertheless, the rights of disabled people and employment access are issues too costly to the positive investment in human capital to have been left neglected. In their party pledges, both Labour and the Conservatives admitted the necessity for employment reforms, citing a need to create greater widespread (if not politically ambiguous) “fairness” in the system. However, with an average pay gap of 12.2% between disabled and non-disabled workers highlighting the inherent unfairness of the British workplace, it is time for politicians to work with disabled people to take a stance in closing the gap.
Reporting on the size of the disability pay-gap is complex. Disabled people are not a single homogenous group and the pay-gap, whilst significant for each sub-group, varies according to gender, region, mental or physical disability and seniority of role. On average, the gap is more pronounced amongst the male workforce. Mental health and the rate of male suicide in Britain is something that has been increasingly spoken about in the public sphere. Statistics produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission show that the pay-gap for males living with depression and/or nervous disorders is 26.5% whilst for females the gap is 15 percentage points narrower at 11.5%. Stigma and discrimination often exist codependently. The particular effect this has on wage-setting, is a lack of mobilised institutional wage pressure in scenarios where stigma is attached, thus leading to wider pay-gaps.
Prejudice towards disabled workers is often met by a myriad of defences and justifications. Disabled people choose fewer demanding roles with less hours; wages have to be determined by physical output; accessibility spending is costly for smaller businesses, etc. The current system makes disabled people feel as if they have to be grateful for having any job rather than enabling them to pursue a career in which their skills are best adapted. Critically: where did the political parties stand on this issue in December’s General Election?
The current Labour Party policy consists of a series of experimental and tentative changes rather than complete overhaul. In its December 2019 manifesto, Labour vowed to introduce Reasonable Adjustment Passports (a scheme designed to generate greater mobility in the jobs market for disabled people); appoint trained care professionals in job centres; transform paid leave for disabled workers, and adapt rotas to be more inclusive. The most tangible of the Labour Party’s promises was its pledge to produce compulsory reporting on the disability pay-gap, using the framework pioneered by the bi-yearly gender pay-gap report which came into play in 2017. The highly controversial four-day week mentioned in the Labour manifesto would have indirectly assisted in closing the pay-gap. Disabled people are statistically more likely to take on part-time work which is lower paid. Low-paid, low-skilled jobs with precarious working hours are the improvident vacuum of UK productivity. Disabled people are disproportionally represented in these jobs, allowing talent to be grossly wasted. A four-day week would help remove some practical barriers for disabled people who wish to take on full time work. Furthermore, for similar reasons, this radical policy would have helped to close pay-gaps for women and single parents.
Despite international criticisms directed at the Conservative Party due to its failure to comply with the obligations drawn out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled people (UNCRDP), Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto falls effectively silent on the subject of Disability policies. No mention was given to the disability pay-gap. Furthermore, one of the only five policies across the sixty-two page manifesto is to roll out Universal Credit, doubling the length of time for which someone can receive Personal Independence Payments (PIP) to eighteen months. Anyone who has watched Ken Loache’s I, Daniel Blake or who knows someone who has gone through a PIP assessment can sympathise with the unfairness of the system and the pressure put on assessors to hit targets rather than treat disabled people with respect and dignity.
What politicians and political commentators alike seemed to overlook in December is that when the curtain was drawn on the Christmas Election pantomime, audience members were not able to breathe a sigh of relief, stretch their limbs and rush home to eat leftovers and mince pies. The manifesto mandated on December 12th changed Britain for the rest of our lives. Disabled people, like many other groups in society have been let down by Government inaction and austerity for a decade. Poverty has risen and pay-gaps have persisted and, from that, we all lose.