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Interview with Sarah Newton MP

11 July 2018

Sarah Newton MP is quietly determined to help as many disabled people as possible to go as far as their talent and hard work will take them. But how does she plan to make it happen?

Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton began her career in marketing before moving to Age Concern in the 1990s and helping found the International Longevity Centre in 2000.  

Since becoming Minister last year, her remit has covered cross-government disability issues, work and health strategy and disability employment, including Disability Confident and the Work and Health Programme. She’s also responsible for the Access to Work scheme, which is top of her mind when we meet.

Your department has just made some recent announcements about Access to Work…
I’m delighted we’ve made improvements – most significantly increasing the cap to £57,200 of tailor-made support each year.

We’ve also made changes to the administration of the grant after listening to those who benefit from it. People starting work sometimes need time to make sure reasonable adjustments have been made, so you can now apply 12 weeks ahead of your start date.

People have a variety of different needs: they may have a personal assistant but also be a wheelchair user. While their PA costs come beneath the yearly cap, some adapted specialist wheelchairs cost a lot of money, making it difficult to afford both. We’re now enabling averaging of the annual grants over a three-year period, so people can afford a one-off expenditure and stay within the cap.

At the heart of it is personalised care – no two people with disabilities or health conditions are the same, and the scheme must be as flexible as possible.

How is the Department for Work and Pensions working with other government departments to help one million more disabled people into work?
We definitely share Shaw Trust’s ambition to have a million more disabled people in work as soon as possible. However, we know there are challenges along the way.

The best example I can give is the civil service. To lead by example, each government department has now achieved Disability Confident ‘leader’ level and their permanent secretaries have been asked to work with supply chains to get many more organisations signed up.

People might be fearful of saying they have a health or mental health issue, or are disabled. We want them to be confident to come forward, and we want their managers to be equally confident to have those conversations.

How do you assess the Disability Confident scheme so far?
The current scheme was launched in 2016. We now have over 6,500 organisations signed up and it’s rapidly growing.
I think it is doing what it’s supposed to: challenge the culture and organisations, highlight the talents of disabled people and people with health conditions, and give them the tools to have confident conversations.

We have a Business Leaders Group across all different sectors, and the work they’re doing to promote the benefits of enabling people with health conditions or disabilities to work in their organisations is terrific. We’ve been focusing on specific themes: mental health and reasonable adjustments. It’s a month-long period of activity with webinars, meetings and other activity, and we’ve got a new Facebook page too.

We will do an independent evaluation of Disability Confident and ask members for feedback about whether it’s enabled them to recruit more disabled people. The key message is that there is a lot of support available, which doesn’t cost as much as people think and is much easier than they realise.

What duty do employers have to help break down barriers to work for disabled people, and why is it in their interests to do that?
People with health conditions and disabilities are a huge talent pool for employers. I had the privilege of meeting our Paralympians when they returned from Pyeongchang, and they are inspirations to us all, but there are disabled people in every workplace across the country who are also inspirations – we should celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of everyday heroes.

It’s about telling those people’s stories, and for employers to be showcasing the work they’re doing. We have some very good media partners, including Channel 4, which are really increasing the visibility of disability in their programme-making.

Schools should have the same level of ambition and aspiration for their disabled youngsters that they do for everyone else, through careers advice, work experience, and opportunities. With the changes we’ve made to apprenticeships, that’s increasingly a possibility.

We recently launched the Shaw Trust Power List to find the top 100 most influential disabled people in the UK across a variety of sectors. What is DWP doing to tackle the negative portrayal of disabled people?

You have to have role models, so other people think ‘actually, that is a possibility for me’, and aspire to go as far as their talents will take them. I want people to recognise that in every single workforce there are inspiring people – you might be sitting next to a colleague and not even realise.

Our media partners are increasingly stepping up to the plate. An important part of media is advertising, and I think we’re beginning to see advertisers displaying that they want to be inclusive and include disabled people in their advertising, but there’s much more we need to do there.

It’s good to see the industry setting itself some targets, standards and measurements so we can see progress and they put their money where their mouth is, to put it crudely!

How do you think the Work and Health Programme will have an impact on getting (and keeping) disabled people into work, and in what ways does it represent an improvement on Work Choice and Work Programme?
The programme aims to help around 275,000 people over five years. We anticipate a significant number of those people will have health conditions and a disability, so it’s quite an investment in tailor-made support.
The new programme was designed by learning the lessons from the Work Programme – we needed to make sure it was going to meet individuals’ needs so there’s a lot more flexibility. It’s also not the only programme and it will work hand-in-glove with others.

How and when will it be possible to meaningfully gauge the programme’s success? What’s realistic?
Ongoing monitoring is really important for organisations like Shaw Trust. We’ll have interim headline findings in 2020 and a full evaluation will be published at the end of the programme in 2024.

We’ll also do surveys of providers and participants, and geographical case studies, because the programme is being delivered differently in different parts of the country and has quite a big devolution aspect.
The whole thinking around Universal Credit is that we want people to work to the extent that they can – good work is good for people’s health – but we understand people with health conditions or disabilities may be working more at some times than others.

The Work and Health Programme seems to have a more local focus than the Work Programme. What can be read into that?
I think it’s a reflection of the changing labour market – in 2010 we were dealing with the aftermath of the financial crash. There were higher levels of unemployment so we needed a broader, larger programme.
There are particular groups of people with particular needs, so we now have a more tailor-made programme which is smaller and more bespoke because we have fewer unemployed people. Now, we can say to employers: you have this big pool of talent – it’s just that you don’t recognise it or realise how big it is.  
What is the future for Protected Place funding and supported businesses?
There will always be some people who would be more able to realise their potential if they were working in a more supported working environment but I understand that some of the models were not reflective of the wonderful opportunities there are now in different sorts of businesses.

We also have the new Enterprise Allowance, established to enable disabled people to set up businesses, so a lot of entrepreneurial disabled people access the funding.
If we support disabled people to set up their own business, they can become supportive employers of other disabled people themselves.


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