The coalition government's disparagement of employment law protections, often framed as 'unnecessary red tape', has encouraged some employers to take their legal obligations less seriously in relation to disabled workers, according to a new report.

A study by the Public Interest Research Unit (PIRU) identified 24 major cuts to equality and employment law protections since 2010, with some cuts now starting to have an adverse impact on disabled workers.

One respondent to the study indicated that, as a result of the coalition weakening the public sector equality duty ( PSED ), 'disability equality training is now all but non-existent and recruitment of disabled people is now even lower than it was before 2010'.

Another respondent said: '[The] DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) afforded some protection, but [employers] became less leery of it after 2010.'

The PIRU's investigation of the coalition's impact on unlawful discrimination against disabled workers during their time in government also found that, with the introduction of tribunal fees, disabled workers have found difficulty in enforcing their employment rights.

The study, which covered the private, public, and voluntary sectors, collected approximately 500 documents from 141 organisations, and further information from 137 disabled workers.

The survey's principal findings showed that employer attitudes towards disabled workers appear to have deteriorated over the last four years. One worker reported that there was 'much less compassion for staff who are unwell'.

Contributing to the increase in negative attitudes, government rhetoric about disability benefit cheats seems to have spilled over into the workplace. The report found that some line managers were said to have started regarding disabilities - including those relating to mental health - as exaggerated or 'faked'.

Unlawful discrimination, including harassment and unlawful dismissal, appears to have increased. In addition, zero-hours contracts were of particular concern to disabled workers with the unpredictability of working hours causing damaging effects on the health of disabled workers.

One disabled woman working in retail wrote: 'I had a zero hours contract...I had to be on call any and every day for a shift... no adjustments made despite quoting the Disability Act till I'm pink in the face. Zero hours are not good for ADHD or OCD, it turns you into a complete wreck. If it's not the money, it's the mental health and constant worry that does.'

The survey also found what appears to be an increasing reluctance by employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers. Tighter budgets in the public sector have taken some of the blame for this.

Further, the report identified cases which might have constituted 'combined discrimination' if the coalition had brought the combined discrimination provisions in the Equality Act 2010 into effect. One respondent suggested that being a disabled transgender person contributed to ill-treatment: 'My gender (transgender) may have also been a factor in the way I was treated by my manager.'

Responding to the report, Debbie Jolly of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), commented: 'While more research is needed, the initial findings here show a woeful regression of support for those disabled people able to seek work. The recent cap on Access to Work adds to this, exposing the Coalition rhetoric to the stark realities and discriminations disabled people face.'

Chair of the PIRU, Rupert Harwood, said: 'The study suggests that disabled individuals have been the hardest hit in work as well as out of work. Employer attitudes towards disabled workers had deteriorated, unlawful discrimination could have increased, and there appears to have been shift from support and reasonable adjustments to discipline and dismissal.'

The PIRU report added that there were strong indications there could be much deeper cuts to employment law protections in the future if the Conservatives win a majority at the general election.

The report argued that Tory policy could return equality and employment law to the level of protection which existed before the 1970s. Plans to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and possibly exit the European Convention on Human Rights would, if implemented, have major and direct consequences for employment and equality law in the UK.


John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD


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