Events like this one are good opportunities to highlight and discuss the issues that matter most to disabled people. They're also a good opportunity to recognise the important role that Inclusion Scotland plays – ensuring that the views of disabled people are heard loudly; and that they are able to inform and help develop the policies that affect them most.
The Scottish Government, and I want to put this very firmly on record today, highly values the work that Inclusion Scotland does. And in partnership, over the past few years, I think we have been able to make a real difference to the lives of disabled people across Scotland. We recognise we have more work to do, but I think we can be proud of the work that we have done jointly together.
For example, we've been able to identify and then go some considerable way to mitigating many of the effects of the UK Government's welfare reform programme, particularly the impact that has on people with disabilities. The Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities described these welfare changes as, 'a human catastrophe', and that's not something in Scotland that we're prepared to stand on the side-lines and do nothing about, so we've taken a range of actions to mitigate the impact of those cuts. For example, we know that the 'bedroom tax' – a piece of legislation that we will overturn as soon as we have the ability to do so - disproportionately affects disabled people in Scotland so we invest almost £50 million every year, making sure nobody has to pay the 'bedroom tax'. That's just one example of the mitigation efforts that we are making.
In addition to that, we've established our own Independent Living Fund, to replace the one that was shut down by the UK Government.
Over the past several years, we have worked to redefine social care in Scotland by implementing self-directed support. By doing so, we've given disabled people, their carers, and their families more choice and more control over their own lives.
We have also created a comprehensive Delivery Plan to help Scotland meet the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
I think it should be a source of pride and satisfaction to all of us that in its most recent report, the UN Committee actually recognised Scotland's distinctive approach to protecting the rights – and also improving the lives – of people with disabilities.
So I think it is reasonable for us to say that by working together we have taken some important steps and can be proud of that, but the main topic of discussion I'm sure for all of you today, and the substance of my remarks, is focussing on what more we need to do because we have got work still to do. The Delivery Plan sets that out very clearly. This forum and all of our discussions should be very much focussed on how we go further to bring about fundamental change.
As all of you know, just around 43% of disabled people in Scotland are in work. For the rest of the population, that figure stands at around 80%. That very clearly illustrates the work we still have to do.
Now we know that, due to individual circumstances – work is not always a possibility – or always a desirable option – for every person with a disability. But we also know that far too many disabled people are being denied a route into work, or they lack the support they need to take up employment opportunities, and that is what we have a duty to tackle.
We know that there are many underlying reasons for that. As a society I think we too often we focus on what disabled people cannot do rather than focussing on what they can do. As a result, some disabled people can lack the confidence they need to pursue employment. We also know that some employers – consciously or perhaps more often subconsciously – can be biased against having disabled people working for them. And even when disabled people are in employment, they can find it hard to declare their impairment – due to a fear of stigma or rejection. So all of that can mean that getting a job, holding down a job – and thriving and progressing at work – is much more difficult, or can be much more difficult for people with disabilities than it is for others.
The consequences of that are clear. First and foremost, it means that too many disabled people are unable to fully contribute their talents and their abilities, and that means that all of us lose out. This is an important point. If we have a society or an economy where some people face barriers to contributing their talents then we all lose out, not just the individuals who face those barriers. People with disabilities also miss out on the economic benefits of employment – as well as the potential boost that we all get from employment to our independence and sense of self-esteem.
So all of that, I would say, is unacceptable from a moral perspective. But it also has very serious implications for our economy and our society, more broadly.
No country, whether it's Scotland or any other country, can afford to neglect or underuse the talents of so many of its people. The evidence is clear that increasing the number of disabled people in work - and therefore expanding our labour market – will help to support greater economic growth and output overall, and it helps to ensure that the prosperity of our country is shared more equally – reducing inequality, exclusion and social deprivation.
So what we are talking about today is important for individuals, it's important for all of you and for others all across Scotland, but the important collective point I want to make is this one – it's important for all of us. This is a shared responsibility because it is for the good of our society overall if we ensure that those with disabilities have the same opportunities as the rest of the population.
So for all of those reasons, and I'm sure many more, halving the employment gap between disabled people and non-disabled people is a key commitment of our Delivery Plan that I've already referred to, alongside consulting with disabled people's organisations and the public sector on setting targets to redress the imbalance of disabled people in our public sector workforce.
We have set out a range of actions to help achieve this.
Our commitment to improve access to Modern Apprenticeships is a good example. In the past year, the proportion of disabled people or people with a long term health condition who started a modern apprenticeship has doubled.
We've also provided Inclusion Scotland with the funding to build on their own internship programme for disabled people. By 2021, that programme alone will deliver 120 placements at public and third sector organisations – including the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament.
Alongside that, our Access to Elected Office Fund has supported 30 disabled candidates to run for public office. Fifteen of those candidates were actually elected – proving that politics and government should be open to anyone who has the dedication, talent and determination. And again this is an important point in principle – whether it's equality for women or equality for the LGBTI community, or equality for those with disabilities, we're more likely to achieve that faster if the councils and the governments and the other bodies taking the decisions are themselves reflective of the population that they serve, so initiatives like the Elected Office Fund are really important in trying to bring that about.
Another initiative I wanted to mention was our new devolved employability service which from April of this year will go live – Fair Start Scotland. We recognise very centrally the impact of empowering people rather than threatening people with sanctions – so those participating in this service will do so by choice and not through fear that not doing so will affect their existing benefits. I'm completely opposed to the punitive sanctions regime that currently characterises the welfare system and as we build our own employability and welfare services I don't want that punitive approach to play any part in it.
For those who choose to be involved in that scheme, it will offer a personalised, tailored service – including pre-employment support, and opportunities for in-work support.
A really important point in all of this is that the views of disabled people's organisations have played an important role in shaping Fair Start Scotland. That's taken place through engagement events; the formal consultation exercise; and forums like the Devolved Employment Services Advisory Group – which I'm pleased to say Sally from Inclusion Scotland is part of.
We absolutely recognise that the people who know best how to improve services are always those who have direct experience of them. That doesn't just apply to people with disabilities, that applies right across the board. You will get a better outcome from any process if you involve from the start those who have direct experience.
That principle underlines our entire approach to building our new social security system. We are determined to create services that help people; services that value and take account of people's individual needs and circumstances; and which above all else treat people with dignity and respect.
Now I've spoken about some of the ways in which we're looking to support disabled people into work. However, your theme for today – 'employer-ability' – identifies another key challenge that we know we need to address.
Support for disabled people is important – but we also need to ensure that employers are ready to play their part. That means ensuring they have the understanding, the information and the support that they need to be successful employers of disabled people.
Last July, the Scottish Government launched a four-week engagement and marketing campaign aimed at highlighting to employers the benefits of hiring disabled staff. The campaign also involved providing advice and support particularly to small and medium-sized companies across the country.
I think that was a good start, but here we readily acknowledge we need to do more – and actually in this area I think we need to do a lot more.
That's why in March, we will hold a major Congress on disability, employment and the workplace. To help shape the focus and agenda for the Congress, we've held events across the country – in Glasgow, Dundee and Inverness – involving representatives from disabled people's organisations, local government and the third sector.
Today's Summit and the discussions that you have will also be able to play a big part in setting the agenda for that Congress. So it's really helpful and welcome that today's seminars cover each stage of the employment process - from getting ready for work; getting in to work; staying in work; and finally, getting on in work. I'm very much looking forward to hearing the detail and the outcomes of these discussions, and making sure that we act on them through the Congress and beyond.
After all, your experiences, your expertise and your ideas are probably the most important asset that we have when it comes to improving the lives and the experiences of disabled people. The work that you do – in highlighting key issues, mobilising public opinion, putting pressure on government and crucially also helping us identify the solutions – all of that will help us to address these challenges, build on the progress we've made and ultimately make Scotland a better country, not just for people with disabilities but for everybody who lives here.
So I want to end by thanking you, thanking you on behalf of the government, but beyond that by thanking you on behalf of all of the people of our country. By working together, so far we have been able to achieve a lot. If we continue to work together we can achieve so much more, and we know the need to do that.
As First Minister one of the reasons I wanted to be here today was to give you my personal commitment on behalf of the whole government that we will continue to work in close partnership with all of you.
These partnerships between government and organisations and individuals like this one doesn't mean we always agree on absolutely everything. There'll always be areas where you disagree with Government policy or you want us to go further and faster. That is in the nature of democracy, but by working together I think we've proven that we can make a difference, so my personal commitment to you today is that we are committed to continuing to do that – to listen, to act and to collectively do what we need to do to make Scotland the best possible place to be if you live with a disability. That we can not just uphold but advance the rights of disabled people and we can continue to make sure that in actions not just in words and rhetoric we continue to build a Scotland that is more inclusive, more prosperous and more equal society. That is the aim that I have every day as First Minister, and working with you we can help to deliver that.
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