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Opinion piece, Policy

“Whatever it takes”: BDF responds to the 2021 budget

closeup photography of Elizabeth tower, London

Angela Matthews, Head of Policy and Research, Business Disability Forum

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, started his 2021 budget statement rather victoriously. Referring to the vaccination programme as a huge ‘success’, he followed by stating “our response [to the pandemic] is working”. However, this assertion does not reflect the reality for many disabled people who have not fared well as a result of the lack of effective health data to determine vaccine prioritisation and being given information about vaccines and consent that is inaccessible to them. Further, we know much of the Government’s response throughout the pandemic has very much not worked for many disabled people (see our written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee on this last year on this).

Helpful interventions

Announcements we welcomed in the statement include the following:

  • Extending the Coronavirus Job Support (‘furlough’) Scheme to September 2021. This is good news and has been the difference between retaining and losing jobs for many individuals and businesses. We and our members are expecting some people with disabilities and long-term conditions may need to return to their original place of work or the job market much later than other as many will continue to shield and isolate.
  • A Recovery Loan Scheme for businesses of all sizes to borrow anywhere between £25,001 and £10 million to help them recover. We hope the process for applying for these loans will be both accessible to all and not onerous.
  • The Universal Credit uplift being extended for another six months and a one-off payment of £500 to recipients of Tax Credits. This is good news for many families and individuals, but we are disappointed that disability benefits are not seeing a similar uplift.
  • Business rates relief to eligible businesses in hospitality, accommodation, and attractions until the end of September. Our Members and Partners in this sector have been working so hard to phase re-opening safely while experiencing reduced profits and increased costs for temporary staff to cover COVID-19 related sickness in their workforce, and costs associated with increase hygiene and social safety measures. We are therefore pleased to see this ‘breathing space’ for the sector.
  • £7 million for a new “flexi-job” apprenticeship programme in England, that will enable apprentices to work with a number of employers in one sector. We are pleased to see this but, to be inclusive and accessible to disabled apprentices, it needs to be supported by the reform of other infrastructure support, particularly Access to Work (ATW), which as it currently stands, does not easily adapt to this structure. We continue to urge Access to Work to keep up with modern job structures; we have heard from many disabled people who have lost job opportunities with these types of programmes because ATW could not respond quickly or effectively. This urgently needs to change if this investment is going to be an inclusive one.
  • SMEs will continue to be able to reclaim up to two weeks of eligible Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) costs per employee from the Government. This is helpful, and many of the SMEs we work with will feel some relief by this.

“We are building our future economy”: What’s missing?

Sunak’s words that “we are building our future economy” are poignant. We should pause and think of the impact of these words: whatever we – the government, businesses – do now to include or exclude people from entering, returning to, or progressing in work is what employers’ organisations and our economy will look like in the future.

We have now heard yet another budget that has not invested in removing barriers for disabled people’s economic participation, no mention of needing to reinvest in Access to Work and in developing inclusive digital infrastructure, and job schemes have not been designed with disability inclusion in mind. There was no mention of investment in the social care system which supports people contribute to the UK workforce and to spending in the businesses that are opening up again. Given the Government is very shortly due to publish a National Disability Strategy “to level up opportunity so everyone can fully participate in the life of this country”, it is unclear how the Budget matches the ambition of the impending strategy. Disabled people do not need another well-meaning strategy with no financial investment to make any meaningful changes.

There are many good things promised in the budget to support businesses. But what do we want our future society, labour market, and economy to look like? For disabled people and businesses seeking to increase the inclusion of disabled people as talented workers and as valuable consumers, what is missing in the budget may be louder than what is included. Far from Sunak saying the Government will do “whatever it takes” to recover the economy, we question whether Sunak’s provisions are sufficient to deliver the future inclusive (and therefore, resilient) economy that we hope for and need.

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