The Disability Charter: Improving the Working Lives of Disabled People

In this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I was joined by Kim Hoque who is one of the founders of the Disability Charter. Kim talked to me about what the Disability Charter is and why it was established. We will also discover how it can help organisations become great employers of disabled people.

To get us started I asked Kim to give a bit of an overview about himself, including what he does and his professional background.

‘Thank you, Toby. I’m a Professor of Human Resource Management and also the Vice Dean for People and Culture at King’s Business School, which is a faculty of King’s College, London. Specifically in terms of disability, I’ve been doing disability research, for probably about 15 years or so now.

In 2013, I helped to found the Disability at Work research group with colleagues at Cardiff Business School and also at Bayes Business School. I’ve also been pretty closely involved with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Disability. I actually provided the secretariat for it until quite recently. I was also a commissioner on The Centre for Social Justice’s Disability Commission report which was led by Lord Shinkwin. I played quite a substantial role in terms of helping to write the commission’s report, Now Is The Time. particularly the employment chapter.

And I’m also a founder member of the Disability Employment Charter, playing a key role in terms of driving it forward, seeking new signatories for it, and trying to leverage it with policymakers as well.’

I asked Kin, ‘Why did you establish a charter and what other organisations are involved in the programme?’

‘The founder members of Disability at Work which is the organisation that I was involved in founding a little while ago are Disability Rights UK, the DFN Charitable Foundation, the Shaw Trusts Foundation, Leonard Cheshire, Scope, UNISON, and the University of Warwick, which is where I was working at the time, the charter was set up. In terms of why we all established the charter, comes down to the sorts of engagement that we’d had with government and in particular the lead-up to the consultation on the National Disability Strategy around the first half of 2021. So, myself, my Disability at Work colleagues, we’d go to meetings with DWP, the Cabinet Office and elsewhere across government.

It was good to be getting a hearing from the point of view of getting in the door and being able to say what we’d been doing our research on and what the proposals were stemming from that research in policy terms, but we often got the sense that there was a slightly lukewarm reaction to what we were saying.

Occasionally, people would say, “It’s very interesting what you’ve got to say. Thank you for coming along and talking about your research with us.” But we felt that we were not quite cutting through with the messages that we had. Around the same time, I remember, I had a conversation with Fazilet Hadi, who is the Policy Manager at Disability Rights UK. I said, “Well look, when you go along and talk to government, and talk to them about the sorts of things that you want them to do, the sorts of proposals that you’re looking to promote with them, what sort of things do you talk about?”

She said, “Well, very similar sorts of things to things that we were talking about mandatory reporting, reform of Disability Confident, reform of Access to Work, and so on.”

And I said, “Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Because they tell us that people go along with all sorts of other ideas, not necessarily dovetailing with the sorts of things that we’re calling for.”

So, she said, “Okay, well look, leave this for me. I’ll go along and talk to one or two other organisations and see what they are doing and saying when they go along and talk to government.”

Within, literally, a couple of weeks, she’d effectively pulled together the founders’ group for the Disability Employment Charter by going and talking to people at Scope, UNISON, Leonard Cheshire, Shaw Trust, and so on.

The starting point was to say, “If we all come together and develop a charter where we outline in really, really simple and clear terms, exactly what it is that we want government to do. We all put our names to it and if we can get other organisations to sign it, then you’ve also got this whole range of organisations and different stakeholders that are also saying that they’re backing the sorts of things that we’re calling for.”

That sends a very, very clear message to governments. Firstly, that there’s significant appetite for substantive change in terms of disability employment policy. And, secondly, that there’s actually or a lot of consistency, really, in terms of exactly what that change should comprise. So, it was all about trying to send that message to government, from the point of view of the extent to which change is needed. Achieving consistency in terms of what that change should comprise, is what it was all about to try and push the agenda forward.’

I asked Kim, ‘So what exactly is included in the Charter?’

‘One thing that’s important to acknowledge with the Charter is that it focuses specifically on the demand side. In other words, what can be done to encourage employers, or in some senses, support or even require employers to up their game? The idea is that the supply side just isn’t enough. You can focus in terms of trying to get disabled people off benefits, into job-seeking activity, and into work, but if the workplace is not sufficiently accessible if disabled people continue to face too many barriers, then there are going to be real limits in terms of what those supply side measures will deliver.

Our argument goes, “Look, you need to be focusing more on employers, and getting employers to look at the barriers within their workplace and break them down.”

The things that we call for are across nine different areas that the Charter covers in total. The first ask that we have is in relation to disability employment and pay gap reporting. We consider it to be essential that employers have those metrics themselves so they know from the point of view of their progress how they’re getting on.

There’s also a set of asks that are about supporting disabled people into employment. So, we do have supply-side proposals in there, particularly around scaling up things like supported internships, supported employment programmes, and also the careers advice that disabled people receive as well.

We’ve got proposals in there for the reform of Access to Work, largely dragging it into the 21st century, getting it to work properly, getting it properly resourced. Because as we know, disabled people are often faced with enormous delays in terms of getting decisions made in terms of their Access to Work applications.

We also have a proposal for things like in principle indicative awards, the passporting of awards as well, from one employer to another, and the passporting from Disabled Students Allowance into Access to Work as well.

We’ve also got a set of reforms in relation to Disability Confident. Despite the fact there’s been this enormous growth in terms of Disability Confident employers, it’s not really had the effect that we would want it to have had from the point of view of actually improving disabled people’s employment outcomes. We argue that, especially for levels two and three, this certification criteria should be dependent on whether you actually meet certain disability employment outcomes, particularly employment thresholds in terms of how many disabled people you employ.

There’s also a call to leverage government procurements as well. Of course, government procurement expenditure is enormous. There is an element of social value that’s taken into account there as well. We think that disability employment should feature much more heavily in that from the point of view of who contracts are awarded to.

We’ve then got a set of asks in relation to workplace adjustments. A particularly notable one here is the requirement for employers to notify employees on decisions regarding reasonable adjustments within two weeks. This is something that UNISON, in particular, were keen to put in there because they see all sorts of adjustment requests disappearing into the ether when their members put them in and they just don’t hear back. Funnily enough, we were originally going to say four weeks not two, but an employer’s group came back to us on that. They said, “That’s too long. You’re effectively giving employers a month to do very little if anything at all.” So, they said, “Reduce it.” So, we said, “Fine. Does two weeks work?” And they went, “Fine with us.” So, two weeks it was.

Other things we call for is we argue that the government should encourage greater engagement with disabled people themselves and their representatives. That includes trade union reps, equality reps and disability champions, for example, who have statutory rights to time off from their regular jobs so that they can perform these duties.

We’ve also got a set of recommendations in relation to advice and support and where organisations can go to get support to improve their disability employment practices. This means disabled people and employers have access to the advice and support that they need to either know their rights.

Finally, we’ve got a set of asks in relation to how national progress on disability employment is monitored and measured. We argue that because there is enormous growth in terms of the number of people who identify as disabled, we’re in a situation where that needs to be taken into account as well from the point of view of assessing things like the disability employment gap.

So, the Charter has a pretty comprehensive package of policies. None of it, I would say, is overtly radical or things that haven’t been heard before. But I think the fact that it brings it together in one place and gives organisations, whether that’s disabled people’s organisations, charities, or employers more widely, something that galvanises them to get behind. I think that’s the real value of having the Charter laid out the way that it is.’

I would agree with what Kim says in that it’s good to have it all in one place. The fact that you’ve got the founding individuals and organisations and are asking individual employers to get behind the Charter gives it some more teeth. It launched in 2021, and that was a very difficult period because we were at the height of the pandemic, so I imagine it was quite challenging to launch it at that time. And the world has shifted considerably, particularly if we think about our relationship to work, and people working remotely, or working from home, et cetera, et cetera.

I asked Kim, ‘What has happened since you launched the Charter in 2021?’

‘We launched in October 2021, with 37 signatures, which I thought was a reasonable amount. The Shaw Trust held a launch event. It was right in the middle of the pandemic, so it was all online. But they put together a panel, a fantastic group of people they managed to pull together. Shawnee Dander was on there, for example. Kate Nash from PurpleSpace, Steve Ingham, who’s the CEO of PageGroup, Kamran Mallick from Disability Rights UK, and also Caroline Casey from the Valuable 500.

I chaired this event and listening to what these people had to say about the Charter and their views on it was phenomenal. Because to be honest, if I’d actually written their speeches for them, I don’t think they would’ve been as positive and as full of praise as what they actually said. That’s the point at which I thought to myself, “People are properly getting this. People understand the value of what it is that we’re trying to do.” They can see the purpose; they can see the drive. There’s potential here that people could get behind this in large numbers. I thought that was a fantastic launch event from that point of view because it put the wind in our sails in terms of driving it forward and using it to leverage government. It was at this time we went live with the Charter from the point of view of seeking signatories to it. We went out into our networks and said to the different organisations that we had relationships with, “Would you be willing to sign?”

So where are we now? We’re now in a situation where the number of signatories has obviously grown quite significantly and we have 175 signatories in total. Recent signatories include organisations like Waltham Forest Council, the British Medical Association, and the Downs Syndrome Association as well. So, we’re pulling in some pretty big names there.

Other signatories that we’ve got include many of the big national charities who have signed up to it now. Organisations like Mencap, Mind, Sense, RNIB, RNID, National Autistic Society and so on. We’ve got good representation among the trade union movements as well. The Trade Union Congress itself signed quite recently. UNISON, of course, is a founder member, but Unite has also signed so we’ve got the country’s two biggest trade unions on board. It’s also the University and College Union’s national policy to promote the charter as well, which is absolutely great.

There are a growing number of corporates as well. So PageGroup has signed, FTSE 250 recruitment firm, McDonald’s has signed, Schroders, CMS Law, Blenheim Chalcot, the Clear Company, and Publicis Groupe. Large employers have signed as well, which I didn’t expect to see if I’m honest, Toby. I saw this as something that DPOs, campaigning groups, charities, and so on, would get behind. But when employers started to get on board, I thought, “Great.”

This is just another constituency that I didn’t think would necessarily engage with the Charter in the way that they have. The fact that they have, has been absolutely wonderful. Other big organisations, the British Paralympic Association have signed, the Institute of Employment Studies, and the Work Foundation have signed as well, which is good because they don’t sign unless they believe what is said from a research point of view. That gives the Charter a nice bit of academic heft.

I think it’s fair to say that given the number of signatories that we have on board now, this has opened doors to discussions that we just wouldn’t have otherwise had with people at the Cabinet Office, the DWP, the Prime Minister’s disability advisor, and also both the Minister and the Shadow Minister for Disabled People. We have a much better relationship, I think, with all of these different groups than would otherwise have been the case if it weren’t for the Charter. But importantly, it’s also significantly shifted the nature of the discussions as well. As I said before, when we went along and talked to these sorts of people, very often, it was a little bit sort of, “Thanks for coming along and telling us about your research.”

Whereas now when I go along, it’s sort of, “Well, look, I’m here as a representative of 175 organisations, all of whom are calling for the proposals outlined in the Charter.” So rather than debating whether there is support for the proposals in the Charter, or whether they’re the right thing to do, the discussions have moved on much more to, “Well, how do we go about taking these things forward?”, “What do we do to enact them?”, “What sort of things can be done to actually push them forward in substantive policy terms”, It has just been great to see that it has properly shifted that narrative.’

I asked Kim what he thinks are some of the more practical or tangible things that an employer could take from the Charter and start applying to their organisation.

‘First off, I’d like them to live it. Signing it is great. Obviously, if the people that have signed are good disability employers, both in the way that they hire and subsequently treat disabled people, then that is wonderful to see. I think that probably the most important thing where employers are concerned is the message that they’re sending to government. They’re essentially saying by signing that if governments implement substantive reform in the area of disability employment policy, they’re not going to meet enormous resistance from employers.

That’s increasingly coming from organisations such as the CBI that are backing mandatory disability employment reporting. As are the IOD, who produced a report, probably about 18 months ago now, that backed a lot of the same sorts of policies that are outlined in the Charter. So, there is significant alignment there in terms of the types of things that they’re calling for.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has provided their backing in principle for mandatory disability employment and pay gap reporting as well. So that’s pretty much all of the main employer umbrella groups now that are in line with at least one of the Charter’s key asks, which is around mandatory reporting.

I think the Charter adds weight to that argument. It says to government, “Look, you can press ahead in these areas. If you do so, you’ll have a positive audience from employers, that will be well received by charities, disability campaign groups and so on. It gives the government confidence that if they do press ahead with this, it will be met positively.’

I asked Kim if he predicts any change in gears if there is a new government, such as a move from the Conservatives to Labour.

‘That’s a really important issue. I think the fact that we have developed a pretty good relationship now, with the Shadow Disability Minister, is testimony to that and there are a couple of things that are particularly important to keep in mind there. The first is the Labour’s National Disability Policy Forum documents, which will form the basis of their general election manifesto. Now, that has been extremely important from the point of view of the Charter, given the fact that quite a few of the Charter’s asks are actually included within it. That is thanks to the efforts of UNISON, who of course have been backing the Charter, and pushing for its inclusion in Labour policy quite strongly. Of course, if UNISON backs something, Labour does listen. They have a lot of influence over Labour, and a lot of what they say will get taken very seriously within Labour ranks. The fact that they’ve been backing this so heavily has been important in terms of getting several of the Charters asks into Labour’s National Policy Forum document.

Beyond that, there was also an event that UNISON organised in December of 2023 on the Disability Employment Charter, where Vicky Foxcroft, the Shadow Minister was the keynote speaker. Within her speech, she ran through several areas of the Charter and essentially said that if a Labour government is elected to power, that Labour will implement them. These are policies such as mandatory employment and pay gap reporting, reform of Access to Work, and the introduction of rights to time off as well, for trade union reps.

That was absolutely wonderful to hear. The engagement that we’ve had with Labour has been phenomenal from the point of view of their willingness to listen to what we have to say, and to take on board what we’re saying. Whilst Labour is not committing to a great deal for obvious reasons at the moment, the fact that the Shadow Minister made these commitments in a speech in Parliament really is quite telling. It’s also quite telling that she made these commitments in front of some of the other people who were speaking at the event, one of whom was Christine McAnea, the General Secretary of UNISON. Another of the speakers was Paul Novak, who’s the General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress. Vicky Foxcroft knows that she can’t make commitments in front of people like that lightly, because if she were to row back, or if Labour were to row back on those commitments at some point in the future, it’s likely that people such as Christine McAnea and Paul Novak, would be saying, “Look, what are you doing? You have made commitments in these areas. You need to be pushing forward.”

So, I have a great deal of optimism that a change of government could see the Disability Employment Charter playing a key role in framing Labour’s disability employment policy. I hope I’m not being overly optimistic here, but we will see a lot of these things being taken forward, should we see a Labour election victory.’

Kim’s reply feels really encouraging. Before we finished our conversation, I asked Kim the question that I ask everybody when they come on this podcast, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘I think there’s several parts to this. The way inclusive growth is often viewed is that when the economy is growing, then you’ve got new jobs in the economy. There are things like new housing projects, and new transport and infrastructure projects as well, with an opportunity to make sure that these jobs are provided on an inclusive basis. So for example, if government is awarding contracts to employers to deliver infrastructure projects, they consider equality outcomes in awarding those contracts. It could be the case that if new infrastructure is being developed, whether that’s on the rail network or a new housing project, that universal design principles are taken into consideration in doing so. But I think at the same time, the idea of inclusivity and ensuring an inclusive society isn’t something that should be dependent on economic growth.

I think there’s a lot to be said for decoupling the two terms. Because in a sense, it kind of suggests that when the economy isn’t growing, that we don’t need to worry about inclusion and that’s absolutely not the case, right? There are moral and social justice arguments regarding inclusion, irrespective of whether the economy is growing. Employers just shouldn’t take their foot off the gas in relation to inclusion when the economy hits hard times. This leads onto my next point, which is that I think that inclusion shouldn’t be seen as something that’s somehow dependent on growth.

Instead, we should see inclusion as driving growth. View it in that way and it ensures the right people are going to be in the right jobs. It ensures that organisations can draw in the widest possible range of skills and labour pools. They’re able to address their labour shortages, which is often the number one reason that employers give for not being able to expand their businesses. It enables you to retain skilled workers. It enables organisations to develop new products and services that cater to a wider demographic, hence, they’re able to grow their market.

I think inclusive growth, for me, should be more about the idea that inclusion is something that can drive growth and economic success, rather than inclusion being dependent on growth in the economy.’

I wholeheartedly agree with Kim and that’s one of the arguments I made in my first book: Inclusive Growth. So, it’s good to be on the same page.’

To learn more about the Charter, or perhaps sign up to it as an employer visit the Charter website and take a look at the Charter itself. The website shows the range of organisations that have already signed up. Kim is also keen that people try and get the Charter on their employer’s radar, since the more people that are aware of it the better. It’s completely free to sign the Charter. There’s a section on the website about how to get involved and how to sign the Charter. The signatory organisation then sends their logo to go up on the Charter website and that’s it, they’ve become a signatory organisation.

For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to the website at

The Disability Charter: Improving the Working Lives of Disabled People - Mildon