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As a parent of an autistic child, it’s essential the government publishes the employment gap figures

James Moore

In an earlier column I referred to Justin Tomlinson as the “do nothing” minister for disabled people.

To be fair, that doesn’t make him terribly unusual as regards the occupants of that post, who barely seem to have the time to get their feet under their desks before getting moved on.

But then he sprang a surprise, promising to work with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to include autistic spectrum conditions as part of its Labour Force Survey.

A pledge to monitor the autism employment gap in conjunction with the ONS might not look like much, but there’s reason to believe that Tomlinson’s successors might regret that move, especially if he does the right thing – for which there is no guarantee, given this government’s record on disability policy – and follows it through

But first, here’s why it’s important.

Currently we don’t know what the position is with respect to employment rates for people on the autism spectrum. There are no official figures.

However, when the National Autistic Society (NAS) looked at the issue in 2016, it found that just 16 per cent of autistic adults were in full-time employment. Only 32 per cent were in any kind of paid work.

The employment rate for the UK as a whole that year was running at about 75 per cent.

The society said there had been little improvement in a decade. It’s hard to imagine there’s been much in the way of improvement today. The society has produced a rather good video about how difficult autistic people can find job interviews, which are bad enough for neurotypical people. It aims to put you in the shoes of an autistic person, and it’s effective at that. I can say that with some confidence because I have a son with high-functioning autism and I know how he reacts in certain situations, and to certain questions.

But before you can look at finding ways to address the interview issue, and the others autistic people face in the workplace, you need the data to be able to understand the scale of the problem.

The reason why Tomlinson’s successors might regret his move, however, is because it will also allow people like me and organisations such as the NAS to hold the government to account.

Tomlinson and his colleagues do have the data when it comes to disability more generally because it is included in the survey.

According to charity Scope, the disability employment gap has barely improved over the last decade.

It currently stands at 29.9 percentage points, down a tiny bit (0.4 percentage points) against the same period last year. Any fall is welcome, but that’s a poor show when you consider that the rate of employment among able-bodied people is at a record 82 per cent.

It’s still a fact that one in every two disabled people is unemployed. But nine out of 10 have worked at some point. If the situation barely improves at a time of record employment, what happens when there’s a downturn?

Meanwhile, government promises to narrow it have proven to be, shall we say, malleable.

When David Cameron (remember him? If only we could forget) was prime minister, the government had an ambitious target of halving the employment gap by 2020. It’s going to miss that. But when I wrote about it a couple of years back, I found the target had become an ambition.

Now? All that ambition has evaporated. When Tomlinson announced he was inching towards monitoring the autism employment gap, he also said minsters “hope” to see one million extra disabled people in employment by 2027.

But the fact that the gap is published at least means we can hold people like him to account. His successors may not be too pleased with him, but getting the data matters. We need to be able to do the same for autism. So let’s hope Tomlinson gives me cause to drop the sobriquet “do nothing”.