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National plan needed to end discrimination against disabled NHS staff, say leaders

Published on: 22 Nov 2021

NHS England’s programme to tackle discrimination against disabled staff and patients is “fairly limited” and needs to “go up a couple gears”, according to two senior leaders.

Kate Smyth and Peter Reading, who co-chair a network of disabled NHS directors, said a long-term national strategy for the workforce disability equality standard is needed to eliminate discrimination issues, similar to the strategy which is being worked on around race.

The latest WDES report found non-disabled job applicants were 1.2 times more likely to be appointed from a shortlisting compared to disabled applicants, a trend that has “not changed radically” since 2019 when it was 1.18 times.

It also revealed, for the first time, that disabled staff were 1.54 times more likely to enter a performance management process, compared to non-disabled staff.

Mr Reading, who is chief executive of Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals Foundation Trust, said: “Disability is the ‘Cinderella’ of the protected characteristics, I think it is fair to say, within the NHS.

“The establishment of the WDES team was a really positive step forward. It was a recognition that disability needs to have real investment and support to reduce discrimination and so on, and the data demonstrates that disabled staff are seriously disadvantaged across almost all the employment and management practices that are measured.

“That said, I think it is also fair to say that what it [the WDES] measures is fairly limited. There is a need to go up a couple of gears, really, in terms of supporting disabled staff and patients with disabilities…We [as co-chairs] are keen to do is help them go up those couple of gears and that is the work we are doing at the moment.”

For example, there is concern around the discrepancy between staff who have indicated they have a disability in the NHS staff survey (18.7 per cent) compared with those who have declared themselves disabled in the electronic staff record (3.5 per cent), according to the WDES.

The NHS staff survey is anonymous, and Ms Smyth, a non-executive director at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals FT, suggested some staff are afraid to formally notify their employer about their disability, which would then show on the ESR, for fear they may be treated differently as a result.

She added: “It worries me that people are worried about retribution afterwards, we have got to destroy that.”

Other calls for action include developing a plan to recruit more disabled staff as part of a national strategy, similar to the one published by the government in July, breaking down WDES figures by gender, ethnicity and pay grade, and increasing scrutiny from the Care Quality Commission over trusts’ WDES data around bullying and harassment.

Ms Smyth said: “I think the CQC could help support a lot of what we’re doing, and if they did look at your WDES report before they came, then they could pick up issues in there which would reflect on whether you are well led.

“The thought that disabled people are far more likely to be bullied and harassed by patients, or other colleagues, is awful. We’ve just got to address it.”

Ted Baker, CQC’s chief inspector of hospitals, told HSJ the regulator considers how trusts are implementing the WDES as part of its assessment of a trust’s culture and leadership, “highlighting where we find good practice as well as scope for improvement”.

Professor Baker added: “We are currently developing the detail of the CQC’s future approach and as part of that we are looking at how we can best support services to reduce inequalities and improve experiences for their staff and people in their care.”

NHSE has been approached for comment.