The culture of the senior civil service is acting as a brake on the career ambitions of disabled officials, a government-commissioned report has concluded.
The report – one of three on civil service diversity published by the Cabinet Office on Thursday – says that while many senior Whitehall leaders have shown a “clear and strong commitment” to diversity, civil servants with disabilities and long-term health conditions still face “substantial barriers” to promotion.
The study, conducted by charity Disability Rights UK, points out 8.8% of civil servants now declare a disability, up from 4.1% in 1998. But it says the figures are “less encouraging” in the senior civil service, where just 3.4% of officials declare themselves to be disabled.
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DRUK acknowledges that the civil service has taken “important” steps to accommodate staff with disabilities since a 2011 review into low levels of staff engagement, but warns that disabled officials still encounter a “benevolence barrier” because of the expectations of Whitehall’s top tier.
It says: “The senior civil service ‘norm’ is still widely perceived to involve supreme flexibility in terms of working hours and location, examplar communication skills and hyper-resilience physically and mentally: disabled civil servants feel that whatever their talents, skills or potential contribution, they are assumed not to be able to deal with the pressures and are therefore passed over for new responsibilities and promotions.”
The report says workplace adjustments to accommodate disabled staff are sometimes seen “as a privilege, not a necessity or a right”, and treated as a “cost as opposed to an investment”.
DRUK’s study draws on the findings of wider quantitative research into barriers facing under-represented communities – including LGBT officials and civil servants from BME backgrounds – published yesterday. That research found that 56% of disabled respondents said they had experienced “discrimination, bullying and harassment” at work in the last year.
Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, setting out the Cabinet Office’s response to the trio of reports at an event in London yesterday, branded that particular finding “chilling”.
“We are really going to have to focus in on what lies behind that terrible statistic,” he said.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude, who also spoke at yesterday's event, acknowledged the reports make for “uncomfortable reading". The civil service has already announced a “refresh” of its Talent Action Plan, vowing that a new cross-government team will oversee Whitehall’s diversity and inclusion agenda.