This week, it was off to sunny Brighton for the United Response policy and campaigns team, who attended the first Labour conference since the leadership contest.

We were there with a purpose: to raise awareness of the employment gap that sees people with learning disabilities and autism woefully under-represented in the workforce - and to look at what we can do to change this.

High-profile speakers and panellists

Our fringe event saw a great line-up of speakers, including long-time supporter and Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Kate Green MP, who spoke eloquently about the need for effective employment programmes to support people furthest from the labour market (that’s labour with a small 'l') and the impact of the supported employment programmes in her own constituency of Stretford and Urmston, where our very own Trafford Employment Service is based.

We also heard from news correspondent David Allkins, who spoke movingly about his own struggles with job hunting – despite having a good degree – and the lack of support available to him when he left university. Read on to watch his video report of the event...

Last but not least, we were joined by the inspirational Kay Allen OBE, who stunned the audience with the revelation that she’d given the exact same speech 20 years earlier – with the same statistics. Shockingly, in 2015, as in 1995, only 7% of people with a learning disability and 15% of people with autism are in paid employment, compared with 46% in the disabled population as a whole and 76% of adults overall.

We have seen time and time again in our work, people with learning disabilities and/or autism not only want to work but can move towards work. And we have excellent feedback from employers that people with learning disabilities, autism and Asperger’s make excellent and reliable employees, and that their presence in the workforce can also have a hugely motivating effect on teams.

So, what needs to change?

Firstly, there need to be the right employment support programmes – including for people with complex needs. The evidence from existing DWP programmes tells us that disabled people are most likely to secure sustained employment when supported by a specialist disability employment programme.

The figures speak for themselves: more than half of those who started on Work Choice between 1st April 2014 and 30th September 2014 had secured a job by 31st March this year. In contrast, only 12% of new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants on the Work Programme get a job outcome after being on the programme for 2 years - and the figure for ‘ex-Incapacity Benefit’ ESA participants drops to just 5%.

And there needs to be proper support for people with the most complex needs. Current employment programmes are skewed towards the presumption of 16 hours-plus work per week, which may simply not be attainable for a person with complex needs, either in the short or longer term. So a specialist programme that includes outcome measures for those able to work for less than 16 hours per week is vital.

Secondly, we need to raise the aspirations of young people with learning disabilities (particularly those between the ages of 14 and 25) and again, to have that 'presumption of employability'.  This means ensuring targeted support is available to young people at a local level, close to home and as soon as they are ready to move on from school or college.

Last but not least, employers also need support to gain a greater understanding of learning disability and the support that an employee with learning disabilities may need. Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of 'reasonable adjustments' that can be made for someone with a physical disability, but there is little awareness of simple steps that could support an applicant with a learning disability or mental health need. Much more needs to be done to boost understanding among employers of the support that is out there, whether through projects such as Trafford Employment Services or simply via Access to Work – which Kay described as a “best-kept secret” to much nodding in the room!

What was really clear – and encouraging – was the passion and commitment in the room to making a real difference for the people furthest from the labour market and the need to work together to do it. Watch this space.

News correspondent David Allkins’ report

David Allkins didn’t just speak during our Labour fringe event, but he also spent time in the midst of the conference meeting Labour politicians, watching newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn’s speech, personally evaluating the party’s policies around disability – and recording it all in his latest report.

Next stop: Manchester!

On Tuesday 6th October, we’ll be holding a similar fringe event at the Conservative Party conference at 7.30pm in the Royce Suite of the QHotels Midland Hotel. See you there.

Diane Lightfoot, director of policy and communications.