Epilepsy in the workplace
I, too, congratulate Laura Sandys and Mrs Gillan on securing this important debate. In common with many other Members, I would like personally to thank the hon. Member for South Thanet for the excellent work she has done. She might not thank me for a glowing tribute, given that I am on the left of the party, but I think that she is a thoroughly decent MP who does an excellent job. She will be sadly missed. I am perhaps a less active member of the all-party group on epilepsy, but I am a member of many other all-party groups, particularly those on health and cancer. This is a very timely debate. It is thanks once again to the Backbench Business Committee that we have been afforded this opportunity to raise awareness of this important and often misunderstood condition.
In a previous role—I was not double-jobbing, I might add—I worked in the National Health Service in an analytical chemistry lab where I used to do tests on anti-epileptic drugs using gas chromatography techniques, so I know a little bit about the chemistry but not so much about the clinical manifestations and symptoms.
I pay tribute to the tremendous and powerful speech by Steve Baker, which really brought home the potential risks of this condition if left unregulated. It is one of the most common neurological conditions in the United Kingdom.
As the hon. Member for South Thanet said, 500,000 people in the UK, or one in 100, have the condition. That is a considerable number of people. As I think we are all aware by now, epilepsy is not one condition but a composite. Other Members have mentioned the suspected link with autism.
There are about 40 different types of seizure and perhaps as many as 50 different syndromes with various degrees of severity and complexity. However, with the right treatment, the right medication and the right support, there is no reason why someone suffering from epilepsy cannot lead a full and active life, as the hon. Lady so ably explained.
Many Members have talked about access to medical care and stigma, but I want to stress another aspect—the discrimination that can be faced by those with epilepsy, creating barriers to education, and, more particularly, to employment.
A report published by Young Epilepsy found that three quarters of people with epilepsy have experienced discrimination due to their condition. This situation was reaffirmed by work commissioned by the disabilities charity, Quarriers, which found that more than two thirds of people with epilepsy admit that they worry what members of the public would say or do if they had a seizure, with over a third expressing concern that having a seizure in public has led to anxiety about whether to leave the house – let alone taking up employment.
In relation to employment, more than seven in 10—72%—stated that their condition had an impact on their career progression and choice, with more than two fifths avoiding even telling people about their epilepsy.
There are protections in place for those looking for work and for those who are in work, but I am concerned that these duties and obligations are not being met by employers.
Equality laws make it illegal for employers to treat people with epilepsy unfairly, and protection must be provided against bullying and harassment due to their condition. Employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help people with epilepsy to get into work, or stay there, and to prevent them from being at a substantial disadvantage.
However, we have found that people with epilepsy have been shown to be twice as likely to be at risk of unemployment as those without the condition.
The case of Karen Guyott, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Kate Hoey, has been drawn to my attention before.
To comply with the instructions from yesterday, I am, as it says in my entry on page 205 of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, a member of the RMT parliamentary group, although it is unremunerated and the RMT is not affiliated to my party. It is important that we speak in this House on behalf of working people, and charities, and raise legitimate concerns. That example of someone losing her job is an important test case because, as my hon. Friend said, London Underground did not provide the training or support required.
I only have a little time left, so I want to put this to the Minister, who I know is a decent and reasonable man: at the conclusion of the debate, I hope that he will make it clear that it is unacceptable to discriminate against someone due to their having epilepsy. I hope that he will support people, such as Karen, who are fighting blatant discrimination.
Will he agree to raise her case with the Mayor, because Transport for London comes under the Mayor’s auspices?
TfL is a significant public sector employer, and we want it to be an example of best practice. Will the Minister meet a delegation of interested MPs to discuss discrimination and epilepsy at work?