Government cutbacks increasingly threaten disabled people’s right to work. It is now more difficult to qualify for resources from Access to Work; in addition, those with agreed packages are now being systematically examined irrespective of routine review dates with a view to reducing support.
Access to Work is a government programme set up to support people who face barriers to employment as a result of their health or impairment through provision of advice and support with extra costs to both disabled people and their employers. The programme is critical in upholding the right of disabled people to access mainstream employment and it actually makes a profit for the government: the amount invested in the programme is exceeded by the amount brought in through the taxes of working disabled people and through savings made in benefit payments, social care support and care, and medical costs. The Sayce report into supported employment: “Getting In, Staying In and Getting On” (June 2011) found that for every £1 spent on support through Access to Work, the government recoups £1.48. The Department for Work and Pensions nevertheless has a budget to cut and at a meeting in March 2011 the head of the Access to Work team, Steve Lismore, confirmed that the direction of travel for Access to Work is to reduce resources.
The personal experience of disabled people shows that Access to Work advisors are, in line with this strategy, adopting an attitude as guardians of public money more preciously than ever before. The onus is on the disabled person to prove beyond question the genuineness of their support needs. This is not only intimidating for the disabled person but also counter-productive for the supposed government agenda of getting disabled people off benefits and into work. Many people rely on Access to Work support and without any guarantee of receiving that support would be unable to take up employment offers, however you cannot apply to Access to Work without a guaranteed job and start date. For many disabled people the programme is therefore irrelevant.
For some disabled people Access to Work has traditionally been one of the most supportive and accessible support streams. The programme takes an approach in line with the social model of disability where individual applications are considered on a case-by-case basis and there is an avoidance of policy statements that treat disabled people in groups according to impairment. Members of the Newham Action Hub reported that they received a better service from their Access to Work advisors than from their care managers. For other disabled people, particularly those with more complex support needs, the programme fails to meet their needs. Moreover, as resources are being reduced the wider experience is already less positive, for example, with people being told that Access to Work might possibly not be providing equipment such as wheelchairs in the future. There is a revised list of equipment that has been included in the Access to Work guidance in order to assist advisers in making operational decisions. The effectiveness of the programme is only going to be further compromised under current conditions.
Individuals with impairments with which advisors are not familiar have less chance of being able to make a case for support that is accepted; people with learning difficulties or mental health support needs are frequently told by individual advisors that they are not eligible for ongoing support costs, rendering them unable to stay in or take up employment. In one example a woman was told that people with mental health support needs could not get support costs from Access to Work but could only “be referred to Mind for counselling to get better”. In another example a young man with a learning difficulty was told that Access to Work cannot provide full-time support costs and that he would not be able to get more than 6 hours support per week past the first 6 weeks of his employment, irrespective of any evidence of genuine support need. Experience suggests that current Access to Work policy disadvantages applicants with mental health support needs or learning difficulties. The DWP continues to deny this link but failure to recognise the importance of being seen to be able to provide ongoing support costs means that this under-representation will continue.
As part of a tightening up of resources, Access to Work are contacting all those currently in receipt of support through the programme and reviewing their packages with a view to identifying possible reductions. This is un-nerving for disabled people as, for many, any reduction would mean having to leave their job. People with learning difficulties had to fight to be accepted as eligible for the programme in the first place and advisors have continued to struggle to understand how a person with a learning difficulty can be capable of doing their own job and have support needs at the same time. Pressure to identify reduction therefore brings with it much anxiety. In one example a man’s support worker was contacted without his knowledge to find out from her a task list of things he “can do on his own”. There are very few people with learning difficulties in paid employment – the Office for Disability Issues calculates 6.4% of people labelled moderate to severe. The figure for those who have meaningful jobs with real wages will be lower still. It should be a right of disabled people to work, moreover it is in the taxpayer’s interest to raise the employment aspirations and expectations of disabled people. For Access to Work to risk the few ground-breaking jobs there are for people with learning difficulties in meaningful employment is irresponsible.
The Sayce Report acknowledges the value of the Access to Work and calls for further investment. Let’s hope the government responds to this and uses the programme to effectively support disabled people into work instead of focusing on squeezing support off disabled people to the detriment of the economy.