Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Accepting injustice: the government's approach to Access to Work

Access to Work is a government programme which funds the extra costs that Deaf and disabled people sometimes have if they are to have the same opportunities to work as anyone else.  For example, it can pay for an alteration to a desk, for text to speech software, for a British Sign Language Interpreter, for supporting mental health needs.

It is the most successful government policy aimed at reducing the disability employment gap, which currently stands at 32%.  Additional funding has been allocated to the programme and it has recently focussed more on helping with more people with “hidden impairments like mental health conditions and learning disabilities”. In 2015, the government announced  “a real terms increase in spending on Access to Work… to help a further 25,000 disabled people each year”.  If the government is to achieve its goal of halving the disability employment gap, then Access to Work has a key role to play.

This sounds like a good news story - and we could do with a few of those these days.

But it isn’t. And the reason it isn't is the same reason that so much is wrong with public policy these days.  Decisions are being made about the Access to Work programme which are not informed by the day to day reality of being a disabled person who needs assistance, equipment or adjustments to enable them to get a job, and to stay in, and progress in paid employment.  And, far from more people being helped by Access to Work, the numbers being helped started to fall in 2010/11 and, despite a recent increase, still haven’t reached the total number who were being helped in 2009/10. (NB. This is a link to the recently revised method of recording data on Access to Work. The statistics given in other documents linked to in this blogpost should not therefore be relied upon as they over-estimated the numbers being helped.)

When the Coalition government came into office in 2010, it commissioned a review of employment support, which found that Access to Work was by far the most successful programme and was valued by both employers and disabled people.  Although the government accepted the general recommendation that Access to Work should be expanded, and did make some additional funding available, it also attempted to increase the numbers helped by spreading the funding more thinly.  It was only after Deaf and disabled people gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee that the government was forced to realise that their new rules were likely to lead to large numbers losing their jobs.  Some welcome changes were made to their initial proposals - though not before many Deaf and disabled people were put at risk of losing their jobs.  

However, the government’s focus is still on how to make the existing budget go further.  A guiding principle, set out in the DWP’s ‘equality analysis’  of recent Access to Work changes is to only meet “the customer’s minimum need”.  It is also clear from this document that introducing personal budgets for Access to Work resources is motivated by the drive to reduce ‘high value awards’ rather than a wish to deliver choice and control.

A survey of people’s experiences of A2W, which has just been published, found:

  • poor customer service provided by the re-organised call centres, resulting in delays and errors 
  • more frequent reassessments which could be onerous in terms of time and evidence required, getting in the way of people doing their paid employment
  • increased restrictions on the use and portability of support, especially for people who were self-employed
  • Deaf people faced particular difficulties, with call centres ill-equipped to deal with non-hearing customers as well as measures to drive down the cost of BSL support essential to do their jobs
  • reductions in support, often without sufficient notice.

Many respondents to the survey - some of whom had over a period of years built successful careers supported by Access to Work -  reported “that they were now made to feel ‘like scroungers’”.

A cap being placed on the amount of support a person can receive is a particular threat to the working lives of Deaf people who use BSL Interpreters.  For many it will make full-time employment impossible. As Jenny Sealey, theatre director, told the BBC: “At the thought of having to cut my hours, I can feel me - Jenny - shrinking, becoming this small person, feeling quite terrified of what my future is. I can't believe this is going to happen, it makes me feel quite sick”.  Yet from April 2018, her funding for BSL Interpreters will be capped and she will no longer be able to work full-time (the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show covered the problems with Access to Work in some detail)

The DWP’s equality analysis of its changes to Access to Work recognises that placing a cap on the amount of support that will be funded means that some people may not be offered or may lose their jobs.  They admit that “Some of the cost of support may fall back on employers. There is a risk that this may discourage employers from employing disabled people, increasing the likelihood of unlawful discrimination and reducing equality of opportunity”.  This acceptance of reduced opportunities to work does not sit well with the government’s aim of halving the disability employment gap. It is also a shockingly deliberate increase in the injustice experienced by disabled people.

Access to Work funding is discretionary.  There is no right of appeal, no access to an independent complaints procedure. Whether you get it, how much you get and what type of assistance you get depends on the skill and experience of the Access to Work advisor, and/or whether they feel pressurised to reduce the numbers qualifying or the value of awards.  If you’re unlucky and get an advisor who doesn’t fully understand the particular barriers you face or the ways in which they can be overcome, you may not get what you need.  DWP emphasise that people cannot challenge the amount they have been allocated and can only ask for “one reconsideration” by another advisor. 

This lack of a right of appeal is particularly worrying in the light of Access to Work applicants’ experiences - recounted in the StopChanges2AtW report - which suggest “that ‘value for money’ guidance issued by DWP is being interpreted and applied in decision making by inadequately trained advisers with insufficient understanding of their clients’ needs, and in response to pressure to make savings”.
The government failed to act on the Sayce review’s recommendation that money from existing, and failing, employment support programmes should be re-allocated to Access to Work. Instead, only 20% of the funding previously allocated to the Work Programme and Work Choice has been made available for a new Health and Work programme and the government’s approach to Access to Work continues to be spreading existing resources more thinly.  There remains confusion about how much the ‘real terms’ increase referred to in the 2015 Spending Review will actually be.  That Review said an additional 25,000 people would receive Access to Work awards and the Health and Work Green Paper said that the programme would aim to support 60,000 people.  Currently, 25,020 people receive help from Access to Work - there’s a long long way to go. And current rules and the cost-cutting approach will do nothing to help bridge the disability employment gap.

As the report published by the StopChanges2AtW campaign argues, “When it works well, AtW is a personalized, flexible support scheme which increases choice and control for Deaf and Disabled people over their working lives and their participation in society”.  Unfortunately, a few people sitting in a room in Whitehall have decided that some people’s support needs are just too expensive.  And the current government seems to think it is acceptable to normalise inequality by denying people the support they need to put them on a level playing field with their non disabled peers. 

The only way the Access to Work programme will achieve its enormous potential is if its rules and implementation are co-designed with disabled people and their organisations. Listening to the StopChanges2AtW campaign and taking on board their recommendations would be a good start.