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Disability Rights UK concerns over Access to Work - Letter to Minister for Disabled People

06 November 2012

Letter to Esther McVey, Minister for Disabled People

6 November 2012

Today Liz Sayce, Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK and author of the independent review commissioned by Government into disability employment programmes (1) , has written to the Minister for Disabled People to express serious concern at the slow progress made in strengthening Access to Work.

Liz’s report, published almost 18 months ago (June 2011), made recommendations to double the number of people using Access to Work, to make it much better known, to extend its use and strip out unnecessary bureaucracy, so that many more disabled people could get and keep employment opportunities.  

Since 2009-10, the number of people supported through the Access to Work scheme each year has gone down from 37,000 to just over 30,000. Progress in marketing the programme has been slow.  

In these times of economic hardship disabled people need more support to create a level-playing field and enable them to get into, stay in and progress in employment.

Dear Esther

It has been good to meet you recently and I look forward to working with you in your new role.

I am writing to you on a specific issue – to express my serious concerns about the slow progress in transforming Access to Work. I would be happy to meet you to discuss this and share thoughts on the best ways forward. 

When I started my independent review of specialist disability employment programmes in late 2010, the figures showed just over 37,000 people per year being helped by Access to Work (in 2009-10). I recommended that this number should double.  Yet by 2011-12 the numbers had gone down - to just over 30,000 people; and over that last year numbers have dropped in 35 out of 36 regions - every region except North/Mid Wales.

I am delighted that the Government has a panel led by Mike Adams, involving disabled people and experts, to recommend precisely how to implement the necessary changes; but action is now overdue. Government action was swift when it related to changes in Remploy. It needs to be rapid and vigorous in relation to Access to Work, with plans to increase marketing, increase spending on the programme and uptake of the budget, personalise the programme and strip out bureaucracy so money goes on the direct support people need to work.

We know that Access to Work is a popular programme. It is cost effective (for every £1 spent the Treasury recoup £1.48) and it can make a real difference to disabled people’s opportunities to work. We often hear from our members telling us that they would have lost their employment – or never got back into employment – if it had not been for Access to Work.

We have in this country a 30% employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people – which means 2 million disabled people out of work due to that gap – and a crisis of lack of opportunity amongst young disabled people. Young disabled people are twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training as their non-disabled peers, and their employment chances and even their aspirations diverge from those of non-disabled people as they reach adulthood.  If ever there was a time to ensure the Access to Work programme is working to its full potential, this is it.

We have been deeply concerned to see that the budget for Access to Work has been under-spent. At the same time, many people have never heard of it. With strong marketing, the budget could be expanded and fully used. Our members tell us that it remains too bureaucratic; some tell us that their Access to Work has been reduced (for instance, fewer hours of interpreting support). We recognise that the jobs market may be one, but only one factor in the reduction. We are convinced more should be done to expand and improve the scheme and we have a number of questions and challenges which we hope will focus attention on the urgent action that is needed:

  • What are the plans to market and significantly expand the programme? This needs concerted action: ideas might include marketing through the channels that disabled people routinely access (the NHS, disability/health condition organisations, general media - via press launches, perhaps a specific week of action, improved on-line information on available support for disabled people and employers, local and national PR events and coverage). We are keen to raise awareness amongst our members
  • Why were restrictions on what Access to Work could be used for brought in, at a time when a key problem was under-use of the budget? Whilst we agree that employers need to understand their responsibilities, we want a programme that is personalised – not one which rules out specific uses of the money. The simple expectation that larger organisations pay more for adjustments is enough to ensure employers fulfil their responsibilities. It is not a personalised approach to specify which particular types of equipment can and cannot be funded by Access to Work (beyond agreeing that equipment required for all employees need not be paid for by Access to Work). These restrictions cause confusion and act as a further obstacle
  • What are the plans to reduce bureaucracy and make the whole system more user-friendly?. For instance, why do hard copy forms have to be signed weekly, for monitoring purposes? This is a shocking waste of public money and of employers’ and employees’ time. Monitoring is essential but it could be reformed and brought into the 21st Century through on-line systems. It also remains difficult to move from one area to another, or from higher education into employment. We need greater flexibility and portability.
  • When will all young disabled people undertaking work experience and internships be eligible for Access to Work? A DWP press release in July 2012 suggest that Access to Work would be available for work experience including Supported Internships, but it seems in reality that it will only be available once students are offered paid employment and not on the work experience element of Supported Internships. Young disabled people are at a huge disadvantage in the employment market and extending Access to Work eligibility to all work experience and internships - from the point of being taken on - would help create a level playing field of opportunity.   

We are also conscious that some disabled people in, or seeking, employment may lose out financially under plans for PIP and Universal Credit. Transitional protection will not necessarily mitigate this because of benefit changes and other changes in circumstances, from having a child to changing job/hours. This will make Access to Work even more important to being able to get and keep employment.

We look forward to seeing a clear action plan, that gives confidence to disabled people that transformation is starting. I also hope we may be able to meet to discuss this issue further.

Yours sincerely

Liz Sayce
Chief Executive
Disability Rights UK