21 February 2012 It's Time to Improve Access to Work Now!
The number of new claims to Access to Work is going down - and this must change. If Government wants more disabled people to work, surely the least we can expect is sustained action to increase the kind of support in employment that disabled people value. The Access to Work programme (whilst not perfect) is popular and cost effective: for every pound spent the Treasury recoups £1.48.The latest Government Access to Work statistics show that from April to September 2011 4830 people started using Access to Work (new starts) - a full year rate of 9,660. This means the last 3 years of ‘new starts' look like this:
2011-12 9,660 (expected - based on half year figures)This is a rapid decline in the number of people starting to use Access to Work.
There are all sorts of possible reasons - the fact that Access to Work is ‘government's best kept secret' and not enough people know about it, the fact that more people are staying on it long-term, leaving little budget for new people, the fact that jobs are fewer. But whatever the reasons - it won't do and action must be taken.
There are compelling reasons to act:
Everyone is very concerned about youth unemployment generally (and rightly so). But young disabled people really are a forgotten generation - and many are destined to live without hope unless we act. Young disabled people are twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to be ‘not in education, employment or training'.
No less than 62% of disabled people aged 16-24 are not working (compared to 41% of non-disabled people of the same age). Yet Access to Work is not available for internships or all types of work experience. Employers look for people with some experience gained in the real world of work - skills that it is much harder for young disabled people to acquire. How can it possibly be fair to put this group of young people at such a major disadvantage? Access to Work should cover all internships and work experience - and should be much better promoted to people seeking apprenticeships, and their employers.
Because there is a limited budget there is little promotion of Access to Work. To be sure, large companies and public sector bodies often know about it and can advise employees and managers - but in the SME sector, Government programmes like Access to Work are a mystery and often people have never heard of it. This matters when future economic growth is expected to come from the SME sector - how will disabled people benefit from any new jobs that do come on stream, if neither they nor the small employer knows that (for instance) there may be help with technology, or a support worker, or an interpreter? Without that knowledge, the employer may not feel able to take the ‘risk' (as they see it) of taking on someone with an impairment they have no idea how to accommodate; and the employee may not feel able to take the ‘risk' of moving from benefits to a job. Access to Work must be promoted specifically to the SME sector.
Every year, 300,000 people leave work through ill-health or disability, many want to keep their job and - if they and employers knew about Access to Work - many of them could. However, often they don't know - and leaving employment can be a tragedy for them and their family. Access to Work needs to be better publicised - to individuals, to employers and also to health services. I've lost count of the number of people with acquired impairments who have told me that after they had the accident/the stroke/the diagnosis of a mental health problem, no one talked to them about employment - or not until after all the treatment had been sorted out, by which time they had lost their job, lost contact with their employer and lost their confidence. This could change - health service staff don't have to be employment experts, but they could have enough information to tell people about major programmes like Access to Work quickly.
The latest figures show that just under 2% of everyone using Access to Work in the first 6 months of 2011 has a mental health condition (460 people out of 24,340). However, about 43% of people claiming one of the ‘incapacity benefits' has a mental health condition. The figures are not much better for people with learning disabilities (just under 6% of Access to Work users - 1380 out of 24,340). It is quite unfair that these groups of disabled people are not getting Access to Work support, when they face such disadvantage in the labour market. They are amongst the people who need it most.
I could go on. We are expecting the Government to respond to a review I did last year, which recommended radical improvements to Access to Work: promoting it more widely including to SMEs, health services and mental health/learning disability organisations, extending its coverage (for instance, to people doing internships), publicising it for people doing apprenticeships, bringing the system into the 21st century through opening up information on products and services on-line that we can all rate - and working with Disabled People's Organisations to offer peer support locally, linking employment with other support, from social care to personal health budgets.
In the present public debate disabled people are portrayed overwhelmingly as ‘scroungers' - or ‘pretend disabled' as Rod Liddle put it in the Sun recently, arguing many of us are using ‘newly invented illnesses' like ME to claim benefits. This is dangerous particularly for those of us with hidden impairments - who may be assumed not to be ‘genuine' - and is affecting all disabled people.
Isn't there something wrong when disabled people are told we are not trying hard enough to work - yet the very programme that is popular, cost effective and proven to help people keep and get jobs is under-used and under-promoted?
The time for government action to transform Access to Work is now.