The Equality Bill: how disability equality fits within a single Equality Act - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

4  The Access to Work Scheme

The scheme

169. Access to Work (AtW) is a scheme run by Jobcentre Plus. The scheme provides advice and practical support to disabled people and their employers to help overcome work related obstacles resulting from a disability. As well as giving advice and information to disabled people and employers, AtW pays a grant through Jobcentre Plus to cover the costs of providing reasonable adjustments to disabled people in employment. As a government funded subsidy toward employers requirement to make reasonable adjustments, it plays an important role in implementing the DDA in employment.

170. The first step with any claim to Access to Work is to identify exactly what support an individual needs to be able to do a particular job. In some cases this can be done by the AtW adviser in discussion with the customer and where appropriate their employer, for example deciding if someone needs travel to work help. Where support cannot be easily identified in this way the AtW adviser will arrange for an assessment of the support needs by an appropriate external expert. The assessment report produced includes details of the actual type of equipment or other support that would be most beneficial.[200]

171. The Department states that AtW will fund the most cost effective solution that will provide the minimum level of support. Once funding has been agreed with the customer the actual support is purchased by either the customer or their employer. In the following circumstances the employer or the customer is expected to contribute towards the costs if:

  • the individual has been with the same employer for more than 6 weeks and the funding is for equipment or adaptations to premises, the Department expects the employer to pay all costs below £300 and 20% of the costs between £300 and £10,000. AtW pays 100% of the costs over £10,000 and all of the costs for a support worker or travel to work;
  • the employer would gain a more general business benefit from the support, for example a piece of equipment that could be used by all employees, The Department would negotiate a contribution from the employer;
  • the customer would be able to use the support outside work, for example an electric wheelchair that they could use at home, the Department would negotiate a contribution from the customer.[201]

172. The Department states that AtW is not intended to remove the employer's responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act or Health and Safety legislation, nor is it intended to fund support at home as this is the responsibility of the Local Authorities.[202] However, Mr Harwood of the Public Interest Research Unit pointed out that: "the Government seem to present it (AtW) as one of their means for increasing compliance with the DDA. […] the Raising Expectations White Paper, […] says: 'We also need to make sure that employers do not discriminate against people who are sick or disabled, so we will double the budget for Access to Work'."[203]

Improving the scheme


173. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), amongst others argued that "Access to Work is the best kept secret in the DWP".[204] The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggested that DWP needs to actively publicise AtW to disabled people, employers and intermediaries.[205] The FSB believes that this should include GPs so they can alert anyone in work who develops a long-term illness or disability, to help them stay in work.[206] Mr Crowther of the EHRC stated that: "There is always a big challenge to reach small and medium sized employers. The DRC in its last few years did a lot of research around this and one of the key things that we found was the best reach is often through intermediaries - through their accountants, their lawyers, through chambers of commerce - so there is an issue about how my organisation, Jobcentre Plus and others target those intermediaries to make sure that information is there."[207]

174. DWP said "the Department will consider whether awareness of Access to Work needs to be raised amongst SMEs and some customer groups, such as those with mental health conditions."[208] The Trade Union Disability Alliance argues that Jobcentre staff seem generally unaware of the assistance available through AtW, and even the specialist Disability Employment Advisers assigned to disabled jobseekers are often ignorant about how AtW actually operates in practice. "All Jobcentre staff need to receive training on Access to Work in order that they can advise their clients correctly. Disability Employment Advisers need access to further training and more detailed information."[209]

175. The Minister, Kitty Ussher, assured us that the Department is "making sure that in Jobcentre Plus and all other fora it is not the best kept secret and that we can fund the most needy projects. […] We are violently agreeing about the need to publicise it and that is what we are doing. We will make sure that every single front line member of staff that we employ when they are working through local employment partnerships and with individual people who are looking to get into work knows that the support is available, so that it can be prioritised as effectively as possible."[210]

176. We have heard that too many employers and disabled people are unaware of what support is available for them through the Access to Work scheme. We welcome the Minister's assurance that every single member of Jobcentre Plus frontline staff knows that the support is available. We recommend that all staff receive training in order that they can advise their clients correctly. We also call on DWP to work with disability charities and employer organisations to identify the right approach to marketing the scheme more widely, also through intermediaries.


177. The EHRC argues that AtW can act as a barrier given that the assessment is at the point of job entry or the onset of an impairment or health condition and not part of an ongoing 'getting on' package of support.[211] AtW does not currently support individuals to sell themselves to prospective employers i.e. to assure employers that the adjustments AtW brings come with the individual. The FSB states that this would reassure the employer that they will be able to apply for funding, which is currently an unknown element, and strengthen the individual's confidence to talk openly about their disability in an interview.[212]

178. Mr Purton of the TUC argued that "Portability would be one of the things that would be fairly crucial to improving the impact of the scheme on employment rates of disabled people."[213] And Ms Williams of the CBI agreed that: "from an employer's perspective that would again ease any concerns quite quickly if the individual is able to reassure them on that. In addition […] there are some good examples where putting in place through Access to Work some training and work placement prior to recruitment or a work job shop can also have some merit."[214]

179. Ms Sudworth of DWP said that: "There are some circumstances in which the individual can take support with them, particularly if they are self-employed or a freelance worker."[215] She confirmed that employees currently can not take support with them, but added that the Department is: "looking at how the right to control works with access to work and I think it is a very valid point."[216]

180. We believe that portability of AtW support would have a crucial impact on the employment rates of disabled people. We also believe that what is already available under the scheme for self-employed and freelance workers should be made available for disabled employees as well. This would give them the confidence to talk about their disability when applying for jobs and would give great assurance for employers too that support was available.


181. The EHRC suggests that AtW should be made available to people with mental health problems.[217] The Employers' Forum on Disability argues that AtW is not widely used by either employers or people with mental health problems because it is not well understood by them.[218] DWP recognises that some people have fluctuating mental health conditions that are not fully supported through AtW. The Department is piloting AtW support for people with mental health and fluctuating health issues in two areas of London. The Minister, Kitty Ussher, said: "So far, as of 7 January, we have four customers identified. So far, they are all employed with two returning from sick absence. It is very early days but it is really exciting and we will be evaluating it very closely."[219]

182. The Disability Charities Consortium and the National AIDS Trust state that AtW should provide temporary staff cover for someone with a fluctuating mental health condition. This would reduce the employer's anxiety about taking on someone who might require above-average sickness leave.[220] Mr Crowther of the EHRC suggested this support might "be provided in the form of credits so people could draw down on it when they needed it, almost like a kind of call out service."[221] Susan Scott-Parker of the Employers' Forum on Disability agreed: "if Jobcentre Plus sends me a candidate with a history of mental health problems and I decide to take him on but I am worried that, while he looks fine now, he might take sick time in the future, if there is an insurance policy that says if there are any extra costs that accrue to me because of that person, […] then I can pay for the temp I have to bring in to cover. That kind of insurance policy we thought might make sense."[222]

183. We welcome the Access to Work pilot to support people with mental illnesses and fluctuating illnesses but believe that the Department should commit to the principle of extending the scheme to include support for these people. Pilots should also be used to introduce innovative uses of Access to Work such as individual support in form of credits for people with mental health or fluctuating health conditions to pay for temporary cover or work trials. We recommend that, if successful, this support should be rolled out nationwide as soon as possible.


184. The AtW budget is managed within DWP's departmental expenditure limits (DEL). The AtW budget has increased from £14.6million in 1997/8 to £69million in 2008/9 and the budget will double to £138million by 2013/14. The Minister, Kitty Ussher, confirmed: "It is capped. […] The doubling means that we think the annual capacity will obviously double from 24,000 people to 48,000 people."[223]

185. However, there is evidence that despite the increasing spend, overall the total number of beneficiaries has been falling and the number of new beneficiaries has also fallen. It seems that this is due to "ongoing support" taking up an increasing share of the budget, and one-off adjustments taking a declining share.[224]

186. The Employers' Forum on Disability stressed that this is a modest funding increase - a doubling of the budget in cash terms but only over the next 6 years.[225] Mr Purton of the TUC said: "We welcomed the announcement of [doubling] the budget over the next five years and we think it should be trebled, trebled and trebled again because in terms of the percentage of resources actually spent by the Government it still remains a very small figure."[226] The EHRC points out that AtW has consistently provided a clear return on investment to the Treasury (£1.88 for every £1 spent).[227] The FSB and Disability Charities Consortium fully support an extension of the budget, but believe it should be more effectively targeted at small firms.[228]

187. The Minister also acknowledged that: "it is theoretically possible that somebody could apply and be told that they should wait until the new financial year or something like that. […] It is not a legal entitlement; it is support."[229]

188. We support measures to improve marketing and take-up of the AtW scheme. We note that this could bring AtW spending up to the budget cap. However, it is not acceptable, to quote the Minister, that "somebody could apply and be told that they should wait until the new financial year." We call on DWP to clarify what it intends to do with applications if the budget runs out before the end of the year.

189. We believe that where the Department is contracting out services to help disabled people into work, there is a case for devolving funding for Access to Work to those providers. We call on DWP to look at the merits of such a proposal.

Access to Work in the Public Sector

190. DWP state that when AtW was withdrawn in central government departments in October 2006, disabled staff working in these Departments continued to receive the same support. Staff continued to be entitled to an AtW assessment, and information and advice from AtW Advisers. DWP brokered an agreement through which AtW support would be provided to any staff who would have been eligible and whose employing department refused to fund the adjustment. An independent qualitative evaluation of AtW has specifically looked at the impact on staff of these funding changes. The findings are expected to be published in spring 2009.[230] The Department states that any decision on whether these funding changes will be extended to other parts of the public sector will be made in light of the findings of the independent evaluation.

191. The Employers' Forum on Disability reports that public sector employers feel the removal of AtW funding for employees in central government departments is having a negative impact on the employment and promotion prospects of disabled civil servants, especially in those departments which are unable to fund the cost of their adjustments out of existing/central budgets.[231] However, the Minister, Kitty Ussher, said: "I can exclusively reveal that emerging findings from the evaluation which has not yet been published are that the same types of in work support that were provided under Access to Work are still being provided through government departments routinely. In fact, in some circumstances, the support extends beyond what was previous available under Access to Work."[232]

192. The Public and Commercial Services Union argues that it is practically impossible to assess the damage which may have been caused to the employment and retention of disabled people by the removal of AtW funding from central government departments. "The number of newly disabled staff who have lost their jobs, when the continued availability of Access to Work might have assisted in their retention cannot be estimated. How many line managers, faced with recruitment decisions, have opted for a non-disabled person, for fear of the budgetary impact of employing a disabled person will never be known."[233] It refers to findings of earlier research into the impact of AtW in 2002 which pointed to the importance of independent funding in the minds of employees - the knowledge that their funding was not impacting on colleagues in any way nor that they had to 'owe a debt of gratitude' to their employer for providing such funding.[234]

193. Mr Crowther of the EHRC argued that: "we need a much more systematic review of the impact that has had within central government departments where that is already the position before we move forward and extend that to the broader public sector, certainly given the economic situation as well that we are finding ourselves in."[235] We asked the Minister, Kitty Ussher, if it is "fair to put that same burden that central government should be able to absorb onto the public sector?" and she responded that this is "a very fair point but we have not made that decision. We are still in the process of evaluating so far."[236]

194. Unite state it "would strongly oppose any extension of this approach, and [call for] very close examination of the impact of decisions to date."[237] The TUC stress that many public sector employers are small organisations with limited budgets and a general withdrawal of AtW eligibility from the public sector would have "catastrophic consequences for many disabled workers. More funds are needed for the private sector, especially SMEs, from the increase in the total AtW budget, but this should not happen by removing funding from public sector organisations."[238]

195. The Public and Commercial Services Union stressed that "Modelled on the Civil Service approach to withdrawal, schools and colleges would have to make decisions on allocating budget resources to support disabled employees or student needs and education; hospitals and care trusts would have to balance their obligations to patients against the costs to be met for employees; local authorities would have to choose between services to local people and support for disabled employees."[239] Mr Purton of the TUC agreed that: "A key issue for that is the resources question."[240] He referred to the 2005 Court of Appeal Case Murphy v Slough Borough Council:

"which determined that when it came to a school, […] the school was saying, "We have not got the resources to employ this disabled person" and the Court of Appeal said, "No, that is fair enough, the school is the budget holding body. We do not take into account the resources of the local education authority, we are simply talking about the resources of the school". That is something which has been replicated time and time again across small, budget-constrained public sector organisations."[241]

196. Citizens Advice (CAB) and the Disability Charities Consortium share the concern that an expectation that public bodies would carry all of the cost of equipment/adaptations could lead to a reduction in the numbers of disabled people being employed.[242] CAB stress that the public sector should be taking the lead in employment policy and practice for disabled people.[243] However, Mr Purton of the TUC emphasised that "In the broader public sector our concern is precisely that we have many examples of public sector organisations which are not fulfilling their obligations even under the existing DDA, let alone the equality duties, in many cases because of budget restrictions."[244]

197. We recommend that the Government reviews the research findings from the study on the impact of withdrawal of Access to Work funding from central Government Departments. However, care needs to be taken in drawing conclusions about the implications for the wider public sector from the impact of withdrawal of Access to Work on high profile and well-resourced central Government Departments.

198. We agree with the principle that the public sector should be leading by example in employment policy and practice for disabled people. Although we believe that the concerns raised during our inquiry and the implications of the Murphy ruling need to be addressed as a matter of urgency by DWP, we believe that limited Access to Work resources should be allocated as a matter of priority in the private and the third sectors. We would expect the proportion of Access to Work funding used in the public sector to decline over time with the improved implementation and increased effectiveness of the Public Sector Duty.

200   Ev 223 [DWP] Back

201   Ev 223 [DWP] Back

202   Ev 223 [DWP]  Back

203   Q 78 Back

204   Ev 106 Back

205   Ev 155 Back

206   Ev 106 Back

207   Q 30 Back

208   Ev 203 Back

209   Ev 177 Back

210   Q 200 Back

211   Ev 156 Back

212   Ev 105 Back

213   Q 76 Back

214   Q 137 Back

215   Q 204 Back

216   Q 205 Back

217   Ev 155 Back

218   Ev 144 Back

219   Q 201 Back

220   Ev 95 [DCC], Ev 61 [NAT] Back

221   Q 26 Back

222   Q 139 Back

223   Q198 Back

224 and Leisha Fullick Commission for Disabled Staff in Lifelong Learning 'From compliance to culture change: disabled staff working in lifelong learning' March 2008 Back

225   Ev 144 Back

226   Q 76 Back

227   Ev 155 Back

228   Ev 105 [FSB], Ev 95 [DCC] Back

229   Q 197 Back

230   Ev 204 Back

231   Ev 144 Back

232   Q 207 Back

233   Ev 81 Back

234   Ev 81 [PCS] Back

235   Q 29 Back

236   Q 211 Back

237   Ev 210` Back

238   Ev 88 Back

239   Ev 81 Back

240   Q 84 Back

241   Q 84 Back

242   Ev 195 [CAB], Ev 95 [DCC] Back

243   Ev 195 Back

244   Q 82 Back

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