Access to Work (AtW) is an important element of specialist employment support for disabled people. It is unique in providing help to people already in, or about to start, mainstream work. It has the potential to be an extremely effective model, helping to address the substantial gap between the employment rate for disabled people and that of the rest of the population. Where it works well, it transforms the lives of disabled people, many of whom would be unable to work without it.
DWP internal review
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) began its own internal review of AtW while our inquiry was under way. We expect our Report to inform DWP's findings, which we hope will lead to substantial improvements to the programme.
Caseload, funding and marketing
There is strong evidence that AtW currently supports only a minority of disabled people whom it might benefit. Current attempts to increase the number of people helped by the programme, within an only marginally increased budget, risk bearing down on the awards of people who happen to have relatively high cost needs. While we understand the importance of delivering value for money within the programme, such an approach would not be acceptable. AtW's focus should remain on removing barriers to employment for the full range of disabled people who can benefit from it, including the relatively few whose support costs are high. DWP should make a strong and evidence-based case to HM Treasury for substantial additional funding for AtW and then aim to increase take-up through much more high profile marketing, and proactive promotion of AtW, including through Jobcentre Plus Work Coaches and contracted employment services providers.
In taking forward the closure or sale of Remploy factories, the Government stated that it did not believe that this type of support was the optimum way of helping disabled people move into employment in the 21st century, and that the money involved could be used for more effective specialist support, including AtW. DWP was not able to provide a clear indication as to how the savings from the closure of the Remploy factories had been used. The only element of spending on employment support for disabled people which has seen a substantial increase since the Sayce Review is that for Employment and Support Allowance claimants taking part in the Work Programme, DWP's mainstream contracted employment programme. Greater clarity on additional funding which has been provided for specialist disability support is required.
Mental health and other more hidden impairments
There is a misperception that the sole purpose of AtW is to provide physical aids, equipment and transport for people with sensory impairments and physical disabilities; consequently relatively few people with other types of disability, and different support needs, currently use the programme. In scaling up the programme DWP needs to address this imbalance. Its priority should be supporting a much greater number of people with mental health problems, and intellectual, cognitive and developmental impairments, including learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. Information about AtW, including on its webpages, should make it much clearer that AtW is as relevant to people with mental, intellectual, cognitive and behavioural impairments as it is to those with sensory impairments and physical disabilities. DWP should also develop a range of AtW mental health provision, in addition to the existing Workplace Mental Health Support Service.
Guidance on Support Workers and the impact on BSL
DWP's recent application of the guidance on full-time Support Workers (known as "the 30 hour rule"), and the capping of hourly rates, in relation to British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation, demonstrates a lack of understanding of how BSL interpretation is currently provided and used. DWP must work with service users and the BSL interpreting profession to fully resolve these issues as a matter of urgency, and fulfil its commitment to review the awards of deaf people adversely affected by the Department's recent approach.
Clarity and transparency of decision making
DWP must be much clearer and more transparent about the basis on which it makes AtW award decisions and the processes by which applicants and service users can challenge decisions and make complaints. Clarified guidance, and contact details and links to the Independent Case Examiner and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, should be published in accessible formats as a priority. It must be made much clearer to all AtW applicants and service users that they have the option to escalate their complaints once DWP's decision review and complaints processes have been exhausted.
Support for the self-employed and entrepreneurs
The guidance on support for the self-employed and entrepreneurs requires substantial clarification and amendment to ensure that DWP staff take into account the full circumstances of self-employed people's businesses, and the financial realities of working on a freelance basis, including intermittent and fluctuating earnings.
AtW has sometimes been undermined by poor administration. This must be addressed before the programme is scaled up. AtW currently relies on inefficient and outmoded paper-based processes; these should be replaced by online systems. The recently established central call centre system does not work well for many service users. DWP needs to focus on making the call centre system more flexible and user-friendly, including by improving the flow of information from the call centre to trained Advisers, and establishing a system in which service users receive a communication, in response to calls to the DWP call centre, in a format and at a time that is suitable and convenient for them.
Disability awareness and accesibility
Disability awareness training for DWP staff administering the programme should be improved, and additional specially trained Adviser teams established for service users with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. There should be much more information about AtW in accessible formats, including BSL and Easy Read. A Video Relay Service should be established to allow deaf applicants and service users to contact the Department more easily.
Consultation and communication with service users
A number of recent issues, including the ineffective introduction of the central call centre system and the recent approach to BSL interpretation, demonstrate the need for DWP to engage fully and meaningfully with AtW service users prior to making significant changes to the programme and for changes to be communicated much more clearly and effectively in future.