Access to Work (ATW) is a world class labour market intervention which removes the disability specific disadvantages that exclude so many unnecessarily from the UK economy. The scheme has liberated the economic and social inclusion of tens of thousands over the years – and, uniquely, it has benefited many non-users, as it enables job seekers and their advocates to immediately counter the all too frequently encountered employer assumption: “But disabled people cost too much!”.
However over the past two years ATW has struggled, as have those who depend on it and their employers. A recent restructuring has caused confusion, anxiety and hardship as individuals suddenly and without notice or explanation – other than “you cost too much”– face the possibility of losing their jobs and/or careers. The fund designed explicitly to remove employment disadvantage now risks reinforcing or recreating that disadvantage.
In addition, ATW users who face the most disadvantage in the labour market increasingly report that they are subject to, or feel threatened by, seemingly arbitrary ‘cuts’ – ‘arbitrary’ as no policies explaining such cuts to individual support packages are in the public domain, nor is the detailed rationale for such cuts provided to the individual affected.
We need transparency regarding what is a ‘Rule for Administrative Consistency’ and where the advisor must exercise ‘Discretion via Guidance for tailored support packages’. The need for transparency becomes obvious when one considers the distress caused by what so many heard as the ’30 hour rule’ governing personal support workers – only to be told months later that this ‘rule’ was only ‘guidance’ and that this guidance is not in the public domain.
In addition, disabled people using ATW describe advisor behaviour which suggests that these officials are working on the ‘presumption of fraud’, and that they see as their primary purpose not removing work related obstacles, the cost of which differs greatly from person to person, but of cutting the cost per individual.
This is perhaps understandable in a department tasked with uncovering ‘scroungers’ while cutting the welfare bill, but it is clearly counterproductive given ATW is not a welfare benefit. It requires a different approach when setting out to become more cost effective, given every ATW user is in work or training. The sad irony is that in treating ATW users as though they were welfare recipients, DWP actually risks moving people from work onto the very benefit system government requires it to cut.
Obviously those who pose the greatest opportunity for ‘cost savings’ are disabled employees using the higher value support packages and who by definition are more dependent day to day upon the support which makes their employment possible in the first instance. In other words, it is precisely those most vulnerable in the labour market, those most likely to be long term unemployed, who present to the advisor as the most likely source of ‘cost savings’.
DWP needs to bring leadership to the table and to demonstrate quickly and very publicly that they are determined to deliver significant reform and to rebuild trust, determined to become more transparent and efficient – and to turn to its many allies and keen advocates for practical advice and support.
BDF has supported and admired ATW for years – we are confident that the programme can find its feet again and can use this difficult time as an opportunity and an inspiration for administrative and policy reform.
I cannot stress enough the significance of the insight that ATW is not a welfare benefit for excluded dependents on the state. It is government programme which helps to re-shape the labour market, making it more efficient by removing the labour market obstacles which would otherwise prevent so many from competing fairly for work. Clarity of purpose is essential if we are to create an ATW programme fit for the 21st century.
Given it is not a benefit and given it is not a job placement service, would it not be logical to move the programme from DWP to BIS? How might such a move be used to create an even greater impact on the labour market? Could a re-engineered and re-positioned ATW led by labour market experts remove obstacles preventing far greater numbers from contributing to economic growth?
BDF would be more than happy to offer to structure (pro bono!) a consultation which asks key stakeholders: What could be different about ATW? Could we maximise its impact on the labour market if it were positioned, managed and measured by BIS explicitly as a programme designed to make the Labour Market more efficient?