In January David Cameron criticised business, universities and the armed forces for their ‘ingrained, institutional and insidious’ attitudes which, he said ‘should shame our nation’.
The PM was talking about racial diversity. And his own criticism was immediately levelled at the government’s Civil Service by the Opposition.
Another aspect of diversity, disability, rarely appears on the PM’s radar of issues worth bothering with. If it did, he could have easily used the same language about lack of disabled participation in public life generally, but especially at work.
In theory the government wants disabled people to work. It wants them to be able to fit into their own ‘hardworking taxpayers’ category. Disabled people want this too.
There are approximately 5.5 million (16%) working-age disabled people in the UK. For the past ten years employment levels of disabled people have remained 30.1% below that of non-disabled people at 46.3%. That’s well over 3 million people out of work and not contributing via their work.
The UK has a central funding scheme called Access to Work. It’s well named. It provides vital grants which enable disabled workers to obtain support to do their job, helping to remove some of the barriers which they can experience. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) administers the scheme.
Access to Work is an enabler. The benefits of having work are obvious. But it’s worth a reminder that for disabled workers facing barriers, including additional costs, Access to Work can mean these workers can:
- do their job to the best of their ability
- use – and develop – their skills
- have a better chance of progressing in their careers
- contribute economically via tax payment and personal spending
- lead fulfilling independent lives and support their families
- act as a positive role model to other disabled workers, or aspiring workers.
The government-commissioned Sayce Review (2012) recommended ‘significantly expanding’ Access to Work, aiming to double usage of the scheme long term. The government agreed.
In 2012 the scheme was opened for the first time to support disabled apprentices and those obtaining work experience through the Youth Contract. In 2013 the then Minister, Maria Miller, promised an additional £15m for Access to Work an approximate 15% increase).
So how have these welcome boosts worked?
The most recent Commons briefing paper (Dec 2015) makes surprising reading.
Below are summarized figures with average unemployment figures for context.
|+/– on 09/10||n/a||–9.5%||–1.2%||–10.5%|
|Budget||£98m||£102m||- ||- |
To put the cost of this transformative scheme into context, at £108 million, it currently costs 20% a year less than Google’s much-criticised ‘small change’ tax payment.
The DWP is currently (re)-promoting a ‘Disability Confident’ campaign started in 2013 to encourage employers to employ more disabled people. One of its aims is to: ‘Make a substantial contribution towards halving the disability employment gap’. Good.
The majority of the country’s private sector jobs (60%) and an estimated half the country’s wealth are created by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Presumably one of the factors which would most encourage such businesses – less likely to be able to ‘negotiate’ their corporate tax payments than multi-nationals – to employ someone with a disability would be confidence that the person would not bring an additional financial burden.
Some disabilities, in any case, require no cost but simply an adjustment of hours, or location or arrangements within a team. And for necessary ‘adjustments’ involving a cost, this is determined by the disability and the job. So the DWP’s ‘equality analysis’ referred to in the briefing paper, suggesting that capping the support of the tiny (0.6%) with higher-cost needs will enable about 1,000 more users on ‘averaged’ cost, is to say the least, misleading. And the figures above show that the attempt to boost usage has so far failed.
So we need to ask some questions:
- Why have Access to Work user figures dropped rather than, as planned, increased, even as employment levels rose?
- How was the promised additional funding used?
- Given declining usage, why is Access to Work capping the tiny number of users who need higher-cost support and what is the evidence of the benefits and risks of doing this?
- What is the total cost of the apparent failure of the scheme to expand? This should take account of e.g. non-payment of tax via working and expenditure (VAT etc), increased use of benefits and likely increased lifetime health and social problems which unemployment causes both to the individual and their families.
- What are the positive benefits of the scheme and how does it affect individuals’ careers, lives and prospects?
The final question is important.
One of the high risks of a disability, especially one newly acquired, is isolation. My experience of working with hundreds of marginalized people including many who are deaf and disabled, is that we need role models to encourage us to aspire; we need examples of others succeeding to help us believe we can too.
As a deaf woman who has thrived despite particularly harsh discrimination by my previous employer, I hope I am a positive role model. Since 2012 I have developed two successful social enterprises with Access to Work’s support. I would be first in the queue to sing the scheme’s praises and sell its benefits. But I have not (yet) been given an opportunity to do this.
The messages are clear:
- Access to Work works.
- Disabled people want to work and many need and could benefit from support via Access to Work.
- The working population is expected to work longer so with age will acquire more disabilities.
- But usage of the scheme is shrinking.
So Ministers, why not be bold and invest Google’s tax payment into the Access to Work thereby more than doubling the fund, and give the 99% of disabled people who do not yet benefit from it, a fighting chance of doing so?
 This figure is an average of the four financial years. The additions within the table on p.8 of the briefing paper are incorrect in the columns for 2011-12 and 2013-14 which should respectively total 30,770 (not 30,780) and 35,570 (not 35,570). I have assumed that the figures in the main body (for new users and existing) are correct and used the correct totals.
 Assuming the first quarter’s figure for new users 2,860 repeats in subsequent three quarters of the year – 11,440 total for new users.
 Not provided.