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Welcoming the alterations to the Access to Work scheme

Jenny Gulliford

21 November 2012

On Monday this week, Esther McVey, the Minister for Disabled People, announced a number of changes to the Access to Work scheme. Access to Work is essentially a type of grant which helps those with disabilities to buy the support they need to enter and maintain employment. The grant is available to those over the age of 16 and covers special aids and equipment, support workers, travel to work, travel within work and communicator support at the interview. The government’s own research claims that the scheme helped 30,000 disabled people get or keep employment last year, with around half (45 per cent) of Access to Work customers believing that they would be out of work without this support.

Many of the changes that are being implemented are standard tweaks and alterations to make the service more user-friendly; to ensure that it is implemented quickly and efficiently; and to encourage take up and awareness of the service.
What is particularly encouraging in this announcement is the decision to lift the burden of co-sharing the cost of Access to Work from small employers – those who employ between 10 and 50 people - a policy that already exists for micro-businesses. This is an important step. Whilst many small businesses are highly effective in ensuring the health and wellbeing of their employees, disabled or not, there is some evidence to suggest that the smaller the firm is the less likely they are to employ a disabled person.  At best, a smaller workforce might mean that issues of disclosure and inclusivity are lessened, with small teams adapting in quick and accommodating fashion. At worst, small organisations may fear the potential cost of hiring someone with disabilities. Hopefully removing co-sharing costs will help assuage some of these fears.

Considering that small businesses employ a significant proportion of all workers, removing financial barriers to employment for disabled people in this sector is important. However, issues for small businesses still remain.  For many, the thought of paying for potential future long-term sickness leave, or dealing with absence, is a different kind of barrier than it is for large businesses.  The government should therefore continue to work with small organisations to ensure that they, and those with disabilities, are getting the best possible support.

Hopefully these changes will also improve the employment prospects of harder to help groups, such as those with fluctuating conditions or mental health problems. Several of the other reforms, particularly making the grant quicker and easier to access and increasing its profile amongst employers, has the potential to help this group. The fact that the statement explicitly states its aim to raise awareness of the scheme amongst people with mental health problems is very encouraging.

Overall, these improvements to Access to Work should be welcomed. Whilst our research shows that finding and maintaining employment can be tough for those with disabilities, and particularly hard for those with severe mental health problems such as schizophrenia, schemes such as Access to Work can help.