With government rhetoric stressing their keenness to get more disabled people into work you might think that their scheme to support disabled people in employment would be an example of well-oiled machinery. But when, having got a job, Kaliya Franklin set about getting the support she needs, what she encountered was a confused tangle of red tape and bureaucracy.
I’m very, very lucky to have a potential job with an employer who is willing to bend over backwards to accommodate my fluctuating and unstable condition. Work from home? No problem. Work from bed? No problem either. It’s like the Holy Grail for people with a fluctuating condition.
Naively we thought that Access to Work (ATW) would be a rapid, streamlined process providing all the support we would need to make this unusual employment situation workable.
Access to work is one of the few major success stories in relation to government spending – for each £1 spent by ATW, the treasury gets back £1.48 in income tax and national insurance. It has also been described as the DWP’s best kept secret. Employees and employers like the scheme, but given that the number of ‘new starts’ has been falling since 2010, is Access to work actually helping people to access work?
ATW is intended to provide the support an individual needs to carry out their job, whether that support be in the form of equipment, accessible transport or a support worker. Recently there have been various changes to the provisions ATW can make and in what circumstances. With classic timing, I applied for support just as these changes were taking effect. I wanted to be sure my package was in place and would provide the support I needed before starting work.
That was a wiser decision than I realised – it took 4 weeks for the ‘equipment assessment’ to happen and now, some 5 weeks on from applying I have yet to hear what equipment I’ll be granted and whether I have managed to fit within the strange and complex flow chart now used by ATW staff to decide whether someone is allowed support worker hours. Funnily enough, I’ve also yet to start work. Oh, and I can’t tell my employer when I might be starting because I don’t know when ATW will be set up…the best I have is a vague ‘if you haven’t heard in another 10 days call us’.
So far my experience has been disheartening and stressful as well as confusing. ATW is working to updated DWP guidance which limits both the equipment they now provide and introduces a 20% limit to the amount of support worker hours permitted. Each advisor I’ve spoken to at ATW has been consistent in their advice – I can only have a maximum allowance of 20% of my hours worked in support worker hours. However, when I finally managed to track down that official guidance I found the advice given to me by multiple staff members to be wrong. The support I need falls into the category of ‘life skills’ – this means access skills to enable me to carry out a whole task – things like someone to scan documents for me, take me to the post office, or support me when I have to attend meetings elsewhere. The support worker won’t be doing my job, I will, but without that support I may not be able to carry out the job. The official guidance is clear – ‘life skills’ are an enabling support which is a conduit to being able to do the job, and the funding is supposed to be available for as much of this support as an employee needs.
So, not only am I still waiting to hear what equipment I may receive, but also to find out if I can have the 20% proportion of hours worked in support worker hours, even though this is in direct contradiction to the official written guidance.
I mentioned I was lucky to have an understanding employer committed to making the adjustments I need. With a 5 week delay in starting work, and no idea when the actual support offered might be in place, let alone whether that support will be sufficient, it really is fortunate. I can’t imagine a supermarket waiting for someone to start a shelf stacking role would be quite so flexible. Why would they be when there are hundreds of candidates for every job who are able to start immediately?
As for me, I’m 5 weeks into the process and far more disheartened than when I started. It’s impossible to plan properly without knowing what and how much support I’m entitled to. It’s impossible to start work without that entitlement. So, I’m still on benefits. Not in the job that’s mine. I’m far less confident about succeeding in employment than I was to begin with. Access to work should be the stable part of my support, not an additional challenge and barrier to employment.