Why benefit beats cost on Access To Work

The Government scheme for supporting disabled people in work should be judged on be benefits it brings rather than what it costs, says Andy Rickell.

A long time ago I was asked a question which could have changed my life. I was cruising through the Civil Service Selection Board (“sizzbie”) applying to be a tax inspector, when the chairman of my interview panel asked me if I would not prefer to be a Whitehall civil servant instead. “We need literate scientists like you,” he said. I didn’t fancy working in London at that time, and said no. Instead I became a tax inspector, learnt I was too nice to do that job well, and after two successful intervening careers became a disability rights activist. I have no regrets.

However, if I had become a Whitehall fast tracker, I might have spent a lot of time evaluating potential public policy options. One particular tool to do this is called cost benefit analysis, where one attempts to find out the overall value of particular choices by translating all the costs and benefits of each choice into monetary equivalents and then choosing the option that gives the best overall result. Potentially it’s a very good way of reaching a policy decision based on the evidence rather than ministerial whim. However a major problem is that whilst it can give clear values to the financial elements of an option, the decision to give particular monetary values to all the non-financial costs and benefits is always a matter of subjective opinion to some degree. The results of such cost benefit analyses are then used by civil servants to advise ministers in making key decisions.

I have heard cost benefit analysis referred to twice recently. The first was in making the case for the new high speed rail link, HS2, where a committee is critically challenging the figures and hence the case for doing the project. And the other is the only time over the last 10 years or so that such a scientific analysis has been regularly apparent to me in government decisions. It’s the legendary figure of £1.48 as the benefit for each pound of Access to Work funding.

To disability activists, this validation of the value of Access to Work similar analysis was done of other government-funded specialist employment schemes for disabled people I expect that they would fail this test, both on the government’s own findings, and on the evidence of disabled people. So I would encourage them to undertake such an analysis and share the results.

Crucially though such an analysis must use the interpretation of value given by disabled people as the beneficiaries of the scheme, and not just rely on the third party opinions of civil servants and other vested interests. “Value” is in the eye of the beholder, and the recipients of a service should be the most important evaluators.

Which brings me back to Access to Work. Before deciding to persist in imposing a cap on the level of support, disabled people should work alongside the civil servants to truly analyse all the costs and benefits of Access to Work support and such a cap.

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