Access to Work is a policy success – but more people should be able to benefit from it

Blog posts

27 Jan 2020

Helena Takala

Helena Takala, Research Fellow

The headline story from the last decade of UK labour market analysis has been the impressively high employment rate. But not all have benefitted from the jobs boom. The disability employment gap – the gap between the employment rate of disabled and non-disabled adults stands at 28.6 per cent. Despite the government’s commitments to do more to support more disabled into work, if anything things appear to be getting worse, according to the latest labour market statistics

One of the key policies the government has at its disposal to help disabled people enter employment is Access to Work. Set up in 1994, the programme aims to remove barriers to employment by funding adjustments beyond those deemed reasonable for employers to address which are guaranteed to disabled people in the Equality Act (2010). Initially, the barriers Access to Work could address were conceived as travel, British Sign Language translators or specials aids and equipment; but since 2011 the Access to Work funding criteria has been expanded to include a new mental health support service.

Unlike the many short-lived employment policy initiatives that have come and gone in the last 25 years, Access to Work stands out in its longevity and popularity among its users. According to two independent evaluations (by IES and IFF Research), both applicant and employer experiences of the programme are overwhelmingly positive. The evidence shows that the fund is invaluable for claimants in terms of staying in work, increasing wellbeing and reducing sickness and absenteeism, among other positive effects.

Despite its evidenced success, Access to Work is a small programme and not many people have heard of it. The initiative has been tweaked since 2010 but successive governments have not made a significant effort to market the programme to a wider audience - despite efforts to get more disabled people into work. This inconsistency was explored in a recently published case study on Access to Work that IES wrote for Eurofound, as part of a wider publication on labour market segmentation.

The evidence from policy experts we interviewed suggests there is a contradiction in the universal aspirations of the programme design, and its implementation. In theory, Access to Work is available to any of those one-in-five UK adults who face barriers to employment resulting from a disability. In practice, the programme is administered through the DWP, the government department tasked with managing the out-of-work benefit budget.

Access to Work remains accessible to those who need it and hear about it, but the overall cost of the programme has been managed through an approach of keeping a low profile about the funding. This is a shame; Access to Work is not an out-of-work benefit and should not be tangled up in wider conversations about the size of the welfare budget.

The government has an opportunity in the upcoming National Disability Strategy to make Access to Work available to a wider base of claimants. To date, successive governments have settled on tinkering around the edges of the programme instead of taking bold action and significantly raising its profile. The flawed image of the policy as a disability benefit may be the stumbling block here. From evaluation evidence, we know Access to Work to be a successful partnership between the government, employers and disabled people – expanding the programme will require reframing it in those terms.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.