Why reforming Access to Work could help ease the recruitment crisis

Diane Lightfoot explains why the initiative is currently falling short in not only helping disabled people look for work, but employers in making adjustments

Today, the chancellor will publish his Comprehensive Spending Review. The review sets out plans for government spending for the rest of this parliament and comes at a crucial time as we, hopefully, look beyond Covid and towards economic recovery. For employers, the current recruitment crisis is at the top of the list of issues that they want to see addressed.

Reforming Access to Work

For its part, the Business Disability Forum is calling on the government to make reforming Access to Work a priority. Access to Work can literally make work a reality for many disabled people, covering the cost of workplace adjustments, equipment, support and travel. 

Yet, while many disabled people have benefitted from the scheme, our members tell us that it is out of step with the current employment market. Disabled people can only apply for Access to Work once they have secured a role – not to actually help them look for work. This puts disabled job seekers at a huge disadvantage and limits the talent pool that employers can draw on.

For successful candidates, there is also a long waiting period to secure Access to Work funding and often, the solutions offered are too generic to meet the needs of the employee or to work with the employer’s existing IT and security systems. The cap on Access to Work funding also limits the support available for employees who need human support – such as the assistance of a support worker or an interpreter. 

Meeting the needs of the jobs market

I believe that a wholesale review of Access to Work is essential, not only to meet the needs of disabled people, but also to address the shortages in the current jobs market. With skills shortages in many sectors – from HGV drivers to care – employers need to be able to tap into the widest possible talent pool. 

But, as Business Disability Forum’s response to the government’s recent health and disability green paper consultation found, too many disabled people find it difficult to search for work, contact prospective employers and apply for jobs without adjustments; adjustments which often would be simple and quick to put in place. So, we are calling on the government to make Access to Work available to all disabled people who are looking for work, as well as those who are already in work, for example, by making it available via Job Centres. 

We also know that the current system creates a lot of unnecessary uncertainty. It puts employers in the position of recruiting disabled candidates without a full understanding of the adjustments they may need in the role and, crucially, without knowing whether these will be covered by Access to Work funding. 

An ‘agreement in principle’ system would allow the candidate to contact Access to Work pre-interview and receive information about adjustments, which they can discuss with the employer – both giving confidence to the candidate and removing risk for the employer. Moves to pilot Access to Work passports are positive, but the current proposals only cover people already in receipt of the scheme, not younger people entering the jobs market for the first time or people who have recently acquired a disability.

The issue of waiting times for adjustments must also be addressed. One employer recently told us that an employee had been waiting for nine months for their Access to Work assessment and sadly this is not an isolated case. 

Off-the-shelf solutions, particularly around assistive technology (AT) and IT, can be another issue. Access to Work too often recommends AT and IT solutions which either do not suit the employee or are not compatible with other systems that the employee needs to use to do their job. Access to Work’s current assessment and funding model also does not cover the regular (often weekly) updates that are required by many cloud-based IT and AT systems. One employer described this as the “gradual degradation of the user experience”. 

The Access to Work cap must also be removed as a false economy. The requirements of the vast majority of people who use Access to Work fall far below the cap. Human support – for deaf people or people with learning disabilities, for example – can be more expensive. This has led to some people having to reduce their working hours or change their job role, simply to bring their support needs below the cap. 

Removing the barrier

When it works well, Access to Work supports disabled people to thrive. All too often, however, it is an additional barrier for job seekers, employees and employers. 

Reforming Access to Work could reduce the disability employment gap and help employers tackle the issues of recruitment and retention. Surely, it’s a win-win. 

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum