Access To Work – privatised or public, will it make any difference?

What do you think?

  • Does contracting out improve the services we get?
  • Is the privatisation track record good enough?
  • Would true market forces have most impact on quality, service and savings?

It’s not surprising that there’s lots of concern about the Government’s apparent investigation in to privatising Access To Work – nor at the eye-watering amount of money they have apparently spent on the consultants.!

Access To Work has been crucial over decades for tens of thousands of disabled people when they are working – whether they are employed in jobs or self-employed and running their own businesses.    It can pay for the essential special equipment, support workers, travel etc that would otherwise give employers more excuse for not taking us on.

But don’t let’s pretend that it is a system that has been run well by DWP: there was lots of criticism from a Parliamentary Select Committee in late 2014,  legal action and much distress to many of us who now have our working lives under threat when arbitrary decisions were made.   Cutting costs was the driving factor because savings from Remploy never made it to the ATW budget.

And there is another whole area of problem with ATW – unlike benefit decisions, there is no right of appeal so it is almost impossible to get “justice” and disputes can last years meaning that the Department essentially puts dissatisfied disabled people out of work.

So would privatisation be better?  Let’s not also pretend that the status of any organisations taking on the role would make much difference – whether private or charitable.  I’m not convinced that there is strong enough evidence from other large contracts such as the Work Programme or Work Choice that status makes significant difference to results.

But what we do know from across Government, over decades, is that  Departments really aren’t great at managing delivery contracts just see the National Audit Office’s recent report on Work Capability Assessments and Personal Independence Payments.  Again, it’s not surprising when the tendency has been to contract out activities that Departments aren’t doing well in the first place.  Creating a contract around a system that is already flawed and probably broken doesn’t seem like a great recipe for success.

The biggest issue is that all these failings and negative impact coalesce around disabled people: whether the poor success rates of the Work Programme, the “creaming and parking” of Work Choice, the failings of the WCA and PIP assessments or, now , the flaws in ATW.  If I were paranoid, I’d say that we are being picked on!

On the other hand, we have the declared goal of supporting a million disabled people back to work over the coming years – it is really not apparent how this is achievable when so many of the contributing activities are already failing.

What we really need is a proper, integrated strategy so that everyone can see and understand how all the cross-Departmental activities and initiatives will help disabled people to work.  And the real cost savings might be gained by focusing in the first instance on the reported near million disabled people who want to get back to work – and allowing them to decide who helps them and how: empowering customer-choice that drives the market, forces better quality and competition.   Isn’t that the way our society is supposed to work: individuals make the decisions about what is best for them, whoever provides the service?

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

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