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The Support I Get So That I Can Work Might Be Taken Away

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JULIE FERNANDEZ
Marsaili McGrath via Getty Images

We hear a lot from the government slating the minority of people who don't want to work - who want to 'sit around' claiming benefits - alongside a lot of positive talk about how they want to help disabled people who are able to work, and certainly want to work, find a job.

In theory I'm somebody they should be using as a success story. I'm disabled, I work six days a week running my own craft business, and I employ 11 people. I also have a successful media career. I'm only able to do all of this because I get support under the government's Access to Work scheme - but I'm totally stressed out at the moment because it's under review and I've been told that it might be taken away.

Awards from Access to Work have helped me for a few years now. I have brittle bones disease, I suffer with pain as a result, and I'm a wheelchair user. I use the money to employ a support worker at a cost of £18 an hour to assist me with things I'd find impossible to do otherwise - things like getting around, and carrying and lifting heavy objects.

Every three years you have an reassessment with Access to Work and after my last assessment a couple of months ago I got some really worrying news.

They told me it was unacceptable that my business has been running at a loss for the past two years, and that they don't think they should give me the money to carry on working. They don't take into account that with a new business you don't expect to make much of an income initially.

They also don't take into account that with my other work - my media career - you tend to have better times and leaner times - and media work doesn't always pay as much as you might think.

The upshot is I've got until the end of August to write a full-time diary of every single job my support worker does for me, and provide three months of accounts, and then then they will decide if I am earning an 'acceptable' standard of living. Although they can't tell me what this acceptable level would be, other than the minimum wage.

I hope I'll be alright - but I'm really scared and nervous about it all and I'm angry.

I work six days a week - I employ 11 people - how much more do they want me to do? My business pays in the region of £800 per week in VAT. If they stop my Access to Work I'll have to close my business, make my staff redundant, and claim a whole range of benefits instead.

If they reduce the award I get, I'll have to make a choice between either the craft shop, or my 20 year media career.

I'm not the only person having problems with Access to Work at the moment.

An acquaintance of mine Jacqueline is the CEO of Universal Inclusion and Chair of Fluidity, the UK Forum for People with Hidden and Fluctuating Conditions.

She recently submitted information to the Select Committee Investigation into Access to Work, which talked about the difficulties Fluidity's members have been experiencing with the service following its recent restructure. She is also facing challenges personally with the administration of her own award.

The submission highlights how prior to the restructure, people using the service had direct access to a personal advisor, but more recently they have to deal with advisors through call centres.

Fluidity's members say that since this change they have had to speak to countless people about their awards, and many are asked to repeat their history each time because records haven't been updated. It's tough having to repeat personal information over and over again.

They think that call centre staff, while by on large doing their best, are being instructed to say specific things around response times, which Access to Work are then not sticking to. But some have described how they have found the manner of other call centre staff to be 'upsetting and intimidating'.

Fluidity's members have also reported long delays at the application stage, delays with payment for support, and delays when people request additional support due to a change in circumstances.

All of this is leading to - at best - frustration and delay - and at worst - disabled people becoming vulnerable and not supported.

Fluidity's members are concerned that the focus on cutting costs demonstrated by the introduction of call centres means that there's a move away from the more flexible and supportive approach that people are used to, to one that's becoming increasingly cumbersome.

It's really worrying stuff. Access to Work is a brilliant established scheme - and it makes good financial sense too. For every pound the treasury invests in the programme the treasury get £1.88 back.

It helps lots of disabled people like me find and stay in employment and I just hope that my experience, and the experiences of members of Fluidity UK aren't warning signs that things are set to change.

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