‘Here’s why we must protect user-led organisations from spending cuts’

Students from Hertfordshire PASS's training scheme on employing PAs

I’ve been under the spotlight on a number of occasions but this was the first time I had been invited to sit in a ‘hot seat’ for 45 minutes and be quizzed on any topic chosen by the questionners. The questionners, in this case, were a group of young personal budget holders undertaking an apprenticeship to support them in employing their own personal assistants (PAs).

My invitation to assume the hot seat came from from Hertfordshire Pass, a user-led organisation in Stevenage that offers the employerABILITY apprenticeship scheme, which also provides training for new PAs.

Taught modules on the course cover statutory employment responsibilities as well as skills such as negotiation, decision making and communication. Fridays are ‘user-led’ days and this is where the weekly hot seat session takes place.

The sessions are clearly structured. I was invited into the room at 10.30am and questions were put to me for 45 minutes. I had already received instructions from Hertfordshire Pass requesting that I do not prepare a presentation but allow the session to go the way the apprentices take it. I was asked not to attempt to ‘rescue’ the apprentices from any silences but to allow the space for reflection and the gathering of thoughts. At 11.15am, I was given a break and the apprentices took time to review the session before calling me back in for a further 30 minutes.

Dealing with risk aversion

I had been invited to the hot seat following one of my training courses, in which I had encouraged a discussion of risk as an integral part of a life worth living. This is a theme routinely faced by this group of young disabled people who find that as well as managing their own sometimes mixed emotions, they have to deal with the risk aversion – recognised to be largely based on love and a wish to protect – of the people supporting them.

The apprentices’ questions tended to focus on my experiences as a social worker and trainer and on my attitude to risk, specifically the tension between a wish to keep people safe and recognising the importance of supporting people to get on with their lives.

On the morning of my session, the two PAs who had been expected had not turned up. PAs’ absence has a huge impact on people relying on their support and management of this was a theme of the first part of the session. There were also questions about my ability to cope with change and to maintain professional boundaries with the people I have supported over the years, as well as questions about how much control others can take over disabled peoples’ lives.

I was asked to describe the barriers that I faced to pursuing my career. As a healthy and non-disabled individual, the irony of this question being put to me by a group of disabled young people who rely heavily upon their PAs to help them get out in the morning was not lost, and this was the most difficult question to answer.

Taking control

I don’t know how useful my session was in terms of clarifying employment or management issues but what was immediately obvious was the value of the hot seat process. I was struck by the ability of the group to discuss their experiences and their emotions in an open, assertive and very clear way. It’s easy to see how the young people have been able to use these sessions to build up their confidence in taking control of discussions and speaking up about what is important to them.

Hanna King, who co-ordinates the hot seat sessions as part of her role as an employerABILITY worker for Hertfordshire Pass, chaired the meeting in a calmly assertive manner. Everyone was heard. Themes were followed through. The meeting was held strictly to time by Hanna’s uncanny ability to gauge time accurately without a watch.

This cohort will be finishing in November and the apprentices are laying out plans for their futures. One young man will be going to university, Hanna will be moving into her own flat and a third apprentice is considering his options, which include college or voluntary work, although his strong preference would be to find a paid job.


The soon-to-be graduates can demonstrate the self-assurance and aspirations for their future that I hope to see in all young people. This group has clearly benefited from using a service where the priorities, values and approach are driven by a management group who similarly rely upon support from others.

Innovations such as the use of hot seat sessions are typical of the work done by smaller, local user-led organisations such as Hertfordshire Pass. Yet valuable ideas created and tested by groups who receive support as well as offer it are at risk of disappearing as funds and contracts are directed towards larger organisations.

Those of us with a passion for social care have a responsibility to keep these small user-led services in the spotlight of funding and support or we may all find ourselves in the hot seat facing some rather more difficult questions.

Tanya Moore is senior lecturer in social work at the University of Hertfordshire and a registered social worker

For more information about Hertfordshire Pass or employerAbility, please contact hanna@hertspass.com  or nigel@hertspass.com

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