The country’s leading disabled-led theatre group has had to cancel international work, while its artistic director now fears for her career, because of cuts and delays in dealing with applications to the government’s Access to Work (AtW) scheme.
The problems faced by Graeae Theatre Company – which could see cuts of £125,000 to its annual AtW funding – are just the latest in a string of concerns raised by Deaf and disabled people about the way the programme is run and funded.
This week, concerns about AtW have been raised with Disability News Service (DNS) independently by two disabled-led organisations – Graeae and Spectrum Centre for Independent Living – and one high-profile disabled consultant, Simon Stevens.
Jenny Sealey, who is chief executive and artistic director of Graeae, and was co-director of the London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony, has had her AtW support cut by more than half.
She said: “Two years on from the Paralympics and I am seriously in fear for my career. The severe cuts in my AtW provisions mean I simply cannot fulfil my job description as chief executive and artistic director of Graeae.”
Other Graeae staff are facing similar problems.
The company uses 80 Deaf and disabled employees every year, with up to 15 per cent of its costs reclaimed through AtW.
But staff are now facing delays with their AtW applications of as long as eight months.
In concerns similar to those emerging from other disabled-led organisations and disabled people, Graeae claims the management of the scheme “seems to have ground to a halt” in the last few months.
It says that applications have not been dealt with, the same information has been repeatedly requested by AtW, applications have been decided months after an event has taken place, while staff are facing up to 70 per cent cuts in their AtW support, as well as repeated errors and “inappropriate questions” by AtW staff.
Combined with the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund, and huge backlogs with claims for the new personal independence payment, the AtW delays, rejected claims and lost paperwork have forced Graeae to cancel planned international work.
The company is still waiting for decisions on 10 AtW applications, even though the work for eight of them has already taken place, with Graeae funding the costs itself in the hope they can be reclaimed.
Sealey said that if this was allowed to continue, Graeae would have to meet all future access-related costs itself and reduce its artistic programme by the same amount, while it had already had to cancel future work.
She said: “Cuts to arts funding across the board mean we can’t feasibly find this money from elsewhere.
“I will lose my job, as will other members of our core staff and the company will become non-disabled led and will become disconnected from our core charitable objectives.”
Sealey added: “The Access to Work scheme should mean that support costs do not become a discriminating factor between disabled and non-disabled candidates.
“Our problem is that the changes to this scheme are actively removing employment opportunities for deaf and disabled people across the country.”
This week, Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said in a blog that changes to AtW had “decreased eligibility, brought considerable distress and uncertainty to customers who had previously and successfully used the programme for many years, pushed Deaf and disabled people out of jobs and left others fearing for their futures”.
Her blog adds: “There is a growing level of misinformation, confusion and chaos coming from AtW itself as a result of a restructuring that has seen a dramatic reduction in the numbers of contact centres and outsourcing.
“AtW invoices remain unpaid from months and months ago because the addresses of the payment centres changed but customers weren’t told. Meanwhile application backlogs have amassed.”
DWP claimed this week that AtW was designed to provide support that was “over and above that which is a reasonable adjustment”, with awards varying “depending on how long they have been employed, what support they need, the size of the employer and whether they are self-employed”.
But it admitted that “consolidating our Access to Work operations has meant training new staff to help more disabled people into work. These changes are now bedding in and we’re resuming our normal service.”
In a statement, a DWP spokesman said: “More and more disabled people are being helped to get or keep a job through Access to Work, with 35,200 customers being helped last year.
“We have expanded the scheme, making a further £15m of funding available and we are implementing a wide range of improvements to allow us to help even more disabled people.
“But Access to Work does not replace the duty an employer has under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments.
“The amount of help someone receives depends on their individual needs and personal circumstances – being reviewed annually to ensure that support is appropriate and that the fund is helping as many disabled people as possible.”
At its peak, in 2009-10, under the last government, AtW was supporting more than 37,000 disabled people, but this plunged under the coalition to 30,780 in 2011-12, although it has started to increase again in the last couple of years.
AtW spending fell from £105.5 million in 2010-11 to £98.3 million in 2011-12, before rising slightly to £99 million in 2012-13.
Only last month, three leading disabled figures told the Commons work and pensions committee that AtW was plagued by “penny-pinching”, administrative incompetence, and “rude” and “intimidatory” communication that was causing disabled people “immense distress”.
DNS has run a series of reports over the last six months from disabled people concerned about administrative problems and cuts to their AtW funding.
They include a Deaf youth worker who said that endless problems with his AtW support had made it impossible to focus on his job, and an educational farm run by two disabled people which faced closure after DWP suddenly removed their AtW support.
Meanwhile, the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, is due to give evidence about the scheme to the Commons work and pensions committee on Wednesday (29 October).
23 October 2014