Access to Work crisis: Shock government request to employers


newslatestThe government has resorted to asking employers to move Deaf members of staff to jobs that require less use of interpreters, according to campaigners protesting about the coalition’s changes and cuts to the troubled Access to Work (AtW) scheme.

Members of the StopChanges2ATW campaign were at Westminster this week to hear evidence given to a parliamentary inquiry into AtW by Conservative disabled people’s minister Mark Harper, and to protest afterwards about the changes to the scheme.

They say that many Deaf people are now at risk of losing their jobs because of restrictions to the number of hours support they are receiving to pay for interpreters, while they and other disabled people are racking up personal debts because of administrative problems with the scheme.

They fear that the AtW problems will lead to a fall in the number of disabled people in employment.

Geraldine O’Halloran, a strategic development officer with Inclusion London, but speaking as co-founder of StopChanges2ATW, said: “What has happened to the Deaf community is that they have had their AtW cut without clear explanation.”

She said the situation had become so bad that she was now frightened to open an email from AtW.

One Deaf person had been waiting “months and months” for AtW to pay a bill for communication support costs of £16,000, she said.

And some employers have been asked by AtW if a Deaf employee’s job could be redesigned to “reduce their requirement for interpreters”.

She said there were many “highly-skilled Deaf professionals”, such as teachers, social workers and psychotherapists, who risked losing their jobs because of the AtW changes.

O’Halloran said that the main DWP call centre, which as a result of the changes now takes all calls, and then forwards information to one of three new AtW contact centres being used to deal with claimants’ enquiries, was “simply not accessible to Deaf people”.

One Deaf claimant had phoned the call centre through an interpreter to query why that interpreter was not being paid, but was told that AtW would not accept a call through a “third party”.

The StopChanges2ATW campaign was originally aimed at the Deaf community, but has now expanded to include disabled people experiencing problems with the scheme, as a result of the botched AtW reorganisation and cuts to support.

Another protester, the writer and performer Sophie Partridge, said she encountered problems when applying for support that would allow her to appear at the DaDaFest International 2014 festival in Liverpool next month, where she is performing her “lyrical puppetry piece” Song of Semmersuaq.

She has suddenly been told – after years of claiming AtW – that she is not eligible for support because she has not been paying national insurance contributions since 2008, when she became self-employed.

Her union Equity has told her that it suspects the problems have been caused by new staff working for AtW who “do not know what they are doing and have misinterpreted the guidelines”.

Partridge has been left in a position where she is able to claim working tax credits because she is self-employed and works 16 hours a week, but has been told by another part of government that she is not eligible for AtW.

She said: “If they suddenly shift the goalposts as they seem to have done overnight, they are leaving people high and dry.

“They can’t get AtW to pay the support workers. They are not going to be able to carry out those jobs.”

Partridge said this had combined with the closure next year of the Independent Living Fund to create a “double whammy” for many disabled people.

“It just seems to be one assault after another on disabled people, it really does.

“It is undermining our status in society every day, bit by bit.”

Sue Elsegood, a trustee of Greenwich Association of Disabled People (GADP), said the AtW changes were having a serious impact on the organisation’s Deaf and disabled staff, with employees who need sign language interpreters seeing cuts to their support.

She said: “I feel it is discriminatory because employees are being disabled by the government. I think it is putting employers off employing disabled people.”

Nicky Evans, an interpreter and co-founder of the campaign, criticised the government’s “massive emphasis on technology and trying to do away with face-to-face support”.

She said that an interpreter provided via a videophone would be useful for some Deaf people but “for a lot of people it will not be suitable”.

O’Halloran added: “It’s a three-dimensional language but a two-dimensional screen. I need to see the interpreter in real life, in real size.

“I am not saying it is not a good resource, but Deaf people need to have the choice to meet their own needs appropriately.”

Evans said that many interpreters were now suffering financially because of unpaid AtW invoices, with one owed £12,000.

30 October 2014