Government plans to restrict how much support any individual can receive through the Access to Work (AtW) scheme are a “huge concern” and will damage efforts to encourage Deaf people to become teachers, lawyers and politicians, campaigners have warned.
They spoke out after Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, announced further reforms to the government’s under-fire programme, which provides help to disabled workers with travel to work, purchase of specialist equipment and support workers.
Some of his measures were welcomed, but there was anger at plans to limit annual awards to one-and-a-half times the average salary, which at current levels would mean no-one could claim more than £40,800 per year through AtW.
Anyone currently receiving more than this from AtW will be given until April 2018 before their support is cut, but new claimants will face the support cap from October this year.
Harper said the cap would save £3 million a year by 2018, enough to pay for 1,000 disabled people to be supported at the average award level of about £3,000 per year.
But the new cap is likely to hit Deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL) hardest, with about four-fifths of the highest value awards paying for BSL services.
Geraldine O’Halloran, a Deaf BSL-user and co-founder of the StopChanges2ATW campaign, said: “The Deaf community is keen to promote Deaf professionalism on a par with the hearing community.
“We want to see more Deaf people as lawyers, teachers, researchers, politicians on the same level as their hearing counterparts.
“Unfortunately, the news that AtW budgets will be capped will have a detrimental effect on this ambition. How will we ever get there without the right support we need?”
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said that Harper’s statement “underlines the government’s failure to recognise the value of investing in employment support for Deaf and disabled people, something which has been proven to recoup money for the Treasury”.
She said: “The capping of Access to Work budgets represents a regression in employment rights, particularly of Deaf people, and reflects a continued attack on BSL and standards of interpreting.
“It is further proof that the [government’s] Disability Confident campaign is not about fulfilling potential, but killing potential.”
At its peak, in 2009-10, under the last Labour 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.
The latest figures, published in January, show 35,540 disabled people were helped in 2013-14, still well below the figures for 2009-10.
It also emerged this week that the parliamentary ombudsman is dealing with more than 40 complaints about AtW.
And last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported claims by disability organisations that nearly all of the disabled people facing reviews of their AtW entitlement were having their support cut.
DNS also revealed last month that ministers had failed to implement recommendations made nearly two years ago by their own experts, chaired by Mike Adams, chief executive of ecdp, on how to improve AtW, including a vital call to double the number of people using the scheme.
Among the changes announced by Harper today (12 March), he said AtW would begin this year to offer personal budgets to those with ongoing awards for travel or support, allowing the individual flexibility in how and when the money was used.
And he said the government would soon pilot an online AtW service – one of the recommendations made by Adams – and planned to offer a video relay service option for BSL-users later in 2015-16.
Harper also wants to pilot new contracted services to provide transport for AtW customers in the larger towns and cities.
And he wants new eligibility rules from October for disabled people in self-employment – matching similar rules under the government’s universal credit system, which usually mean a claimant must earn the equivalent of the national minimum wage – which he said would ensure support was only given to “legitimate and viable businesses”.
He said he had also set up a specialist team to “provide expert advice and support to disabled people who want to run their own successful businesses”.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, who in 2011 published a review of government employment support for disabled people, said the introduction of AtW personal budgets was “a very welcome step”, as it would mean “increased flexibility and less bureaucracy for disabled people, allowing them to concentrate on their jobs instead of filling out endless forms”.
She said: “Disabled people are more likely to be self-employed than non-disabled people, so additional help for people who work for themselves is also welcome.
“But why a sting in the tail in the form of a cap on awards? Even now, with no cap, the scheme makes the government money.
“For every £1 spent on Access to Work, £1.48 comes back to the exchequer in tax, national insurance or savings to the benefits bill.
“This short-sighted change will mean that employers may avoid recruiting the best people for the job, and that’s a waste of talent, resources and energy.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, which supports the StopChanges2ATW campaign, said Harper’s statement “includes some welcome measures to improve the service, including the introduction of personal budgets which will promote flexibility, choice and control”.
She said: “We are also pleased at the intention to offer more accessible procedures for contacting Access to Work, long called for by Deaf and disabled people.
“However, the statement also includes the news that ATW budgets will be capped. The effect of this will be to introduce a limit on how far Deaf BSL-users can participate and progress in employment.”
Disabled entrepreneur Jacqueline Winstanley, one of 36 people who have complained to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman since September about AtW, said the self-employment measures were a “significant step backwards”, with the new link with universal credit rules “an insult to the integrity and worth of disabled entrepreneurs in the UK”.
Winstanley, who runs her own consultancy, Universal Inclusion, which focuses on reducing inequalities, particularly within the workplace, and chairs Fluidity, a charity which supports people with hidden and fluctuating conditions, said: “If we accept disabled people start from a position of disadvantage in employed or self-employed status, and are less likely to be employed and are more likely to be low earners, then how can the minister set a system up that is reliant on their level of salary to dictate the level of support?”
Winstanley is keen to hear from other disabled entrepreneurs who might be interested in joining the Disabled Entrepreneur Foundation, an organisation she will be launching soon. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
12 March 2015