Disabled people are taking legal action in a bid to force the government to publish secret guidance that decides who is eligible for employment support under its under-fire Access to Work (AtW) scheme.
Disability News Service (DNS) has run a string of reports this year about disabled people concerned about administrative problems, delays and cuts to their AtW funding.
And in October, Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, was told by MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee that the government’s AtW reforms had led to a huge backlog of claims, “appalling” administration, and rude and poorly-trained advisers.
Much of the opposition to changes introduced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has come from the campaign group Stop Changes to Access to Work, whose members are Deaf and disabled people and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters.
Now lawyers at Leigh Day are taking legal action – on behalf of the campaign – against work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith over the lack of guidance and the “inconsistent, unlawful and opaque application” of AtW policy.
In a “letter before action”, Leigh Day has challenged Duncan Smith to publish a DWP document which describes the eligibility criteria and the rules applied to AtW claimants.
The document, apparently more than 700 paragraphs long, is not publicly available, although campaigners have been told that it exists.
The letter also raises concerns about the “30-hour rule”, which states that a Deaf or disabled person needing more than 30-hours-a-week AtW support should recruit their own salaried support worker.
If they cannot, AtW will only fund an award for an hourly rate equivalent to a £30,000 salary, a rule which has caused particular problems for Deaf people who use BSL-interpreters.
Although DWP announced in May that the 30-hour rule would be suspended while it carried out a three-month review, there has yet to be any indication of the result of that review.
Leigh Day says this is unlawful, and calls in the letter for funding to be restored at previous levels to all those affected by the 30-hour rule.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the Stop Changes to Access to Work steering group, and an AtW-user, said: “This scheme is key to safeguarding both the social and financial inclusion of disabled people in society.
“The support it provides, such as travel grants, special aids or equipment and support workers, transforms lives and safeguards careers.
“It cannot continue to be applied so haphazardly and in such an opaque manner.”
A Stop Changes to Access to Work spokeswoman said the idea of Deaf and disabled people “achieving in employment and being successful in their own businesses flies against what this government would have you believe: that Deaf and disabled people are scroungers and a drain on society”.
The spokeswoman added: “They would have you believe that interpreters are profiteering from the public purse, rather than being highly-trained, skilled workers performing a vital role.”
Among those hit by the reforms whose stories have been reported by DNS are Jenny Sealey, chief executive and artistic director of Graeae, whose AtW support was cut by more than half, and Craig Crowley, chief executive of the Deaf-led charity Action Deafness and honorary president of UK Deaf Sport.
In September, a Deaf youth worker described how endless problems with the support he is supposed to obtain through AtW had made it impossible to focus on his job.
And in May, DNS reported how an educational farm run by two disabled people for more than 10 years could be forced to close after their AtW support was suddenly withdrawn.
Earlier this year, Jeff McWhinney told ITV how he was forced to bring a non-Deaf managing director into his company SignVideo after his AtW support was cut, so he was no longer able to attend networking opportunities in the evenings.
Ministers now have 14 days to respond to the Leigh Day letter before formal legal action is taken in the high court.
Ugo Hayter, from Leigh Day, said: “Access to Work users, who depend on the support provided to them by the scheme, are having their support arbitrarily cut or suspended. This is putting their employment and their businesses at serious risk.
“The secretary of state should now ensure his department deals with this matter urgently. It should publish clear AtW guidance and resolve the many outstanding claims.”
So far, DWP has been unable to comment.
4 December 2014