Access to Work crisis: Scheme must improve, say MPs


newslatestThe Access to Work (AtW) scheme is only helping a minority of the disabled people it should be supporting in the workplace, according to a committee of MPs.

The work and pensions select committee report also warns that a new rule introduced by the government is having a ”detrimental” effect on Deaf people who need communication support at work.

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.

The new report concludes that AtW has “sometimes been undermined by poor administration”, and relies on “inefficient and outmoded paper-based processes”.

And it warns that the new AtW central call centre system “does not work well for many service-users”, and calls on the government to take “urgent steps” to address its ineffectiveness.

It adds: “It is unacceptable that a programme designed to help disabled people should be inaccessible or inconvenient for a substantial proportion of service-users.”

It also says that some DWP staff administering AtW have displayed “an unacceptable lack of disability awareness”, and criticises the “unacceptable” lack of transparency about the operation of AtW.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, said the scheme “transforms lives” when it works well.

But she suggested that its “modest” budget of just over £100 million a year meant ministers might seek to boost the number of people receiving help from the scheme by “bearing down” on high-cost support packages – a suggestion they deny – particularly for those who use British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters.

A report for the government in 2011 by Liz Sayce, now chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), recommended that the number of people benefitting from the scheme should be doubled, but instead it is lagging behind the peak reached in 2009-10 of more than 37,000 claimants.

Dame Anne said DWP should “make a strong case” to the Treasury for more funding, and then promote the scheme “much more proactively and widely, to both employers and disabled people”.

The report concludes that there is “substantial unmet need” for AtW support, particularly among people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and autism, young disabled people trying to enter work for the first time, and people found fit for work as a result of the employment and support allowance eligibility process.

It calls on DWP to research the likely level of unmet need, and carry out a cost-benefit analysis of AtW spending, including its likely long-term impacts on reducing social security spending and increasing income tax revenue.

The committee also found that DWP’s “rigid application” of the “30 hour rule” for full-time support workers, and caps on hourly rates of pay, had “threatened the employability” of BSL-users.

The rule has often seen AtW insist that Deaf people or their employers recruit a single BSL interpreter on a salaried basis if they need 30 hours or more support a week, or cap the hourly rates at which it reimburses interpretation costs.

But the committee says that BSL-users reported that this had had “a profoundly detrimental impact on their ability to source the effective BSL interpretation they need”.

Dame Anne said: “DWP’s recent approach to BSL is highly regrettable and betrays a lack of understanding of the BSL interpreting market and how BSL is utilised by deaf people at work.

“The costs of BSL are relatively high but it would be unacceptable for DWP to try to control costs by targeting a particular group in a way which threatens people’s ability to stay in their jobs.”

She added: “The government has previously announced a temporary suspension of the ‘30 hour rule’ but evidence suggests deaf people are continuing to face difficulties sourcing the BSL support they need.

“DWP must address the issue as a matter of urgency, and fulfil its commitment to review the cases of all deaf service users who believe they have been adversely affected.”

David Buxton, chief executive of the British Deaf Association (BDA), welcomed the report’s recommendations, and urged DWP to “turn this evidence into action”.

He said: “We all want to stay in employment, be supported at work without any major setbacks and barriers by Access to Work.

“We want to be confident and develop and progress our careers, equal to everyone else.”

He said BDA wanted the report to be “the beginning of an overhaul of the Access to Work scheme”, and particularly called for online application and invoicing systems, a video relay service to make it easier for BSL-users to communicate with AtW, and for DWP to consult with interpreters to establish suitable rates of pay.

Disability Rights UK said in a statement: “Access to Work is a gateway to employment and independence for disabled people.

“If the government genuinely wants to support this in practice, it needs to take some action and make some changes, instead of just talking about it.

“DR UK hears constantly from disabled people having their awards reviewed and cut, and Deaf people having their communications support reduced – thus jeopardising their employment.

“Disabled people in work and those trying to build up their businesses have been hit hard by recent cost control measures, questionable interpretation of the AtW guidance, and poorly managed administrative changes.”

It added: “Access to Work is a successful programme but it needs investment in disabled people’s potential – not to be treated like a benefit that is meted out through complex, archaic and off-putting systems.”

Susan Daniels, chief executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society, said the report “provides a damning indictment of how deaf and other disabled people have been supported by AtW, particularly in terms of customer service.

“AtW plays a vital role in supporting deaf young people into employment and we believe that its current effectiveness has been undermined by how the programme is administered, organised and run.

“We have also noticed a severe deterioration in the quality of support that deaf people are receiving at work.”

Fazilet Hadi, managing director of RNIB Engagement, welcomed the report and its recognition of “the vital role that Access to Work plays in supporting disabled people to find and stay in work”.

She said: “There is a clear and urgent need for the budget to be increased and as such we support the committee’s call for the government to undertake a cost-benefit analysis.

“Like the committee, we believe this analysis is likely to show an overwhelming case for additional funding to be made available.”

The day before the report was published, Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, announced in a written statement that AtW had achieved a “significant improvement in customer service well ahead of schedule”.

He also unveiled a series of improvement measures, including setting up specialist AtW teams for Deaf people, visually-impaired people, and customers with mental health conditions, with teams for other impairment groups “being considered”.

And he announced that DWP would make it easier for customers to contact AtW by email, and would produce new user-friendly guidance by April 2015, as well as publishing more information about AtW’s performance in next month’s official statistics.

Harper said he would “consider carefully” the committee’s findings and would respond “in due course”.

19 December 2014