Councils cutting back on workplace adjustments, says new study


newslatestLocal authorities across the UK have cut spending on making their workplaces accessible for disabled employees, as a result of the coalition’s spending cuts, according to new research.

The study found that previous “generally good” practice among 33 local authorities examined was at risk of “deteriorating” even further because of the “dismantling” of legal protections by the government since 2010.

It is believed to be the first piece of academic research to examine the impact of the cuts on workplace adjustments, such as altering a disabled employee’s work hours or making an office more wheelchair-accessible.

The study concluded that the cuts and reforms – including cuts to benefits, social care and legal aid, as well as the media and political demonisation of disabled people – had put disabled staff of local authorities at greater risk of redundancy.

Four of the human resources managers interviewed suggested that, as a result of the cuts, some adjustments were “no longer considered reasonable”.

And seven of the nine employees and trade union representatives who expressed an opinion said there were fewer adjustments, adjustments were taking longer to agree and put in place, or that “individuals had to fight harder to get them”.

Rupert Harwood, of the University of Greenwich Business School, who carried out the study, said: “Unless effective action is taken, the disabling society… is set to become a great deal more disabling.”

He points in his article to attacks on employment rights and on enforcement agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as well as cuts to central government funding of local authorities, which leaves them with “smaller budgets from which to fund adjustments”.

Most of his data collection was carried out between 2010 and 2012, and also included interviews with line managers, equality officers and the chairs of council committees, as well as about 250 documents.

Harwood has since carried out fresh research, with further interviews conducted last year, as well as analysing a further 150 documents.

He said that this new research suggests that requests for adjustments were more often being turned down in 2013 than during 2011-12, while some workplace adjustments that had been in place were now being withdrawn.

He said: “Adjustments were increasingly seen as special treatment by managers and colleagues, and special treatment was increasingly seen as unfair in the context of expenditure cuts.

“In consequence, more disabled employees were reluctant to ask for adjustments.”

Redundancies had also meant that staff were having to “work harder and longer and take on some of the roles of those who had gone”, which was causing particular problems for disabled workers, partly because their impairments had made it difficult or impossible to carry out the additional roles.

And Harwood said there was mounting evidence during 2013 that “in some authorities disabled employees were at particular risk of being made redundant or otherwise dismissed, and it appeared that quite often these dismissals could have been in breach of the Equality Act 2010”.

In some local authorities, the “genuineness or severity” of impairments was increasingly being questioned, as was the need for adjustments.

Harwood said: “Some trade union representatives, and a head of department, indicated that this might be the result of welfare narratives around benefit cheats spilling over into the workplace.

“One human resources manager, for example, referring to adjustments, was concerned about people ‘not being genuinely ill… and effectively trying to abuse the system’.”

And some councils that had set up disability equality committees had decided they were no longer needed, and so they were being shut down or meeting less frequently.

Harwood added: “While disability equality was still, in general, taken seriously, it was increasingly regarded as a luxury that could not be afforded in a worsening financial climate for local authorities.”

‘The Dying of the Light’: The Impact of the Spending Cuts, and Cuts to Employment Law Protections, on Disability Adjustments in British Local Authorities, is published in the latest issue of the academic journal Disability and Society.

23 October 2014