Disabled couple’s farm could close over Access to Work withdrawal


newslatestAn educational farm run by two disabled people for more than 10 years could be forced to close after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suddenly removed their Access to Work (AtW) support.

Barn Farm educational working farm in Hipley, Hampshire, has been run by Sir Christopher and Lady Musgrave since 2003, but both of them reply on support workers funded by AtW to carry out work they are unable to do themselves.

But they have now been told by DWP – without any warning – that their AtW support has been removed because their award-winning farm did not make enough money last year.

The farm was originally set up under Labour’s New Deal for Disabled People employment scheme, launched nationally in 2001 to help disabled people move into paid work.

As well as selling free-range meat and eggs to the surrounding area, they also host educational visits from schools, inner-city families, and disabled people.

Sir Christopher and Lady Musgrave are just the latest claimants to report apparent government efforts to restrict spending on AtW, even though coalition ministers have repeatedly praised the importance of the scheme in supporting disabled people into work, and keeping them in jobs.

If they lose their appeal against the DWP decision, Lady Musgrave and her husband will have to make their two support workers redundant, close the farm, and probably slaughter most of the livestock, because they will not be able to look after the animals themselves.

Lady Musgrave originally received 35 hours of support and her husband 21. This was then cut to 17 hours and 14 hours two years ago.

But two weeks ago, they suddenly received a call telling them that DWP had “run out of funding” and their next payment would be late.

They were then told they were to be “reassessed”, and days later received another phone call telling them their support had been stopped.

Their six-acre farm – one of the only surviving small farms in the area – includes cattle, pigs, sheep, ducks, goats, chickens, and even reindeer, and although the couple run the farm they cannot carry out the “lifting and shifting” themselves.

Because they were hit hard by the recession and bad weather, and made only about £7,000 last year, DWP told them they were not earning enough to continue receiving AtW support.

In order to continue employing them, the couple are now having to pay their support workers from their disability living allowance.

Lady Musgrave, a qualified teacher, said: “I am bloody furious. I told them that we had livestock to look after.

“I said: ‘How can you make a decision like this on the telephone when you can’t even see what we do?’ But he said it was government policy that they don’t do visits anymore.

“I would have thought that if you were struggling due to the climate and the financial climate a disabled person should be in need of support more than ever.”

Following her frantic calls to the AtW department, their support has been temporarily reinstated – and backdated – until their appeal has been heard.

She said: “We are only a small farm but we are still in business. So many people have gone out of business, but we are still here.

“We were devastated because we will have to close and lose everything that we have worked for.”

Disability News Service has been told of another disabled AtW claimant who received a similarly sudden phone call to be told her payments had been stopped, without warning, putting both her job and health at risk.

Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager for Disability Rights UK, said the Musgrave case “raises disturbing possibilities of a policy change”.

He added: “We have a right to understand whether [AtW] are operating from different assumptions.

“If it is the case that the assumptions have not changed this couple should have their support restored.”

If the policy has changed, he said, disabled people and their organisations should have had a chance to respond to a consultation.

But he said there also appeared to be a “draconian” new approach to monitoring people’s use of AtW support, and Sir Christopher and Lady Musgrave might have fallen victim to that.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “Access to Work helps disabled people with extra costs that may arise from having a disability such as specially adapted equipment, travel and support workers; it does not support or subsidise businesses.

“There have not been any cuts to funding to Access to Work. In contrast, we spent more money in the last year than in previous years and the number of people we’ve helped has increased by more than 10 per cent in the last year.”

She added: “Every Access to Work customer has their support reviewed on an annual basis, or at any time where we feel there has been a change of circumstance.

“As part of their review, it became apparent that the Musgraves’ business was not generating a sustainable income and therefore did not meet eligibility for support.

“Where a customer is not happy with a decision made by AtW, they can ask for this to be reconsidered. The Musgraves have been fully informed of this and the process they would need to follow.”

8 May 2014