A leading member of the self-advocacy movement has called on peers to investigate huge apparent cuts to in-work support for people with learning difficulties.
Andrew Lee, director of policy and campaigns at People First Self-Advocacy, said he and colleagues believed the government was discriminating against people with learning difficulties in the way it was running its Access to Work (AtW) programme.
Lee told members of the House of Lords committee examining the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on disabled people that he believed the government had secretly introduced a new policy in which people with learning difficulties have their AtW packages cut to just 20 per cent of their previous levels.
He said: “As soon as you mention that you have a learning difficulty you seem to be automatically pushed into a column where you will only get 20 per cent.
“You’re losing your support where for a lot of people it can be the difference between being in a job and not being in a job. It is discrimination.”
He said he believed the Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for AtW, could be breaking the law in the way it is running the scheme.
He said: “We think they may pay lip service to the Equality Act but our experience is by talking to other self-advocacy organisations where they employ people with learning difficulties [that they]have had similar experiences to ourselves.”
He added: “We think it needs investigating.”
Lee stressed the importance of AtW and said he would not have been able to attend the evidence session or to prepare for the meeting without support funded by Access to Work.
He was also critical of the knowledge of learning difficulties among AtW staff, and the impact this had on the ability of people with learning difficulties to find and keep employment.
He said: “If people want to work they have to have the right support to do that, and that will be very personal to them.
“When we have spoken to AtW they don’t understand learning disability at all.
“A learning disability doesn’t change. For some strange reason, AtW doesn’t get that… a learning difficulty is there for life.
“If AtW is going to be successful then ministers need to knock some heads together.”
Lee also made strong calls for more to be done to ensure all information sent to people with learning difficulties is provided in an easy-read format.
He produced a benefits leaflet which was sent to him and his wife, but which neither of them had been able to understand.
He said: “It will save you money and more people will know what you are talking about and people might know what their rights are… every aspect of our life, we need the information in easy read to actually have choice, control and independence.”
And he said there needed to be a strong self-advocacy organisation run and controlled by people with learning difficulties in every town and city, funded by local authorities.
Baroness Deech, the crossbench peer who chairs the committee, told Lee that his evidence had been “really impressive”.
She said: “All the ideas you have given us we will certainly take them on board.
“You have made a lot of things plain to us that perhaps we suspected before, but now we really know.
“We will do whatever we can to resolve the problems that you have raised.”