One of the companies at the heart of the government’s welfare-to-work programme is facing allegations that it introduced an “incredibly dangerous” cost-cutting move that could put the lives of many disabled benefit claimants at risk.
Earlier this year, A4E allegedly introduced a new policy that forced advisers with no specialist training or experience to start working with “vulnerable” claimants with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and drug and alcohol problems on the government’s Work Programme.
The company had previously only allowed advisers with “in-depth knowledge of the barriers faced by our hardest to help customers” and “experience of working with disadvantaged, disengaged and/or disaffected people” to work with this group, many of whom were claiming the out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).
The claims – which are strongly refuted by the company – raise new questions about the government’s much-criticised efforts to support disabled people into work, with new figures released this week showing that only 1.6 per cent of former incapacity benefit (IB) claimants who were now claiming ESA had secured at least three months’ work within their first year on the Work Programme.
The allegations emerged during a case for constructive dismissal taken by whistle-blower Chris Loder, a former A4E adviser, from Fleetwood in Lancashire.
His case – which was opposed by A4E – was heard by Manchester employment tribunal last month.
Loder was lauded as a “high performer” by his bosses, achieving nearly 200 per cent of his target for finding jobs for claimants, and was the top-performing sales advisor in the north-west and Cumbria region.
He worked for A4E for nearly 18 months, but was recruited to work only with those claimants of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) who were closest to the jobs market, finding job vacancies among local employers and securing job interviews for A4E customers.
But after A4E introduced its new policy, Loder was told that all advisers in his office would have to work both with clients in his group and with those who faced more complex barriers, including people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties, and other impairments.
The new policy had already been introduced in two other local offices, and was later rolled out across the company.
In a statement seen by Disability News Service (DNS), Loder says the measures were introduced by A4E in his office in February this year.
After they were introduced, about two-thirds of his new caseload of customers had complex barriers.
Loder, who came from a sales background and had no experience of working with disabled people, warned his manager in Blackpool repeatedly that the new policy was not safe and would put the health of vulnerable benefit claimants at risk.
He says he told his manager that he was worried about the effect his “demanding” way of working with clients would have on vulnerable customers, “in particular people with mental health conditions”, because he “wouldn’t be able to see the signs of the conditions deteriorating”.
He also said he was concerned that his actions “may wrongly result in their benefits being sanctioned”, which could also affect their health.
He was refused extra training that would give him the skills to work with these client groups, and eventually resigned on 20 March, claiming constructive dismissal.
He told DNS that the company’s new policy could lead to the deaths of vulnerable claimants.
He said: “I had walked away from a sales career to work for A4E. I strongly believed I was there to help people.”
Loder also claims that A4E advisers were told to report anyone who arrived at a session more than five minutes late as failing to arrive, meaning they would be sanctioned.
He said: “It was shocking. It can ruin someone’s life getting sanctioned.”
Loder claims in his statement that he and some other staff were given only basic criminal records checks – despite the new policy – and not the enhanced checks that should be carried out when working with vulnerable people.
A former colleague, Jessica Pilling, who gave evidence for Loder at his tribunal, described the new policy as “incredibly dangerous”.
Pilling has previously trained Department for Work and Pensions staff on conditions such as mental health and autism, and was an adviser to the former Conservative minister for disabled people, Maria Miller, on issues faced by disabled people on the Work Programme.
In all, she has worked with disabled people for 14 years.
Pilling said in her statement to the tribunal: “We were all told there was no training, everyone should be treated the same regardless of needs.
“I personally disagree with this, the approach that you take with somebody with mental health problems when coaching them into work is not the same as someone without, and it’s incredibly dangerous to think it is.”
She told DNS after the tribunal: “Blackpool has high levels of disability, alcohol problems, people with mental health conditions, and Chris had no training on it at all. I feel quite strongly that he was the wrong person to be working with that group.”
She said she believed that A4E wanted to use high-performing advisers such as Loder – staff with impressive sales skills but no specialist training in advice and guidance – to work with clients who were much harder to place in jobs.
This particularly meant new claimants of ESA, an area where they and other Work Programme providers were “massively-under-performing”.
She added: “I just don’t think A4E or any other Work Programme provider have ever thought about how you might need to treat somebody differently to support them.”
The Department for Work and Pensions refused to comment on the claims made by Loder in the tribunal.
In a statement, which DNS is reproducing in full, an A4E spokeswoman said: “We strongly refute the claims made in this article.
“We are confident that our advisors are equipped to understand the challenges facing customers with complex barriers to work, and fully support them on a daily basis.
“We also work closely with a huge range of specialist partner organisations, such as mental health and drug and alcohol service providers, as well as local NHS services, to ensure our customers are given additional support that is tailored to their individual needs.
“Furthermore, A4e has welcomed, advised and assisted over 90,000 customers with a recorded health condition, some of whom are not expected to be ready for work in the short-term on the Work Programme, plus many, many more people with complex barriers to work, over the past four years.
“A4e fully complies with all legal and contractual obligations around staff vetting checks.
“Our staff also complete safeguarding training as part of their induction training and have access to a dedicated A4e Safeguarding Team to make sure they promote the well being of young people and vulnerable adults and the detection, referral and prevention of abuse.
“Whilst previous employment schemes didn’t do enough to support people with health issues, we recognise that they have much to offer employers, and our substantial investment to support these customers is seeing real benefits – including for those who had been isolated from the labour market for many years.”
She added: “While we are contractually obliged to record when customers fail to attend mandatory sessions, being five minutes late would not automatically lead to a sanction doubt being raised.”
The result of the tribunal is due next month.
Meanwhile, new DWP statistics released this week show that, by September 2014, only about one in 10 of new ESA claimants on the Work Programme who were closest to the jobs market were securing at least three months in work in their first year on the scheme.
But only 3.8 per cent of other ESA claimants and incapacity benefit claimants had secured at least three months’ work.
And of former IB claimants who were now claiming ESA, only 1.6 per cent were securing at least three months’ work within the first year.
18 December 2014