The government’s decision to loosen its restrictions on Access to Work (AtW) payments does not go far enough, and its “discriminatory” cap must be scrapped completely, according to disabled campaigners.
They spoke out after a partial U-turn on the AtW cap by work and pensions secretary Esther McVey.
The cap was first introduced in October 2015, and currently limits the annual support that individuals can be awarded under the scheme to £42,100 a year, or one-and-a-half times the average annual salary.
But McVey announced this week that the cap would now be increased to double the level of average earnings from next month.
This means that it will rise to £57,200 rather than £43,100.
McVey’s decision is likely to be linked to an ongoing court case – backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Inclusion London’s Disability Justice Project, and the Stop Changes to Access to Work campaign – in which David Buxton, chief executive of Action on Disability in London, has won the right to question the cap through a judicial review.
Buxton, a Deaf user of British Sign Language (BSL), argues that the cap breaches the government’s public sector equality duty and has subjected him to indirect discrimination.
His judicial review is set to go ahead, despite the government’s announcement.
Campaigners believe the cap has had a disproportionate impact on the job and career prospects of Buxton and other Deaf BSL-users and disabled people with high support needs.
They say it effectively removes employment support from those with the most complex needs and places them at a disadvantage when trying to get into, stay in and get on in paid work.
Buxton (pictured, left) welcomed the increased cap but said the decision did not go far enough, and it should be scrapped completely.
He said that “assessments (by suitable and knowledgeable personnel who use our language) to determine the support we need to function as employees would result in appropriate awards”.
He said: “There is some way to go yet, not least because it hasn’t been made clear whether the 200 Deaf people – including myself – affected by the cap will automatically be entitled to the higher award or if we have to apply again.
“This level of disproportionate treatment towards Deaf people who use British Sign Language has been grossly unfair and severely impacted our work.”
He said the cap had led to his own interpreting support being “much curtailed”.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said her organisation “remains committed to the position that any form of cap is inappropriate and discriminatory”.
She said: “Any cap hits those with the highest support needs, effectively penalising Deaf and disabled people with the highest support needs and impacting most on certain impairment groups.”
She said the cap was “still a fixed limit set in an entirely arbitrary way whereas costs for highly specialised equipment and good quality professional interpreters tailored to an individual’s needs can exceed this amount or vary from year to year.
“This no financial reason for a cap given that investment in Access to Work makes a return on investment to the Treasury through taxes, without taking into account the added cost benefits of savings to the NHS or social care budgets.”
Lazard said the cap was just one of many problems with the Access to Work scheme, including “administrative and financial errors on a scale that is making employment unviable for many, alongside cuts and restrictions to individual support packages that are placing intolerable strain on Deaf and disabled people doing their best to stay in work”.
She said: “An urgent review of the scheme in consultation with Deaf and disabled people is well overdue.”
Dr Terry Riley, chair of the British Deaf Association (BDA), was also critical of the decision not to scrap the cap completely.
He said: “The BDA is adamant there should be no cap at all as any cap will still discriminate against those who require higher support needs, and thus prevent deaf senior managers from progressing and also hinder the development of Deaf entrepreneurs.”
Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The government’s latest U-turn is further confirmation of the mess the Tories are in over their unworkable and punitive disability policies.
“Throughout the past nearly five years that Deaf and disabled people have been campaigning against changes to Access to Work that restrict the availability and level of support that individuals receive, we have repeatedly raised the adverse impacts on access to employment.
“The announcement that the cap will be raised isn’t evidence that the government are suddenly listening but just a cynical attempt to avoid further embarrassment in the courts with a legal challenge against the cap due to be heard in June.”
She added: “We must use this U-turn to now press for the complete overhaul of the scheme that is needed to restore its effectiveness.”
Stop Changes to Access to Work also said the cap would still discriminate against those with higher support needs.
A campaign spokesperson said: “The raising of the cap has shown that the government acknowledges that placing a limit on support is unworkable.
“Access to Work brings more money into the Treasury than it costs.
“We don’t feel this latest move goes far enough and want to see the cap scrapped altogether.”
But the UK Council on Deafness (UKCoD), an umbrella group of mainly non-user-led charities, said it was “pleased” with the announcement.
In a press release issued by DWP, UKCoD said the change would “help deaf people whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL) to access the communication support so vital to enabling them to thrive and succeed in the workplace”.
One non-user-led charity and UKCoD member, Action on Hearing Loss, said the announcement was “great news” because “many more people will no longer face restrictions that impact their ability to carry out their jobs”.
It said it was “committed to continue to work collaboratively with the DWP… to monitor the impact of the cap”.
But it later told Disability News Service that it “does not support having any cap whatsoever on Access to Work and will continue to advocate for its removal”.
In her written statement, McVey also announced some improvements to AtW, including allowing applications to be made 12 weeks ahead of the start date of a job, rather than the current six weeks, which she said would “allow more time for support to be agreed and put in place”.
She said AtW was introducing “managed personal budgets, to enable greater choice and control for customers in the way grants are spent”.
And she said DWP was “continuing to invest in our digital improvements such as developing the facility to submit invoices online”.
Among other changes, she said AtW would encourage the use of “technological solutions that can both reduce costs and promote independence”, allowing “risk free trials” of such solutions so that “customers can revert to their old award” if they do not work.