The government has threatened to remove Access to Work funding from a high-profile disabled consultant, because he cannot prove he is self-employed, even though he has been working for himself for the last 16 years.
Simon Stevens was presented with a Catalyst award by Labour prime minister Gordon Brown in 2008, and won an Enterprising Young Brits Award in 2004 – also presented by Brown – for setting up his company Enable Enterprises.
But Access to Work (AtW) bosses are now asking him to provide proof that he really is self-employed, even though he has never been asked before for such evidence.
He has been hit by demands to produce proof that he has made National Insurance Contributions (NICs), which he claims he has since been told by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that he does not need to pay because he receives disability living allowance.
He has relied on AtW for 30 hours a week support to help with accessing personal care, meetings, phone calls and travel for the last 16 years, firstly as chief executive of his own company and now as a self-employed consultant.
Even though he has forwarded a letter from HMRC to AtW to explain that he does not need to pay NICs, he has still been told that his support will be stopped in two months.
And he has faced similar problems to many other disabled people in trying to communicate with AtW, with calls having to be routed through a new call centre.
He said: “I am now left in limbo with a system I find difficult to communicate with, with the greatest crisis of my personal support in 10 years, with all the additional stress, anger and frustration that goes along with this.”
He has heard that other disabled people – including the actor Sophie Partridge – have faced similar sudden demands from AtW to prove that they are self-employed.
Stevens said he was finally making some progress with AtW, and added: “After a number of long and exhausting calls, I am slowly resolving the matter although still a long way to go, and still very unhappy at how I have been treated.”
DWP claimed AtW was designed to provide support that was “over and above that which is a reasonable adjustment”, with awards varying “depending on how long they have been employed, what support they need, the size of the employer and whether they are self-employed”.
It said that Access to Work “can be used to help support disabled people to start and remain in self-employment, but a self-employed customer must demonstrate that the self-employment is ultimately capable of generating an income and that class two or four contributions are being made for an established business”.
But DWP admitted that “consolidating our Access to Work operations has meant training new staff to help more disabled people into work. These changes are now bedding in and we’re resuming our normal service.”
In a statement, a DWP spokesman said: “More and more disabled people are being helped to get or keep a job through Access to Work, with 35,200 customers being helped last year.
“We have expanded the scheme, making a further £15m of funding available and we are implementing a wide range of improvements to allow us to help even more disabled people.
“But Access to Work does not replace the duty an employer has under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments.
“The amount of help someone receives depends on their individual needs and personal circumstances – being reviewed annually to ensure that support is appropriate and that the fund is helping as many disabled people as possible.”
At its peak, in 2009-10, under the last government, AtW was supporting more than 37,000 disabled people, but this plunged under the coalition to 30,780 in 2011-12, although it has started to increase again in the last couple of years.
AtW spending fell from £105.5 million in 2010-11 to £98.3 million in 2011-12, before rising slightly to £99 million in 2012-13.
The problems faced by Stevens and Partridge are just the latest in a string of concerns raised by Deaf and disabled people about the way the AtW programme is being run and funded.
This week, concerns about AtW have also been raised with Disability News Service (DNS) independently by two disabled-led organisations – Spectrum and Graeae Theatre Company.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said in a blog that changes to AtW had “decreased eligibility, brought considerable distress and uncertainty to customers who had previously and successfully used the programme for many years, pushed Deaf and disabled people out of jobs and left others fearing for their futures”.
Her blog adds: “There is a growing level of misinformation, confusion and chaos coming from AtW itself as a result of a restructuring that has seen a dramatic reduction in the numbers of contact centres and outsourcing.
“AtW invoices remain unpaid from months and months ago because the addresses of the payment centres changed but customers weren’t told. Meanwhile, application backlogs have amassed.”
Only last month, three leading disabled figures told the Commons work and pensions committee that AtW was plagued by “penny-pinching”, administrative incompetence, and “rude” and “intimidatory” communication that was causing disabled people “immense distress”.
DNS has run a series of reports over the last six months from disabled people concerned about administrative problems and cuts to their AtW funding.
They include a Deaf youth worker who said that endless problems with his AtW support had made it impossible to focus on his job, and an educational farm run by two disabled people which faced closure after DWP suddenly removed their AtW support.
Meanwhile, the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, is due to give evidence about the scheme to the Commons work and pensions committee on Wednesday (29 October).
23 October 2014