The minister for disabled people has apologised to MPs for the government’s botched reforms to a vital employment support programme for disabled people.
Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, was told by MPs that the changes to Access to Work (AtW) had led to a huge backlog of claims, “appalling” administration, and rude and poorly-trained advisers.
The Commons work and pensions committee was hearing evidence from Harper and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) director Colin Stewart in the final evidence session of its inquiry into the scheme.
They said DWP had moved from 72 Access to Work centres with a separate telephone system to three locations and enquiries routed through the main DWP call centre.
Harper said: “It means we now answer the phone calls on time… It is fair to say though that the process of moving from one to the other had some unexpected performance challenges and frankly we weren’t very transparent about it.
“We didn’t tell parliament terribly effectively and we didn’t tell our customers very effectively either.”
Bu he said the staff and systems were now in place and the “performance was now getting back to where it should be”.
Stewart said one of the reasons for the changes had been the previous lack of “consistency” in the system.
He admitted there had been “some operational challenges” in the last six months and some “teething problems”, including the recruitment of 100 new staff.
But the performance in September and October had been “stabilised” and AtW was working through the backlog of claims and would “expect to be back on an even keel by February”, he claimed.
When Harper asked for the details of one complaint of administrative chaos read out by Liberal Democrat MP Mike Thornton, the committee’s disabled chair, Dame Anne Begg, said they had received “thousands of them”.
Dame Anne, a Labour MP, said: “A lot of the evidence we had were individual testimonials of administrative problems, not even decision problems, just the frustration of using the call centre, and the person at the other end picking up the phone and having no idea about their claim and not being able to access that information.
“That’s been the big frustration for many people who think AtW is a great scheme, but the administration of it has been appalling.”
Labour MP Glenda Jackson said users had been given no prior warning that the system was changing and only found out when they rang the number and found it wasn’t working.
Harper said he would expect AtW to “be clearer” about any significant changes in the future, telling both customers and parliament, and to be “much more open about it”.
Jackson said they had received evidence that AtW staff had been “really, really rude to the applicant, have had no knowledge at all about their particular circumstances or their disability, which has had a terrible effect on these people”.
Harper said: “It is absolutely our ambition to increase the number of people and increase our spend on the scheme.”
He said the scheme spent £108 million on AtW claims in 2013-14, and planned to spend about the same this year.
Labour MP Glenda Jackson asked whether there was a time-frame by which DWP hoped to double the number of people benefiting from AtW, as recommended by Liz Sayce in 2011 in her review of employment support for the government.
Harper said: “I don’t have one at this point. It will have be something that we will have to argue through the next spending review period… and what the spending review settlement we will get is obviously a matter for the chancellor.”
He said the government wanted to increase the number of people claiming AtW, but that plans to double the number of claimants would require the consent of the Treasury, as it would need more than £100 million extra funding a year.
Dame Anne said Sayce had wanted the “vast majority” of the funding saved by closing the remaining Remploy factories to be spent on doubling the number of people claiming AtW, but it sounded as if “quite a small proportion” of the Remploy funding had gone into AtW.
30 October 2014