Access to Work: Ombudsman faces questions over investigation

0

A parliamentary ombudsman took more than three-and-a-half years to complete an investigation into the government’s Access to Work (AtW) scheme, and then failed to make any recommendations for improvements, despite upholding more than 40 complaints.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) yesterday (Wednesday) finally published its long-awaited report into 60 complaints it had received about the scheme, which provides disabled people with funding to pay for some of the extra disability-related expenses they face at work.

Disabled people began to complain to PHSO in March 2014 about the way the scheme was being run – following cost-cutting changes made by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – told the ombudsman they feared losing their jobs and for the future of their businesses.

The report describes how their work suffered, their confidence was hit and they felt “distressed, isolated, uncertain and humiliated”.

It adds: “Some had to ask their employers for extra help to enable them to continue to work and many had spent long, fruitless hours trying to understand and change the DWP’s decision about their Access to Work award.”

Many of the complaints came from Deaf users of British Sign Language, who were unable to secure the communication support they needed from interpreters at the rates offered by AtW, while there were also complaints about how the scheme dealt with self-employed disabled people.

Other complaints included problems with poor communication by AtW staff, and substandard complaint handling.

The report concludes that senior DWP staff “failed to give due consideration to the impact of the changes on particular groups of disabled people”.

But despite upholding or partially upholding 42 of the 60 complaints, the ombudsman claimed yesterday that by the time it had completed its investigation, DWP had taken the necessary steps to “put things right” and had “remedied the injustice suffered by people in the individual complaints we investigated and upheld”.

It concluded that there were “no new recommendations that we need to make to address the issues that were raised by these complaints”.

But the previous day, a far more detailed and up-to-date report – published by Inclusion London – had raised almost identical concerns about AtW and made it clear that there were continuing, deep-seated problems with the scheme (see separate story).

Just like the PHSO report, it raised concerns about cost-cutting measures that had affected Deaf users of BSL and self-employed disabled people, and also raised concerns about poor communication by AtW and substandard complaints handling.

The Inclusion London report – based on a survey carried out last year by the campaign group StopChanges2AtW– found that AtW’s future was in jeopardy because of “bureaucratic incompetence” and a drive to reduce people’s support packages.

It found “shocking levels of delay, error, and the de-skilling of staff” that were putting Deaf and disabled people’s jobs at risk, and said the scheme has been “beset with so much bureaucratic incompetence and obstructionism in recent years that, in many respects, Access to Work is no longer fit for purpose”.

Asked why PHSO had concluded that DWP had “put things right” when there were still systemic problems with the scheme – the ombudsman is currently investigating four new complaints about AtW – a spokeswoman said: “Our report refers to specific cases. Unfortunately, we cannot comment on cases we haven’t investigated.

“But our report makes it absolutely clear that DWP should monitor the changes to make sure that the mistakes we identified aren’t repeated.”

The PHSO’s report admits that it “took too long to investigate these cases” and that the organisation “must reflect on our approach to these complaints and whether we could have done things differently”.

One of those who lodged a complaint with the ombudsman was disabled entrepreneur Jacqueline Winstanley, chief executive of the consultancy Universal Inclusion.

She has described how she experienced “complete mismanagement” and “bullying” by AtW.

Her problems began in the wake of cost-cutting reforms, when the system for administering AtW changed “beyond recognition” and became “fraught with difficulties” and subject to “unacceptable delays”.

She said the PHSO report “shines a light on a total disregard of the impact on disabled people who were current and prospective recipients of the AtW award both prior to and following the DWP decision to undertake a restructure which brought about a trail of destruction”.

Winstanley, who is not yet able to comment on the result of her own complaint to PHSO, as the report has still not been finalised, added: “The injustice experienced not only by myself but many other disabled people whose lives were devastated… must be avoided at all costs in the future.”

Philip Connolly (pictured), policy manager at Disability Rights UK, said: “Whilst the investigation was carried out some time ago, protestations from the DWP that things are much better now don’t cut the mustard.

“The ombudsman’s findings are a sad reflection of the calls and emails disability organisations continue to get from disabled people and the businesses that employ them.

“They complain about long delays, unanswered queries, being shunted from pillar to post and having awards cut or turned down.

“If the government is serious about closing the disability employment gap, and supporting disabled people who can and want to work into employment, it needs to do much more to resource and promote Access to Work.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “We want more disabled people to get into employment and keep their jobs.

“The Access to Work grant can provide over £40,000 of practical support a year, which is tailored to individuals’ needs and can include travel to work, support workers and specialist equipment.

“We continuously review the scheme to make sure it’s working in the best way possible, and last year we launched a digital service to make the application process more accessible and efficient.

“Last year 25,000 people had their request approved by Access to Work, an increase of eight per cent from 2015-16.”

In the November 2015 spending review, the government pledged to increase the number of people the scheme helped by 25,000 a year by 2020, increasing spending by nearly a quarter.

But earlier this month, the government was accused of manipulating statistics in an attempt to hide the ongoing barriers, cuts and harassment experienced by AtW claimants, following the release of experimental figures which showed the number of disabled people approved every year for support from the programme had fallen by 15 per cent under seven years of Conservative rule.

The number of people who had Access to Work support approved in 2016-17 was nearly 2,000 higher than the previous year, but the figure for 2016-17 (23,630) was still more than 4,000 lower than in the final year of the last Labour government (27,760).

Critics said the way DWP was publishing AtW statistics made it impossible to know how many disabled people are currently receiving support compared with previous years, or how the average level of support packages has risen or fallen.