The government’s Access to Work (AtW) programme is plagued by “penny-pinching”, administrative incompetence, and “rude” and “intimidatory” communication that is causing disabled people “immense distress”, leading campaigners have told a committee of MPs.
The Commons work and pensions committee was hearing evidence for its AtW inquiry from three leading disabled figures who all receive support through the scheme.
Andy Rickell, chief executive of Action on Disability and Work UK, Fazilet Hadi, managing director of engagement for RNIB, and Marije Davidson, equality and diversity advisor for York St John University, all praised the scheme but were highly critical of how it was run.
Hadi said: “It is a fabulous scheme, it is fantastic for disabled people when it works well. It enabled me to achieve things I could never achieve [without it].”
But she said recent letters from the scheme had been “quite rude” and “intimidatory”, while she still received print letters even though she has been blind since the age of nine.
And about 90 per cent of the RNIB colleagues she approached who use or have direct knowledge of the scheme gave her a similarly negative report.
She said: “The whole culture of the scheme at the moment seems to be almost against supporting the disabled person, so something is going culturally wrong.
“You don’t know what the rules are, you don’t whether the person doing your assessment has any expertise at all. There are huge delays.”
Hadi said that “penny-pinching” by AtW was causing “immense distress”, while legal cases supported by RNIB that were previously about employment discrimination were now “often about people losing work in the early months [of a new job] because things like AtW aren’t working”.
Davidson, who is Deaf and was formerly policy and research manager for Disability Rights UK, said the scheme was a “really fantastic way of helping me work and do my job” and was “very powerful”.
She said: “Access to Work is the one thing that really empowers us as disabled individuals to go out to employers and reduce the concerns they may have about employing a disabled person.”
But she also told the committee that she had encountered a series of problems since 2013, with invoices from her support workers not being paid by AtW, and the scheme taking four months to arrange her new support package when she moved jobs.
At one point, she discovered that AtW had “terminated” all of her support without telling her, while she was forced to make repeated phone calls to arrange a fresh assessment.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “So if you’re blind you get a paper copy, if you’re deaf you’re expected to make an application by phone. And this is an organisation that is meant to be disability-aware!”
A major reorganisation now means all AtW queries have to go through a call centre, replacing the old system where every claimant was allocated a local AtW centre.
Rickell told the MPs that AtW was “based on the right principles” because it was personalised to people’s individual circumstances, and “that makes it different to the rest of employment support”.
He said his organisation had heard from disabled people who had lost their jobs because their AtW support had not been put in place in time.
He added: “The first a person knows that their review is due is because their ongoing support has stopped, and they are not even told it has stopped.”
All three agreed with Dame Anne that AtW was a great tool but was “very, very poorly administered”.
4 September 2014