A disabled university lecturer says her job was put at risk by the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions to deal with a huge backlog in Access to Work (AtW) applications.
Daisy Higman, a freelance voice teacher and theatre-maker, says she was advised by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ask her personal assistant (PA) to work for free for three months while she waited for the backlog to clear.
She was told it would take at least 12 weeks before her new AtW application was even allocated to a case manager.
With only two weeks before the new term starts, she feared her freelance employment with a university in the southwest of England, and the wages of her two PAs, were at risk.
Disability News Service (DNS) has seen an email sent to Higman by a DWP adviser which confirms that applications and renewals “are currently taking a minimum of 12 weeks for allocation to a case manager from the date the application is submitted”.
That comes less than a month after DWP provided figures to DNS, in response to a freedom of information request, that claimed that average AtW application clearance times in October 2021 were just six weeks (31.4 working days), only two days higher than December 2019.
Less than three months later, this appears to have rocketed to at least 60 working days just to have a claim allocated to a case worker.
Higman (pictured) only found out last week how many hours she would be working for the new term, which starts in February.
She had been advised by AtW to wait until she knew what hours she would be working before submitting a fresh application for support.
But when she contacted AtW, and provided her details, she was told there was currently a 12-week backlog of claimants waiting to be allocated a case worker, and that AtW would not be able to provide funds to pay her PA until her case had been dealt with.
She told the AtW adviser that she could not afford to cover her PA’s wages while she waited for her claim to be processed.
Higman said: “I told her that I can’t even get to work without my PA, so how am I supposed to work at all.
“She said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s just the way things are.’”
She was then told the delays were due to a lack of staff, that DWP was training new staff, and that the backlog stretched back to applications that were lodged at the beginning of last October.
“I said, ‘Is my PA meant to work for free for three months?’ and she said: ‘Yes.’”
The next day, when she phoned AtW again, she asked another helpline adviser if she herself would be willing to work for free for three months, and was told: “No.”
The university she is working for as a freelance said it was willing to cover her PA’s wages if AtW could guarantee that they would be reimbursed in due course, but Higman was told that was not possible.
She said earlier this week: “I am in a situation where my ability to work for the next three months, and my relationship with my employer, are totally jeopardised by this.
“It is three people’s jobs – it’s me and my two PAs.”
One of her PAs, Alice, who listened to both calls, confirmed to DNS that one AtW adviser had said that Higman’s PAs would have to work for free, while the other adviser had said that she would not be happy to do so herself.
Higman said: “Our worth as disabled people is calculated based on our economic value – if you can’t work then you have to navigate a hostile, punitive benefits system and if you can work, you aren’t given the support you need to do that or can have that support suddenly stripped away from you.
“It is this horrible catch-22, and it makes me feel sick.”
A disabled artist and colleague of Higman, Hugh Malyon, says he was originally told he would not need to reapply for a renewal when his year-long AtW grant ran out, as he would be contacted automatically.
But DWP failed to contact him, and when he got in touch – weeks before his grant was due to end – to check that his support would be renewed, he was told his AtW funds were exhausted, and his PAs would not be paid for some of the work they had already carried out.
He said: “Since then I have repeatedly called, emailed and sent in all my paperwork again only to be told my case has to be reviewed and I was not guaranteed another grant.”
He was told about the three-month backlog and warned that his PA would only be paid for the three months if his support was eventually reinstated.
He said: “They are effectively asking someone to do a complex, sometimes stressful and skilled job for free in the hope that they might get some of that money back one day.
“We are being told by the government that the pandemic is almost over and everything is going back to ‘normal’, but their own departments are claiming to be so hard hit that they cannot cope.
“Now I am stuck in no-man’s-land: I can’t plan work, I have to say no to opportunities, my stress levels are through the roof and my PAs do not know when they will next get paid.”
Disabled artist-activist Jess Thom has written about the impact of AtW delays on the support she needs to work.
She was told by AtW in December that it would take at least three months to secure permission to use funding that had been agreed for accessible travel to be used instead to pay for equipment she needs to work from home, changes made necessary by the pandemic.
She wrote: “We’re two years into a fast moving and volatile pandemic, new barriers can emerge overnight, but rather than becoming more responsive so that disabled workers get the support they require as quickly as possible, the system is slower and clunkier than ever before.”
She told DNS this week that she had never known the AtW system to be as badly run and inefficient as it is now.
After being contacted about Higman’s case by DNS, a DWP spokesperson said she would now receive a decision on her support by tomorrow (21 January).
DWP claims that it invites customers to submit renewal applications 12 weeks before the end of their current award to ensure support is continuous, but it was unable to provide evidence of that by noon today (Thursday).
DWP also claims that it has no record of Higman being advised to wait until her hours were confirmed before seeking a renewal of her claim.
A DWP spokesperson had failed by noon today to confirm the 12-week backlog, or to explain why there was now such a long wait when less than a month ago its freedom of information team provided figures showing the average time from application to clearance in October was only 31.4 working days.
He also failed to say if ministers agreed with the AtW adviser who suggested Higman should ask her PAs to work for free for three months.
The DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “Ms Higman will receive a decision on the renewal of her Access to Work support by Friday 21 January 2022.
“Her current support is not due to expire until 31 January 2022.
“We are currently seeing an increased number of people applying for support through Access to Work and we’re working hard to make sure their applications are progressed as soon as possible.
“To speed up the application process, we have recruited additional staff to help meet the increase in demand and maintain the same high standard of customer service.”
Higman said in response: “At no point was I advised to apply 12 weeks in advance of my renewal.
“I was sent no reminders or warnings that the timeline had changed.
“And whilst they may not have recorded their advice to wait until I had my hours, that was what I was told, and I acted in good faith based on that advice.”
She said this morning that DWP had now extended her support until September.
Picture by Matt Austin
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