The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been declared a gold-standard employer of disabled people under its own much-criticised scheme, despite being found guilty of “grave or systematic violations” of the UN disability convention.
DWP documents obtained by Disability News Service (DNS) through a freedom of information request show how it was “validated” as a “Disability Confident Leader” on 4 November 2016, just days before the report by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities was published.
Among the UN’s conclusions was that DWP ministers had “regularly portrayed” disabled people as “being dependent or making a living out of benefits, committing fraud as benefit claimants, being lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers”.
DWP “strongly” disagreed with the UN report, and appeared to suggest this week that its findings were not relevant “because Disability Confident assessments look at an organisation’s employment practices and commitment to supporting both disabled employees and potential candidates”.
The validation also came despite a Civil Service survey last year which showed how more than 1,400 disabled DWP civil servants claimed they had faced discrimination in the workplace, an increase of nearly a quarter on the previous year.
The Disability Confident validation process, carried out by the Business Disability Forum (BDF), of which DWP is a member, makes no mention of those figures, or the UN report.
According to the scheme, a Disability Confident Leader – the highest of the scheme’s three levels – must ensure “there are no barriers to the development and progression of disabled staff” and that managers “are aware of how they can support staff who are sick or absent from work”.
BDF’s validation of DWP’s own self-assessment also fails to mention the DWP decision to impose a cap on annual payments made under the Access to Work scheme, which has particularly hit Deaf workers who use British Sign Language interpreters.
Instead, BDF praised DWP for policies such as offering guaranteed interviews to disabled candidates who meet a role’s minimum criteria; for taking part in the Ambitious About Autism work experience scheme; and for having an established framework for making adjustments for disabled staff.
Despite focusing on how organisations perform as employers of disabled people, Disability Confident also encourages them to provide an inclusive and accessible environment for “staff, clients and customers”.
In its validation of DWP, BDF praised the department for making adjustments for disabled customers, “which includes offering two-way communication in a number of formats”, while DWP says in its self-assessment that staff “can also communicate by e-mail, an interpreter or through a claimant’s representative or intermediary”.
Again, the validation and self-assessment are in stark contrast to the experience of disabled people who rely on DWP’s support and services.
Earlier this year, DNS reported how a disabled benefit claimant, Mark Lucas, was taking DWP to court over its refusal to allow him to communicate with its civil servants via email.
Despite DNS having heard a recording of a member of staff in DWP’s personal independence payment department telling Lucas: “We will not communicate via email,” DWP insisted again this week that claimants are “entitled to request to receive all communications from the department by email on the grounds of disability under the Equality Act 2010”.
There is also no mention in DWP’s self-assessment, or the validation by BDF, of concerns raised about the accessibility of benefit assessment centres, which are managed by the property company Telereal Trillium.
Instead, DWP claims its sites are “fully accessible for both staff and customers”, while it insists that “DWP as a service provider ensures that for disabled customers, relevant reasonable adjustments are implemented to ensure that there are no barriers which are the direct result of an individual’s disability”.
David Gillon, a disabled campaigner and one of the most prominent critics of the Disability Confident scheme, said it was “barely a year since headlines about their soaring staff discrimination rate… how can they suddenly have no problem?
“What we are seeing is the fundamental weakness of Disability Confident.
“Statements of good intent are easy to make, and we know from Two Ticks [the previous DWP scheme for employers, which Disability Confident is replacing] just how easy they are to abuse.”
He said that DWP’s sub-contracted assessment centres were “notorious for inaccessibility, often with no carparks and wheelchair-users regularly barred from lifts as alleged ‘fire risks’.
“This inaccessibility is no secret, it has repeatedly been national news, yet DWP’s Disability Confident assessors took their statement at face value.”
He added: “DWP has a notoriously adversarial relationship with its disabled customer population. Nowhere in the evidence or the audit report is this even raised.”
Gillon said: “What we really see with this evidence is that even an organisation with notorious issues with both its own disabled staff and with its disabled customer population simply has to say, ‘We’ve got a procedure for that,’ to be handed Disability Confident Leader on a silver platter.”
BDF declined to respond to concerns that its report had ignored the discrimination revealed by the Civil Service survey, the cap on Access to Work, and the UN report.
Despite the scheme’s reference to “providing an environment that is inclusive and accessible for staff, clients and customers” – and DWP’s lengthy response to that in its self-assessment – a BDF spokesman insisted that Disability Confident was “about an organisation as an employer”.
And he said BDF supported DWP’s strategic approach to supporting their disabled employees, and “recognised their commitment in accrediting them under the scheme”.
He said: “Business Disability Forum sees Disability Confident as a way forward for employers in developing and improving their offer for their employees.
“In accrediting an organisation under Disability Confident, Business Disability Forum supports it in moving in the right direction and helping it shape what it does around disability.”
A DWP spokesman also insisted that the department deserved its validation as a Disability Confident Leader.
He said: “We are committed to equality of opportunity for all and do not tolerate discrimination on any grounds”.
He added: “Whilst we have greatly improved our efforts to be a more inclusive workforce, we know there is more work to do, [and] this will be reflected in our departmental diversity and inclusion strategic plan that we are currently developing with our employees.”
He said: “The Disability Confident scheme supports employers to make the most of the talents disabled people can bring to the workplace.
“Our Disability Confident Leader status relates to DWP as an employer and we actively encourage contractors to sign up to Disability Confident.”
He said DNS had failed to provide any evidence to support claims that assessment centres were “notorious for inaccessibility”.
He added: “As I’m sure you’re aware, access guidance is included in appointment letters for face to face assessments so that alternative arrangements can be made if needed, and anyone unable to travel as a result of their condition is offered a home visit.”
He said that BDF was “a leading, impartial and evidence-based organisation advocating for disabled people’s rights”.
He added: “We have demonstrated through the self-assessment that DWP acts as a champion within our local and business community, supply chain and networks.
“And we have demonstrated that we are serious about leading the way and helping other organisations to become Disability Confident.
“There is no evidence that the scheme is in disrepute.”
Picture: David Cameron launching Disability Confident in 2013