Ministers have failed to implement recommendations made nearly two years ago by their own advisers on how to improve the Access to Work (AtW) employment programme, including a vital call to double the number of people using the scheme.
The recommendations were made by a panel of experts chaired by Mike Adams, chief executive of the Essex-based disabled people’s organisation ecdp, which reported to the government two years ago.
But the two reports produced by the panel were never published by the government, although the then minister for disabled people, Esther McVey, announced new AtW policies after both the first and second report.
It is the second time ministers have refused to act on a recommendation from an independent adviser to double the number of people receiving AtW funding, after a similar call by Liz Sayce in 2011.
This week, Adams said he was frustrated that many of the panel’s 21 recommendations for improving the scheme – which provides help to disabled workers with travel to work, purchase of specialist equipment and support workers – had not been implemented.
He said he believed that all but one of the 10 recommendations made in the first phase of the panel’s work – which looked at how to “accelerate” the implementation of recommendations made in Sayce’s review of employment support – had been implemented.
But he believes that the two or three that were not implemented of the 11 recommendations from the second phase of the panel’s work would have “transformed” the programme.
There were also “three or four” that were only partly implemented, even though the government had accepted them.
Although he is unable to detail the recommendations he made that were not implemented, because the report was written for the government, he was able to speak more openly when giving evidence to the work and pensions select committee last summer.
A transcript of that session suggests that a series of key recommendations have not been acted on by three successive ministers for disabled people.
The expert panel called for more to be done to promote AtW in sixth-form colleges and universities, and other “pre-employment” areas such as informal work experience; to commission research into how AtW could do more to help people with fluctuating conditions; and to make it easier for disabled entrepreneurs and self-employed disabled people to access the scheme.
Another major recommendation that does not appear to have been implemented, nearly two years after Adams reported to McVey, was for AtW applications to be dealt with online, rather than on paper.
But probably the most crucial recommendation was that Adams appears to have told the minister – as Sayce had in her 2011 report – to double the number of disabled people using AtW, using money from other specialist disability employment schemes.
At its peak, in 2009-10, under the last government, AtW was supporting more than 37,000 disabled people, but this plunged under the coalition to 30,780 in 2011-12, although it has started to increase again in the last couple of years.
The latest figures, published in January, show 35,540 disabled people were helped in 2013-14, still well below the figures for 2009-10.
Adams told Disability News Service this week: “I think all the recommendations that were made by the expert panel should have been accepted and should have been implemented and I personally believe they would have been lauded for it.
“But they haven’t and we are now two years on.
“I think the expert panel would tell you that the government have missed a real trick.
“Almost to an individual they would tell you we just don’t understand [the failure to implement the recommendations].”
He added: “I think the panel took a great deal of care in understanding the costs associated with each of the recommendations and were not asking the government to sign an empty cheque.”
He also said that one of the key problems the panel encountered was that the AtW rules were not being applied consistently by assessors.
Last week, Sue Bott, Disability Rights UK’s director of policy and development, called for the expert panel’s two reports to be published, as she raised concerns that many disabled people using the scheme were having their support cut when their packages were reviewed by AtW.
Adams said he had asked the current minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, to publish his panel’s two reports, which he said were “still valid”.
He said his message to the government was to “go back and have a look at them, [because] I think they are as valid today as they were two years ago. I would get on and implement them.”
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman has not yet commented on the failure to implement Adams’ recommendations.
But the DWP spokeswoman said earlier this week: “Mike Adams’ expert panel was commissioned to produce specific advice for ministers on implementing the recommendations of the Access to Work report, not to replicate Liz Sayce’s work by publishing a further report of their own.”
She added: “Regardless of the form [the panel’s work] took, we do not routinely publish advice to ministers, so have no plans to publish this.”
And she said that each AtW case was “determined on its merits” and according to criteria such as “a person’s needs, any reasonable adjustments or employer contributions put in place and the appropriateness and value for money to the taxpayer of support”.
She said that without “specific details”, DWP was unable to examine whether the cases discussed by Bott were “representative of Access to Work”.
Meanwhile, Debbie Abrahams, the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, and a member of the work and pensions committee, has introduced a ten minute rule bill into parliament that would force larger businesses, public bodies and charities to publish every year the number and proportion of disabled people they employ.
She said the bill would help address the “prevailing culture” that includes “swingeing cuts to social security support”, “dehumanising and ineffective” reforms to the work capability assessment, a sanctions policy which has “targeted the most vulnerable, bringing people to the brink… and people have died under it”, and the “chaos and inadequacy” of AtW.
But what she said she found most offensive was the “pejorative language” used by the government, referring to people receiving social security – including disabled people – as “shirkers” and “scroungers”.
Abrahams told MPs: “By requiring employers with more than 250 employees to report the number and proportion of people with disabilities they employ, my bill seeks to raise their awareness of the disability employment gap in their own organisation, prompting them to consider this information and what they may do about it.
“As we know, what is not measured or reported is rarely acted on.”