The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been described as “callous” and uncaring by its own disabled employees.
One disabled employee said he was told by a DWP manager: “For all the use you are to me, you might as well not to be here.”
Another said he had experienced “harassment, intimidation and bullying” by DWP managers.
A third disabled employee said that advice on the workplace adjustments she needed to do her job – provided by occupational health experts – had been rejected by managers on four separate occasions.
And a fourth disabled staff member described how advice provided after his occupational health assessment – that he should be allowed to move to a workplace closer to his home – was ignored by DWP managers.
Another employee said DWP was often more intent on punishing staff members with experience of mental distress than supporting them.
They were all speaking out on DWP’s own intranet site, following a documentary expose by the BBC’s Panorama programme. Disability News Service has obtained a readout of the intranet discussion.
Last week’s Panorama* revealed that DWP had lost more disability discrimination cases at employment tribunal than any other employer in Britain since 2016 and had a “shocking track record” of discriminating against its disabled employees.
In the wake of the programme, two of the department’s most senior civil servants issued a statement to staff on the intranet site, in which they accepted mistakes had been made but insisted the documentary had not been a fair reflection of “the DWP most of us experience every day”.
But the reaction of disabled staff members to the post by Peter Schofield, DWP’s permanent secretary, and Debbie Alder, director general for people and capability, suggested the programme had been an accurate depiction of how many employees are treated.
Schofield and Alder described the programme as “both upsetting and frustrating” and claimed it “didn’t show the DWP most of us experience every day… where we have made great strides to encourage every person to feel ‘I Can Be Me’** is more than just a set of words”.
But they also accepted that “mistakes were made in the way we handled the cases shown in the programme” and that DWP had more to do to “make sure DWP is a kind, open and considerate place to work for everyone, whatever their circumstances”.
They also said DWP had launched a review of its “processes and actions”, following tribunal cases that had been taken against the department.
And they said DWP had taken other action, such as signing up colleagues to work as “fair treatment ambassadors”, launching a disability network, and providing a confidential helpline for staff to speak up about their workplace concerns.
But one disabled DWP employee said this statement “skirts around some of the key concerns raised by the Panorama documentary”.
She pointed to the issue – raised by the programme – that DWP commissions occupational health assessments of disabled staff but then fails to “fully take the advice on board”, which had now happened to her on four consecutive occasions.
She said: “Due to a change in my physical health I am seeking a transfer to the office nearest my home just seven miles away and some changes to my role.
“Not a lot to ask you might think.
“Sadly this saga has been going on since April 2019 with no sign of it being resolved any time soon.
“This is so disappointing and depressing as I have devoted almost 40 years to my career with DWP.”
A colleague agreed with her, saying he too had had an occupational health assessment that recommended a move closer to home, which was “ignored in the name of an estates strategy I am not allowed sight of”.
He said the request had been repeatedly rejected, and he added: “Our caring managers in operation.
“Given up now, as it clearly isn’t going to happen. Very disillusioned by the callous nature of it all.”
Another disabled DWP employee said he had had an occupational health assessment but was then told by a manager that it was “only advice and did not need to be acted upon”
He said: “I could write a book about my experience as a disabled employee trying hard to do as well in the DWP as I have in other lives.”
One manager told him: “For all the use you are to me, you might as well not to be here.”
He was also told that it was his fault that he could not see a test paper with dark green text on light green paper in a darkened room.
He added: “I have rather sadly come to the conclusion that the DWP has a problem with me and my disability.
“I have very complex needs but have done all sorts of things in past lives.
“Sadly the DWP has been the only place where I have not flourished and reached my full potential and as I am now only about 10 years from retirement I suspect I never will.”
One staff member said that DWP’s “I Can Be Me” campaign remained “just a set of words” as “at an individual level, discrimination and poor treatment remains commonplace”.
Another said: “I am afraid there is a lot of tokenism going on and not much action”.
One or two staff members did insist that the department had improved, with one saying DWP had “come a long way with the processes, policies and support we have today” and that she was “really proud to be on a team that do support me and encourage myself to [be] who I am”.
Another said he had a long-term health condition and had received “amazing support” from DWP colleagues and his line manager, and that he had been “very disappointed” with the Panorama programme because “for me it did not really give the whole picture”.
But another colleague said she had been with DWP for more than 40 years and that it had improved over that time in how it treated disabled people, but added: “We are very good at saying the right things but in many quarters the words and actions don’t match, especially when money and productivity are under threat”.
She said: “I wish I could say that I had never come across managers who see disabled staff as a nuisance, but sadly they are still around and still vocal.
“We are making progress, particularly with physical disabilities, but there is still a massive stigma attached to mental illness.
“I struggle against the pressure to issue sick absence warnings for people who have been off with mental health issues.
“Why do we think it’s OK to welcome someone back after an absence with depression or anxiety, then hand out a warning which will only make them more depressed and anxious.
“That’s not supportive that’s punishment.”
Another staff member said DWP had known he was disabled since 1996 and he had found it a “very painful experience”, including having line managers who had not believed him, as well as experiencing “harassment, intimidation and bullying”.
He said there was a “clear lack of understanding of the legal rights of a disabled person” by most senior managers.
He called on DWP to hold a conference for its disabled staff so they could highlight what needs to improve.
Another colleague questioned why it took a Panorama expose for Schofield and Alder to issue a joint statement on discrimination by disabled employees.
*DNS editor John Pring was a consultant on the programme
**I Can Be Me In DWP was launched in September 2017, with the aim to “encourage and enable people and teams to talk about inclusion openly, and what it takes for them to feel they can be themselves at work”
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