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“Access to Work” – Government must do more to support disabled people in work
Access to Work (AtW) is a unique government programme which offers practical support to disabled people to help them stay in, or gain, employment. But it is helping only a minority of the people it could benefit, due to inadequate funding and a lack of awareness of the programme, says the Work and Pensions Select Committee in its report published today.
The Committee concludes that AtW is an important element of specialist employment support for disabled people but finds that Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) staff are often failing to understand the needs of disabled people.
The Committee also found that DWP’s recent rigid application of a “30 hour rule” for full-time “Support Workers”, and caps on the hourly rates of pay which it is willing to reimburse, has threatened the employability of deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users.
The report highlights weaknesses in DWP’s administration of the programme: a newly established central call centre was poorly implemented and does not currently meet the needs of many disabled service users; and a reliance on outmoded paper-based processes often leads to a slow and cumbersome service. The Committee concludes that DWP needs to consult and communicate with AtW service users about changes to the service much more effectively in the future.
DWP announced an internal departmental review of AtW in June 2014. The Committee’s Report is intended to inform that review, which the Committee hopes will lead to substantial improvements to the programme.
Dame Anne Begg MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:
“Access to Work should be a good news story for DWP. Where it works well, it transforms lives, allowing disabled people who might otherwise be excluded to participate in the world of work. But Access to Work’s modest budget risks an approach which seeks to boost the numbers helped by ATW by bearing down on the awards of people whose support needs happen to be high cost, including those who use BSL. Access to Work should be about removing barriers for the full range of disabled people who can benefit from the programme, including the relatively few whose support costs are high.
DWP needs to make a strong case to HM Treasury for substantial additional funding for Access to Work and then take steps to increase take-up by improving the programme’s marketing. The Government should promote Access to Work much more proactively and widely, to both employers and disabled people, including previously under-served groups such as young people trying to enter the labour market for the first time.
Only around 4% of people helped by Access to Work have mental health conditions. Given the well-known effects of mental health issues on employment in the UK, the number and proportion of people with these types of problems being helped by the programme is far too low. The DWP must do more to make it clearer that AtW is as relevant to people with mental health problems, and also learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders, as it is to people with physical and sensory disabilities.”
Funding for Access to Work
The 2011 Sayce Review of specialist employment support for disabled people included recommendations designed to lead to a doubling of the number of people helped by AtW. The number of people supported by the programme has increased in each of the last two full financial years, but remains below the peak of over 37,000 reached in 2009/10. AtW supported 35,450 people in 2013/14.
The Department has acknowledged that a doubling of the number of people supported by the programme would require a broadly commensurate increase in funding, but so far the Government has only announced (in 2012) an additional £15 million for AtW, an increase in funding of around 15%.
The Sayce Review recommended the phased closure or sale of Remploy’s factories, which had provided employment for some disabled people, with the savings released to be re-invested in “effective employment programmes” for disabled people, including AtW. But while the reorganisation of Remploy has been largely completed, the Committee notes that Access to Work has not yet seen a substantial increase in caseload or funding. DWP was not able to provide a clear indication as to how the savings from the closure of Remploy factories have been used to date, and the report calls for the Department to clarify this.
BSL—application of the “30 hour rule” is having a detrimental impact on deaf service users
The Committee received a substantial amount of evidence from deaf people who use AtW to fund the BSL interpretation they need to do their jobs. Deep concerns were expressed about the implementation of the so-called “30 hour rule” for “Support Workers”— DWP’s recent approach, in cases where 30 hours or more of support is required per week, of sometimes insisting that deaf people or their employers employ a single BSL interpreter on a salaried basis. In other cases it has capped the hourly rates at which it will reimburse BSL interpretation costs. Users reported that this has had a profoundly detrimental impact on their ability to source the effective BSL interpretation they need.
Dame Anne Begg MP said:
“DWP’s recent approach to BSL is highly regrettable and betrays a lack of understanding of the BSL interpreting market and how BSL is utilised by deaf people at work. The costs of BSL are relatively high but it would be unacceptable for DWP to try to control costs by targeting a particular group in a way which threatens people’s ability to stay in their jobs.
The Government has previously announced a temporary suspension of the “30 hour rule” but evidence suggests deaf people are continuing to face difficulties sourcing the BSL support they need. DWP must address the issue as a matter of urgency, and fulfil its commitment to review the cases of all deaf service users who believe they have been adversely affected.”
The Committee makes a number of specific recommendations to improve the AtW programme. These include that DWP:
Be clearer about the basis on which it makes its decisions on eligibility and levels of awards and the processes by which applicants can have decisions reviewed or complain [para 94; paras 106–7];
Establish online application and invoicing systems and, in the longer term, develop an AtW “web portal”, as recommended in the Sayce Review [para 121];
Improve disability awareness training for DWP staff administering the programme, and establish at least two additional specialist Adviser teams, for service users with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders [paras 126–7];
Increase the accessibility of information about AtW, including by introducing “Easy Read” content for people with learning disabilities, and BSL content [para 128]; and
Introduce a Video Relay System to allow deaf BSL users to make contact more easily with the Department [para 129].