The Access to Work (AtW) programme, designed to provide disabled people with practical support to stay in employment, 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.
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 failing to understand the needs of some disabled people. A recent rigid application of a “30 hour rule” for full-time Support Workers, and caps on their hourly rates on pay, has threatened the employability of deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users, for example.
The Committee also highlights weaknesses in DWP’s administration of the programme: a newly established centralised 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.
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 of people 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 to be high.
“The 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.”
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 Review recommended the phased closure or sale of Remploy’s factories, which had provided supported and subsidised employment for 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 finds that Access to Work has not yet seen a substantial increase in caseload or funding. AtW supported 35,450 people in 2013/13. 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.
DWP 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%.
“30 hour rule”
The Committee received a substantial amount of evidence from deaf people who use AtW to fund the BSL interpretation needed to help them stay in a job.
Deep concerns were expressed about the implementation of the so-called “30 hour rule”—the DWP’s approach of capping the hourly rates at which it will reimburse BSL costs, and, in cases where 30 hours or more of BSL interpretation is required per week, sometimes insisting that deaf people or their employers employ a single interpreter.
Users reported that this has had a profoundly detrimental impact on their ability to source the BSL interpretation they need.
Dame Anne Begg MP said: “DWP’s recent approach to BSL is highly regrettable and betrays a fundamental 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 is unfair for the 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 our evidence suggests deaf people continue to endure difficulties sourcing the BSL support they need. The DWP needs to 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 other specific recommendations. These include that DWP:
- Be clearer about the “reasonable adjustments” employers are required by law to make
- Clarify current employer cost-sharing arrangements, and encourage increased voluntary contributions from larger employers
- Be clearer and about the basis on which it makes its decisions on eligibility and levels of awards
- Increase the accessibility of information about AtW, including by introducing “Easy Read” content for people with learning disabilities and BSL content, and
- Introduce a Video Relay System to allow deaf BSL users to more easily make contact with the Department Address.