Secret government cuts to its Access to Work (AtW) programme have put at risk a disabled manager’s job with a leading user-led organisation.
Berni Vincent has been working for Spectrum Centre for Independent Living – formerly Southampton Centre for Independent Living – for 14 years, and has been claiming Access to Work support for 20 years.
She needs workplace support to help with IT, typing, using databases, travel and administrative tasks in her job as volunteer and training manager with Spectrum.
But that support has been cut by more than 60 per cent by AtW, from 32 to 12 hours a week, leaving her “angry, frustrated and worried”.
And she has even been told that AtW’s policy now is only to pay disabled people 20 per cent of their costs.
If this continues, she has been told by Spectrum that she could be made redundant.
She said: “That is a last resort and it is not something they want to do, but it is a decision they are going to be forced into making if my support is not forthcoming.
“I know I am a valued member of staff and am very good at what I do, but the organisation just doesn’t have the resources to carry me.
“We are struggling [financially], as all user-led organisations are.”
She said that ATW had “not only put my current job at risk but will also prevent me from working in the future if things do not change”.
She said: “Without support, I cannot work. So much for government saying they want disabled people in work. I will have no choice but to go on benefits.”
Ian Loynes, chief executive of Spectrum, said Vincent had not managed well in the past when she had been working without PAs.
He said: “We have contracts to deliver on behalf of local authorities and companies and if we fail to hit target then we have penalty clauses and risk losing contracts.
“For that reason alone, if this ridiculous reduction in Berni’s support – based it seems on a random percentage with no basis at all on Berni’s actual needs – is upheld then we will have little choice but to consider her future job, with all that that entails.”
He said AtW was currently “a joke”, with any funding discussions “always a nightmare with delays and refusals to fund”.
Three months ago, a new, part-time member of Spectrum staff had such a stressful time trying to secure AtW support that she resigned after just three months in the job.
Loynes said: “The stresses of arguing with AtW and the reality that not having the support in that time caused her significant pain and she felt it was impossible to work in those conditions.”
The problems faced by Vincent are just the latest in a string of concerns raised by Deaf and disabled people about the way the AtW programme is being run and funded.
This week, concerns about AtW have been raised with Disability News Service (DNS) independently by two disabled-led organisations – Spectrum and Graeae Theatre Company – and one high-profile disabled consultant, Simon Stevens.
Vincent says she has been given Loynes’ full support, but fears for AtW claimants who are working for non-user-led organisations.
She said: “We are articulate, informed people in touch with the issues but there are so many people out there who have no idea how to challenge this.”
Vincent was also highly critical of the call centre staff now answering queries for AtW.
She said: “They talk to you like they are reading from a script. It is very robotic, very unempathetic.
“They tell you that somebody will ring you back within three days. In my case they didn’t, and I had to go through the process again.
“You are just stone-walled all the time. It feels like they have put the brakes on in all sorts of ways, including how people access the system.”
Another disabled woman also came forward this week to describe to DNS the problems she has been having with AtW in her role as a trainer.
She said she had been told that – since a major AtW reorganisation – claim forms that previously were sent directly to her local office in the north-east were now sent to Wolverhampton, where they were sorted by a new private contractor before being sent to Harrow in west London.
When she asked AtW to help with her PA’s train fare on a trip to London, she was even asked by the call centre: “Why can’t your PA just go to London instead of you to do the talk?”
She said: “My employer has been waiting five to eight weeks for my claims to be paid since July… which means they are paying overdraft fees and have to find the money to make payroll each month – that’s hard for a small company in the recession.”
She added: “The government announced they would make up-front payments for small businesses, but we were told this was only for new claimants.”
AtW has also lost claims for two of her work colleagues, but does not provide PA hours to cover the extra work caused by the problems with seeking funding.
She said: “I have been lucky to have access to work support for 12 years, but it is getting more difficult each month to keep the support I have, with PAs not being given pension payments or a pay rise for four years, [even though] I need progressively more support.
“The system really is falling apart and several of us are worried about our jobs if the ‘support’ gets any worse.”
DWP claimed that AtW was designed to provide support that was “over and above that which is a reasonable adjustment”, with awards varying “depending on how long they have been employed, what support they need, the size of the employer and whether they are self-employed”.
But it admitted that “consolidating our Access to Work operations has meant training new staff to help more disabled people into work. These changes are now bedding in and we’re resuming our normal service.”
In a statement, a DWP spokesman said: “More and more disabled people are being helped to get or keep a job through Access to Work, with 35,200 customers being helped last year.
“We have expanded the scheme, making a further £15m of funding available and we are implementing a wide range of improvements to allow us to help even more disabled people.
“But Access to Work does not replace the duty an employer has under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments.
“The amount of help someone receives depends on their individual needs and personal circumstances – being reviewed annually to ensure that support is appropriate and that the fund is helping as many disabled people as possible.”
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.
AtW spending fell from £105.5 million in 2010-11 to £98.3 million in 2011-12, before rising slightly to £99 million in 2012-13.
This week, Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said in a blog that changes to AtW had “decreased eligibility, brought considerable distress and uncertainty to customers who had previously and successfully used the programme for many years, pushed Deaf and disabled people out of jobs and left others fearing for their futures”.
Her blog adds: “There is a growing level of misinformation, confusion and chaos coming from AtW itself as a result of a restructuring that has seen a dramatic reduction in the numbers of contact centres, and outsourcing.
“AtW invoices remain unpaid from months and months ago because the addresses of the payment centres changed but customers weren’t told. Meanwhile application backlogs have amassed.”
Only last month, three leading disabled figures told the Commons work and pensions committee that AtW was plagued by “penny-pinching”, administrative incompetence, and “rude” and “intimidatory” communication that was causing disabled people “immense distress”.
DNS has run a series of reports over the last six months from disabled people concerned about administrative problems and cuts to their AtW funding.
They include a Deaf youth worker who said that endless problems with his AtW support had made it impossible to focus on his job, and an educational farm run by two disabled people which faced closure after DWP suddenly removed their AtW support.
Meanwhile, the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, is due to give evidence about the scheme to the Commons work and pensions committee on Wednesday (29 October).
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com