In his evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Access to Work, the Minister admitted recent changes to management of the scheme had been handled badly.
He said efforts to manage the costs of the scheme had also been mishandled, in particular the implementation of guidance about the employment of support workers. Widely known as the ’30 hour rule’, it has caused problems for many deaf people who need more than 30 hours communication support a week.
In response to the huge amount of evidence submitted to the Work and Pensions Committee and the Department for Work and Pensions by individuals and campaigning organisations, the Minister committed to making a number of changes. They include improving customer service, gathering and sharing better data, and making the scheme more transparent.
David Buxton, chief executive of the British Deaf Association and chair of the UK Council on Deafness Access to Work group, said: “After all the work deaf people and the organisations that work for and with them have put in over the last year, it’s gratifying to know the Minister has paid attention.
“In particular, his commitment to work with us to improve the scheme demonstrates he wants to get this right. He mentioned a few organisations when giving evidence to the committee; we’ll be following that up to make sure his Department contacts all the relevant charities, professional associations and businesses.
“But most importantly, the customer service changes he wants to implement in the short term are ones that will have an immediate positive impact on the lives of deaf people. Better operation of the scheme will also help save time and money that can be put to better use.
“Of course, there are still things we need to discuss in detail. Some are big issues, such as the expectation of employers to share costs. Understandably, deaf-led organisations are concerned about the impact that could have on them. But others should be easier to deal with – such as the Department’s insistence on using the term ‘hearing impaired’, which is offensive to many deaf people.
“There also needs to be a formal complaints procedure. Whilst we agree with the Minister that the priority should be making sure the right decision is made in the first place, people do need to know they have a form of redress. It’s a gap that excellent campaigns such as Deaf AtW have filled, but they shouldn’t have to.”
The evidence session follows months of work by the UK Council on Deafness on the problems Access to Work has caused for deaf people. We will be writing to the Minister to take up the suggestions he has made and offer its continued support.
Commitments made by the Minister
- He will work with deaf sector organisations to find smarter ways of making the Access to Work budget help more people.
- He will commission an analysis of the return on investment for Access to Work to help in discussions with the Treasury about the size of the budget.
- The Department will issue clear, user friendly guidance about Access to Work on gov.uk so the public better understands how it makes decisions.
- He wants to make sure the system produces consistent decisions about the support offered whilst retaining the flexibility that allows for individual circumstances to be taken into account.
- He accepted the Department needs a better understanding of how disabled people engage support workers, particularly sign language interpreters, and the role of technology in meeting their needs.
- He will make it possible for people to contact Access to Work via email or gov.uk. Applicants will be able to indicate their preferred method of contact.
- The Department will explore using a video relay system (VRS) to communicate with applicants. And he will continue to promote VRS across government.
- He has asked officials to explore the possibility of making Access to Work accessible via an online portal.
- In the future, proposed changes to Access to Work will be clearly communicated to the public and Parliament.
- The Department will publish regular data about the scheme via the Office for National Statistics.