Disabled People: Access to Work Fund — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour 2:37 pm, 29th June 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effectiveness of the Access to Work fund and what plans they have to help people with disabilities into work.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My Lords, last year Access to Work helped more than 35,000 disabled people to work, including almost 2,000 into self-employment. Disabled people and stakeholders consistently tell us of the effective support that Access to Work offers. A wide range of employment support programmes underpins our success. We are building on this by launching specialist employability support, expanding the Disability Confident campaign, extending work choice and expanding the use of our Access to Work mental-health support service.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour

My Lords, an Access to Work grant is a lifeline helping disabled people to find a job and stay in work, so I am sure I was not alone in being surprised last week when the Minister for Disabled People seemed almost to boast about the fact that his department had underspent the fund’s budget by £3 million last year. In those circumstances, will the Minister tell the House why the Government are cutting the grant that disabled people can receive under the fund and why they have failed to publicise the fact that the fund even exists? How will this help the Government to honour their pledge to cut the number of unemployed people by 50%?

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

My Lords, Access to Work is not being cut. We are introducing a cap, which means that the resources available can support growing numbers of people. We are determined to reduce the disability employment gap by half and to spend more money on these programmes. It is a demand-led programme. The cap will ensure that we can reach far more people, and, indeed, we did just that over the past year.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Liberal Democrat

Does the Minister accept that when the bulk of personal independence payment reassessments start in October, when thousands may lose their Motability cards, the Access to Work scheme is likely to be overwhelmed by disabled people trying to get to work, particularly in rural areas?

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

As I said, Access to Work is a demand-led scheme. Nobody has ever been turned away from it. The reforms to PIP are about taking money away, but not from those who need it. Therefore, the reforms will deliver a more dynamic benefit system whereby we can tailor support to meet people’s needs as they change over time, and Access to Work will be available to more people.

Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench

My Lords, as the Minister said, the Government aim to halve the disability employment gap so that hundreds of thousands more disabled people who can work, and want to be in work, find employment. This is an ambitious aim, and I wonder how far the Minister believes it will be assisted by capping the amount that an individual can receive from the Access to Work programme. A cap at one and a half times the mean average salary may sound generous, but it could limit the effectiveness of the scheme for those with the greatest obstacles to labour-market participation, such as deaf people who need the support of a sign-language interpreter. Will there be any flexibility in the administration of the cap to cater for cases such as these?

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I reassure the noble Lord that the cap for existing claimants will not be introduced until 2018, and we will work sensitively with all those affected to ensure a smooth transition from the support they currently get to an alternative form of support under the new arrangements. More than 35,000 people are currently in the Access to Work programme and 200 will be affected by the cap. As I said, nobody currently receiving more than the cap will lose any of their support until we have worked through the programme of transition over the next three years.

Photo of Lord Fink Lord Fink Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that misconceptions about people with disabilities, particularly mental health problems, could cause them real difficulties in finding a job? What are the Government doing to help to remove this sort of stigma, particularly among employers?

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I agree with my noble friend, and that is why the Government’s campaign to make Britain disability-confident is so important. For individuals with mental health conditions, we provide a wide range of support across our programmes—and there are many such programmes—targeted at supporting work for both employers and individuals. We are very conscious that all disabled people who wish to work have a right to support from the Government to help them to do so.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little about the very real concerns of many people in the deaf community about the use of British Sign Language, not least because currently four-fifths of the highest-value awards are paying for BSL services. Indeed, the DWP’s own figures show that almost 90% of the users who will be affected by the cap that is to be brought in are deaf. How do the Government plan to continue to support and encourage deaf professionals on a par with the hearing community in the light of this cap?

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I reassure the right reverend Prelate that we will continue to support deaf people and people with hearing loss. Specialist teams will help customers and their employers with advice on adjustments and technological support and with personal budgets so that users can manage their support flexibly themselves when the scheme is rolled out later in 2015-16. We are also in discussions with relevant stakeholders about how best to plan the implementation. As I said, existing customers will be protected until 2018 while we work through the transition.

Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour

My Lords, how will the department monitor the impact of the cap on Access to Work funding from the day it is introduced?

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We will carefully monitor all our programmes. Access to Work is one of the many programmes that we have introduced and are planning to roll out to protect the disabled and help them to work if they want to, as many do. Last year, we ensured that nearly a quarter of a million more disabled people had work. That is a tremendous success, and our programmes are working.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords)

My Lords, it has been rolled out. It is already out there, and the Government are limiting the budget. Will the Minister follow up on the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the right reverend Prelate? Of the 200 people affected, 90% are deaf. They will not be protected in the long run; they will lose the money to pay for their interpreters. Advice is helpful. Interpreters are essential. How will the Government protect them?

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We are introducing a range of programmes. Access to Work was never designed to be an unlimited-cost programme. We will ensure that all those who are potentially affected by the cap will have more flexible support to help themas they require it.