Has Access to Work become a bureaucratic monster?

I’ve been picking up lots of chatter recently about Access to Work. Lots of petty new rules suddenly turning up out of nowhere on what communication support can or can’t be booked using Access to Work. Limping Chicken picked up on the trend last year and a recent email from a friend suggests things are getting worse still. This prompts me to tell a story about a little local difficulty I had with Access to Work a few months back. It’s a long story, so get yourself comfortable…

To get the pleasantries out the way, as a policy, Access to Work is great. Can’t live or rather work without it. It provides me with communication support that enables me to attend meetings, speak on the phone and basically do my job. Without that support, I would be severely limited in what work I could do.

So how I do square this with the fact that the people who administer Access to Work are the most petty unhelpful rude obstructive bureaucrats I’ve ever had the displeasure to engage with. The people meant to be helping disabled people into work often seem to be working purposely to make it harder to get the support they need.

My little run in with Access to Work started last summer when I had to renew my claim. The renewals are never enjoyable. They invariably ask lots of random questions like how many meetings I expect to have in the next three years. I don’t even know yet how many meetings I’m going to have next week but anyhow…

This renewal seemed worse than usual. It started off with officials ignoring my renewal claim for 2 months and only getting their act together once my manager started chasing them to find out what was going on. This was all getting me quite nervous since my existing package of support was now due to expire soon.

Things didn’t get better. To cut a long story short, the agreement had to be sent back three times because of errors and rubbish maths. If that was the end of it, then I would not be writing this blog. I suppose that being able to do multiplication on a calculator or know the difference between a sign language interpreter and a speech to text reporter are not totally essential skills for anyone working on Access to Work. But, the worse was still to come.

For reasons unknown, Access to Work apparently required me to split out my renewal into day to day support and one-off support. The one-off support is for funding support that I need to attend party conferences each year which, as a parliamentary officer, is fairly essential for my job. I had naively assumed that the person looking after my claim could deal with both or would at least make it clear how this would be handled. Nope.

When it became clear that the official didn’t seem to be doing anything about the one-off support, I flagged it up. I was told that I needed to talk to the person looking after my claim. Which was puzzling because I thought that’s what she was there to do. I asked if she could let me have the contact details or, better still, forward my email the relevant person.

No reply. I emailed again a few weeks later. No reply again. Another email. No reply. After the 4th time trying, I got a rather curt email that finally gave me another email address to try.

I emailed the other person. No reply. I emailed again a few weeks later. No reply. You may be able to detect a trend.

By the time I had finally got someone to look at this, the party conferences had been and gone. I had been forced into a position of deciding whether to go to conference and try and get by without communication support or telling my boss I couldn’t do my job or booking the communication support. As Access to Work had funded this kind of support before without question, I went ahead and booked it. I thought I’d be OK. There’s no way Access to Work could reasonably refuse this support, surely?

The claim was turned down. Why? Because I was making a retrospective claim. The fact that they might have had something to do with it being a retrospective claim was not really considered to be a mitigating factor.

Thus began a long complaints process and a million more emails. I tried reasoning with them. No luck. I made a formal complaint. It was not upheld and the reason given, adding insult to injury, was that, as a long-standing user of Access to Work, I should apparently have been aware from the outset that separate renewal claims were needed. Basically it was entirely my own fault.

It was incredibly frustrating. I was having to spend hours working to recover costs that I had reasonably expected would be reimbursed by Access to Work. What made it worse for me was the knowledge that, as I work for a charity, I was using up charitable funds.

I was forced to exhaust the complaints process to the long and bitter end. And only then did I finally get someone to admit that actually Access to Work may have been at fault. And that it wasn’t unreasonable of me to expect that my renewal for one-off support should have been dealt with at the very start. My request for a retrospective claim was finally agreed.

So this story kind of has a happy ending. But I had to fight to get it. I had to deal with curt and obstructive officials. Several times, I pointedly drew attention to the Access to Work customer charter which states that I can expect Access to Work to:

• Have an adviser contact you within 24 hours of getting an application form
• Keep you informed through the process
• Be flexible and responsive
• Be helpful, courteous and professional

I work in campaigns so I know how to write stroppy emails and to navigate a complaints system. Other deaf people, especially young deaf people new to the system, might not be able to or feel confident doing so.

And things now seem to be getting worse with the current trend to new petty and stupid rules coming out of the Department for Work and Pensions on Access to Work, all making it harder for deaf and disabled people to get the support they need.

It’s taken me a few months to write this blog. Partly that’s out of exasperation and frustration that these people actually think it’s acceptable to behave like this with disabled people. I just want to do my job. I am tired of having to fight endless battles with faceless bureaucrats. Even now, after my renewals have been sorted, I still get curt and unhelpful letter from Access to Work querying some issue or another with my claim.

The police were once described as being ‘institutionally racist’. Right now, I feel like Access to Work has turned into a petty bureaucratic monster that’s institutionally hostile to disabled people.

PS If you’re experiencing problems with Access to Work, check out the Deaf AtW website which has lots of helpful information and advice.

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Lobbying Conservatives on deaf children: day 1

The NDCS campaigns team has arrived up north to Manchester for the Conservative party conference – and I already have a mission for the rest of the conference: to find out what the Conservatives plans are on Access to Work, and what they think of the fact that disabled young people doing voluntary work or unpaid internships cannot claim Access to Work.

I got asked to raise this via my Twitter, so I duly went to a fringe meeting with Theresa May, the Conservatives Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and asked a question about Access to Work. And got no reply. To be fair, the moderator also took around 9 other questions at the same time so it may just have been overlooked. But still… I will now be stalking Shadow Ministers until I get an answer!

And we’ll also be introducing our guest deaf young person, TV star, Louis Kissaun to Conservative MPs and candidates from tomorrrow. As always, you can get the latest via the c4dc twitter account, and from this blog.

NDCS campaigns at Labour conference 2009: day 4

Picture3 002On our final day at the Labour party conference, on a day the sun disappeared, we were on the hunt… for someone to take responsibility for building regulations.

Our Sounds good? campaign on school acoustics has got the attention of Ministers and officials at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), but to get what we want – a requirement for acoustic testing in all new schools – there needs to be a change to the building regulations which govern how school buildings are built. Which is the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG).

Sadly, though, having spoken to four Ministers who work at the Department, including the Secretary of State who in theory has overall responsibility for everything in his Department, none of them seemed entirely sure who was responsible for this issue. It was slightly worrying. In the end, one of them agreed to look into it further and get back to us.

Otherwise, the day was spent networking and going to more fringe meetings. Overall, there have been some really interesting fringe meetings over the past week. Some of the highlights include:

* The Every Disabled Child Matters meeting which featured four ministers in total. Our acoustics campaign got a mention when someone else asked about the accessibility of new school buildings. I raised a question about whether Access to Work, to pay for additional help for disabled people in the workplace, should be extended to disabled people doing unpaid internships, to help them get up the career ladder. The answer from the Minister for Disability, Jonathan Shaw, was that he would like to, but there wasn’t really any money for it. So that was that.

* At a NASUWT fringe meeting, we asked a few questions about acoustics. DCSF Minister Vernon Coaker, who used to be a deputy headteacher, asked my boss to “come and see him afterwards”. Fortunately, it was not for a detention or corporal punishment but to convey his desire to see this problem sorted out as soon as possible. He said he would ask officials to update him.

* And at a fringe meeting by Action for Children, with Baroness Morgan, Children’s Minister, in attendence, we again raised the concerns that the social care needs of deaf children are being overlooked.

Overall, it’s been a busy few days getting NDCS mentions here and there, introducing Louis Kissaun to MPs, and raising awareness of the needs of deaf children. Now we’re going to get busy drafting letters and doing all the things we promised MPs that we would do, before the next conference for the Conservatives in Manchester…

Any points you want us to raise at the Conservative conference about deaf children? Leave a comment and let us know.