'Access to Work' scheme delays costing blind people jobs

Many blind and partially-sighted people are having job offers withdrawn because of delays in getting an assessment for the government’s Access to Work scheme, according to a sight loss charity.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) claimed that it takes on average five to six months from initial application to assessment under the Department for Work and Pensions’ scheme, and there are significant delays in receiving payment against existing awards. This is compromising the ability of blind and other disabled people to secure or maintain employment, it says.

RNIB’s Access to work report says there were 25,103 outstanding Access to Work applications in December 2022, up from 15,000 a year earlier, while many people with sight loss or visual impairments are having to subsidise their own support to start or stay in work.

It claims job offers are routinely being withdrawn because people cannot access the support they need to start work when their employer requires. One applicant was unable to take up a teaching role they had secured because they had been waiting 20 weeks for an assessment, while another person’s six-month contract ended before their Access to Work claim had been determined.

One person told the charity: “I require a support worker. Due to the delays, I am unable to perform elements of my role. I have had to have my duties reduced. This is having a significant effect on my mental health and has meant I have lost a lot
of confidence. I am worried that if a support worker isn’t in place, I may not pass my probationary period.”

RNIB chief operating officer David Clarke said six months is far too long for people with sight loss or visual impairments to be without support.

“We are calling on the Department of Work and Pensions, which runs Access to Work, to take decisive and comprehensive action to cut the backlog urgently. RNIB has repeatedly raised concerns about their ongoing inability to administer the scheme since December 2021,” he said.

“We have met with the DWP on numerous occasions to discuss the delays, but little progress has been made.

“The steps taken so far by the DWP to address the problem are clearly inadequate and RNIB believes that the ongoing delays in administration of the scheme are so significant as to risk being unlawful.”

The public sector equality duty requires the DWP to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and to advance equality of opportunity. The RNIB says the DWP could be failing in this duty, as it believes it is placing disabled employees at risk of discrimination and potentially “pitting” disabled people against non-disabled candidates.

RNIB has put forward six recommendations for the DWP to cut Access to Work scheme delays:

  • ensuring Access to Work is adequately resourced, so that support is put in place within four weeks of an application. This should be a ministerial target, it says
  • removing the need for people to apply for their Access to Work support to be renewed, if their support needs will stay the same
  • automatically extending Access to Work support until renewals can be processed so individuals can keep support in place
  • Providing automatic software upgrades to software previously approved as part of an Access to Work grant
  • Providing a ‘cost of living’ update to the value of Access to Work grants
  • Fast-tracking applicants who know what support they need.

The report adds that once delays are addressed, the DWP should ensure that Access to Work advisers undertake training around sight loss and improve their understanding of the reasonable adjustments available.

The charity would also like to see an independent review of the Access to Work scheme, to consider whether processes can be streamlined.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said it has seen an improvement in the length of time people have been waiting for an Access to Work decision, and applications from those who are due to start a job within the next four weeks are prioritised.

The spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure everyone entitled to support through Access to Work has their claim progressed as soon as possible.

“We have recruited additional staff to meet customer demand, which has already improved processing times, and a new digital claims process is being tested to help customers better track progress of their claims going forward.”

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