Improving Access to Work for disabled people - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

4  Guidance on "Support Workers" and the impacts on BSL interpretation

67. The very large majority of written evidence to the inquiry was from deaf people who use AtW to fund British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation to help them in their jobs. Many of these witnesses told us that they relied heavily on AtW and were appreciative of the support it provided. For example, Henry Skinner wrote that:

    I have used AtW for my work and found it very useful for my career and in developing links to a wider range of people. Without it I would be out of work, at home on benefits with the possibility of low self-esteem and motivation to improve myself.[72]

Marije Davidson, who uses BSL and a range of other communication support, told us that:

    Access to Work has enabled me to pursue a successful career through the voluntary and public sector. Without it, I would be without a job, unable to maintain my family and participate actively in the local community. Having a job in which I can flourish and I can make a positive contribution to society is important for my self-esteem, health and well-being.[73]

We received numerous similar submissions.[74]

68. However, almost all of the submissions we received from deaf people raised very serious concerns about the way in which DWP was applying guidance on the funding of full-time "Support Workers", and the impact this was having on the provision of effective BSL interpretation.[75] In this chapter, we consider the relevant paragraph of the guidance and the rationale behind it; the way in which it has been implemented by DWP; and its impacts on AtW funded BSL interpretation.

The 30 hour "rule"

69. The relevant paragraph in the guidance is set out below:

    If a Support Worker is required full time, for example 30 hours or more a week, Access to Work will normally fund on the basis of an annual salary rather than an Agency worker employed on an hourly basis.[76]

The evidence we received suggested that this guidance had recently been stringently applied to BSL support; some AtW users who required 30 hours per week or more of interpretation reported having been told by DWP that they, or their employer, must employ a dedicated full-time interpreter on a salaried basis. Witnesses invariably referred to the guidance as the 30 hour rule. Many reported being told by DWP that the maximum permissible annual salary for a full-time interpreter was £30-£35,000, despite this not being set out in the guidance.[77]

70. At the same time, the evidence suggested that the guidance had been applied somewhat inconsistently. Numerous witnesses had been told that they could continue to book freelance or agency interpreters, but that hourly rates for BSL interpretation would be capped, based on the maximum permissible annual salary. Hourly rates which witnesses had been told were acceptable for reimbursement ranged between £18 and £25.[78] Marije Davidson emphasised that the current problems were not only affecting those who require full-time BSL. DWP had told her, and others who use a range of communication support and therefore require less than 30 hours per week of BSL, that rates at which the Department would reimburse interpreters had been capped at £25.[79]

71. The relevant paragraph has been in the guidance for some time but it appears to have been widely implemented, at least in relation to BSL interpretation, only since 2012 for new applicants, and since 2013 for ongoing awards which had come up for annual review. DeafAtW, a campaigning organisation set up in response to the concerns around this issue, reported that service users had perceived a notable change in DWP's policy and general approach to BSL interpretation from summer 2013. It reported that AtW Advisers no longer applied discretion in the application of the guidance; correspondence dating from this time from DWP to AtW users gives the impression that the guidance was effectively being applied as a rule.[80]

Impact on sign language interpretation

72. The way in which the 30 hour guidance and the caps on hourly rates for BSL interpretation have been applied appears to have had a profoundly detrimental impact on the ability of many deaf BSL users to source the effective interpretation they need to do their jobs. Numerous witnesses reported that it had resulted in their AtW support budget being reduced by 50% or more, leaving them unable to source appropriate support or with interpreters' invoices which they were unable to pay. A number of witnesses were deeply concerned that they would be unable to continue in their jobs if DWP could not be persuaded to change its approach.[81] Susan Scott-Parker of the BDF gave an example of a deaf service user whose hours of AtW support had recently been cut:

    […] they have now been told by Access to Work that they can only communicate four days a week. They have to have a non-communication day. What employer is going to suddenly go, "I cannot talk to you today; you cannot go to any meetings today"? It is a false economy, because that person could then end up losing their job, but it looks as though you have saved a bit of money.[82]

The British Deaf Association told us that several deaf people had already left their jobs due to AtW issues. At least one individual deaf person told us that they had recently left their job.[83]

73. Most witnesses pointed to two fundamental problems with the approach being applied by DWP. Firstly, £18 to £25 per hour is substantially below the current market rate at which effective BSL support can be sourced for a variety of work situations. Rates vary according to the specific work and the technical expertise required of the interpreter, and there are regional variations and other factors, but typical rates appear to range between £37 and £45 per hour.

74. Secondly, witnesses argued that there are a number of sound reasons why employing a single interpreter on a full-time basis invariably suits neither the deaf person nor the interpreter. AtW service users told us that full-time salaried support does not offer the flexibility needed to meet the requirement for varied types of communication support at different points of the working day or week; deaf people often need a range of support, depending on the specific work situation, for example a mix of BSL; note-taking; and speech-to-text reporting. Interpreters were clear that working with a single deaf person would harm their professional development and lead to them becoming "complacent, stale and de-motivated." The Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) reported that in a recent survey of BSL interpreters 86% said that they would not consider a salaried position.[84]

Suspension of the 30 hour guidance for new applicants

75. The concerns expressed by deaf people and their representative organisations led to DWP temporarily suspending the relevant part of the AtW guidance, in relation to new applications, for three months from June 2014. The then Minister (Mike Penning MP) acknowledged concerns about the 30 hour guidance's practical effect, "notably on the ability of some deaf customers to source appropriate BSL support." [85] It was later confirmed that users with ongoing awards who had experienced problems could ask for a "full review of their situation".[86] However, some witnesses subsequently told us that difficulties had continued despite this announcement.[87]

Controlling the costs of BSL interpretation

76. The current Minister was clear that the guidance had been applied in the way described in an attempt to control the costs of BSL support, which, as noted in chapter 2, account for a disproportionately large amount of total AtW expenditure. Some 3,430 people received AtW funded BSL interpretation in 2013/14 (around 9% of the total caseload), at a total cost of around £25 million (24% of total AtW expenditure).[88]

77. Representatives of the BSL interpreting profession acknowledged that it was perfectly reasonable for DWP to look to control spending on BSL and ensure that it was provided in the most cost-effective way possible. Dr Jules Dickinson, representing ASLI, believed that technological solutions, including Video Relay Systems (VRS), which allow deaf people to communicate by video phone using an interpreter in a remote location, had the potential to provide more cost-effective support in some situations.[89] She also agreed that it was reasonable for DWP to set a maximum permissible hourly, half-daily or daily rate for AtW funded BSL interpretation and indicated that ASLI was willing to collaborate with the Department to set such rates.[90] However, as far as she was aware, there had been very little meaningful consultation on these issues to date, even since the announcement of the suspension of the guidance.[91]

78. The Minister emphasised the need to control high-cost forms of support such as BSL, while maintaining effective employment support and ensuring that people currently using AtW are able to stay in their jobs. He reported that he had had some "initial conversations" with representative organisations, including Action on Hearing Loss, which were "very keen to work in a cooperative way to try to come up with a better solution."[92] Mr Harper noted that DWP had "set up a forum with stakeholders and customers where we can discuss operational changes and guidance."[93] He also indicated that the Department was considering establishing a specialist team to deal with AtW service users with particularly complex and high-cost support needs.[94]

79. The way in which DWP has recently applied the Access to Work guidance on full-time Support Workers, and capped the hourly rate at which it is prepared to reimburse Support Workers' costs, has had a profoundly detrimental impact on many service users, particularly deaf people who require a significant amount of British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation in order to do their jobs effectively. DWP's recognition of this adverse impact, and the temporary suspension of the guidance, is welcome; however, its stringent application of the guidance in this context demonstrated a lack of understanding of how BSL interpretation is currently provided and highlights the need for much improved consultation with stakeholders prior to significant changes to service delivery in the future.

80. We recommend that DWP fulfil its commitment to undertake full and proper award reviews in all cases where service users believe that the guidance on full-time Support Workers, or caps on hourly rates, as applied to BSL interpretation, has rendered them unable to source effective BSL interpretation appropriate to their needs at work.

81. We recommend that DWP re-issue the guidance on full-time Support Workers, making it clearer that reimbursement of costs on the basis of an annual salary, rather than an hourly, half-daily or daily rate, should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and only applied in circumstances where it reflects the reality of how effective support can be provided. We further recommend that the guidance explicitly state that this does not typically apply to BSL interpretation.

82. We recommend that DWP consult the BSL interpreting profession, through the Association of Sign Language Interpreters and the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters, to establish suitable maximum permissible hourly, half-daily and daily rates for BSL interpretation funded by Access to Work, based on robust research. The Government should also consult formally on improving the efficiency of the market for BSL interpreting services across the public sector. This consultation should consider steps which could be taken to increase the number of BSL interpreters in the UK.

83. We recommend that DWP establish a specially trained team to deal with high-cost ongoing Access to Work awards, including those for BSL Interpretation. This team should receive intensive training in deaf awareness and on the full range of communication support options, including the latest technological innovations and the most cost-effective solutions. DWP staff and Access to Work service users should be encouraged to consider technological solutions to communication support, where it is appropriate to needs and cost-effective.

84. The recent problems in relation to the 30 hour guidance have, in part, arisen from a lack of consultation and engagement with service users. We therefore recommend that DWP makes it its policy to consult on all significant future changes to Access to Work policy and guidance, through the newly established Access to Work stakeholders' forum, and to undertake much more effective communication about changes to the programme. We request that the Department sets out, in its response to this Report, the membership of the forum, and the processes by which stakeholders will be consulted on future changes.

72   Henry Skinner (ATW0004) Back

73   Marije Davidson (ATW0161) Back

74   See, for example, Mencap (ATW0254); Equal Lives (ATW0248); Solar Bear (ATW0211); Camilla Arnold (ATW0204) Back

75   See, for example: Jackie Wan (ATW0333); Fiona Garfield (ATW0323); Faye Stewart (ATW0320); Maria Barroso (ATW0318); Olivier Jamin (ATW0316); Yasmin Kovic (ATW0312); Rachael Parker (ATW0319); Grant Thornton (ATW0288); Steven Wynne (ATW0264); Solutions 4 Community Support (ATW0245); Sam Calder (ATW0220) Back

76   Access to Work Guidance, version 24, para 366 Back

77   See, for example: South West London and St. George's Mental Health Trust (ATW0334); Jackie Wan (ATW0333); Dara Trainor (ATW0112) Back

78   See, for example: DeafAtW (ATW0343); Maria Barroso (ATW0318); Josef Baines (ATW0313) Back

79   Q84 Back

80   DeafAtW (ATW0343) Back

81   See, for example, Julian Peedle-Calloo (ATW0104); Rachael Hayes (ATW0040) Back

82   Q158 Back

83   British Deaf Association (ATW0222); Alexandra Shaw (ATW0050) Back

84   Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ATW0160) Back

85   HC Deb, 10 June 2014, cols 45-46WS Back

86   HC Deb, 16 June 2014, col 343 Back

87   Deaf AtW, the Stop Changes to Access to Work Campaign and National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (ATW0342); DeafAtW (ATW0343) Back

88   DWP Freedom of Information Requests 4088/2014; 4093/2014 Back

89   Qq217-23 Back

90   Qq210-11 Back

91   Q206 Back

92   Q303 Back

93   Q296 Back

94   Q278 Back

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Prepared 19 December 2014