The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) repeatedly failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people who were recruited to build bridges between jobcentres and the local community, it has been claimed.
But the department also appears to be set to discard all the disabled people they recruited from outside the Civil Service when their fixed-term contracts end.
It is feared that none of the scores of Community Partners taken on by DWP to build relationships between jobcentres and local organisations will secure permanent roles when their contracts end at the end of next month.
It is just the latest example of apparent hypocrisy from the government department responsible for the derided Disability Confident scheme, and which itself has been given the accolade of being a “Disability Confident Leader” under its own programme.
Some Community Partners were originally recruited from within DWP and it is believed that it is only these staff members who will continue to work for the department after next month.
The Community Partner role was devised by ministers as a way to “help shape the support disabled people and those with health conditions receive, develop a national mentoring network and build relationships with specialist organisations in your area”.
The former minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt, said two years ago that Community Partners would “develop a more comprehensive package of employment support and strengthen work coach understanding of disability”.
But instead, many Community Partners spent months “fighting tooth and nail” to secure the reasonable adjustments they needed to do their job, leading to a string of grievances and resignations.
Phil Samphire, who worked as a Community Partner in Manchester for a year, has told Disability News Service (DNS) that none of his colleagues who had been recruited externally had secured permanent jobs with DWP at the end of their contracts.
Samphire, who has cerebral palsy and dyslexia, said he had requested a note-taker and administrative support, but that had been refused.
Instead, he was promised speech-to-text and dyslexia software, but by the time he left the post after 12 months he was still waiting for them to be available to use.
And because he can only use one hand, he says he was forced to travel an hour across Manchester by bus to another office so a manager could fill in his time sheets and expenses.
Despite being forced to use public transport – because he does not drive – he was given no extra time to reach appointments.
Samphire said his mental health deteriorated because of the pressure of having to cope with the inaccessible workplace, including IT equipment that required keyboard skills he did not have as a result of his impairment.
He said: “It was causing me massive stress because the system was inaccessible to me.”
Every time he wanted to send an email, he had to dictate the message into his own iPad, then email that to his work email address, log in to a work computer, and then forward the email to the work colleague.
Samphire said the only Community Partners who managed to secure the reasonable adjustments they needed were those who were on secondment from other employers and so were able to take advantage of the government’s Access to Work scheme.
He said: “I would never work in the Civil Service again.”
Another disabled former Community Partner has told DNS how DWP failed to provide her with the reasonable adjustments she needed during the six months she worked there.
Rachel*, who is dyslexic, had requested speech-to-text software, a specialist mouse and keyboard and a laptop, so she could work across different offices, but they had not arrived by the time she left six months later.
She was eventually given an ergonomic chair after working in pain for more than three months.
She was also given a yellow plastic overlay sheet, which can be placed over a piece of writing to help with dyslexia, but that was no use to her because DWP uses only grey – instead of white – paper, and even this took three months to arrive.
She said: “You don’t feel confident. It’s OK writing an email to people who know you when you’re dyslexic, but you don’t really want to be writing emails to people who don’t know you, especially in that environment.”
She said the delays were particularly stressful because her contract was only for 12 months.
Rachel said: “I think an awful lot of people who have done the job have put up and shut up because it is so hard for disabled people to get work.
“They treat their staff the way they treat their clients. It gives their staff even more reason to treat people badly.
“They just see it as normality, and I think that’s quite scary.”
She eventually complained about the failure to provide the adjustments she needed but was fired shortly afterwards when DWP discovered she had retweeted a social media post criticising Iain Duncan Smith.
She was told she had brought the department into disrepute, even though she believes the tweet was sent before she started working for DWP, and that nobody who followed her on Twitter had known she was working for DWP.
DNS has been told by a third Community Partner, Louise*, of colleagues being denied flexible working, ergonomic equipment and screen-reading software.
She heard from colleagues of a Deaf Community Partner in another part of the country who resigned after being told she could only have a British Sign Language interpreter for two out of five days every week.
Community Partners were first mentioned publicly in the October 2016 green paper Improving Lives.
The posts were funded by some of the savings made by cutting nearly £30 a week to payments to new claimants of employment and support allowance placed in the work-related activity group, a measure introduced in April 2017.
But ministers appear to have now decided it is too expensive to extend the contracts of any of the externally-recruited Community Partners.
Louise’s understanding is that not one of these Community Partner have been offered a permanent job.
Instead, DWP will ask work coaches and disability employment advisers to take responsibility for the contacts developed with disabled people and local organisations over the last two years.
Louise said she and her colleagues felt as though they had been used and then abandoned by DWP.
Many of the Community Partners built close relationships with local disabled people’s and community organisations, she said.
She added: “Apparently a review has found that we have not made enough of an impact but some of us have only been in the role for little more than a year because of the difficulty of recruiting in some areas.
“Our roles will now be taken on by disability employment advisers, who will not have the lived experience of disability that we have.
“The changes we have made will now be abandoned, and our suggestions for improvements will not be implemented.
“The green paper was meant to help people back into work, but they are now getting rid of [up to] 200 disabled people and people with lived experience of disability.”
Rachel said it would not surprise her if none of the Community Partners recruited externally secured permanent jobs.
She said: “I don’t think they were ever proper jobs.”
She was asked to prepare a presentation on the social model of disability but when it returned after she had sent it off to a manager to be approved it had been rewritten.
She said: “They weren’t really prepared to let us teach anyone about the social model because their social model of disability and my social model of disability are actually quite different.”
Louise said she believed ministers expected Community Partners to come in and tell jobcentres what a fantastic job they were doing, but instead “we have shown them where their flaws are, and yet they don’t address those flaws”.
She added: “Because they are Disability Confident Leaders, they thought we would say everything was great.”
Louise said: “We have led community groups on. We have told them we are trying to make better contacts between them and DWP and trying to change the face of DWP and make it more friendly.
“Now we have done that [DWP] are saying, ‘We don’t need you anymore.’”
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We value the work of the Community Partners and the contribution that they have made.
“It is not true that the Community Partner roles are ending for financial reasons. We were transparent from the outset in relation to the length of the appointments.
“We are committed to continually improving the employment support we offer disabled people, and will ensure valuable learning from the Community Partners is built into the ongoing support we provide through our jobcentres.
“Reasonable adjustments for Community Partners were delivered according to the Equality Act.
“Many Community Partners are likely to remain in the Civil Service, and in some cases will have the opportunity to move into similar roles with Jobcentre Plus.
“We are committed to providing full support to Community Partners as they move into the next stage of their career.”
But she refused to say how many externally-recruited Community Partners would be given permanent roles by DWP when the fixed-term contracts end next month; how many Community Partners were recruited externally; and how many of those recruited were disabled people.
*Not their real names
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com