The government’s meaningless Disability Confident campaign.
The Guardian reports that a disabled woman was discriminated against when she was unfairly sacked by the Department for Work and Pensions, which behaved in a “perverse” and “blinkered” manner, a judge has found.
Isabella Valentine was employed by the DWP on a programme designed to get vulnerable, long-term unemployed people back into work by nurturing and training apprentices over a 12-month period, bringing them to a point where they could apply for jobs in the usual way. Instead, “inexplicable and strange” disciplinary measures were taken by the DWP after just four days’ sickness that led to Valentine’s dismissal.
“I suffer regular migraines that are so severe and unpredictable that I am officially classed as disabled. Because of that and a lack of qualifications, I haven’t been able to find decent employment,” said Valentine.
“When I was handpicked for this programme, I was so happy. I hoped that I had finally found employers who would let me do a good job while being understanding of the time off I sometimes have to take because of my migraines.
“Instead, I was made to feel small and so stressed that my migraines got even worse. Not only were no reasonable adjustments made for my disability as legally required but I was subject to the same strict and unbending rules that permanent employees had to work by.”
She added: “My manager started harassing me on the first day I took off sick because of a migraine. By the fourth day, the department had started disciplinary proceedings and decided to dismiss me. Which it then did.”
In his judgment, the employment judge, Robin Postle, said: “[Valentine’s treatment] does beg the question, why, given the nature of why the claimant was put on the course, to try and get her back into the workplace, the [DWP] did not make reasonable adjustments [under the Equality Act 2010], in disregarding migraine absences, or indeed, simply taking no further action. The claimant has suffered unfavourable treatment and she had a disability.”
The DWP has been taken to the employment tribunal by staff almost 60 times over claims of disability discrimination in a 20-month period. The DWP, which has about 75,000 staff, has the worst record on disability discrimination of any large government department with 57 cases, compared with 20 cases against the Home Office (which has about 30,000 staff), 32 against the Ministry of Justice (about 70,000 staff) and 29 against HM Revenue and Customs (about 60,000 staff).
The number of allegations made by disabled staff is surprising because the DWP is responsible for the much-criticised Disability Confident scheme, which aims to help employers recruit and retain disabled employees. DWP claims to be a Disability Confident “leader”, the highest of the scheme’s three levels.
Valentine’s manager was told she would require extra support and leeway to enable her to complete the course. The Suffolk Law Centre solicitor Carol Ward fought the case as part of the National Lottery Reaching Communities-funded project Tackling Discrimination in the East, said: “The behaviour of the DWP was particularly inexplicable and strange because the whole point of the course was to help the apprentices who struggled to cope in the workplace.
“The claimant had been personally chosen by a DWP work coach. The scheme specifically said apprentices would need nurturing and support, and that they weren’t expected to contribute to the business in the same way as those recruited in the usual way. But as soon as she hit the four-day absence trigger, disciplinary procedures were started.”
The behaviour of Valentine’s managers was, the judge found, “frankly perverse”. Meetings with Valentine were frequently misrepresented in “clearly incorrect” letters sent by her direct manager.
Instead of exercising the discretion available to her, the same manager “slavishly followed the policy in a blinkered manner”, while a second manager “had a closed mind”. A third manager who conducted Valentine’s appeal failed to do basic checks on the considerable leeway that had been granted to many other apprentices on the same course.
The consequence was a “predetermined decision” to dismiss Valentine before she had even returned from her second period of sick leave.
“This was particularly surprising given the fact that [one of the managers said] it became clear very quickly that this was a group of people who needed a lot of support as they were not used to the working environment and needed support to help them cope,” said the judge.
The DWP said: “We accept this decision. Our general approach is a supportive one – we provide employees with free access to counselling, health advice, physiotherapy and workplace adjustments to manage absences, and we do not dismiss staff without proper consideration and taking professional advice.”
The evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
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