Government figures have revealed alarming new evidence of a slump in the number of disabled people granted funds to make their workplaces more accessible.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that just 2,320 “new customers” were helped by the Access to Work (AtW) scheme in the first quarter of 2011-12, an average of 773 disabled people receiving new support every month.
In the first half of last year, the government was helping about 1,283 new customers a month. This fell to 980 a month in the third quarter of 2010-11, and then again to an average of just 867 a month from January to March 2011.
The new figures also show that the number of existing AtW “customers” – those continuing to receive support – has dropped by almost 4,000, to just 18,570.
The figures follow a string of concerns that have been raised about the government’s commitment to the scheme – which provides funding for adaptations, equipment and ongoing support at work – since the coalition came to power.
In August, Disability News Service revealed that disabled people receiving AtW were being sent “hostile” and “threatening” letters by the DWP, giving them just a week to confirm they still needed their funding before it was withdrawn.
And new guidance, introduced in August, means disabled people driven to and from work by their personal assistant (PA) are no longer able to claim AtW funding for that travel if they are driven in their PA’s car.
In June, Liz Sayce, RADAR’s chief executive, published a review of employment support for the government and focused strongly on the need to expand and improve AtW.
But the government’s response to her review made several references to concerns that her AtW recommendations could put “additional pressure on funding at a time when resources are limited”.
Last year, the government backtracked on a high-profile pledge to allow disabled people to secure AtW funding before they applied for a job.
And the coalition also quietly introduced new rules which mean employers or disabled employees themselves now have to fund equipment such as basic versions of voice-activated software, most adapted chairs, and satellite navigation devices, rather than having them funded through AtW.
A DWP spokeswoman claimed the government was “spending more than ever before on Access to Work” and added: “We are also considering the responses to our consultation on Liz Sayce’s recommendations to expand Access to Work and will respond to this in due course.”
She suggested that the slump in successful new claims was “likely to reflect an increase in contributions from larger employers”.
But she declined to explain why this would affect the number of successful new AtW claimants, or whether the DWP was investigating why this figure had slumped.
When the last figures were published, three months ago, RADAR said the “alarm bells should be ringing in Whitehall” and called for DWP to “investigate” the slump.
27 October 2011