Government figures have confirmed a dramatic slump in the number of disabled people granted funds to make their workplaces more accessible.
Figures published quietly by the government this week show there were just 13,240 “new customers” helped by the Access to Work (ATW) scheme in 2010-11, compared with 16,520 the previous year, a fall of nearly a quarter.
The total number of disabled people receiving ATW (which includes those continuing to receive support after claiming successfully in previous years) has also fallen, from 37,270 in 2009-10 to 35,830 in 2010-11.
In the first half of 2010-11, 7,700 new customers were helped (an average of 1,283 a month). This dropped to an average of 980 a month in the third quarter, and has now plunged to an average of just 867 a month from January to March 2011.
The campaigning disability organisation RADAR said the figures were “truly worrying”.
Marije Davidson, RADAR’s public affairs manager, said: “The alarm bells should be ringing in Whitehall and they should investigate this slump in figures.”
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said total ATW spending rose to £105 million in 2010-11 from £99m in 2009-2010 – although this is an even smaller increase once inflation is taken into account – while the number of pre-existing claimants had increased.
The DWP spokeswoman added: “We are committed to making sure those who need support get it.”
But she dismissed the drop of nearly a quarter in successful new claims as a “small decrease” which was “likely to reflect an increase in employer contributions for small adaptations, which means that there is further funding available for those who need it the most”.
New ATW rules 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.
Last month, 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 – now out to consultation – made several references to concerns that her ATW recommendations could put “additional pressure on funding at a time when resources are limited”.
Davidson said the new figures meant the government should ask whether fewer people were aware of the scheme, or whether more disabled people were out of work or the government’s ATW criteria were too strict.
And she said the government should ask what was happening to disabled people who have ATW applications turned down.
Davidson said: “In this time of increasing pressure on disabled people to find work amidst tough competition, and worse attitudes towards disabled people, Access to Work is a vital line of support.”
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, added: “It makes absolutely no sense to restrict ATW. It is a huge success story and should be massively promoted.
“The idea that the budget should be restricted or spread more thinly is nonsensical, because ATW generates tax and National Insurance income for the government.”
The government has repeatedly claimed that its much-criticised welfare reforms are aimed at helping more disabled people off benefits and into work.
But the coalition has already broken one ATW pledge, made in its “programme for government”, after backtracking on a promise to allow disabled people to secure ATW funding before they apply for a job.
28 July 2011