Government pledges new support for its ‘best-kept secret’


The government has promised to increase funding and support for the Access to Work (AtW) programme, which it says will help thousands more disabled people into mainstream jobs.

The pledge of an extra £15 million over the next three years was made as the government responded to a public consultation on last summer’s review of the employment support offered to disabled people.

The review by Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), called for a major expansion and improvement of AtW.

Sayce’s report recommended that the number of disabled people receiving ATW should double – from about 35,000 – so that the scheme could change from being the “government’s best-kept secret” into a “well-recognised passport to successful employment”.

Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, said the £320 million budget for specialist disability employment services – including AtW – had been “protected”, and that the £15 million and “other efficiencies” would help an extra 8,000 disabled people to enter work or retain their jobs.

She said the government would also take immediate steps to implement other AtW recommendations in Sayce’s report, including an effort to target the scheme at under-represented groups, such as people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties, small employers and young disabled people.

There will also be other attempts to improve the scheme, such as streamlining assessments, allowing online applications, and making it easier to transfer AtW funding when moving jobs.

DR UK welcomed the government’s decision to accept the AtW recommendations from the Sayce review.

But it called for the measures to be implemented quickly. And it said a budget of £320 million was not enough when half of working-age disabled people were unemployed.

Mike Smith, a DR UK trustee and chief executive of Real, a disabled people’s organisation in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, welcomed the government’s announcement that its budget for specialist disability employment services would be ring-fenced, but said the coalition should be “going further and faster and investing more money”.

He said: “It is nowhere near enough. They will make more money by injecting more money into Access to Work.”

Sayce warned that without individualised support, there was a risk that the crisis in employment of young disabled people would lead to “a lost generation, out of work for life”.

Phil Friend, vice-chair of DR UK, added: “Disabled people are tired of being painted in the headlines as ‘scroungers’ and just ask for the individual support we need to have a fair opportunity to work alongside everyone else.”

Over the last 18 months, there have been concerns about the government’s commitment to the AtW scheme – which provides funding for adaptations, equipment and ongoing support at work.

In August last year, Disability News Service revealed that disabled people receiving AtW were being sent “hostile” and “threatening” letters by the Department for Work and Pensions, giving them just a week to confirm they still needed their funding before it was withdrawn.

And in 2010, the government backtracked on a high-profile pledge to allow disabled people to secure AtW funding before they applied for a job.

The coalition also introduced 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 receiving AtW funding.

8 March 2012