The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of manipulating statistics in an attempt to hide the ongoing barriers, cuts and harassment experienced by disabled people seeking support from a key disability employment programme.
The claims followed the release of new figures which showed the number of disabled people approved every year for support from the Access to Work (AtW) programme had fallen by 15 per cent under seven years of Conservative rule.
The scheme has been repeatedly praised as an effective way of supporting disabled people in work and ensuring they keep their jobs, and provides funding for work-related support such as aids and equipment, communication support, travel to work, physical adaptations to a workplace, and hiring support workers.
The government described the scheme as crucial to its previous goal of halving the disability employment gap, and in the November 2015 spending review pledged to increase the number of people the scheme helped by 25,000 a year by 2020, increasing spending by nearly a quarter.
The new “experimental” figures, which are believed to be first to be released on AtW for more than a year, do show that the number of people who had Access to Work support approved in 2016-17 was nearly 2,000 higher than the previous year.
But they also show that the figure for 2016-17 (23,630) was still more than 4,000 lower than in the final year of the last Labour government (27,760).
And Deaf and disabled campaigners cast grave doubt last night (Wednesday) on the figures and suggested DWP was attempting to camouflage continuing cuts to people’s support.
Although the figures show the number of people who had support packages approved in each year, they do not include those who continue to receive AtW support without the need for reassessment, or show how many people lost their support or had it cut after being reassessed.
This means it is impossible to know how many disabled people are currently receiving AtW compared with previous years, or how the average level of support packages have risen or fallen.
The figures also show that funding for adaptations to workplaces was only approved 50 times in the whole of 2016-17, compared to 380 such cases in 2009-10, while the number of times funding was approved for aids and equipment fell from more than 18,000 in 2009-10 to about 12,500 in 2016-17.
The number of support workers funded by the scheme did increase, though, from 5,700 a year to 8,450 in the seven years between 2009-10 and 2016-17.
DWP has previously refused to release figures that would show how many people have had their AtW support cut after being reassessed.
Ellen Clifford (pictured, right), Inclusion London’s campaigns and policy manager, said DWP’s document “takes creative use of statistics to a whole new level of unreality”.
She said the motivation for changing the way the statistics were collated could only be to disguise what was really happening “because they now provide a much less clear picture of how many people the scheme is benefiting”.
She said the figures do not show the number of existing customers whose support continued without a reassessment, but do include existing customers who went through re-assessment.
She said: “The manipulation of figures in this way suggests the DWP has something to hide.
“The last published figures for 2015-2016 showed a small decrease in numbers helped from the year before and the continuing evidence we are seeing on the ground is of cuts and support being refused.”
Geraldine O’Halloran, from the StopChanges2AtW campaign, which is led by Deaf professionals, said: “The increase in numbers of people for whom ‘Access to Work provision was approved’ does not necessarily mean that the numbers of disabled people who received support from Access to Work went up last year – in fact we suspect the opposite may well be the case.
“The new statistics are more notable for what they leave out than what they tell us.
“The research due to be published by StopChanges2AtW later this month shows a picture of increasing barriers to Access to Work for Deaf and disabled people, yet the DWP will not disclose information about how many individual awards have been cut or reduced.
“Meanwhile, existing customers are constantly harassed to provide information and to go through constant reviews and re-assessments.
“It is no wonder that the numbers of those for whom Access to Work provision was approved has increased within this context.”
A DWP spokesman said: “In 2010-11, the guidance for Access to Work advisors was updated to clarify the distinction between provision that can be approved by Access to Work and the reasonable adjustments that employers are required to make under the Equality Act 2010.
“Since then Access to Work has refocused taxpayer funding on supporting those who have the greatest remaining workplace needs.
“These figures show that 25,000 people with disabilities and health conditions had their request approved by Access to Work to get the support they need to do their job, an increase of eight per cent from 2015-16.
“This includes a record number of young people since the scheme has been made available for people on supported internships and apprenticeships.
“The number of people with mental health conditions who successfully applied to Access to Work has also increased by almost 400 per cent since the introduction of the Mental Health Support Service in 2011.
“It’s also worth noting that almost 600,000 disabled people have entered work in the last four years.”
Deaf and disabled campaigners have consistently warned of the “weekly battles” many claimants are facing to continue receiving support through the scheme.
They have also been warning since 2015 that a cap on the scheme, which limits annual AtW awards to one-and-a-half times the average salary, would hit Deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL) hardest, with BSL services accounting for about four-fifths of the highest-value AtW awards.
The cap was introduced for new AtW claimants in 2015 and is due to affect existing claimants from April 2018.