The author of a major report for the government on employment support has told a minister of her “serious concerns” about the rapid fall in the number of disabled people funded by the Access to Work (AtW) scheme.
Liz Sayce published her report on disability employment programmes in June 2011, and among her recommendations called for the number of people receiving AtW funding to double.
But, in a letter to Esther McVey, the new Conservative minister for disabled people, Sayce said the number of people being supported through the programme – which provides funding for adaptations, equipment and ongoing support to make workplaces more accessible – had instead fallen from 37,000 in 2009-2010 to just over 30,000 two years later.
In October, McVey admitted to MPs that AtW spending had fallen from £107 million in 2010-2011 to just £93 million last year.
Disability News Service has been raising concerns about the slump in AtW claimants for at least 18 months, but the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has yet to offer a detailed explanation.
The government was still insisting in July that it had “invested more money than ever before into the scheme”, even though its own figures showed the number of people claiming funding fell by more than 5,000 to 30,690 in 2011-12, a drop of nearly 15 per cent on 2010-11.
The fall in “new customers helped” has been even more marked, with only 9,930 disabled people claiming funding for the first time in 2011-12, a fall of a quarter since 2010-11 and more than 6,500 lower than in the last year of the Labour government.
Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said in her letter that she was “deeply concerned” that the AtW budget had been under-spent, and at reports of some disabled people having their support cut, such as reductions in British Sign Language interpreting for Deaf people.
And she criticised the “slow progress” in transforming the scheme, and said action was now “overdue”, comparing it with the government’s “swift” action on the far more controversial recommendations in her report on closing the remaining Remploy factories.
Sayce said in her letter that action on AtW “needs to be rapid and vigorous… with plans to increase marketing, increase spending on the programme and uptake of the budget, personalise the programme and strip out bureaucracy so money goes on the direct support people need to work”.
She also questioned why the government had imposed new restrictions on what AtW funding could be used for “at a time when a key problem was under-use of the budget”.
Despite her letter, DWP has again refused to accept its own figures, claiming that it was making “more funding available… than ever before”.
But it did suggest one possible partial explanation, saying that the decrease in new claims was “likely to reflect an increase in contributions [towards paying for support in the workplace] from larger employers”.
A DWP spokeswoman said there had been a “significant boost” in the number of people with mental health conditions claiming AtW, while the government had launched a marketing campaign to “make sure even more disabled people and smaller employers know about and take up the scheme”.
She also claimed that the number of disabled people claiming AtW for the first time had increased, when compared to this time last year, although she has not yet been able to provide any statistics on which this claim has been based.
Meanwhile, DWP has announced that its Strengthening Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations (DPULO) programme has now awarded more than one million pounds to organisations across England, Scotland and Wales since it was launched in July 2011.
The £3 million fund – to be awarded over four years – will now be extended so that grassroots organisations in Northern Ireland can also bid for money, which funds projects to help DPULOs become more sustainable.
8 November 2012