Reforms to the scheme that provides funding for disabled people to make their workplaces more accessible could help end its reputation as the government’s “best kept secret”, according to a minister.
Among the “first steps” in reforming Access to Work (AtW) announced this week by Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, was a “targeted marketing campaign” aimed at encouraging more people with mental health conditions and more young disabled people to apply for support through the scheme.
The campaign will include efforts to raise its profile among those still at school, and it will focus on regions where AtW is not widely used, such as Wales, and promote the scheme with employers who are unaware of how it can help them recruit or retain a disabled employee.
Miller also announced that AtW would be available to young disabled people carrying out work experience through the government’s new Youth Contract, and to young disabled people taking part in the Department for Education’s supported internships scheme.
Miller told MPs: “We do not think it is right for Access to Work to be a hidden success and expanding, strengthening and modernising this programme will make work and choice of work possible for many more disabled people.”
But there are continuing concerns over the availability of AtW to new claimants, with numbers plummeting since the coalition came to power in 2010.
Liz Sayce, whose review of employment support for disabled people last year focused heavily on the need to expand and improve AtW, said she was “deeply concerned that numbers of new claimants are going down”.
If the current trend continues, the number of disabled people helped for the first time through AtW is set to dip below 10,000 in 2011-12, compared with a peak of 16,540 in 2009-10.
Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, suggested this was partly because so few people knew about the scheme, and partly because of restrictions on what was covered by the “standard list” – items which AtW will not cover because they are seen as standard equipment, business costs or health and safety requirements.
Sayce said this list “should be torn up” because it “causes immense frustration and bureaucracy for disabled people”.
Her review called on the government to double the number of disabled people receiving ATW, so that the scheme could change from being the “government’s best-kept secret” into a “well-recognised passport to successful employment”.
But there were concerns that further much-needed reforms to the AtW scheme could be delayed, after Miller also announced a new “expert advisory panel”, to be chaired by Mike Adams, chief executive of ecdp (Essex Coalition of Disabled People), which will advise the Department for Work and Pensions on the best way to take forward Sayce’s recommendations on AtW.
Miller said the new panel would also make its own recommendations on “how to significantly improve” the scheme, and would report to her early next year.
When the government responded to Sayce’s report last July, it warned that her AtW recommendations could put “additional pressure on funding at a time when resources are limited”.
Sayce welcomed the decision to set up the panel, but warned that “action must come fast because right now disabled people are not getting into jobs or getting onto the career ladder or staying in their jobs after acquiring a health condition or impairment”.
Asked whether she was concerned at further delays to implementing her recommendations, she said: “Some of my recommendations are being implemented straight away, others are being phased in, with advice from the expert panel on the most effective implementation of each policy change.
“As far as I’m concerned the proof of the pudding will be in strong and rapid implementation and I’d like to see an action plan with timescales.”
5 July 2012