The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show the number of people claiming funding through the employment support scheme fell by more than 5,000 to 30,690 last year, 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.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the figures were “a disgraceful indictment of the government’s commitment to using Access to Work as the primary means of support for disabled workers in employment”.
And she said they also called into question statements made to MPs by Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people.
She questioned Miller earlier this month about falling AtW figures, and was told to “check her facts” and that the government was “marketing Access to Work actively to make sure that more people can use it to get into work”.
McGuire told Disability News Service this week: “Well, the figures are now there for all to see and it is truly shocking that any minister for disabled people could take any pride in them.
“These figures highlight yet again that the government are failing disabled people in employment as well as in welfare reform.”
The latest figures follow a series of concerns about the coalition’s commitment to the AtW scheme – which provides funding for adaptations, equipment and ongoing support to make workplaces more accessible – since it came to power in 2010.
A review of employment support by Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), called last year for the number of disabled people receiving AtW to double, so the scheme could change from being the “government’s best-kept secret” into a “well-recognised passport to successful employment”.
But instead the numbers claiming AtW have plummeted since Sayce handed her report to the coalition.
DR UK declined to comment on the new AtW figures this week.
But when the government initially 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”.
Concerns over the government’s willingness to increase AtW spending increased earlier this month after Miller announced a series of minor reforms that focused on marketing and awareness-raising.
Instead of implementing Sayce’s AtW proposals, Miller set up a new “expert advisory panel”, to advise the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “on the best way to take forward Liz Sayce’s recommendations”.
A DWP spokeswoman insisted this week that the government had “invested more money than ever before into the scheme” but accepted that “we need to do more to raise awareness of the scheme amongst all disabled people”.
She said: “That is why we are launching a marketing campaign and have set up an expert panel to look at how we can expand, strengthen and modernise AtW to make work and choice of work possible for many more disable people.”
She also referred to the £15 million the government was adding to the AtW budget as a result of the Remploy sheltered factory closures, which she claimed would “support 8,000 more people to get into and stay in work”.
But she refused to comment on why the number of people claiming AtW had fallen so sharply.
Meanwhile, Miller has announced that a £3 million fund set up to support the growth of disabled people’s organisations has been extended to Scotland and Wales.
The Strengthening Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations programme will now allow grassroots organisations in Scotland and Wales to join those in England in bidding for money to fund projects that will help them become more sustainable.
So far more than half a million pounds has been paid out since the fund was launched in July 2011.
For information on AtW, visit the government’s Directgov website.