I blogged on the question of whether cuts are being made to Access to Work. In summary, the DWP has issued unannounced, updated guidance on Access to Work which reduces the amount of support that was previously available to disabled people in securing employment. Furthermore, this has been done before an announced review of Access to Work has been published.
Let's look a little more into what Access to Work (AtW) is and the numbers behind it. (All statistics from the DWP's own Core Evaluation of Access to Work in 2009 - available here (pdf) - unless stated otherwise.)
AtW is essentially a pot of money that can support an individual if their health or disability affects the way they do their job by giving advice and support with extra costs to meet any extra costs associated with someone's needs.
Over time, AtW has grown: in 1997/98 its budget was £14.6m rising to £69m in 2008/09. In 2009/10 spend was £95.3m. According to figures published by the Guardian based on DWP data, only Statutory Sick Pay (£65m), "Non-Contributory Xmas Bonus" (£33m) and additional expenditure on Council tax benefit (£62m) cost the DWP less last year. The previous government committed to doubling the AtW budget to £138m by 2013/14, with a commensurate increase (i.e. doubling) of people benefiting.
In terms of beneficiaries, some 10,000 "customers" received AtW in 1994/95, rising to 27,500 in 2007/08 and 32,000 in 2008/09.
Thus, someone receiving AtW has around £2,150 on average to support them into work. But this isn't a one-way cost: there are significant benefits to the taxpayer from AtW: for every £1 spent on Access to Work, the government recoups an average £1.48 in tax and National Insurance contributions (from Destination Unknown).
Importantly, AtW is not just about meeting "reasonable adjustments" under what was the Disability Discrimination Act. As the DWP's own evaluation of AtW states:
Access to Work is designed to supplement rather than replace any reasonable adjustments made by employers in line with the DDA.
Thus, in principle, and despite the coalition government suggesting new guidance starts only where reasonable adjustments end, the question of reasonable adjustments has never been one that AtW was ever supposed to answer.
In summary: Access to Work supports disabled people in securing work; it s not about reasonable adjustments; it is the fourth smallest "benefit" paid by DWP; it acts as a net income generator for the Treasury.
Given the general success of Access to Work, what's driving the government to put in place what are effectively cuts to the service? Politically, I'd suggest something like this: there is a policy direction of moving disabled people off benefits and into work. This means (in theory) there are more disabled people looking for work. If the Access to Work budget has been protected, then this means more people either are or will be applying to it. Thus, there is a requirement to ensure that the existing budget can go further than it currently does.
Or, succinctly put, they want more for less.
I'm not quite sure where this leaves us.
The current government's policy is to decrease the number of people on welfare and get them into work. Access to Work is a funding stream designed precisely to do that, specifically supporting disabled people to access work opportunities that they otherwise couldn't. If it didn't already exist, it couldn't be a better-designed financial support to enabled disabled people to make a worthwhile contribution as employees and taxpayers.
Of all the things the coalition government has done so far with regard to welfare and benefits for disabled people - DLA, ILF, Housing Benefit, mortgage relief, Employment & Support Allowance and so on - there's a significant argument that says it's political ideology that has driven the cuts. Though I don't agree with the decisions, that's the prerogative of governments.
But the effect of the apparent decision on AtW, before it was stated a decision would be made, and that goes against even the government's own policy intention of supporting people into work, is quite bemusing. I look forward to some clarity on it soon.