Disabled people who need help to get into or stay in work will be able to fully apply for grants online from April, ministers have announced.

Access to Work grants are intended to help people with disabilities, or physical and mental health conditions to get practical support, including special equipment, travel costs, or a sign language interpreter.

Disability charities have said the current system of applying for grants is “dogged with delays”, leading disabled people to have to wait a long time for an award, inhibiting them from working.

Parts of the system are digitalised, but in other areas paperwork is required.

Work and pensions minister Mims Davies said her department “anticipate by April 2024 that a fully digital service will be available, with applicants able to claim for all types of grants”.

Mims Davies
Work and pensions minister Mims Davies (PA)

Ryan Kennedy, adjustments and accessibility lead at disability equality charity Scope said the fully digital Access to Work system could “easily be adapted for both employers and Access to Work to take a more active role in the online claims process”, taking the burden off the applicant themselves.

He added: “Access to Work, while good in principle, is beset by problems.

“The system is dogged with delays. Disabled people are waiting a long time for assessments and for their applications to be awarded, which results in delays in them ordering equipment.

“The Government also needs to address low awareness of the scheme by employers and disabled people.

“Disabled people are pushing hard to get into work, and this scheme should be there to support them fully and efficiently when they get into employment.”

Jackie O’Sullivan, acting CEO of Mencap, welcomed the commitment from ministers, adding that the current system had been “an administrative burden on employers and disabled people”.

She added: “No person with a learning disability should risk falling out of employment or a training programme because their support cannot be put in place in time or because the paper-based application process is too complicated.”

Sir Stephen Timms
Sir Stephen Timms, Labour chairman of the Commons’ Work and Pensions Committee (PA)

Sir Stephen Timms, Labour chairman of the Commons’ Work and Pensions Committee, wrote to the Government asking when the digital system would be fully up and running.

Ministers told his committee in 2021 they were “spending £5 million on Access to Work to commence delivery of a fully digital customer service”.

He also questioned what impact introducing an online system for determining Access to Work applications had had on waiting times for decisions.

Ms Davies said her department was still gathering data, but added it was “envisioned that processing times may decrease”.

The committee has previously called for the Access to Work scheme to be better advertised to raise awareness of the assistance available to disabled people who want to work.

A survey by Unison in 2020 found only 5% of disabled workers had help from Access to Work to work from home, while 41% did not know about the scheme, and 23% did not think Access to Work could help with working from home.

Sir Stephen said: “I hope that the new online service will mark the start of a substantial improvement, reducing the barriers which disabled people too often encounter in obtaining and staying in work.

“As well as modernisation, the select committee has called for a marketing push to make Access to Work much better known.”

The Government has in recent months begun taking steps to get more people with disabilities into work.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride announced plans in September to provide more help for disabled people to work from home with the aim of reducing the numbers claiming sickness benefits.