Government decisions on the future of the remaining 54 Remploy sheltered factories could lead to strike action and even occupation of their workplaces by disabled people, MPs have heard.
The warning was issued by the Labour MP John McDonnell, who was taking part in a debate on the future of the factories.
McDonnell said the 54 factories would close unless there was a “change of attitude” from the government.
He said: “This is a fight for those factories and if the workers want to fight with whatever means possible—industrial action, occupation—and we cannot persuade the government to reconsider, I will be joining them.”
Last month, Remploy workers handed Downing Street a petition of more than 100,000 names, organised by the GMB union, which called for the government to stop the threatened closure of the remaining factories.
Labour MPs lined up during the debate to condemn recommendations on Remploy contained in a report by RADAR chief executive Liz Sayce on the future of employment support for disabled people.
Sayce’s report calls for an end to government ownership and funding of Remploy, and the closure of factories which are “not viable”, but says others could become social enterprises, co-operatives, or “mutuals” owned by employees, with the help of short-term government subsidies.
The report also calls on the government to double the number of disabled people receiving support through the Access to Work scheme.
But Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP who secured the debate, said: “In a period in which unemployment is rising, it is pie in the sky and cruelly misleading to suggest that expanding the Access to Work programme will result in more work for disabled people.”
The disabled MP Dame Anne Begg said that closing the Remploy factories would mean “fewer opportunities for work experience to give people the skills, expertise and background that will allow them into open employment”.
She added: “We cannot do away with the factories if we are serious about getting people with severe disabilities into open employment.”
The only strong backbench support for the idea of closing sheltered factories and encouraging disabled people to work in mainstream employment came from the Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd, who has a hearing impairment.
He said: “Having disabled people living, studying and working alongside non-disabled people is vital to achieving a more cohesive society.”
He added: “The key, for me, is that it is time finally to address the low expectations that some disabled people have, as well as to challenge stigma that comes from outside.
“That is why it is so important that disabled people should become more visible in open employment.
“The subsidy could be better used to transform Remploy factories into individual viable businesses and to support more Remploy workers into open employment.”
Anne McGuire, the shadow minister for disabled people, accepted that the disability movement believed sheltered factories should be closed.
But she argued that there should “still be a place within our range of opportunities for supported factory employment”.
Another Labour MP, Nick Smith, said: “I am fearful that Remploy closures in places such as Abertillery will lead to its workers moving not to private sector jobs with the appropriate support, but to joining the dole queue alongside former incapacity benefit claimants. That is the reality of what will happen in many parts of the country.”
Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people and the only Conservative MP to speak in the debate, said Remploy’s latest accounts showed that it cost £25,000 to support each of the remaining 2,200 disabled members of factory staff.
She said that the issues facing the Remploy factories were “not new”, but that their operating loss had increased to tens of millions of pounds, while the modernisation plan introduced under the Labour government had “simply not addressed the fundamental weakness in the business model”.
She added: “I want to make it clear that I have not yet made a final decision about the consultation [on Sayce’s report], but I am persuaded that there is a need for change and that the Sayce review suggests a persuasive model for such change.”
19 December 2011