Disabled people’s organisations have backed government plans to withdraw funding from the remaining sheltered segregated factories run by Remploy, but have called for as many of them as possible to emerge as new user-led social enterprises.
Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, announced this week that 36 of the remaining 54 Remploy factories across the UK would close by the end of 2012, with the loss of more than 1,500 disabled people’s jobs.
The government will consult with Remploy bosses over the future of the other 18 factories, Remploy’s employment services business and about 30 contracts providing CCTV services, to examine whether they can be sold or survive as social enterprises run by employees.
The announcement was part of the government’s response to a consultation on last year’s review of employment support by Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK).
Government funds currently used to subsidise the factories will be “recycled” into other forms of employment support for disabled people, including the Access to Work (AtW) scheme.
Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, said the announcement would be “devastating” for Remploy workers and called on the government to do “everything it can to find alternatives or retraining”.
But she added: “Disability Wales campaigns for full inclusion and rights and equality for disabled people.
“We have questioned the role of any kind of segregated provision, whether it is sheltered workshops, day centres or special schools. These were 20th century solutions and the world is very different now.
“In the long-term the hope is it will release more funding to help more disabled people in mainstream jobs. We hope they will have more chance to develop their careers and potential.”
Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said the idea of sheltered, segregated workplaces belonged in the last century, but disabled Remploy workers should be supported to take control of factories themselves, setting up user-led social enterprises.
She said: “That is more of a 21st century picture. They would no longer be the stereotypical sheltered workshops. They would become organisations run by and for disabled people.”
Jeremy Long-Price, independent living development lead for Southampton Centre for Independent Living, also backed the withdrawal of government funding.
He said: “As an organisation we are against the notion of segregated employment and would rather see money previously spent on subsidising the Remploy model of supporting disabled people more widely available and directed to allow greater inclusion in the overall population and workforce.”
But he said he was not convinced that the government would redirect the Remploy funding into supporting disabled people into mainstream jobs, as it has promised.
Mike Smith, a DR UK trustee and chief executive of Real, a disabled people’s organisation in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, said the disabled people he worked with at Real “do not want to go into specialist, segregated work” but want adequate support to find mainstream jobs.
He dismissed arguments that the country’s economic situation meant it was the wrong time to be closing the factories.
He said it was “absolutely the right time”, because every £1 spent on AtW brings the Treasury £1.48 in tax and national insurance, while greater inclusion of disabled people into society would reduce disability hate crime.
He said: “It is uncomfortable but it is the right thing to do. If it is the right message, we should not be shy about saying it, just because it upsets some people.
“We want more disabled people throughout the whole country supported into real and meaningful employment.”
He pointed to the £25,000 cost of subsidising every disabled employee in Remploy factories, and said this sum could support eight disabled people into mainstream employment through AtW.
But the response of leading disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) to the government’s announcement has angered unions.
Les Woodward, Remploy convenor for the GMB union, who has worked for the company for 28 years, criticised DPOs for taking an “ideological viewpoint” and ignoring the perilous economic situation, and appealed for disabled leaders to visit Remploy factories and talk to workers.
He said: “I cannot see how making the best part of 2,000 people redundant is going to advance the disability agenda one iota.”
He said disabled people looking for mainstream jobs faced inaccessible workplaces, bullying and discrimination.
He said: “Where’s the jobs? This argument that everybody should work in mainstream employment is totally facile. That’s like saying everybody should work in Marks and Spencer.
“I guarantee there is not one person in this factory [in Swansea] considers themselves to be working in segregated employment. It would take a very brave bloke to tell me that I work in a ghetto.”
Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, also called for the factories to become social enterprises run and controlled by disabled people.
She said the government had failed to think through its decision to close the 36 factories, and pointed to widespread problems with securing access to AtW funding.
She added: “We have got the highest unemployment rates for 17 years, so where are these jobs going to come from?”
8 March 2012