The launch of a major review of employment support for disabled people descended into angry scenes when both the minister for disabled people and the review’s author were loudly heckled by trade unionists.
One senior trade union official condemned the Conservative minister, Maria Miller, as she prepared to leave the launch event in north London after making a short speech.
Phil Davies, national secretary of the GMB union and head of its manufacturing section, told Miller the report had “written off the jobs of 2,000 people” and that she should be “staying and listening to disabled people”.
Miller said she would be “very happy” to meet the unions to discuss the report, but left the launch event without answering questions.
Another furious union official, Les Woodward, Remploy convenor for the GMB, said the event was “an absolute disgrace”.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, had been presenting the results of her independent review, which was commissioned by the government.
The government spends about £25,000 to subsidise each of the 2,800 disabled factory staff still working in the remaining 54 sheltered Remploy factories, although 544 of those workers have applied for voluntary redundancy.
Sayce told the launch that there was “total consensus” among disabled people’s organisations that segregated employment, like the Remploy factories, was “not a model for the 21st century”.
She said she did not believe that disabled people should be expected to work in businesses that were loss-making and “not viable”, and added: “We want government support to be for the individual, not subsidising businesses that are not actually viable businesses in themselves.”
She said those factories that were not viable should no longer be subsidised by the government, although those that were viable businesses could be taken over by disabled workers and become social enterprises, co-operatives, or “mutuals” owned by their employees.
There could be intensive expert advice and short-term subsidies, as well as personalised support for individuals, she suggested.
And she said there must be “comprehensive support” for disabled employees working in factories that were found to be not financially viable.
But Sayce’s comments only angered Remploy trade union members at the meeting.
Davies said: “If you think our members are going to roll over and be shoved out of work… this government and the Department for Work and Pensions have got a fight on your hands and it is a fight that you will not win.”
But Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), said Davies’ anger was “targeted at the wrong people” and should be directed at the businesses who will not employ disabled people, including those with learning difficulties.
A police officer was forced to intervene and call for an end to the “shouting and screaming” after a furious Woodward said there was a need to “get proper people in to run the company”.
Sayce’s conclusions were immediately defended by fellow disabled campaigner Dr Rachel Perkins, chair of the government’s Equality 2025 advice body, who told Woodward: “That what’s she’s saying. Run the businesses yourselves. Read the report. That’s what’s in it.”
Another trade union member, who said he had worked for Remploy for 32 years, told Sayce he had been made to feel “insulted” by the implication that working for Remploy was “worthless”.
He shouted abuse at her and knocked over equipment at the side of the stage as he left the room.
After the launch, Sayce said: “Clearly Remploy workers are doing real work for real pay and they make very important products, but I do not understand why we say disabled people can only work in businesses that are so loss-making. Why can’t they be part of successful businesses?”
Davies told Disability News Service that the idea of disabled Remploy staff taking over factories could be “a runner”, if they were provided with the right financial support by the government.
He said: “It is not any good giving workers failing businesses that haven’t got any funding.”
But he said there was now a “hard core” of Remploy workers who wanted to stay with the company.
He said unions had been calling for 10 years for management that was “committed and made up of disabled people. If this report gives us that opportunity, then fine.”
Davies suggested that workers at factories that were not viable could be moved to those that were, under Sayce’s proposals.
And he said the union was concerned more with preserving jobs than preventing factory closures, although he said he had “no idea” how many Remploy factories might be viable.
9 June 2011