After the closure of Remploy, it’s vital that other supported employment workplaces are saved, says Sarah Boyack
The mission to transform the lives of disabled people and those who experience complex barriers to work has formed the bedrock of Remploy’s approach since 1945.
Remploy was founded to provide work for disabled ex-miners and ex-service personnel as the Second World War drew to a close.
It’s supported employment which offers opportunities for disabled people to work and develop the skills to play an active part in society.
Unfortunately, this week, the doors at Edinburgh’s Remploy factory will close for the last time with the loss of 28 jobs – 27 of which are filled by disabled workers. The announcement is a devastating blow for staff and their families, to the wider campaign to save Remploy and to those of us who believe in the value of supported employment.
The closure has come about following the decision of the UK Government to withdraw public money from Remploy. The organisation has been attempting to find alternative operators to take on its factories, but after some initial interest, no bid was forthcoming for Edinburgh.
This week, the UK Government’s Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey MP met with MSPs in Edinburgh. MSPs from areas across Scotland relayed concerns expressed to them by workers who had come to Parliament earlier in the day and I made an 11th-hour plea to make the case for the Edinburgh factory to remain open and to give us the chance to find a solution. My request, and those of other MSPs, fell on deaf ears.
The changes being imposed on Remploy result from the UK Government’s view that Remploy is no longer needed and that supported employment is outdated or in some way disadvantages disabled workers.
While I fully agree that disabled workers should be supported to integrate themselves into mainstream employment, I believe that it overlooks the significant barriers that many disabled people still face in today’s jobs market. Moreover, to characterise supported workplaces as less valuable than their mainstream equivalents belittles the high-quality work that Remploy staff have produced and the experience and collective support that comes from working together.
When I visited Remploy’s Edinburgh factory, I found workers fulfilling contracts digitising public bodies’ archives and manufacturing components for high-end consumer electronic products. The staff I met took pride in their work and valued the opportunities to develop skills through training. This is supported employment at its best – where disabled people are afforded the opportunity to develop practical and personal skills in an environment that understands their needs, while at the same time delivering a top-quality service for their customers.
It’s the same ethos that underpinned the work of Blindcraft before it was forced to close last year and that continues to inform the work of social enterprises like the Engine Shed, where adults with learning disabilities are supported to improve their confidence, learn skills in a real work environment and move into paid employment within mainstream workplaces.
Rather than pursing closure of enterprises such as Remploy in a misguided attempt at instant integration and saving money, the coalition government should be redoubling its efforts to support this sector to provide those disabled workers facing the greatest barriers to work with the stepping stone that can enable them to achieve their potential. Closing Remploy factories will be a false economy, removing the skills of these workers who may never work again.
There is scope for the Scottish Government to take a greater lead in promoting supported employment and there are real opportunities to develop the sector if suitable procurement practices are supported. Experience in Glasgow demonstrates that co-ordinated supported employment and training can deliver for public sector and private industries alike.
Under EU procurement regulations, public sector bodies have the right to reserve contracts for supported workplace providers. The Scottish Government’s Sustainable Procurement Action Plan encouraged public bodies to have a strategy in place to award at least one such contract to a supported business by November 2010. When I asked ministers to state whether this target was met, I was told it was a matter for individual public bodies.
The public sector in Scotland spends around £9 billion a year purchasing goods and services. However, in 2010/11, public bodies spent £24.1 million – less than 0.3 per cent – with supported businesses.
The Scottish Government acknowledges that supported factories and businesses can provide good value for money. If we are serious about improving opportunities for disabled people, it is simply not good enough to provide warm words and targets if these are not then backed up with effective monitoring of progress.
There needs to be a clear strategy from the Scottish Government, backed up by action, to bring together public sector organisations to ensure there is a role for supported employment workplaces. Failure to do so will simply lead to more closures, leaving individuals isolated and condemned to a life on benefits rather than in work. It doesn’t need to be like this.
• Sarah Boyack is a Lothian Labour list MSP
• A proud history wiped out
IT was announced last week that Edinburgh’s Remploy factory would close, after an 11th hour appeal to save it was rejected.
The Department of Work and Pensions announced earlier this year that the Remploy site in South Gyle was set to close with the loss of all 28 jobs after no offer was received to take it over.
Earlier this year, Remploy announced 36 of its 54 factories across the UK, which have provided employment for disabled people since the Second World War, were at risk of closure following the withdrawal of government funding.
The Edinburgh factory carried out work like document management and scanning, which includes the archiving of files to electronic format. It also assembled electronic products and undertook packaging work. Remploy was established in 1946 to provide work for disabled ex-service personnel.