Sheila Gilmore: supported employment works

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Last month I was saddened to learn that the Engine Shed, a well-respected social enterprise based in the Southside, is set to close. It specialised in providing training and employment to young people with learning disabilities, who would work in its cafe and bakery.

This follows on from the closure of both Blindcraft (pictured below) in 2011 – which provided jobs for people with visual impairments, and produced good quality beds and mattresses – and of 33 Remploy factories across the UK in 2012 – which employed disabled people to make various products ranging from air filters to school furniture.

As a result of government cutting funding for organisations such as this – commonly referred to as supported employment – people with disabilities are increasingly expected to take up mainstream jobs. I have two concerns about how this shift in policy is working in practice.

The support disabled people need to stay in work often isn’t there – the UK government’s Work Programme has badly let down disabled people over the last four years. I think for some more severely disabled people, it will be very hard for them to get a regular job in the first place. This problem is often exacerbated by the fashion for ‘payment by results’ contracts, where those who are easiest to help are cherry-picked by contractors, and those who need more support left behind.

I accept that places such as Blindcraft and Remploy needed public money. But I fear that much of the savings realised by closing these factories is used on benefits to former employees, many of whom have struggled to find work.

It’s important to emphasise that this isn’t just a UK government issue – Scottish Government guidance requires councils to withdraw funding from those that provide a slower, supportive ‘training first’ approach, preferring a ‘jobs first’ view instead. This is what led to Edinburgh Council withdrawing funding from the Engine Shed.

Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East