I am pleased that the Scottish Government and the Parliament have found time to debate the future of Remploy. For several years, members from across the chamber have raised on-going concerns but, as a result of the current highly controversial proposals that the Conservatives at Westminster have announced, the issue has now come to a head.
The recent review of disability employment that the UK Government commissioned and which was led by Liz Sayce tried to frame the debate as a choice between two models of employment—the traditional model that Remploy has offered of providing supported jobs for people with disabilities in a factory setting versus a focus on helping disadvantaged people into mainstream or open employment. The review came down forcefully on the side of the latter option and the Conservative Government has followed up on the report’s recommendations through the current plans to close 36 of Remploy’s 54 factories across the UK, including four in Scotland, with an expectation that the remaining factories will also close.
As campaigners, employees, trade unionists and elected representatives from all sides have pointed out, that is a false division and choice. There should not be an either/or decision between supported and open employment. Of course it is right that adults with disabilities or learning difficulties should have every opportunity to work in a mainstream setting. In fact, although we have come a long way in recent decades, further progress clearly must be made if we are to overcome the discrimination and other barriers that stand in the way of equal treatment of all our fellow citizens. However, whatever the mainstream or open employment options, many people’s active and positive choice will be to continue to work in a more sheltered environment.
Furthermore, the closure proposals ignore the role of Remploy factories as an avenue into mainstream employment. Many individuals gain the confidence, experience and training that they require to enter the marketplace through their work in Remploy factories, but that avenue is to be closed off.
Perhaps most worrying of all, the Government’s decision makes no allowance for the practical reality of today’s employment market, in which almost 0.25 million people are unemployed across Scotland and more than 2.5 million are unemployed across the UK. More important, in that market, despite changing attitudes and stronger legal rights, fewer than half of all disabled individuals are likely to be in a job, compared with 80 per cent of able-bodied workers. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that closing Remploy’s factories will improve the employment prospects of people with disabilities in Scotland or the rest of the UK, but there is every reason to think that it will make matters worse.
As several colleagues did, I spoke to Remploy employees at their demonstration in Edinburgh this morning. I welcome those of them who have joined us in the public gallery this afternoon. What came across to me loud and clear was the fear and anxiety that the proposals have generated. This is not a consultation; it is a 12-week redundancy notice. Many of the men and women who are affected are in their 50s and have never worked outside Remploy. What chance do they have of securing employment or of competing with displaced graduates and the thousands of others who have been forced into the marketplace in the difficult economic circumstances that we all face? One of the men on the demonstration this morning thrust a letter into my hand, which is a series of questions to ministers in the Scottish and UK Governments. One of the questions is:
“if ten able bodied people are chasing the same job as a disabled person, what are the chances for the disabled person getting that job?”
The anxiety is palpable.
I draw a parallel between the current focus on mainstreaming jobs at the expense of supported employment with the inclusion agenda that was pursued in the area of additional support for learning, particularly when it was first introduced. I agree that we want to challenge the reduced expectations of work and the limited career ambitions that we as a society have imposed on disabled people in the past, just as we have challenged that in our school system. However, rather than look on Remploy factories as segregated institutions, it might be more accurate and helpful to see them as supportive environments. Just as we rebalanced our view on inclusion and additional support for learning and recognised that there was an on-going role for special schools while giving all children the option of mainstreaming, so we should continue to support disabled people in every workplace while maintaining sheltered and specialist workshops and factories for those who want and need them.