The debate has been interesting. Murdo Fraser was correct to say that it is about reserved responsibilities, but members’ concerns about the future of the Remploy factories in Scotland deserve to be heard in our national Parliament. The debate has afforded us an opportunity to do that. A number of members have taken the opportunity to express their views and concerns forthrightly.
Last year, I had the good fortune to visit the Remploy factory in Edinburgh at the invitation of the staff there. Although Liz Sayce’s report says that at times the factories do not have enough to do, I was struck by the amount of work that was being undertaken, from packaging through to electronics. Under the modernisation project, the factory had recently invested significantly in securing electronic document scanning and storage equipment. As a result, it had secured a contract from a local authority’s archive department to scan and store its documents.
One challenge for the factory in pursuing that contract was the uncertainty about the future of Remploy factories in Scotland and other parts of the UK. Ken Macintosh mentioned the fear and anxiety that staff have experienced in recent years, which goes back to 2007, when the modernisation process caused Remploy staff considerable fear and anxiety. I know from those to whom I spoke at the Edinburgh factory that the situation has continued to cause them concern and anxiety.
I agree with Ken Macintosh that the debate is not about two alternative models of employment. Supported employment has a role to play when it is suitable for individuals, and open employment has a part to play for disabled people who choose to go down that route. It is important that we get the balance correct. What struck me most about the Remploy factory was that it is more than just a place of employment; it is a community setting in which many of the staff have worked together for many years.
Several members have mentioned the difficulty that disabled people can experience in getting into employment, because of the challenges that they face as a result of their disability. I, for one, accept that there is certainly more to be done. I suspect that all Governments of whatever shade could always do more to ensure that disabled people are treated with equality and respect in our labour market.
There are ways in which the Government can assist with that. We are pursuing that through our new equality fund, which contains £3 million per annum for the next three years. A key element of that will be support for activities to decrease the disadvantage and inequality that disabled people face in the employment setting. A good thing is that a number of the applications to that fund for the coming year focus on assisting people with disabilities in gaining employment. We hope to make announcements on that in April.
A number of members mentioned public procurement and the difficulties that supported employment organisations can have in securing contracts. The general tone of the debate has been one of recognition that progress has been made in the area. Some might feel that not enough progress has been made and that what progress there has been has not been at the speed that they would have liked.
However, one of the key elements of the work that we have been taking forward as a Government over recent years is an attempt to ensure that our public sector bodies have a better understanding of what can be provided by supported employment organisations. In order to reinforce that process, we have ensured that the public procurement contract website, www.publiccontractsscotland.gov.uk, automatically alerts public bodies who use the site when an item of equipment or a service can be provided by a supported employment business, which means that they will consider it as an option. The latest data confirm that we are making progress: they show that Scottish public bodies have spent in the region of £24 million on contracts with supported employment businesses in Scotland, although I accept that more could be done. Fergus Ewing highlighted that at the start of the debate. We are determined to do more where we can.