Iain Gray: Disabled workers deserve a chance to shine
BUSINESSES such as Remploy have proved they can thrive – with a helping hand from Holyrood, writes Iain Gray
Today sees a strike by workers at Remploy factories throughout the UK. There are 54 of these UK government-owned workshops employing disabled people, but plans to close 27 of them were confirmed a few days ago. Headlines in Scotland claimed Scottish factories had been “saved”, but the truth is far from that. Negotiations are under way to sell factories in Edinburgh, Springburn and Aberdeen to the private sector, but nothing is certain yet. Motherwell, however, will close. Moreover, this is only stage one of Remploy’s plans to divest themselves of sheltered workplaces altogether, and four other sites in Scotland are under “further consideration”.
These closures have provoked opposition from trade unions as well as Labour and SNP politicians, but little comment from disability charities and pressure groups who support disabled people. That is because the plans are driven by a powerful conjunction of current disability rights ideology and the government’s desire to save money.
Many disability activists believe disabled workers should be employed in mainstream jobs, that employers should have to make that possible, and that sheltered employment such as Remploy is out of date and patronising, amounting to segregation. Meanwhile, the government notes that Remploy’s losses are such that each worker costs £25,000 a year, while an “Access to Work” award helping a disabled worker in a mainstream job costs £2,900. So they can support a radical rights agenda and save money as well.
Sheltered employment has a chequered history. In the Seventies, people with learning disabilities in Edinburgh’s Gogarburn hospital worked on “industrial therapy”, tying string on to labels and folding cartons for bottles of whisky. They were paid less than £2 per week, a fraction of an actual wage even then. It may have been industrial, but it was neither a job nor therapeutic. The “everyone should have a mainstream job” argument is a seductive one, and there was a time when I would have agreed with it. In fact, it makes the perfect enemy of the good. I spent five years as chair of a third-sector provider of support for people with learning disabilities in the community. We were a radical, progressive, innovative organisation. Yet we could not get a single “real” job for any of our service users. Not one. I still believe everything should be done to support disabled workers in mainstream jobs. But ending all supported work opportunities will end the chance to work for thousands of Scots.
Instead, we should look at the best examples and copy them. In Glasgow, the council’s arms-length company, City Building, runs Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft (RSBI) and has turned it into a hi-tech manufacturing centre producing kitchens and furniture for council properties. Half of the 260 workforce are disabled, but skilled. By assiduous use of Article 19 of the European procurement directive, which allows contracts to be directed to supported workplaces, Glasgow City Council has ensured that RSBI thrives. Any visitor will see workers doing real jobs to fulfil real contracts, first-class training, and engagement with the next generation through school placements. They will also see a degree of adaptation of machinery and support for the workforce which, frankly, will never be provided in mainstream factories.
Recent visitors to RSBI include Alex Salmond, who praised the workforce for their efforts. The SNP also denounced the recent Remploy closures, describing them as “wilful ignorance”. In fact its own record of support for disabled workers is patchy. Mr Salmond did step in when Glencraft in Aberdeen was threatened with closure. Ministers and officials brokered a private-sector solution supported by public funding of more than £500,000. Two years on and Glencraft has increased sales and is discussing contracts with major retailers.
In contrast, when the SNP-Lib Dem council in Edinburgh pulled the plug on Blindcraft, the First Minister was nowhere to be seen. The Craigmillar factory, with a history going back to 1793, closed, paying off 140 workers, some of whom had decades of service.
RSBI shows that sustained commitment and the use of Article 19 can make supported factories thrive. Yet Scottish ministers refuse to do any more than “ask” public sector bodies such as councils and the NHS to use article 19. When he was pressed in parliament to “tell” councils to do so, enterprise minister Fergus Ewing replied: “It is not for me to determine what local government should do.” That is not the government’s maxim when it comes to things like the council tax freeze.
Most surprisingly of all, the SNP shows no inclination to follow the lead of the Welsh government. It has demanded control of Remploy and its funding, so it can turn the loss-making factories around. It believes it can use article 19 to achieve this, and to provide opportunity for Welsh disabled workers. Unite, GMB and community trade unions, who are all campaigning to save Remploy, support it. Scotland could strengthen the Welsh argument by making the same case. If successful, Scottish ministers could use the RSBI model from their own doorstep and draft their long-promised procurement bill to force councils, the NHS and emergency services to get serious about article 19 contracts. Scotland could be a beacon of progressive opportunity for disabled workers for whom Access to Work awards are not enough.
Greater devolution, solidarity with disabled workers, showing Westminster how it could be done better – what on earth are SNP ministers waiting for?
• Ian Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian.
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