The proposal to remove the Government subsidy from Remploy’s sheltered factories has once again hit the news headlines. The decision, which will probably result in the closure of the Remploy Factories and a ‘loss’ of an estimated 1,700 jobs, has been described as ‘barbaric’ by Unions.
Opposition politicians have lined up to oppose the decision - with Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne describing it as the ‘wrong plan at the wrong time’. There is too much political opportunism in this. Worse than that, people who should know better are reinforcing the image of disabled people as people to be pitied and wrapped in cotton wool in order to create ammunition to fire at political opponents. The argument against the removal of the Remploy subsidy is based on three presumptions – each of which is wrong:
1. That people with disabilities cannot get jobs in the open employment market and so need to be supported in closed environments away from other non-disabled workers. Wrong. There is a wealth of evidence describing how open, paid work is achievable if the right support is available - including for people with complex disabilities.
2.That disabled people cannot compete for jobs in a recession and so need to be protected through investment in segregated workshops. Wrong. There is a clear economic argument as to why employers should (and do) employ people with disabilities as a business choice.
3. That funding sheltered workshops is an effective way of enabling disabled people to gain work. Wrong. The limited evidence there is on economic impact suggests it is one of the least economically efficient ways of supporting disabled people to obtain paid work. (The School for Social Care Research will shortly be publishing an NDTi-researched scoping study of the economic evidence around employment supports for disabled people.)
A (Labour) government-commissioned inquiry, chaired by Radar (now Disability Rights UK) Chief Executive Liz Sayce, came to these same conclusions. People who have looked at the evidence all agree – there are better ways than sheltered workshops of using public money to ensure that disabled people gain paid work and the benefits that result from that (income, relationships, life opportunities and so on).
Those who know me will realise that I have problems with large elements of the current Government’s actions in relation to their impact on the people most at risk of exclusion from our society. When something is right though, it should be supported – and this decision has the potential to be right. What is more, opposition politicians know it is right. Liam Byrne knows it is right – when he was junior Minister for Health I had exactly this conversation with him about the Remploy factories and he agreed with me. Unions and politicians should base their statements and decisions on what is morally right, not what is politically opportunistic.
Rather than play on well-meaning public sympathy for disabled people, the decision to remove the Remploy subsidy could be a catalyst to enabling far more people with disabilities to gain paid, open employment. My previous paragraph said the Remploy decision had the potential to be right. For that to transpire, three key actions are needed by Government:
Almost everyone who has looked at the issues knows that this makes sense. Remploy themselves could have a key role in alternative strategies as they have already begun to develop some more innovative approaches to support in the workplace. The risk to the Remploy factories is not the real obstacle to disabled people gaining and retaining paid work. That obstacle is people who should know better pretending we have to waste public money by wrapping people with disabilities in cotton wool and so encouraging the belief that disabled people cannot be equal partners in the workplace. The right support, in the right place, at the right cost, is the best way of changing public attitudes and increasing employment levels for disabled people.