Labour should be proud of its record on disability rights – it should not turn back the clock over Remploy

(This blog was first published in November 2012)

What are we to make of the fact that only 35 of the 1000 ex-employees of recently closed Remploy factories have so far found new employment?

Liam Byrne deduces that it is a consequence of the lack of jobs in the economy and therefore the decent thing to do is to halt further closures.

This would suggest that in a more buoyant economy the figure would be far higher. Yet there is little evidence that many more ex-factory workers found work following the closure of 28 factories under Labour in 2007/8 or closures prior to that date when the economy was in a far healthier state.

There is another way to look at both today’s figure and those following previous factory closures. As I have mentioned before George Tomlinson, the Labour MP whose report initiated Remploy as a plank of the post-War welfare state had never intended it to be a stopping place for its disabled workers, many of whom had either returned injured from the war or were civilian casualties of bombing raids. He recognised that many disabled people could and should work in open employment. Remploy was intended as part of a national system of rehabilitation, enabling as many disabled people as possible to progress through it into open employment, sharing the same goals as those assigned to specialist providers under the work programme today.

To judge Remploy’s success then, we should look for evidence that those who have been fortunate to work at one its factories were subsequently better placed to secure work in the open labour market than those who have not had this opportunity. After all, this is precisely the test we apply to organisations such as A4E. Through that lens, what these low figures tell us starkly is that George Tomlinson’s vision was never realised. The Remploy sheltered employment model failed. Its workers did not progress into open employment. They became stuck – some for over 30 years – without opportunities to move on. What tradable skills have they been equipped with to venture into the open labour market with? The closure of the factories has further exposed this waste of human potential and of money than could have been, can and should be far better spent.

State subsidy for training, development and work experience makes absolute sense. But what signal does it send about the workers in the factories or about the potential of disabled people more generally to persist with State-subsidised loss-making sheltered factories as a going concern? Doing so simply devalues disabled people’s contribution, just as it would if it were policy for any other group in society. It suggests that employing disabled people is not economically viable, situating it instead as a form of welfare, and then locating that welfare in segregated settings, wholly at odds with modern values and practices. Current workers should have genuine opportunities to seek to set up social enterprises and cooperatives, where economically viable, as the Sayce review proposed, if that is their wish. It would be great to see businesses owned and run by disabled people employing non-disabled people in future.

Regarding the impact of the economy, there has been a rise in unemployment among disabled people, though importantly the recession has not so far had a disproportionate impact upon the employment participation of disabled people as a whole, compared with non-disabled people. The gap has not widened. In fact, the overall trend of the last decade is one of a reduction in worklessness among disabled people and a corresponding decrease in the numbers receiving out of work benefits as the latest analysis from the Joseph Rowntree Foundations shows. If we want both to prevent the gap from widening and to continue in making progress in narrowing it then we need to redouble our efforts to strengthen disabled people’s resilience, capacity and opportunities to compete on more equal terms in the jobs market.

We can only achieve this by modernising our approach, and in the context of the present public spending squeeze (foreseen by Liam Byrne in the infamous letter he left for his successor at the Treasury) that means using existing resources more effectively and productively. Remploy factories employed around 2,800 disabled people, at an annual cost of around £22,700 per person (a total of around £63 million in 2009/10). This is because they all run at a loss. Compare this with Access to Work, which helped 37,300 people in 2009/10, at an average cost per person of around £2,600. It is estimated that for every £1.00 spent on Access to Work, the Exchequer reaps £1.48 in return. In the present economic climate, it is in disabled people’s interests to use these resources more effectively.

If Liam Byrne genuinely cares about disabled people’s future employment prospects – and in particular those of young disabled people who, alongside young people generally, are suffering disproportionately through this recession – he would support the continuation of the Remploy factory closure programme started under the last government, on condition of clear evidence of savings being re-invested in schemes like Access to Work. He would focus on young disabled people’s employment prospects, advancing ways to enhance their skills, experience and entry in the jobs market. He would be restless about improving disabled people’s opportunity to gain qualifications, especially as evidence shows clearly that qualifications benefit disabled people’s employment opportunities more than they benefit non-disabled people, thus closing the gap. And he would not make grand claims of seeking fundamental reform of the work capability assessment while only tinkering at the edges. Instead, he would commit to abandoning it altogether and replacing our present ‘safety net’ welfare state with one which genuinely invested in people and gave them the means to live a life.

Labour may presently be engaged in a process of disinheriting its own legacy on welfare reform – after all, it brought Lord (then just David) Freud on board, designed Employment and Support Allowance and the Work Capability Assessment and hired Atos. If we are to believe that a future Labour Government will offer something radically different, then this distancing is no bad thing.

But Labour’s legacy also includes being the party of full civil rights for disabled people, the party of independent living, the Disability Equality Duty, the Human Rights Act and the party which signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In that spirit, Labour is also the party which rightly began the long overdue closure of anachronistic and wasteful state-subsidised sheltered factories run by Remploy.

If Labour wants to make good its commitment to ‘make rights a reality’ for disabled people, reforming Remploy is one thing that it should remain committed to. Now is not the time to turn back the clock.

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