Disabled charities cool on Remploy review

Disability charities have reacted coolly to work and pensions secretary Peter Hain's announcement at this week's Labour Party conference that the Government would be reviewing plans announced earlier this year to close 32 Remploy factories and merge another 11.

Hain made the announcement after pressure from the GMB union, which had threatened to embarrass the Government by putting a motion to the conference floor condemning the closures and the associated loss of up to 2,400 jobs.

He pledged to work to bring more “reliable, good quality public contracts” into supported factories and businesses by raising awareness of European procurement rules that permit contracts put out to tender to be reserved for companies for whom disabled people make up more than 50 per cent of their workforce.

He also pledged that there would be no factory closures without the agreement of ministers, and no compulsory redundancies. “We have a duty to help even more disabled people into work, while continuing to help those for whom supported employment remains the best option,” he said.

He said ministers would take a final decision on factory closures at the conclusion of negotiations between Remploy management and the unions, who responded by calling off planned strikes.

A Remploy spokeswoman said Hain had simply reiterated what had already been agreed with ministers. She welcomed his pledge to boost public procurement and said it might affect Remploy’s decision on how many factories to close. She said: “The closures are a business decision so if we can see there is sustainable business then we could keep some factories open, but it would take a lot of new business to keep them all open.”

Members of a group of six national charities that publicly supported the original closure announcements earlier this year maintained their view that Remploy would better serve disabled workers by helping them find and keep jobs in mainstream employment.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Scope, said disabled people regarded developing new skills in mainstream employment as important for exercising choice and control in their lives. “We recognise that the closure of the Remploy factories is a difficult decision, but believe that this type of sheltered workplace is outmoded and no longer appropriate in 21st century Britain,” he said.

Dame Jo Williams, chief executive of Mencap, expressed concern that Hain’s announcement would result in cuts to investment in supporting disabled people find mainstream jobs. This was echoed by Brian Lamb, acting chief executive of the RNID. He said: “Government needs to lay out clearly where it sees the focus of its employment policy and funding priorities to ensure that disabled people get the support they need to get and keep employment on the open labour market.”

The other three charities that endorsed a letter to The Guardian in May supporting the closure decisions – Mind, Leonard Cheshire and Radar – all declined to comment.

The RNIB, which criticised the six for supporting the Remploy closures, welcomed Hain's announcement. Chief executive Lesley-Anne Alexander said: “As long as there are substantial barriers to mainstream employment experienced both by disabled people and employers, we need to retain a supported employment option to ensure that all disabled people, however far from the labour market, can benefit from work and progress.”

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