This weekend’s news about the closure of Remploy factories was devastating. With the Tory-led Government choosing to close 36 factories straight away – including the sites at Chesterfield, Leicester and Worksop in the East Midlands – nearly 1,800 workers will lose their jobs. Over 1,500 of these are disabled workers who rely on Remploy for their livelihoods.
The remaining 18 factories, including the Derby site, will be assessed for possible sell-off soon afterwards.
The vital support provided to these workers at Remploy sites is not available elsewhere. Because of this, when a number of factories closed in 2008, many workers found it difficult to find new employment even three years later. But the support available at Remploy is not only work-related; as a former GMB Organiser representing Remploy workers, I know that for many of them Remploy also helps to form social and community networks.
So the Government’s idea that all of this can simply be replaced in ‘mainstream’ employment – particularly at a time when unemployment is at a historic high – is ridiculous.
I wrote to the UK’s Minister for Disabled People last year to raise concerns about the ‘consultation’ process that took place before the closures. Far from giving the workers a say, the exercise seemed designed to exclude as many voices as possible – particularly in my own East Midlands constituency where not a single consultation event was planned. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Government has ignored their voices and gone ahead with these shocking cuts.
Labour MEPs, along with their Socialist colleagues in the European Parliament, fought hard for the importance of supported employment to be recognised in EU law. Thanks to their campaigning, the EU laws which govern the awarding of public contracts (or public procurement) allow some contracts to be reserved for organisations such as Remploy, so that they can receive enough work to be viable.
Whilst this should have helped to secure the future of the Remploy factories, many were in fact operating at just 50% of their full capacity, leading the Government to deem many of the sites “not viable.” This could have been avoided if public authorities had been encouraged to take full advantage of EU law and grant more contracts to Remploy. This would certainly not have happened overnight, but it could have led to a more sustainable solution for both the factories and their workers.
Public procurement is now being discussed once again in the European Parliament, as the European Commission has proposed new Directives to replace the earlier 2004 laws. High on the agenda is ‘social procurement’ – the idea of ensuring that social and economic concerns, such as the provision of quality employment, are considered when awarding public contracts. Remploy is a prime example of how social procurement could make a real difference to thousands of workers.
Given the recent focus on social procurement, the Conservative-led Government has recently hastily jumped on the bandwagon. But after the disastrous Thameslink decision, and now the callous and short-sighted decision to close Remploy factories, we would be right to question their commitment to it. Rather than allowing the Government and public authorities to look only at the bottom line, my Labour colleagues and I want to see social goals taken into account in every public contract. We will continue to fight for this – and for the future of Remploy in the UK.