The disabled have had a rough ride under the coalition, with welfare reform cutting their benefits and support. Now, ministers have announced that more than 1,700 disabled people will lose their jobs this year, because the government is withdrawing its £68m subsidy from Remploy, the disability employer.
Set up to provide jobs for injured servicemen after the second world war, Remploy runs 54 factories which employ staff with a range of physical and mental difficulties. The withdrawal of government support means that 36 of the 54 factories will close. The remaining 18 will be put up for sale, meaning that hundreds of employees there also face an uncertain future.
This is the conclusion of a battle that begun under Labour: the factories have been operating at a loss for years. In opposition, however, both the Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, pledged to keep the factories open. Here is Clegg railing against the "sheer brutality" of the proposed closure in 2007:
It is a difficult issue. The government's line is that in the 21st century, it is no longer appropriate for disabled people to work in isolation. The Disability Minister, Maria Miller, said that the multimillion pound subsidy to Remploy could be better spent on other programmes to help the disabled into work. She highlighted figures showing that the annual cost of supporting a Remploy worker was £25,000 a year, as compared to the £2,900 cost of the Access to Work scheme, which gives technology and assistance to firms employing disabled workers.
Yet the timing of this move certainly makes it appear rather cruel, and there is no evidence that sufficient efforts are being made to get disabled people into work. Last week, the welfare reform bill passed, cutting much-needed disabled benefits. Across the UK, unemployment is rising. Already, around 50 per cent of disabled people are unemployed, compared with less than 10 per cent in the rest of the population. As Unite leader Len McCluskey said: "In the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, these workers' prospects of finding work are almost zero."
The workers made redundant by the Remploy closure will be guaranteed support for 18 months, in a package worth £8m. But money is not the only issue. For many disabled people, the right to work and be a part of society is just as important. Cuts to disability living allowance already threaten the ability of many disabled people to pay for transport to get to work. It seems unlikely that Remploy will be replaced with adequate measures to provide opportunities for this group. Even in the boom times, those with mental or physical disabilities struggle to find employment. With five people for every vacancy in the UK, it is difficult to see many firms making the effort to employ these workers. Remploy certainly was not perfect, but its closure -- with no clear replacement -- is yet another step in the wrong direction.