Disabled threaten action over loss of factory jobs

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS OF disabled people are threatening industrial action early next year over the Government's decision to cut subsidies for factories specially set up to employ them.

More than 6,500 workers at Remploy, the company founded to provide work for disabled veterans after the Second World War, are prepared to take to the streets in protest against a ministers' decision to freeze funds.

The factories receive more than pounds 90m in subsidies every year but unions say a lack of extra funding since 1995 amounted to a 10 per cent budget cut that threatens more job losses and closure of factories.

"This will be unprecedented, there has never been an industrial action by disabled people like this before," said a GMB spokesman. "These `factories for war heroes' were set up by a Labour government but to our members it is a Labour government that is betraying them by threatening job losses and cutting back on subsidies."A decision on balloting will be made at a meeting in January.

Seven factories face closure but ministers privately admit they would like to shut all 87 in the long-term because Remploy has lost many high- profile contracts, including with Marks & Spencer, in the past year. They also believe the New Deal for the disabled and other measures to help disabled people into work will mean they will not be limited to "segregated, ghetto-like " work- places.

"Of course, we are concerned that disabled people could lose their jobs but these factories swallow huge subsidies and do not produce very much in return," said a ministerial source. "We would rather use these funds to provide disabled people with more attractive alternative employment." Remploy has previously insisted that it was determined to "upgrade" its enterprises in the same way as any commercial organisation. In return for a rise in subsidies, the company has offered to increase the number of disabled workers going into mainstream jobs from 4,150 now to 5,258 in 2002.

But David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Employment, and Margaret Hodge, the minister for the disabled, have radical proposals introducing so- called "entrepreneurial brokers" who would be contracted from the private sector to find work for disabled people.

Ministers believe 1.1 million people out of the 2.6 million disabled in Britain want to work and this particular measure would help 200,000 more into jobs, including those who would lose their jobs at Remploy

The "entrepreneurial brokers" would help disabled people to find a jobs that match their ability. Disabled people would be "coached" once they started their jobs and a special fund would help those with most difficulties. "The scheme would involve innovation and risk-taking," another source added. "We have got to realise that we will get things wrong."

Under a related scheme, newly disabled people would be helped to find alternative work while they are still on their sickness leave. People on statutory sickness leave for six weeks would see a specially designated "job retention" officer in their GP practice who would try to find them suitable work.

Ministers believe many claimants are written off as unable to work because they do not even have to see their GP until they want to get transferred to invalidity benefit after six months of sickness leave.

Ministers hope the measure could save up to pounds 10bn in benefits if they meet their target of getting 200,000 potential claimants back into work early.

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