Deborah Orr: Only the ideologically driven would deny the disabled the right to a sheltered workplace

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The Independent Online

Even as a small child I knew that the local Remploy factory was something of an anomalous place. It looked different to the other local manufacturing businesses, partly because it looked cleaner, and partly because it looked calmer. It looked preternaturally calm, actually. There never seemed to be anyone around and about it at all. When I asked my mother what went on there, she told me it employed disabled people. So I filed it away under: "No concern of mine", and paid it only patronisingly sentimental attention from that day on.

Reasonably enough, disability campaigners hate nothing more than the out-of-sight, out-of-mind ethos that still dominated the sociological agenda back then. This, after all, was the time when no less a liberal figure than Arthur Miller thought nothing of packing his Downs son off to an institution, and never paying him the courtesy of a visit. The children who found themselves on the receiving end of such treatment, even as the rest of society liberalised and celebrated its freedom and diversity, are adults now, and some are in the forefront of the disabled lobby. Denied a mainstream education because their legs didn't work, or removed from home because their parents were told that they wouldn't be able to cope, or channelled into the sort of menial work that was deemed good enough for a diverse and diversely talented group of people for sometimes staggeringly trivial or arbitrary reasons, they no longer acquiesce to being limited, traduced and tucked out of the way. They are angry that they were ever treated in this manner, and they are right to be.

The ascendant politics of most of the big disability charities reflect this anger. They advise that sheltered schools, sheltered workshops and sheltered accommodation are not what people with disabilities want or need. The greatest possible degree of independent living within the mainstream of society is the goal to be strived for, however daunting the obstacles to this may be.

One result of this is that a number of the big disability charities – Scope, Mind, Mencap, Radar, Leonard Cheshire and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People – are quite sanguine about shutting down that particular Remploy factory, in Lanarkshire, along with 41 others.

Remploy is in financial trouble. In 2005-6 its revenue was £165m, and it also received a £119m grant from the Government. It still chalked up a £16m operating loss, and the Government insists that subsidy levels can no longer be expected to increase. In response, Remploy's management suggests that it would be better off directing funding away from propping up unprofitable sheltered work and into supporting the relocation of disabled people into mainstream employment. They argue that it costs £20,000 to employ a person in a Remploy factory for a year, but only a one-off payment of £5,000 to help them get mainstream employment.

Unfortunately for both charities and the Government, their vision of full inclusion is not filtering down to the grassroots in the way they would like it to. The people who work in the factories under threat are not so enthusiastic about the prospect of rushing into the warm embrace of the mainstream labour market. Many of them have rejected the counsel of the charities that exist to lobby for them – including Remploy itself – and have signed up instead to the more robustly conservative representation afforded to them by the GMB.

A number of them travelled from all over the country to protest this week at the Labour conference against plans for Remploy's restructuring. Faced with the unappetising publicity that the enforced redeployment of vulnerable disabled workers might attract, the Government duly put together a deal that offers a little more time to chew over Remploy's undeniable problems.

This is quite a concession, as the Government has so far indicated it is determined to make inroads on the quaint existence of all these state factories, whatever it takes. It has pledged, for example, that up to 2,200 redeployed Remploy workers can expect to have mainstream earnings topped up to the level of their Remploy wages, and to keep pace with pay rises of continuing Remploy workers. Former Remploy workers would also retain their current final-salary, index-linked pensions. They'd be in the mainstream, but on public sector benefits.

The GMB argues, of course, that the real problem is with poor management. It contends particularly that Remploy is the victim of an overly rigorous interpretation of European Union directives that insist public contracts be put out to competitive tender. The rules allow for disabled workers to be derogated out of the directives, but this is not happening. Remploy used to make most of the uniforms for the state sector. Now they are made in China.

Since the furore kicked off, sure enough, a new order worth £150m for army and nurses uniforms has turned up, making something of a hole in financial arguments for the reshaping of the organisation. The GMB warns also that while Remploy's figures for placing workers in the mainstream look impressive, the same "revolving door" problems that can be seen with other workers eased into employment under government schemes, apply here too.

The saddest thing about this practical and ideological muddle is that the 83 factories employ only about 5,000 people. Under other circumstances, it might have been a solution for them to have been run under the auspices of the charitable sector, now that state factories employing anyone is considered too irredeemably socialist. But this is not at the moment the sort of support that the large charities want to offer. On the contrary, some of them are minded to end their own specialist operations, to the disgust of many of their former supporters, who feel that some sheltered provision for disabled children and adults remains entirely necessary.

Notable in Remploy's own plan for survival is that it is the largely abled management whose public sector jobs will be saved. There is something rather creepy about Remploy's enthusiasm for keeping itself going, while hiving off as much of its disabled workforce as it can in the process. Much specialist support for disabled people seeking work, after all, is available already under the Access to Work Scheme, the Job Introduction scheme, with specialist advice available at larger Job Centres.

One has to ask in the end why it is all right for disabled people to have a special government agency seeking employment for them, in these inclusive, mainstream embracing times, but not all right to actually offer a sheltered working environment to those among disabled people who want to work, yet find the challenge of sallying forth into a sometimes hostile, often thoughtless environment, too much of a struggle. Not everyone can be an ideologically driven, trailblazing hero, whether abled or not.