On Friday I was in Edinburgh’s Southside to attend an event marking the closure of the Engine Shed.
It was a bittersweet occasion – a chance to celebrate the organisation’s many achievements with those who have been involved over the years, and to reflect on the opportunity now lost to young people with learning disabilities.
For 25 years, the Engine Shed provided work-based training placements for young adults with learning disabilities, helping them develop the skills and confidence to move into more mainstream supported employment.
In my time as an MSP, I’ve met many trainees and their families who’ve spoken passionately about the difference the organisation has made to their lives.
The closure comes as the Council moves to a new model of support to help disabled people into work. The model focuses on supported employment – where people are placed in mainstream workplaces and provided with additional support. I raised this issue in a Parliamentary debate last year which I followed up with a meeting with SNP Minister Fergus Ewing as the council is following Scottish Government policy.
Unfortunately, despite an intensive period of negotiation, the Engine Shed’s focus on training and development of clients, could not be incorporated into the new model.
As a result of the shift in policy, the Engine Shed was told last year that its funding would not be renewed. Despite raising a significant proportion of its income through its own successful business operations, the Engine Shed was unable to make up the shortfall and closure became the only viable option.
The Engine Shed has provided a bridge towards more traditional supported employment. They helped young people with profound learning disabilities who, at the time they were referred, often lacked the skills and abilities to allow them immediate placement with an employer, irrespective of the support that was offered. I am deeply concerned that without that support these young people will face even more significant barriers to work.
Alongside the loss of Blindcraft and Remploy in recent years, the closure of the Engine Shed leaves a hole in tailored support for disabled people who want to work. It is an issue which requires urgent attention. In Scotland just 46% of working age disabled people are employed, compared with 76% of the general population, and the risks of long-term unemployment are consistently higher.
There are steps we can take. For example, I would like to see the public sector taking a lead through procurement to award contracts to supported businesses.
However, as the case in Edinburgh demonstrates, there is no one size fits all policy. We need to find a way to support innovative approaches like that seen at the Engine Shed for a quarter of a century.
At a packed celebration of supporters, former trainees and families on Friday one of the Engine Shed’s success stories, Sean, spoke passionately – “Keep your heads up high. Make the future your own. The Engine Shed will live on in all of us.”
I wish the staff well as they investigate ways to continue to support disabled young people and ensure that their experience, skills and expertise are not lost to the sector. My hope is that we’ll see the doors of the Engine Shed opened again.