Supporting people with disabilities gain access to services and employment

In the last few weeks as Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Member for Local Government I’ve been working on issues in relation to improving opportunities for people with disabilities.

Last month I attended a briefing by Action on Hearing Loss Scotland (formerly RNID Scotland), on their campaigning work to improve access to social care services for people with a hearing loss. The meeting was well attended by MSPs and we discussed the extent to which local authorities are crucial in providing services to the increasing number of people who experience hearing loss.

There are basic things that would help such as ensuring operational induction loop systems in every public building so that people are able to take part in events and meetings that the rest of us take for granted.

The increase in the number of people living longer means that there will be more of us who experience hearing loss and there are issues both about enabling people to continue to work and to get proper access to local services to support them in their day to day lives.

At the Scottish Labour Conference in March I was delighted to be asked to chair the RNIB fringe event. The fringe coincided with the launch of RNIB Scotland’s manifesto for the 2012 Scottish local authority elections – Finding a Way Forward. The panel included excellent contributions by Ken Reid (Chair of RNIB), Labour Councillor Gordon Matheson (leader of Glasgow City Council) and John Legg (Director of RNIB Scotland).

The meeting provided an excellent forum for discussion on the importance of local authorities providing vital services for people who are blind or partially sighted. I wholeheartedly agree with RNIB that support services for the blind need to be robustly developed across Scotland and endorsed by all local authorities and the Scottish Government. The manifesto highlights a number of key policy areas, including advancing the development of and access to IT for people who are visually impaired. “Talking Books” are a lifeline for many subscribers and without local authority support a minority of books would be available on this format. Cuts to this service, coupled with the threat of library closures, will have severe consequences for many people.

It is also vital that people have access to the Self Directed Support (SDS) initiative, which allows participants to choose the support services that they buy, rather than this being arranged or provided by a social work department. Giving people that choice will potentially empower them and lead to healthier and more fulfilled lives, as long as they are supported through the process.

The Labour-led Glasgow City Council administration have an excellent track record of supporting employability services and are the first to fund specialist initiatives which aim to reduce unemployment levels of blind and partially sighted people. Glasgow’s Blindcraft and the Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries (RSBI) are both inspirational and leading examples of supported employment services.

The loss of Edinburgh’s Blindcraft last year was a devastating blow to the staff there. Having visited Remploy before Christmas I had been briefed by trade unions supporting staff there about their worries of the direction of the UK Government’s closure agenda. Last week I therefore took the opportunity in a parliamentary debate on the Remploy closures to ask the Minister Fergus Ewing MSP about the positive impact of local authorities using Article 19 and contrasting it with the experience in Edinburgh and the east of Scotland where Blindcraft was lost compared with the experience elsewhere.

He replied saying “…the member has a point. There is patchiness.” Later in his speech he stated that “The sustainable procurement action plan asks all Scottish public bodies to have a strategy for awarding at least one contract to a supported business or factory under the provisions of article 19 of the European public procurement directive.”

Although the Minister did not agree with my colleague Jenny Marra when she asked if it would be appropriate to require SNP local authorities to implement the advice that they should award at least one contract to a supported business or factory he did suggest that there was more that the Scottish Government could do.

Firstly he highlighted the creation of a framework reserved contract for supported businesses and factories which could be used by the entire Scottish public sector and which will include contracts for furniture, document management and textiles, including uniforms. In addition he suggested that the forthcoming sustainable procurement bill might be a vehicle for assisting supported businesses in Scotland.

I will continue to lobby for action to make the most of the services offered by supported businesses. In the last year I’ve met staff from both Blindcraft and Remploy in Edinburgh who were of the view that they would find it impossible to get the kind of work that they had should their company be closed.

Although I am a great supporter of the social enterprise model, the shift to that structure would still need government intervention of one sort of another to bring it about and in the end that support was not forthcoming in the case of Blindcraft. The harsh reality is that people who are visually impaired deal with significant barriers. That is why it is vital that key services are supported and that local authorities make the most of the opportunities under Section 19 legislation to procure services which will make a real and positive impact on people’s lives by helping to sustain the supported business model.