Speech on Supported Workplaces 28th. January 2010

I add my congratulations to Richard Baker. I also particularly congratulate the employees of sheltered workplaces and Community union representatives who are in the public gallery on forcing the issue on to the political agenda, confronting us as politicians and ensuring that action has been taken. They are to be commended for that tireless work, from which many people will benefit.

A danger is that such debates can sometimes be soft and involve kind words and expressions of concern—having heard Maureen Watt's speech, I exclude her from that.

In fact, the debate is tough and we should be obliged to confront it, because it is about real people and real discrimination. Government at every level is obliged to find solutions to that.

Unemployment levels among people with disabilities are a scandal. We are talking not about
doing people a favour but about meeting an obligation and entitling people to achieve their potential. We need to shift from simply expressing concern about the position in which people find themselves to finding ways of delivering. Maureen Watt gave us a load of explanations for why things could not be done. We should listen to people who have solutions, capacity and talents but who have been denied opportunities.

Sometimes, a false debate takes place about whether we are in favour of sheltered, supported workplaces or mainstreaming access to employment. Given the unemployment levels among people who are disabled, I understand why anxiety is felt about a shift to mainstreaming, because mainstream employers have fallen down on the matter, as has the public sector. The notion is also held that we can have only supported workplaces or mainstream employment, but it is possible to move from a supported workplace into a mainstream workplace—that is a huge opportunity for people.

I ask the Scottish Government to recognise in its mainstream thinking what it says about its obligation to people with disabilities. What does it say in its skills strategy? Such documents do not happen by accident. I am concerned that Scottish Enterprise as now recast has no responsibility for people and place. The consequence of that for disadvantaged groups and communities is evident, but that also applies to people with disabilities. Such strategies will not operate simply through the market; political will is required at every level.

The Government's priority is the economy. We must show where people's needs and entitlements are placed in the economic strategy. Equality must inform every Government priority. That is why I and others maintain the critical importance of having a champion for disabled workers at the table when an employment or economic strategy is discussed.

I congratulate Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries in my city and City Building on embracing the notion of using the European legislation. RSBI has done critical groundbreaking work with young disabled people. It runs a yearly school vocational programme to provide more than 30 schoolchildren with special learning needs half a day's training per week as part of their curriculum. At the end of the year's training, they receive a Scottish vocational qualification. We cannot measure the confidence that that gives those young people and the opportunity for them to be role models for other people with disabilities in the issues that they face.

We are examining the challenge to us from the people in the gallery and in our communities about how we ensure not just value for money but value for people.

I urge the minister to take that challenge in his response.