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Unions set for showdown on disability

By Ben Russell

Published 24/09/2007

The Labour leadership was embroiled in an embarrassing conference clash with the unions yesterday over the fate of thousands of disabled workers.

Union leaders threatened to force through a motion demanding that the Government halt the threatened closure of 42 factories, with the loss of more than 2,000 jobs, at Remploy, which offers jobs to disabled workers.

The GMB union said it would press ahead with a debate unless the government-backed firm withdrew a threat of redundancies.

The GMB's contemporary motion to the conference, calling on ministers to divert public sector contracts to the company, topped the ballot for urgent debates among unions and local parties, and is likely to be passed if the union does not back down.

Paul Kenny, the union's general secretary, said: "The GMB delegation meeting today was clear that the union's motion will be put to the vote unless the forms on compulsory redundancies are withdrawn.

"It is not unreasonable for the union to ask what is to happen to the 2,500 workers if the motion is remitted."

The row came as the conference heard protests over rule changes designed to end the annual disputes over contemporary motions, which have been used repeatedly to give the Labour hierarchy a bloody nose on the conference floor.

Delegates are expected to back the changes, under which contemporary motions will be replaced with a new system of referring urgent issues to the party's national policy forum.

Ed Miliband, the Cabinet Office minister, insisted the changes were not intended to neuter the conference. Union leaders have accepted the plans, after a deal to review the reforms in two years' time, meaning they are likely to be backed by the conference when the results of a card vote are published today.

Mr Miliband said: "Too often party democracy starts with a branch passing a resolution to save the world and ends up with them trying to save a sentence in the compositing meeting on Sunday night.

"Under these reforms, the debates at conference will not just take place for four days and then disappear. They will shape the work of our policy-making throughout the year.

"The national policy forum with ministers, trade unions and constituency Labour parties will get down to business and thrash out the tough questions.

"For the first time, the people who moved the motion, delegates at this conference, will be part of the discussions. And it's not about sweeping difficult issues under the carpet because after a year, if conference isn't happy it can send the issue back."

A string of delegates backed the moves, but Michael Meacher, the left-wing former environment minister, attacked the plans. He said: "What is the point of conference if it is merely a talking shop and there is no way we can seriously influence the party leadership and the Government into changing course?"

Janet Kirk, general secretary of the Labour Party disabled members' group, said: "I think this has been rushed through. We haven't been given enough time to consider these things."

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