The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) on his good fortune in securing an Adjournment debate on this important matter, which is understandably causing considerable concern in his constituency.
People with severe disabilities have a real contribution to make to the economic life of this country and for over 40 years Remploy has been playing a major role in making that possible. For people with severe disabilities, the chance of employment--whether in a Remploy factory, on a sheltered placement or in some other form of provision--means independence, self-esteem and social contact, and it represents an important step towards integration into the life of the community. For many it means the chance, perhaps for the first time, to be appreciated and rewarded for their abilities rather than judged on their disabilities.
The creation of Remploy under the Disabled Persons Employment Act 1944 stemmed from the belief that disabled people--even those with severe disabilities--could, given the right support and opportunity, make a worth while contribution to the wealth of the nation. Since it opened its first factory at Bridgend, south Wales, in April 1946, the company has expanded its commercial operations throughout Great Britain. In each of its 94 factories it seeks to provide employment in a normal commercial environment for people with severe disabilities of all ages and covering the widest possible range of disabilities. It is involved in many different businesses and trades, working to the highest standards for many of Britain's leading companies in such diverse areas as wood and metal furniture, surgical aids and appliances, clothing for leading high street store groups and other purchasers of quality goods, food processing, horticulture and an impressive range of packaging and assembly work. The company has always sought to adopt a flexible approach to the employment of people with disabilities, which has in recent times taken it into new manufacturing and service areas.
Since its formation in 1946, Remploy has steadily increased the number of jobs that it provides for disabled people, with the considerable financial support which my Department has made available. From a total of around 6,000 in the mid-1950s, the company is now providing jobs for around 9,000 people with severe disabilities. In addition, it also employs some 2,000 able-bodied workers.
In plans agreed with my Department, Remploy has, through sound commercial practice in recent years, increased its sales from £62.7 million in 1984-85 to £99.7 million last year--a 59 per cent. sales growth. As a result,
Column 1236the level of Government subsidy, expressed as a proportion of the company's disabled employment costs, has fallen, as the hon. Gentleman said, from 109 per cent. in 1984-85 to 93 per cent. in 1988-89. That is a considerable and commendable achievement, and the more so for being undertaken in quite difficult trading conditions. Of the Government's total spending of £92.3 million on the sheltered employment programme in 1988-89, the contribution for Remploy amounted to £62.7 million. The programme itself is currently supporting jobs for some 19,500 people with severe disabilities, and is set to expand further this year with the continued growth in sheltered placements.
The substantial growth in sales to which I have referred has not been achieved by good management alone. Equally important has been the efforts made by the disabled labour force to help bring that about.
I am very happy to have this opportunity to congratulate all employees at Remploy on their efforts in recent years and to pay tribute to the flexibility and adaptability that they have shown. Remploy is the major provider of jobs within the sheltered employment programme and operates as any other commercial undertaking in a fiercely competitive environment. It has a board of directors, appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, with substantial commercial and industrial experience to manage its day-to-day affairs in a normal commercial way. However, in addition to its normal commercial responsibilities, the board has to ensure that its decision-making takes proper account of the best interests of the company's disabled work force.
To ensure that it can make the fullest contribution to providing employment for people with severe disabilities, it is important that the company should also continually seek to improve productive efficiency in its factory network and to find opportunities to reduce its costs. Its success in the application of its commercial skills in this and other ways is important to the employment prospects of its disabled work force as a whole. While the company continues to receive substantial financial support from Government in recognition of the fact that the output of the people with severe disabilities whom it employs is limited by their disabilities-- it is right that that support should continue--the financial resource is not without limit. The company must at all times, therefore, use its commercial judgment in making decisions affecting its factory network. The present network of 94 Remploy factories reflects essentially the needs and priorities of the past 40 years rather than the demands of the late 1980s. That is also true of the geographical spread of sheltered workshops run by local authorities and voluntary bodies. What we have overall is an unevenness in the distribution of employment provision for people with severe disabilities. Some areas have little or no provision ; others have concentrations--often of competing provision of similar kinds. In taking decisions today affecting individual factories, Remploy has to take account of its inheritance of a framework of 94 factories and that will, of necessity, affect its freedom of action.
In a wider context, the distribution of sheltered employment provision is an issue which my Department has been addressing. Primarily through the creation of more cost-effective and socially progressive sheltered placements, we are seeking to produce a more equitable
Column 1237geographical distribution of resource, although this will take some time to achieve. The sheltered placement scheme, which allows people with severe disabilities to work alongside able -bodied colleagues in a wide variety of jobs and locations, has widened the employment choices for this client group and is currently supporting more than 5,000 jobs throughout the country.
As we look closely at what our sheltered employment programme has offered over the years, and can offer in the future, we need to draw on the best to provide the most appropriate support for as many individuals as possible within the resources that can be made available for all those with disabilities--whether severe or not--who require some assistance in finding and retaining employment. I know that the hon. Gentleman is genuinely and primarily concerned about developments in his constituency, but I hope that he will find these more general observations on the sheltered employment programme and the role played in it by Remploy helpful in putting into context the action that the company is planning to take in respect of its factory at Rutherglen, which is the subject of this debate.
I am sure that there is no dispute over the fact that it is necessary to close the Rutherglen factory on its present site because of the severe structural faults that have been evident for some time. I know that the company has considered fully all options available to it, including the possibility of building a replacement factory at Rutherglen, but on a different site.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether he can see the surveyor's report on the Rutherglen factory and other papers prepared for the Remploy board. As I have explained, Remploy operates as a normal commercial undertaking in its business operations, and the material that he has requested is regarded as commercial in confidence. It is for that reason that I cannot agree to ask the company to release the documents that he has requested. I am satisfied, however, that the company has acted properly in this matter in informing the work force of its decision and in seeking to do everything possible to protect the jobs of the disabled work force.
Clydebank is a modern Remploy factory, also in the textile sewing division, and it is large enough to accommodate the combined work force. The decision to transfer the disabled work force from Rutherglen to Clydebank will result in the better use of resources, increased efficiency and reduced costs and is, in the judgment of the Remploy board, the best way of protecting the jobs of the 83 people with severe disabilities currently employed there. To safeguard the jobs of those workers, the board has approved a capital investment programme to improve still further the facilities at the Clydebank factory. These are questions on which it is entirely proper for the board to reach decisions in the light of the information available to it. I am satisfied that the company has taken its decision with the longer-term interests of its disabled employees at Rutherglen uppermost in mind and with due regard to the commercial realities. Nevertheless, I can well understand that those workers in Rutherglen who will need to travel the extra eight miles or so to the Clydebank factory each day would prefer a solution that did not involve this additional journey. For some of the physically disabled in particular, I appreciate that this may be more inconvenient and I regret very much any additional difficulties that this may pose. I have been
Column 1238very glad to hear, therefore, that the company will be doing everything possible to minimise the difficulties. Remploy has a good reputation for caring and its area personnel manager is in the process of seeing every employee individually to resolve any personal problems.
It is not always possible, of course, for employees to have their place of work right on their doorstep, and I understand from Remploy that on average the workers at their 94 factories throughout the country tend to travel some three to five miles to work, with some travelling as much as 10 miles. I acknowledge, however, that that will be of little consolation to those Rutherglen workers who will be faced with a longer and more difficult journey to work than perhaps they currently have.
I am pleased to hear that the company will provide special transport to Clydebank for those who need it, and will fully reimburse any additional travel costs incurred by disabled employees. If any employees in Rutherglen find it more convenient to move to one of the other nearby Remploy factories rather than Clydebank, the company will be prepared to consider this. By dealing with problems on an individual basis in this way, the company hopes to minimise the inconvenience to its disabled work force.
This is not, of course, the first occasion when Remploy has merged adjacent factories. Last year the company successfully merged three factories in Wales into a new factory to provide a more modern environment with improved working conditions. The majority of the workers involved came from a factory some nine miles from the new factory, and the company was able to carry out the merger without making any of the 75 severely disabled workers concerned redundant. The company is seeking to take all necessary steps to safeguard the jobs of the disabled work force at Rutherglen and so provide continuity of employment for them.
I am sure that the hon. Member is also concerned about the future employment prospects of the 16 fit employees working at Rutherglen alongside their disabled colleagues. I hope that they, too, are successful in finding suitable alternative employment as soon as possible. The hon. Member will no doubt appreciate why the company must direct its efforts primarily to safeguarding the employment of those workers at Rutherglen with severe disabilities. The local staff from my Department will, of course, be pleased to assist the displaced workers in every way possible with any future employment or training needs that they might have.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter and for giving me the opportunity of setting out the background. Naturally I share his concern about any inconvenience which the proposals will cause. I hope, however, that he will be reassured by the caring and responsible way in which Remploy is dealing with the effects that the change will have on the individual disabled workers at Rutherglen, as it seeks to protect their continuity of employment. I hope that I have made it clear that the board reached its decision on the basis of the commercial and technical information available to it and in a way that is consistent with its responsibilities to ensure that it can support the maximum number of jobs for people with severe disabilities.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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