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19 July 2006 : Column 128WH—continued

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I am delighted to respond to the debate and to agree with the final comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan). Today’s report and my statement are exactly about keeping Remploy alive and working. However, what sort of Remploy do we want to deliver for the significant funding that we put in?

I do not want to focus too much on funding, because we can get tied up with figures, but I shall return to it. We must consider serious issues of comparison. I want to draw my colleagues’ attention to the comparison between Remploy’s funding and the number of disabled people it supports. The issue is not about the funding that we put in. If substantial numbers of disabled people went through Remploy, I would be more than comfortable with any figures presented to me; but in reality, although tens of thousands of disabled people work throughout Britain in sheltered factories run by Remploy and local authority factory networks such as those in which my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) organised when he was a GMB officer, tens of thousands of disabled people also work in mainstream or supported employment.

One third of our total support for disabled employment programmes goes into Remploy to support 9,000 people. Colleagues should consider the report in-depth, and I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that the figure of more than £48,000 has been authenticated: some jobs in Remploy’s toiletries division are subsidised to the tune of £48,000 a year.

Mrs. Riordan: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. McGuire: No; I want to make progress, because we will have an opportunity outside this forum tomorrow to discuss the figures in detail. If I have the chance, I shall return to my hon. Friend.

In a wider context, the debate offers us a valuable opportunity to consider the background to the Remploy review. It is important to state early on that no decisions have been made about Remploy’s development. We have a consultant’s report, commissioned by the Secretary of State and me, to provide us with independent advice. It is the advice neither of management nor trade unions; it is independent advice. Of course, the authors consulted management, the Remploy board and extensively with the trade unions, because that was part of their remit.

Mrs. Riordan: The figure £49,000 that is quoted includes a set-up cost for the business over one year.

Mrs. McGuire: PricewaterhouseCoopers presented us with the figure of £49,000, and it extracts some central management costs. It is at the top end of a range between £7,000 and £48,000. The majority of jobs in Remploy are supported to the tune of £23,000.
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May I deal with the policy, however? It is important and it may address some of my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Mr. Stephen Byers (North Tyneside) (Lab): My intervention is about the policy implications of the report and today’s announcement. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that about 3,000 people in the north-east of England signed a petition opposing any factory closures, so they will welcome today’s announcement. Will she confirm that additional funding is being made available this year to ensure no factory closures? Will she further confirm that we have five years to discuss the modernisation process, that there will be full consultation with the trade unions, and that Members will be fully informed, and that this period of change can be used to ensure that Remploy is fit for the 21st century and is able to deliver for those who need support, ensuring that they can compete in a different world?

Mrs. McGuire: I am delighted to agree with my right hon. Friend. To highlight the consultation process, I and my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, both official and political, have tried to keep Members advised of the process.

Let me be frank: it is not easy for any of us. I am delighted to confirm that we are to fund a significant deficit, over and above the current grant of £111 million, to ensure that we can go to the end of the year and allow space for the trade unions, management and the board to consider how to develop Remploy so that it can support more disabled people. I emphasise again that it is not about cutting back on Remploy’s budget; it is about increasing its budget this year and unlocking a modernisation fund for the next five years. It is certainly not about undermining the aspirations and ambitions of disabled people—either those currently employed by Remploy or those that I want Remploy to help over the next 60 years.

We must consider the matter in context. I shall reflect for a couple of minutes on what has been said of people’s misconceptions about disabled people. I could not agree more. People have far too many misconceptions. We often look at disabled people for what they cannot do rather than what they can do.

One of the underpinning principles of our disability discrimination legislation is that it effectively forces society to consider what disabled people can do. Employers have to make reasonable adjustments if a disabled person can do the job in a mainstream situation. That is an enormous advance over 1945, and I am sure that it is welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax. The disabled people that I meet applaud the Government for funding the move into employment through the supported network system, and the reasonable adjustments make mainstream employment a far easier option than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She knows that I have a special in the subject, in that one of my predecessors, George Tomlinson, launched Remploy in 1943 as a result of the Tomlinson report. Does my hon. Friend
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recognise disabled people’s fear of unemployment, despite the fact that it is not as difficult to get jobs today as it was when 3 million people were unemployed?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to George Tomlinson. Indeed, he has just written an erudite essay on him. One of the founding principles of Remploy was to establish a rehabilitation vehicle—a factory system—for disabled ex-servicemen coming back from the second world war. It was intended as a short-term move for rehabilitation and it was almost entirely ex-servicemen who used it at first; it allowed them to build up the skills and capacity necessary to move back into employment. I fully appreciate what my hon. Friend says about the distress and anguish that can be caused. That is why I hope that we can have a serious consideration of the report.

The report gave a set of scenarios. At one end they were unacceptable about the sustainability of Remploy Ltd, and at the other end they were unacceptable because of the closure of factory network.

Mr. McGovern rose—

Mr. Hancock rose—

Mrs. McGuire: I shall give way first to my hon. Friend and then to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McGovern: I have read the report, and it seems that scenario 4 suggests the removal of Remploy factories except for the textile side of the business. On page 59, it states that

At the risk of sounding parochial, would my hon. Friend agree that that must mean that the long-term future of the Dundee factory should be maintained?

Mr. Hancock: Does the Minister agree that it does not help to keep mentioning things such as “£48,000 for one employee” as if the mess was the responsibility of the disabled person who was working there? It was the inadequate senior management structures at Remploy that caused the problems, and we should avoid that sort of statement.

Mrs. McGuire: I said that I did not want to focus on the figures, but I would have been abrogating my responsibility as a Minister if I had not told Members the range of subsidies for some the jobs. However, that is not the essential criterion.

I assure the House that what I have presented to the House is a five-year opportunity to modernise Remploy. I see among my hon. Friends, particular colleagues who have negotiated their way through various situations in the industrial world, in the private and the public sectors. We are giving a £500 million financial envelope, plus an additional amount to meet the shortfall on this year’s grant—as we have done in previous years. There is also a modernisation fund. The trade unions, management, local communities and disabled people will be able to say what they want. Hon. Members must accept that there is a debate out there. Many disabled people want to work in the
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mainstream. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, and as we say in the statement, some disabled people want to work in a more supported or sheltered way.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I am the chair of the Friends of Remploy. I welcome the meeting that the Minister has called tomorrow morning, when we can explore such matters further. Could I press her about having an early meeting with the trade unions, as I know that they want to meet her?

Mrs. McGuire: I have had constant discussions with trade union representatives throughout the process. As late as last night, I had further discussions with them so that they were fully aware of the sort of direction that is being taken.

A statement was made earlier today, and an extensive independent report informed that statement. We have not taken any decisions. We are offering Remploy the opportunity to get more disabled people into work, because for many it is the best way out of poverty. I want to see that third of my disabled employment budget helping more disabled people.

I hope that we can engage positively on the modernisation of Remploy. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, I want to ensure not only that she will be able to attend Remploy in all its manifestations—Interwork, managed services and factories—on its 60th birthday, but that her successor a few years down the line will be invited to attend its 100th birthday.

I know that it is not technically correct to do so, but I commend my statement to the House and I thank hon. Members for the opportunity to discuss the matter today. I hope that we can continue our discussion.

19 July 2006 : Column 132WH

Congestion (A14)

4.30 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting permission for this debate. I welcome the Minister and look forward to his response. I also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). I look forward to helpful interventions.

The A14 is the major road in my constituency. It runs east to west—or west to east, depending on one’s direction of travel—and bisects Kettering. It runs from the junction of the M1 and the M6, through to the east coast. The bit of the A14 that goes rounds Kettering is known to local people as the A1-M1 link because that was its main purpose for the town when it was built. The A14 is of European significance and has both local and national importance.

Of particular concern to residents in Kettering is the fact that 70,000 vehicles a day go past Kettering between junctions 7 and 10. The road is now straining at the limit of its capacity. Something needs to be done urgently; otherwise the A14 and Kettering will grind to a halt. If any of my colleagues want, to make a helpful intervention at this point, it will be most welcome.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, my constituency abuts his. The A14 is the main emergency route for vehicles from Wellingborough to the hospital in Kettering, which is my local hospital. When the A14 gets congested, loss of life can occur, because ambulances cannot get through. I hope that he is aware of that.

Mr. Hollobone: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. Congestion is the main problem on the A14, but occurs not only around Kettering but further along the road, into Cambridgeshire.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): Between Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire, in my constituency, there is already intense congestion. As it happens, this debate comes almost on the ninth anniversary of the first time that I, like my hon. Friend, called for the rebuilding of the A14 in my constituency. In theory, we are three years away from the start of works. I hope that the Minister will be able further to reiterate that that work, which is vital to my constituents, will start not more than three years hence. However, from my hon. Friend’s points of view, rebuilding the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire will further add to the attractiveness of the A14 corridor as a trans-European route, including through his constituency.

Mr. Hollobone: I am most grateful for that helpful intervention. Congestion has to occur on only one part of a major road for the problem to become a real nuisance for anyone who is driving along it. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) also wants to add to this debate.

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Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on introducing it in his usual eloquent style. Does he agree that the key issue for the A14 is that it links significant growth areas, including not only south Cambridgeshire and Stansted, but greater Peterborough and the south midlands growth corridor? As such, it is vital that the Government should consider the A14’s improvement as part of the growth and infrastructure of those key areas.

Mr. Hollobone: My hon. Friend is spot on, and that is the main focus of the debate. We were promised joined-up government in 1997, but I am afraid that the Department for Transport needs to have a closer dialogue—and fairly soon—with both the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Highways Agency if its growth agenda in the part of the world that my hon. Friend and I represent is not to stall.

Another problem is that when the A14 is congested and does not work properly, the traffic spills over into Kettering, adding to the already gridlocked situation in the town and affecting other villages in my constituency, such as Welford, which becomes clogged up with lorry traffic.

The problem with the A14 is bad enough, but it will be added to by the huge number of houses that the Government are imposing on Kettering and the surrounding area. The figures are staggering: in the next 15 years the Government want 52,100 new houses to be built in north Northamptonshire. I asked a parliamentary question the other day about the Department for Transport’s working assumption of the number of car journeys a year generated by each new house built. The answer comes to 1.29 car journeys a day. My maths is not great, but 52,100 new houses in north Northamptonshire will mean 468,900 extra car journeys a week—almost half a million more. Because the A14 is used as a bypass round Kettering, it simply will not be able to cope. That is why the Department for Transport, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Highways Agency need to come up with a proposal for an eastern bypass for Kettering, to relieve the town not only of the traffic that it already experiences, but of the huge growth in traffic that it will experience in the next 15 years.

The problem in Kettering is compounded by the old road network. My local newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, recently ran a series of stories about the traffic situation in the town, including the junction under the railway bridge, which is described as

That junction is usually bad, but when the A14 is clogged up, it is an absolute nightmare. I say in all frankness to the Government, as I have done on many occasions before, that their growth area agenda for Kettering will not work unless they come up with some sensible road infrastructure proposals for Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough.

I am not the only one to say that, because the Highways Agency says the same itself. It has already imposed a series of article 14 directions preventing development in Corby, not unrelated to the A14. I also have documentary evidence that says that the Highways Agency cannot approve planning
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applications for developments in and around Kettering unless a solution to the problem of the A14 is found. On the one hand, the Department for Communities and Local Government has imposed a statutory obligation on the local authorities to deliver more houses; and on the other hand, an executive agency, the Highways Agency, says that those houses will not be able to proceed unless the road network is sorted out.

The statutory duty is for 52,100 houses in the next 15 years. There are no improvements in line for the A14 round Kettering in the Government’s transport plan until 2017 at the earliest. The situation is the same for other roads that feed into the A14 round Kettering, such as the A43, for which there are no improvements until 2021. Alarm bells are ringing in Kettering, because local people rightly fear that we are going to have the new houses first and that the road infrastructure—if it comes at all—will only follow them. That is completely unacceptable to my constituents.

One does not have to take my word for it. I have here documentation from the Milton Keynes and South Midlands Inter-Regional Board, chaired by Baroness Andrews, and its meeting on 22 June this year. Highlighted in red, as a top priority, is the lack of capacity on the A14. The document states that the Highways Agency is concerned

So local residents in Kettering are not only worried about the provision of improvements to the A14 in the long term; we now face the threat of junction access control measures on to the A14. If they are introduced, I can tell the Minister that the traffic will back up along the A43, back up into Kettering and back up into Wellingborough and the area will simply grind to a halt. Worryingly, the document goes on to state that there is

I am using this debate to draw the Government’s attention to this very serious problem. The Minister and his colleagues need to get to grips with it, and fast.

Will the Minister confirm that the Highways Agency, North Northants Development Company and Northamptonshire county council are looking at a study into improving the A14, but that the conclusions of that study have been delayed? When is the report likely to be published? When is the Government’s response to that report likely to appear?

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