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13 Jun 2007 : Column 295WH—continued

Secondly, it is claimed that the first draft of the of the Government’s dossier was produced not by intelligence officers in the Joint Intelligence Committee but by press officers. That is essentially what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and it is simply not true. As I have said, John Scarlett and the Joint Intelligence Committee were commissioned by the Prime Minister to produce the Government dossier and they led throughout in drafting and finalising it. What
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Mr. Williams did, on his own initiative, immediately after hearing the Prime Minister call for such a document in a speech made on 3 September, was to produce a version of his own over the weekend of 6 and 7 September. By the time that Mr. Williams produced it, it was already redundant, because Sir John Scarlett had in the meantime been asked by the Prime Minister to produce a dossier. That is what he set about doing. As I said earlier, John Scarlett and the JIC produced what became the Government dossier. It was not based on the Williams draft. Again, as I said earlier, I can also categorically assure the House that Williams made no reference in his draft to the issue of WMD being deployed within 45 minutes.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that there is no evidence that the document was provided to Lord Hutton’s inquiry. As I told the House on 1 May, Lord Hutton had access to all documents that he wished to see, including the Williams draft. That document was provided to Lord Hutton’s team on 12 September 2003. It did not appear among the documents that Lord Hutton chose to make public on the inquiry’s website, but that was Lord Hutton’s decision. Next, the Government are asked why, if they have nothing to hide, they should refuse to release the draft in response to a freedom of information request. That is a very fair question, and it is currently the subject of an appeal to the information tribunal over the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the document should be released. I am therefore somewhat constrained in what I can say.

I will, however, say that an important principle at stake: it is vital that we provide thinking space for officials and others who routinely draft policy documents. They should not feel constrained in presenting new or challenging ideas because they fear that they will be made public. That is specifically recognised in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I can understand that the hon. Gentleman would press hard on the question, which is at the heart of his case. However, when I intervened on him he said that the document was of such importance that it should be published, which implies that judgments must be made about what things it is important, very important or vital to release. He is making that judgment without having seen the document. This is a matter that has never been easy for any Government. It is very difficult to decide whether the release of a document may in the future prevent the radical thinking that is sometimes needed to take policy forward.

Mr. Baron: I thank the Minister for giving way with such a short time available. The whole point about the document—and others now acknowledge this—is that it was the first full draft of the dossier. We must not lose sight of that. That indicates its importance, and that is why it should be made public, as the Information Commissioner believes.

Dr. Howells: No. This is the heart of the problem. The first full draft—

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Remploy Factory Closures

2.30 pm

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): I welcome the chance to have this debate on a very important matter under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. It is the first time that I have had such an opportunity and I am sure that it is the start of a long relationship.

This is our first good opportunity to catch up and have a discussion with the Minister since Remploy’s announcement and the Secretary of State’s statement on 22 May. I missed the statement because I was in Washington with the Treasury Committee, but a fair number of hon. Members participated in the proceedings. The seriousness of the statement and the announcement was demonstrated to everyone. A description of the announcement as devastating to the people involved would be universally accepted as accurate. On the day, the closures were shamefully applauded by a handful of mainly Government-financed organisations, but for the people affected by the decisions, the announcement was traumatic, although it represented the end of a long period of uncertainty and trauma for many of the people in the factories.

The announcement means that 43 factories will close. Some 32 of the closures are straightforward, whereas 11 involve mergers. Having read the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, I have the suspicion that more closures are to come, because the figures demonstrated that a number of factories—the number was in double figures—would close before 2009. Unless the Minister is able to indicate otherwise, it sadly appears that the ground is being prepared for closing a further group of factories, give that the accountants’ figures demonstrate the case for that.

Some 2,500 people are affected by this situation and by redundancies, voluntary redundancies, early retirement, and forced—perhaps I should say agreed—employment moves, whereby people are moved out of the factories and into mainstream employment. I do not argue that that is being done with good financial support and pension arrangements in place, but it remains the case that the situation faced by a number of the people involved is not one that they would have chosen.

All this is happening to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Those with learning difficulties and mental health problems are among the most prominent of the casualties. People in the factories are often working for the first time in their lives. They are finding self-respect, self-confidence, friendship, dignity and focus in their lives, but they face uncertainty. I genuinely fear that people with the most complex cases will return to their former living in four walls, where they have no friends, no communication, nowhere to go, no one to speak to, no one to care, and no one to share experiences with.

I understand that those who move into mainstream employment are promised support. My next point is not a dig at the Minister, or the Department for Work and Pensions, but an empirical observation based on the support that was promised to youngsters in special schools. Such people are probably a younger version of the people whom I was just discussing. The minute the
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youngster moved out of a special school or a school was closed, the support generally disappeared. The speed with which that happened to youngsters in the mainstream was frightening and totally unacceptable. I believe that Ronald Reagan said that the worst words he ever heard were a Government official saying, “I have come to help you.” Therefore, when any Government promise support, one should always bank the cheque as quickly as possible, because it is often not long lasting.

Given all that, we are working on the basis that the unions and staff are taking steps to ratify industrial action. I hope that such action will not be necessary because I take it as read, with a qualification that I shall discuss later, that there will be dialogue on these matters. The Secretary of State has promised as much, and I am sure that the Minister will do so again now. Having said that, I fear that the consultation could be a section 90 consultation—I think that that is the term used. Such a situation occurs when a factory is been closed due to redundancy and consultation is confined to redundancy terms and the like, instead of being a real dialogue among the employees, the relevant Department and concerned Members to find out whether there is a different way forward. If the dialogue is about only how we place these individuals, or if it is about how to finesse the closure of 43 factories, I will find it unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will indicate that such a situation will not occur.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): On the question of consultation, I recently visited Hillington, which is the site of the proposed closure in my constituency, and spoke to the workers. There were mixed feelings, because people were up for change, but some were concerned about their futures and the long-term future of Remploy. During the consultation process, will the Minister give thought to protecting those workers, who are providing work for the Ministry of Defence under article 19 of the relevant EU directive, so that they can get the same protection from foreign tenders that shipyards get when they provide MOD equipment?

Mr. Mudie: I shall be genuinely straightforward with my hon. Friend by saying that while I understand the point about protection and support, I would prefer such things to be at the bottom of the agenda. I shall give some indication of how the process should go. I do not subscribe to the idea that these sheltered workshops are old-fashioned and should be done away with. I agree that they are 60 years old, that they operate in a certain way and that there should be changes, but I do not accept the Remploy board’s starting point that as the decision has been taken to close these factories, we should confine ourselves only to protecting the people in them.

We are fighting for not only the 2,500 individuals in these factories—they are the lucky ones because they are in the factories—but the hundreds of thousands of people who are in the community and desperately need such places. The people in the factories will not thank me for saying this, but if these places are closed, they will be the luckier of the two groups because they will have some protection and support and will be moved
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into a mainstream job. What will happen to the people in the community who want and desperately need a place? The starting point for all in the Chamber should be not the status quo, but the fact that these factories have a place, a function and a purpose, and that there is a desperate need for them.

I move on to my conspiracy theory. There is no secret about why the Remploy board is suggesting these drastic steps. While I say the Remploy board, I certainly mean Remploy senior management. If it is necessary to move people on, there is an argument for moving the management because a lot of the factories’ problems stem from its lack of dynamism, purpose and sympathy. The Remploy board seems to be backing that up. I think that such people have a gleam in their eye about a different lifestyle and a different and perhaps easier job. They want to move from running factories, where they must fight for work, run the factory and do all the rest—it must be murder on their salaries—to running a nice employment agency.

Remploy has set up an employment agency, Interwork. It argues that it costs only £3,000 to place somebody in work through the agency, while the average price of somebody working in a factory is £20,000. Remploy is also saying that it can employ more people through the agency than in factories. The fact that they are not the same people does not seem to cross anyone’s mind as long as there are boxes to tick and the numbers come through. The most desperate, needy and complex cases might disappear into the community to be ignored—they will have no voice—but the workers in the agency will have a nice life just ticking boxes.

Without being mischievous, I wonder—[Interruption.]The Minister shakes her head. That has been the story of this Minister nearly all our lives—she says no before I have even asked a question. It is worth questioning as part of the wider picture why on earth Remploy has set up an agency, given that that seems strange. Remploy is an agency within the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government are proud of Jobcentre Plus and we have put out press releases saying what a great job it does on the new deal for the disabled. We tell the disabled and anybody who cares to listen that if they just go into Jobcentre Plus, whatever their state of employment, they will be treated sensitively and appropriately and helped into employment, so why is Remploy setting itself up in the same Department? Something is not working. If Jobcentre Plus were working, we would not need Remploy’s agency, and if it were not for that agency, the board would not be so anxious to take money from the factories and to use it to expand Interwork agencies throughout the country.

I have two low-level questions. Why is Interwork—at least in Leeds—not proactive at the moment in Remploy factories to move employees into mainstream employment? The two bodies are in the same Department; they are the same agency. They are supposed to be helping those customers. One would think that the first place an Interwork agency called would be its local Remploy factory. It would have the closest relationship with the workers and know them all by name. It would know where they could work and where they wanted to work, and could go out to find them that work. I find it strange that Interwork seems
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to be a separate employment agency for the broader disabled population that is in competition with DWP’s Jobcentre Plus.

Remploy’s cover is that the cuts and redirected money are a response to the Government’s wish that there should be no blank cheque. That is a fair enough point. At the moment, £550 million goes into Remploy. The Government have said that Remploy must stay in that envelope for five years and it is struggling to comply. There must also be value for money. I mentioned that Remploy says that it costs £3,000 to put people into work through Interwork and £20,000 to put them in a factory. Certainly, when we deal with public money, we should always look for value for money. I accept that there will be a greater throughput of employees into mainstream employment, but the point is worth making again that I have seen the same thing operating with the new deal in my constituency. I wonder whether you, Mr. Caton, or my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) have also seen that.

When we introduced the new deal in 1997, it worked a treat. Unemployment halved in my constituency during the first four years, but it has stayed the same—or, if anything, increased slightly—for the past six. There is a straightforward explanation for that. The first four years of the new deal—this is not to be quoted to the Chancellor in any circumstances; I make the point in the privacy of the Chamber—got the easy ones. It addressed the people who had been in work yet Thatcher had thrown out of work. They had worked, they knew the discipline of work and they wanted to work. When the new deal came along, they were whisked off the unemployment register. That was wonderful, but once they were off—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) nodding in agreement—then came to the more difficult and complex cases.

I can only speak personally—perhaps my constituency is entirely different from other places—but there has been a total lack of success in getting such complex cases into work. I fear that if we allow such cases in the Remploy factories to disappear into the community, Interwork will still get its throughput and the Minister will come to the Dispatch Box and say, “This was all right. Look how many more disabled people are in work.” However, this is about the layers of disabled people.

Some 80 per cent. of able-bodied people and 50 per cent. of disabled people are in employment, but among those with learning difficulties and mental health problems, the figure is 20 per cent. When drilling for employment oil, there is not much left after the 80 per cent., so the Government have come to the disabled, such as people with an arm off, a leg off, or asthma, as I see in one of the Government’s publications. Fine. That is wonderful work, but the complex cases are the real issue and the reason why I am participating in this debate. They are in the greatest majority now. They are in the community—we Members know them—and they are largely ignored, or put up with. They are sad people in the community who need help and focus in their lives. There will be no interest in those cases because they are not cases that one can tick a box for and get a reward. They are long, hard work. If we close the factories, they will disappear from view.

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Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Is it not the hon. Gentleman’s experience that local jobcentres, reduced as they are in both number and scope, have increasing difficulty providing the support and guidance needed by the very group to whom he refers?

Mr. Mudie: I totally agree. I recently met Ian Hunter, the regional manager of my jobcentre. I can tell the Minister that he is excellent, but she should leave him in Yorkshire. I have the names of five constituents whom I have encountered in one way or another and are all unemployed. Some are the wrong colour and so, despite having degrees, they are, incredibly, unemployed. Others have mild special needs or learning difficulties. I was at a loss to understand that, and thought that I should ask the manager to account for it. I am sending him the five names because I do not know why Jobcentre Plus cannot employ those people. There is clearly a problem. I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): My hon. Friend might like to know that my most distinguished predecessor, George Tomlinson, set up Remploy in the first place, just after the war, and I should like him to be remembered today. We are in an era of fairly high employment. Is my hon. Friend as concerned as me that if the economy takes a downturn, those vulnerable people will be the first to suffer?

Mr. Mudie: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I noted that he mentioned his distinguished predecessor during an earlier debate on Remploy, but I am glad that he remembered him during this one, while his work is under attack.

I get a lot of abuse from our senior Members about this, but it is difficult for me as a Labour Member to accept that after 10 years of continuous employment growth, we have still not reached some people in the community. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), I have never found the Conservatives very interested in even thinking about reaching such people. If we do not help them, we will consign them to a lifetime of neglect and a sad existence without the rights and opportunities that we want for everyone.

Remploy might use the cover that it is doing what the Government want, but I hope that it has misread the signals and that there is the political will to find another way of moving towards the Government’s objectives. I cannot challenge those objectives. The Government cannot give blank cheques to anyone and the principle of value for money is fine, but I shall suggest how to get greater throughput with the present system. I hope that the Minister will tell the Remploy board that it has misread the signals and that it is not acting in a good way. This is not positive work, but butchery, and a redistribution of finances that will not help those with the greatest need.

Above all, I am not arguing for the status quo. I accept the Government’s objectives, but while the direction of travel is right, we need a different method of getting there. The unions are not arguing for the status quo, and the answer to anyone who suggests that they are is a resounding no.

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Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I congratulate a fellow former Lawside academy pupil on securing this debate. I still discern the hint of Dundee accent somewhere.

My understanding is that one of the problems encountered by the trade unions when trying to get their argument heard was that they were at cross-purposes with the management. While the trade unions were rightly trying to ensure the future of the factories, the management was simply saying what would be left following the funding of the Interwork model. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why the discussions between the unions and management were not more fruitful and why there was not the opportunity for them to be so?

Mr. Mudie: When I was a young Labour party member growing up in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I had visions of perhaps being the Member of Parliament for that constituency, but I am glad that I moved because the quality of its Member is so great that I could never have matched it. I totally agree with my hon. Friend.

We do not want the status quo. There needs to be a change in the set-up—the operation is demanding change—but we want thoughtful, sensitive action, rather than the butchery suggested by Remploy.

On the financial argument, the trade unions and staff have worked earnestly over the past 18 months—many hon. Members have met them, seen their work and know of the time that they have put in—to agree plans to improve trading and output, and to cut costs. They even employed a firm of accountants to help them to draw up acceptable suggestions to help Remploy’s finances. Their reward was that their suggestions were ignored or scoffed at by senior management.

Why has that happened? The Minister has been genuinely supportive, open-minded and helpful. She gave Remploy a blank sheet of paper and told it to drop its plans and to return with other plans that she would ensure would be considered. However, that attitude did not percolate down to senior management. Perhaps that was because the unions were a little too blunt about the shortcomings of a management that seemed to accept the fall-off of manufacturing in the general economy as a cover for its inability to obtain work for various factories, or perhaps it was because the unions pointed to unnecessary spending by the management on the plant and at a personal level. Perhaps the unions were just too honest and blunt.

I have been in public life as a councillor—I was a council leader—and Member of Parliament for 30 years, but Remploy’s management has never approached me for help with procurement decisions. I wonder whether that is the experience of other hon. Members. Remploy has never asked me to lobby or speak to anyone. It would have been entirely reasonable for it to do so, but it has never approached me in 30 years, so I wonder how dynamic its management is and how interested it is in finding work for the people in its factories. Why are the unions being treated in such a shabby fashion when they are trying to be as constructive as possible about the agency’s financial problems?

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