Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Jun 2007 : Column 308WH—continued

13 Jun 2007 : Column 309WH

The third recommendation was that there should be continuing support by way of specialist provision. Remploy, founded by George Tomlinson, the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), was a good example of that. Remploy’s role, along with other organisations, was to bring people into the working environment again, give them support and, if possible, allow that to be a transitional phase in moving towards employment, but if necessary, to give them an environment in which permanent employment would be provided. To be frank, I do not think that things have changed. I have heard about the economy booming; it has for some, but not for others. Employment has risen, but the report that has been published extensively in the press today shows that unemployment has risen too in some areas, and particularly in certain regions. Unemployment overall is not as low as many people think. The experiences of people with disabilities have, tragically, barely changed, despite the Government’s efforts over the past 10 years, for which I commend them. This is a hard nut to crack.

There are some tendencies in the economy that fly in the opposite direction, such as, I am afraid, outsourcing by Government. The example in my area is Ministry of Defence records, where there were 150 people, several of them with disabilities; it was then privatised and relocated off site. Not one person with a disability was redeployed elsewhere, despite all our promises. Another example is private equity operations, which we discussed in Parliament recently. We now have evidence that when private equity companies have taken over companies and shareholdings within them, there have been reduced employment opportunities. The GMB reports that in the case of the Automobile Association people with disabilities have been specifically targeted to get them off the books. The issues are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago, and in some ways more pertinent.

That is why I believe that before we do anything to reduce capacity in this field, we need to be convinced that the jobs are out there and the support mechanisms are in place, and that we are succeeding. I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East in recognising the reality. We shall always have to subsidise the people in question, to enable them to have a decent quality of life. It is not just a matter of employment. As my hon. Friend said, it is a question of pride and respect and being part of overall society. I can understand where the Government are coming from in considering how to modernise provision overall. In areas such as this hard decisions must often be made; that is true in any management change. However, it is necessary to take people along, and we have failed to do that. It is not for want of trying; I am not criticising anyone. Nevertheless, we have failed to take people with us, and we should recognise that. We almost need to start again and to involve people in a wider discussion, particularly at the micro-level—individual factories and communities. The issues seem to have been dealt with at a macro-level, where we know there has been a lack of confidence in the management’s track record for some time. It is a question simply not only of confidence, either, but of the relevant management teams’ objective record of success and failure.

13 Jun 2007 : Column 310WH

I urge the Minister to stand back, have a breathing space and allow us the next six months to bring the unions back in and consult all the relevant organisations again, and see whether we can build up confidence in a shared way forward. I know that that is ambitious and it may not be realistic, but at the moment we cannot continue with horns locked, while people become disillusioned and feel that we are undermining provision rather than supporting it in the long term. I support other hon. Members in urging the Minister to be positive and accept that we need a new route to bring people back together again. A six-month timetable will enable us to return with real solutions to enable us to bring everyone with us as best we can. If that means that additional resources will be needed, this is one area of Government in which I would expect resources to be found.

3.23 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I want to make just four brief points in this last of the Back-Bench contributions to the debate. First, our factory in Bolton went through a lean period when some pretty high class, high priced labels decided to source their quality clothes abroad. The Bolton factory was making some very good, high quality clothes, which were on sale in some very fashionable shops at the time. For a period of some months the factory was without that work. The textile industry was in a slump, so it was decided to completely change the focus, using mainly the same labour force. I have always praised the labour force for doing this. At one time it made clothing, but today it makes boards for electronics, using robotic machinery. It has completely re-equipped the factory and gone in another direction, into electrical production. It even makes printed circuit boards for the Ministry of Defence. That proves that people can be retrained into a more profitable operation.

Secondly, I concur with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) that if Jobcentre Plus and Remploy work much more closely together we can probably get more people with disabilities of all kinds into the work force, by using some Remploy factories—we could not, of course, use them all—as gateways or training centres before entry, to give confidence.

Thirdly, in Bolton we have a sheltered workshop run by the local authority, as well as the Remploy factory. Has the Minister had detailed discussions with similar local authorities that run sheltered accommodation for production, about the possibility of a coming together, involving local authorities as well as Remploy, perhaps with a small subsidy from some of the local authorities—yes, I dare to mention the word “subsidy”—to keep some of those operations alive? It is obviously greatly preferable to keep people in work than to have them out of work on benefits.

My fourth point is this: we have been through this process before. It will be interesting to hear what the Conservative spokesman says. I look forward to that, because it was not that many years before the Labour party came to power that the Conservatives threatened to close all Remploy workshops, without exception. I remember opposing one of their Ministers, Peter Thurnham, who joined the Liberal Democrats just
13 Jun 2007 : Column 311WH
before the Conservatives left power. He argued vociferously for the closure of the workshop in Bolton. At least we have kept it going another 10 years. Incidentally, it is not on the present list, but that is not to say I have no sympathy for those hon. Members in whose constituencies the 43 listed workshops are situated.

3.27 pm

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on securing this debate on such an important matter. In his passionate opening remarks he emphasised the point, which is worth restating, that half of all the Remploy factories will effectively be closed, taking into account the mergers, and 2,500 people will be affected by the closures. It is important to recognise the dramatic and damaging effect that that change can have on the individuals affected. We are debating a serious and important matter.

The hon. Gentleman also wondered aloud—I hope that the Minister will respond—whether what is happening was the end of the process that Remploy had in mind. We know that 43 closures are proposed now. Does the Minister foresee the investment in and support for the remaining factories that all hon. Members who have spoken today have described? I pay tribute to all those hon. Members for the way in which they have addressed the issue: the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). I also want to mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), a number of whose constituents work at the factory in Ashington that is threatened with closure. I know that he takes a close interest in those matters.

It may be difficult in these circumstances, but there is a positive view to be considered. I would argue—and many have argued—that, on principle, promoting the idea of mainstream employment for disabled people must be the right approach. If the objective is to deliver an agenda about independent living, and to allow and enable disabled people to take on all the improved rights that have been campaigned for by many hon. Members who have been in the House much longer than I have, promoting mainstream employment must be the right direction to set off in. That was certainly the flavour of discussions among all parties during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, in which several hon. Members who are present today participated at different stages.

In that context, Remploy’s success in developing the Interwork programme should also be noted, given the importance of working towards mainstream employment for disabled people. Within its existing resources and with the existing factories remaining open, Remploy has been able to expand that programme, so that last year it placed more people in mainstream employment than currently work in those 83 factories. I shall return to the question of how the factories and the people who work in them are treated, but Remploy must be encouraged to move in the direction of expanding and developing the
13 Jun 2007 : Column 312WH
programmes that it already successfully offers. If Remploy can substantially increase the number of people whom it places in mainstream employment, the objective that all hon. Members have talked about in this debate—enabling more disabled people to find paid work for the reasons of fulfilment, confidence building and so on, which every other citizen sees it as their right to achieve through work—will be supported.

Remploy has said that it hopes through the changes to be able to place 20,000 disabled people into jobs by 2012. It is interesting to note, however, that three quarters of the people whom it placed last year were placed in jobs in the service sector, not the manufacturing sector. I liked very much the suggestion that the hon. Member for Leeds, East made that Remploy should be seen as a gateway or an intermediate step, and that people should perhaps go through Remploy for a few months in order to build up their skills and confidence, and make their way into mainstream employment. That is the sort of role that the Interwork programme should be playing, so perhaps the Minister could comment on whether it actually is. Developing Remploy’s facilities in that direction seems an obvious and sensible suggestion.

The closures will have a devastating effect on current employees. I do not think that anyone can doubt or debate that, and the hon. Gentleman made that point strongly. On the day before the announcement was made, I visited the Remploy factory in Halifax with the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), who has also been an assiduous campaigner on such matters. Many of the staff there felt that the discussion about Remploy’s future had been dragged out for an inordinately long period. People had been facing uncertainty about Remploy’s future for a year or even 18 months. There had been consultations and consultants’ reports, but the staff had very little sense of what their future was, and there was still a genuine debate about whether the factory would remain open or close.

That was an unfortunate part of the process, from which I hope lessons have been learned. The problem not only caused difficulties for the staff, but led to uncertainty among the factories’ customers, as has been said elsewhere. People who might have wanted to purchase goods from Remploy were uncertain as to whether the factory producing them would remain open. The Government owe a duty of care to the people who currently work in the Remploy factories, whose interests must be at the forefront of this debate.

We have been told that there will be no compulsory redundancies and that Remploy has guaranteed to find a job for each current employee on their current terms and conditions—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Each disabled employee.

Danny Alexander: The Minister rightly corrects me. The chief executive of Remploy, Bob Warner, has promised that Remploy will support the move into new jobs and provide continued support for those people who find new jobs in the mainstream sector. However, there is still some uncertainty, so perhaps the Minister could say for how long that continued support for
13 Jun 2007 : Column 313WH
those people who are currently employed by Remploy will be maintained. I understand that they will retain their current contractual terms and conditions, but in addition, we should be clear that the support that they receive will continue long into the future.

Likewise, there needs to be clarity about pension rights and contributions. The point has been made that many of Remploy’s employees have worked in Remploy factories for a substantial period. Accrued pensions rights are therefore important, but continuing those rights also needs to be taken forward.

We are currently undergoing a consultation process, but some dubiety has been expressed in this debate about the nature of that consultation—about its breadth, the range of issues that can be taken into account and whether it is about the overall package or just specific local measures. I urge the Minister to encourage Remploy, through her good offices, to ensure that the ideas that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole set out—local solutions at a micro level, so that the facilities can be better used to support the longer-term objective of getting more disabled into work—are taken into account fully. It would be absurd if the process was based on a macro decision to close a certain number of factories, without considering how best to make use of the resources currently available, in order to continue to support disable people into work.

I have a few other remarks to make, but in view of the range of issues that have been raised and the Minister’s desire to respond to them, I shall finish now. I am sure, however, that there will be another opportunity to debate the issue in future.

3.35 pm

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on securing this incredibly important debate and on the passionate and eloquent way in which he put the case for the 2,270 disabled Remploy employees.

Listening to the varied but thoughtful tone of the contributions, I realised that there are two distinct issues that we should recognise. The first is the move towards inclusive employment, which is a significant change. Listening to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) talking about the battles that he fought under the previous Conservative Government also reminded me of the Andrew Marr series that is currently on television. I do not know whether hon. Members saw the episode last night, but it had a scene about the miners’ strike. That reminded me how much the country has changed, although I do not want to get into that debate, because I am somewhat outnumbered in the Chamber. Watching that programme also reminded me how much we have moved from being a manufacturing economy to being a service economy. That has good aspects and bad aspects, but for people with learning disabilities in particular, it can pose a problem, because jobs in manufacturing industries were often particularly well suited to people with learning disabilities.

I have visited a manufacturing business in Cardiff that is a social firm—an interesting new model that
13 Jun 2007 : Column 314WH
which should replace workshops. In a way, social firms are a modern version of the sheltered workshops that we used to have. The management at that business told me that people with learning disabilities had a competitive advantage over other employees when it came to certain types of tasks. The problem is that as we have moved away from being a manufacturing economy, a lot of those jobs have gone.

However, there is a consensus that the move towards inclusive employment is important. If disabled people are to move not only towards independent living, self-respect and dignity and out of poverty, which affects too many of them, but towards a sense of being part of mainstream society, then we should encourage a model in which disabled people are employed wherever possible in jobs where they sit alongside non-disabled people.

That is an important change, and I should like to do something that has not been done so far this afternoon: compliment Remploy on the way in which it has tried to adapt its business to take account of that change. Last year it placed 5,200 people in mainstream employment through the Interwork programme, which is a 25 per cent. increase on the year before. That is a lot of people who have been helped. Remploy has therefore been trying to adapt in a difficult competitive climate.

I, too, want to leave the Minister time to respond fully to the points that have been raised. The problem that the Government face is that there is a limited budget, which means that we shall at some stage have to consider whether the £5,000 that it costs to employ someone with a severe disability under the Workstep programme stacks up against the £20,000 that it costs to employ someone in a Remploy workshop. We have to be honest about that terribly difficult dilemma because the Shaw Trust, for example, says that it has 600 disabled people waiting to get on the Workstep programme and that it cannot get funding for them. The trust desperately wants to get those people into employment. If I can put it this way, there is an opportunity cost to not using the resources as wisely as possible.

That said, the other clear strand to this debate has been the genuine and heartfelt concern, particularly among hon. Members in whose constituencies Remploy factories are scheduled for closure, about the fate of the individuals who work in them. As the Secretary of State said in his statement on 22 May, the majority of those individuals have learning disabilities, and that group is the hardest to employ. The hon. Member for Leeds, East spoke of a 20 per cent. employment rate among those with learning disabilities and histories of mental illness, but according to a survey that Remploy did with Radar, the employment rate is even lower among those with learning disabilities only: it is 10 per cent. That group is the very hardest to employ.

A second factor has to be added to that: many such people are older employees. In his statement, the Secretary of State said that 650 of the 2,270 employees— 28 per cent. of the total—were over the age of 60. They may wish to take early retirement. However, we have not yet been able to find out how many of the employees are over 50, although I suspect that they make up about
13 Jun 2007 : Column 315WH
half the total. It will be particularly difficult to find another placement for them.

People are concerned that it may be very difficult for someone who has worked loyally in a role for much of their life—someone who has found the inclusion, involvement and friendship that the hon. Member for Leeds, East mentioned—to find another job full stop, even with all the support provided by Remploy. We know that such people will be financially looked after because the terms and conditions will be preserved, but it would be a tragedy if those people, at that stage of their lives, ended up receiving the money but not all the other incredibly important benefits that come from being at work.

The Minister could help us with some specific matters. One is the concern about pension entitlements. I believe that the Remploy pension fund has a £48 million deficit. There are particular concerns about whether promises made about pensions will be secure, particularly given the current environment.

There is also concern about how the factories were chosen for closure. Remploy factories in the constituencies of a lot of prominent Cabinet Ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and the Minister, I think—have not been chosen for closure. The real concern is that Remploy has not published the business case on the future that it saw for each of the factories under consideration. That makes people worry that that is the first step to the wholesale closure of the entire Remploy network. I am prepared to accept the Minister’s assurances that she does not want that to happen. However, if we are to have confidence that that is not part of the plan, we need to see a good business case for the factories that are not threatened with closure to remain open.

I am grateful to the Minister and the management of Remploy for keeping me in the picture on this difficult issue in the past few months. I recognise the benefits of the financial package offered to the 2,270 disabled employees. However, money is not the only issue; a lot of other factors are very important in those people’s lives, and we are all seeking reassurance that those other factors will be adequately addressed in any restructuring.

3.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton, in what has been a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate.

At the outset, I want to put some things up front and on the record. We still believe in supported factories and that there needs to be a subsidy for some employed disabled workers, whether within supported factories or in the mainstream. We still believe that Remploy has a future, and I ask hon. Members to remember that Remploy is more than the factory network. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) said, Remploy is part of a wider family of provision. We are guaranteeing the budget for Remploy over the next five years— £555 million, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) said.

Next Section Index Home Page