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I thank my hon. Friend for generating this debate and for some of the comments he made during it. We need to recognise that the issue that we are discussing is difficult. Colleagues from all political parties have made contributions. Other Members in the Chamber have not participated in the debate but have Remploy factories in their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), for example, is a Government Whip and so is not allowed to participate, but I welcome his presence.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East was deputy Chief Whip, people would never dare say “no” to him or his colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). It was a case not of getting retaliation in first, but of not retaliating.

We Members here today have a lot in common on this issue; we agree about a lot. I certainly welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East on how he envisages Remploy’s future in terms of providing, not a destination, but a gateway for disabled people. I also welcome his comment about wanting more disabled people in work, because that is exactly what underpins the modernisation programme. Neither the Secretary of State nor I have embarked lightly on this process; we appreciate the sensitivities involved. However, we know that our underlying ambition is shared with Remploy and its trade unions. We want to get more disabled people into work—and more disabled people want to move into work.

We have to be clear that in its current configuration, Remploy is not going to rise to that challenge. That is why we brought in PricewaterhouseCoopers—not only, I say gently to my hon. Friend, as number crunchers. We also made sure that that consultancy included a senior employment adviser, who is disabled himself and who has extensive experience of disability employment issues. As part of the team, he was there to act as advocate in any disagreement on the disability-employment side. It was not just a case of number crunching.

I turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about where we should start again. We can go round that issue as often as we like, but there comes a point when we have to make a decision. What we are discussing has not been sprung on the trade unions or hon. Members in the past few weeks. We have been talking about the modernisation of Remploy since May last year, when I laid a statement before the Commons that clearly stated that the Secretary of State and I had ruled out the two extreme options in the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which were to do nothing or to close the whole factory network. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) reminded us, that was once an option in the dim and distant past.

Within that framework, we asked the Remploy board to consult, discuss and negotiate with their trade unions over that period to consider how we can reach a position on which we can all agree. Those discussions have taken place, a great deal of work has been done and the business has been opened for the trade unions to scrutinise over that period. Nothing has been hidden; it is all up front. We put the PricewaterhouseCoopers report into the public domain so that everybody shared the information, and we ensured that PricewaterhouseCoopers engaged
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meaningfully with the trade unions. However, to be frank, there comes a point when we need to consider making a decision.

Of course, we do not underestimate the difficulties that will be caused for individual people. I take on board the comments made by various hon. Members to the effect that the change is enormous for disabled workers who have worked in a factory for a long time. That is why we have built in a protection package, including the guarantee on final salary pensions. I am sure that when my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East was a trade union officer for the National Union of Public Employees and then for Unison, he would have been pleased if an employer had put that on the table as the first stage of the bargaining rather than having to have it pushed, shoved and dragged out of them.

We did all that, and we also ensured that Remploy engaged with the trade unions. I want to be clear about that engagement. In order to ensure that Remploy knew the parameters, we promised to maintain the baseline funding. The work with the trade union consortium deserves particular mention, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, who has extensive experience as a trade union officer, will recognise the quality of the engagement. A joint Remploy-trade union working group was established to consider the challenges that face the company and to discuss possible solutions.

The group has met on no fewer than 10 occasions since last July, with the business on the table. In order to enable the trade unions to have the support on the detailed financial and commercial information provided by the company and the advice that they thought was necessary, Remploy provided them with the services of the consultants Grant Thornton. Remploy paid for the consultants to ensure that that the unions had the same professional advice as the board. It has provided the trade unions with other financial support, including covering the costs of all the meetings on modernisation. Indeed, as we speak, 14 members of the consortium—16, in fact, but only 14 are employed by Remploy—are in Brussels to discuss the issues with MEPs, which was paid for by the Remploy company.

As a company, Remploy has been exemplary in the way in which it has managed the discussions with our trade union colleagues. I say our trade union colleagues because as a member of the GMB I recognise the sensitivity of the matter. When the new chairman, Ian Russell, was appointed, he held discussions with all the trade union general secretaries involved in the consortium. He also invited the consortium to present its own modernisation proposals to the February and April Remploy board meetings. The engagement has been widespread, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take that in the positive spirit in which it was—[Interruption.] I know that he is only trying to josh me, but he knows from his experience that there are few situations where engagement with the trade unions at all levels took place throughout a lengthy process.

John McDonnell: I accept what the Minister is saying about the efforts that Government have made to urge management to support the unions in their discussions
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and so on. However, the process has failed and consensus has not been reached. It behoves the Government to go the extra mile and to intervene. They should bring all parties round the table and consider whether, in these last moments, we could reach some agreement on a way forward.

Mrs. McGuire: With the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend, the process has not failed. The trade unions and management will meet next week to discuss the proposals. I return to my earlier comment—there has been an extensive lead-in to the discussion of the proposals. At the moment, they are just proposals. Nothing has been confirmed.

I hope that I can give some comfort to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), as we have discussed the matter extensively elsewhere. There ought to be discussions about local solutions. The hon. Lady, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East and the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) highlighted opportunities to consider local situations where sheltered workshops and factories, local authority factories and sheltered workshops run by voluntary organisations could come together. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned that, too.

We have heard a great deal about the subsidy. We are in no way saying that there should not be a subsidy, and our Workstep programme is based on providing a subsidy to meet the difference in production between a disabled worker and a non-disabled worker. In Remploy, supporting someone in a sheltered or supported workshop involves a subsidy in excess of £20,000. In the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East, Leeds city council provides sheltered factory support of £4,800 for individual disabled workers, who are similar to those who work in the Remploy factories and do the same kind of work in many instances. That pattern is replicated across the country. We want Remploy to draw its subsidy nearer to £4,800, but we are not asking it to draw it down that low and it does not propose to do so. Its aim is to have a subsidy of about £9,000 a year.

I know that public procurement causes great interest among Members, and Remploy recognises that some leverage is left in terms of public procurement. It has just appointed a new head of public procurement and has listened to the trade unions on that subject. The Department for Work and Pensions, Remploy trade unions and Remploy management have met regularly to consider how they can increase the amount of business from public procurement. Even under the current arrangements, I do not want anyone to think that there is no public procurement business in Remploy—indeed, £42 million of their sales are directly linked to the public sector, which is Remploy’s biggest customer.

A range of issues have been raised, which mainly relate to how we will get from where we are to where most of us want to be. That is where my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East and I share an ambition. Thousands of disabled workers want to be in employment, and Remploy has a crucial role to play. However, there comes a point in our deliberations where we have to make tough choices. Those choices are not driven by the budget. They are putting people
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on the dole. We are not saying that we want do not want to support disabled people in Remploy. We want to do all those things, but we need to decide how to get from where we are now, with only 5,000 people employed in the Remploy factories, to the situation that the Remploy board says that it can achieve, which is to have 20,000 disabled people employed for the same amount of funding from DWP. That would be a laudable achievement. We are still at the proposal stage, and I am sure that hon. Members and my hon. Friends will continue to make the case about how to pull together on this difficult decision.

There have been changes in the way in which disabled people are perceived in the labour market. Those changes have not happened fast enough or well enough in some instances, but I want to see Remploy continue for the next 60 years to deliver for disabled people—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to our next debate.

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Bus Passes (Asylum Seekers)

4 pm

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity that this debate gives me to dispel some of the myths about asylum seekers that have been put about by the British National party and other racist organisations. The debate is unusual because, although the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), is on the Front Bench, it could as easily have been answered by the Minister for Immigration and Asylum. I wish to put on record my thanks to him for a number of meetings and the significant amount of correspondence that we have had on this issue.

Before I come to the details of bus passes in north Manchester, which I suppose sounds like an esoteric subject but has become important, I should like to give a little background information to help hon. Members understand why I am so concerned. North Manchester and Higher Blackley, in my constituency, have had an exemplary record in race relations. Relations were good in the mid-1990s and before, and a large number of Kosovan refugees came and stayed there successfully as the war took place in the former Yugoslavia.

The genesis of the increased problems that the BNP is trying to exploit was the decision by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), Home Secretary in the 1997 to 2001 Government, to disperse asylum seekers throughout the country. The dispersal went well in many areas, but not in north Manchester. We were promised that the asylum seekers who would be dispersed there would be from a small number of language clusters and serviced by a sufficient number of interpreters and extra resources in schools and education. To put it quite simply, they were not. There were no interpreters and the dispersed people spoke 30 or 40 different languages between them, which made matters more difficult for the public authorities. Iranians were put in the same house in multiple occupation as Iraqis, which was a most extraordinary circumstance. People who had been paying rent to private landlords were thrown out of their houses because the Home Office, via the National Asylum Support Service, paid higher rents.

The dispersal was a disaster and led to a number of racist attacks on asylum seekers, some of whom were hospitalised. After I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn and Barbara Roche, who was then a Minister of State at the Home Office, it was agreed that there would be a moratorium. That was publicly proclaimed. Since then, my right hon. Friend the noble Lord Rooker and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), when they were Home Office Ministers, have confirmed the moratorium on dispersal of asylum seekers. Race relations have improved and returned to their previous good state, with one exception. In 2005, just after the general election, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), when he was the responsible Minister—a lot of people have been in the job in the past five or six years—had to apologise because there was a small breach of the moratorium.

Relations have generally improved but, as has happened throughout history when there have been
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waves of refugees and immigrants, the nasty bottom-feeding racists have exploited the situation and perpetuated myths and lies, some of which are still going around. That is really the point of the debate. Two of the myths, other than the one about bus passes, are worth referring to because they are so bizarre, but people repeat them anyway. One is that Oldham council, which is the neighbouring council to my constituency on one side, provides asylum seekers with cheques for second-hand cars. If I have heard that once, I have heard it ten times. It is unusual and ridiculous, but it creates resentment if some people are gullible enough to believe it. The second myth repeated by many people was that a shop on Kenyon lane in my constituency was open only to black people. They said that there was a sign there saying that white people were not allowed. Local councillors investigated and spoke to the shopkeeper, who said, “Look, 60 to 70 per cent. of my customers are white. That is the reflection of this area. This is absurd.” But still the myth was repeated.

That brings me to the persistent myth that asylum seekers are given free bus passes to travel all over Greater Manchester which are not available to other members of the public. When I go to public meetings, talk to people in the streets or go to street meetings, often towards the end I am asked, “Why are the asylum seekers getting better treatment than we are on public transport? It’s not fair.” A number of local councillors in the area have heard the same myths and, with me, have investigated the cause of the misconception. Councillor Risby, the long-standing councillor for Moston, Councillor Murphy, Councillor Cooper, Councillor Curley and Councillor Hackett have all helped to get to the bottom of what turns out to be quite a complicated story, which is worth relating and putting on record.

I wrote to the passenger transport executive, as did Councillor Risby. We got back a reasonable letter saying that there were no special passes available to asylum seekers, but the myth persisted. A little later, we found out that the Home Office was purchasing for asylum seekers about £53,000-worth a year of passes called system one scratchcards, which were not available in that form to the general public. Day saver tickets are the equivalent, cost the same and can be purchased on buses by members of the public, but the scratchcards are mostly bought by companies that want to give them to their employees, who can scratch the dates off and use them. Although there was no preferential treatment for asylum seekers, people had seen different passes on the buses.

I had a meeting on 1 February with my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration and Asylum, who wrote to me on 15 March having exchanged information with the passenger transport executive. He explained the Home Office’s basis for purchasing the passes. It is worth my reading a couple of paragraphs of his letter. The letter explains how the passes are funded:

The letter makes it clear that an asylum seeker who lives more than three miles away from the reporting centre gets a card that they can use on the day that they have to report to the centre. That is the travel assistance that they get. It is not preferential treatment for asylum seekers but the Home Office being as efficient and effective with its money and its policies as it possibly can be.

Because the myths were persisting, local councillors and I wondered whether there was some sort of scam going on at the same time. I wrote to the PTE, and it agreed to investigate what was happening. It reported its findings in a letter to Councillor Risby on 15 November 2006. It found that about 2 per cent. of activity on the buses was fraudulent—activity such as people sneaking past the bus driver, people not paying for a ticket, other people using the wrong ticket. A relatively small amount of money was involved.

That investigation took place before it was known that the Home Office was using a scheme that was, in principle, the same as the scheme that is available to the general public but slightly different. When I discovered that, I asked for another investigation to be carried out to see if there were any other scams going on, and the PTE investigated again. In an interesting letter dated 2 May, David Leather, the interim chief executive, said that in the final investigation

that is part of the area in north Manchester that I am talking about—

that is not the kind that asylum seekers have—

There is no evidence that there was any fraudulent activity by asylum seekers. The letter continued:

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