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25 July 2007 : Column 275WH—continued

He went on to tell me how long the process had taken and how concerned Remploy was to ensure that individuals with certain incapacities and disabilities would be found suitable employment elsewhere—“mainstream employment”, he called it. He said that Remploy would monitor that employment throughout and ensure that those people were not exploited in any way, and that they would have every benefit that they would normally get in a Remploy atmosphere.

That was all very assuring. I thought at the time, “This sounds a bit too good to be true,” and, as my old granny used to say, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” That is how it has turned out. Since then I have had so much conflicting information and so much that is patently misinformation that I felt compelled to request a second debate on the matter. There has already been a debate on it, and my hon. Friend the Minister had the problem of responding to it. I shall refer to her responses in due course.

After Mr. Waterhouse’s charming onslaught, I received various contacts from trade unionists—Sean McGovern, John Thorman, Neville Anderson—and from the Stockton and district trades council. Most telling was the delegation that came to me from my local factory, which I know quite well. It must be 22 years ago, three years after I came into this place, that the staff there presented me with a quarter-bound, leather-bound book on the history of Stockton. I have to admit that I have never read it, but it is a beautiful piece of bookbinding, which I display on my bookshelf with pride.

Since then, the factory has changed its skills four times. On each occasion it has reskilled to an excellent standard and reports have been received saying that it
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has been excellent. In other words, it has done everything required of it to produce a revenue stream that justifies its existence. A delegation came to see me and, rather ironically, two of the delegation were a couple whose engagement party I had attended at the factory. The reason for my doing that was that the lady in the item had been one of my pupils when I was a schoolmaster many years ago. I know those people quite well, and they know me. For some reason, they trust me, which is why I am trying on their behalf today.

I got a letter from the leader of that delegation, a man called Rowland Precious—lovely name, isn’t it?—who is ex-military. He had written to Mr. Bob Warner, but in his letter to me he wrote:

In fact it was placed second in a group of 12 factories engaged in that work. It is not average, it is well above average.

Mr. Precious had felt so concerned about the threat of closure that he had written to Bob Warner—I suppose that I ought to explain to hon. Members, in case they do not know, that he is the chief executive of Remploy. I would not like to minimise his status—who is an important man. I do not think that he is disabled, although that might be debateable. Mr. Precious wrote to Mr. Warner:

Document preparation and scanning? They were doing computers! It was not even relevant to the factory. He continued:

He went on to say that they

Choosing to ignore that kind of logic, Mr. Bob Warner wrote:

What kind of study had been carried out in order to justify the decision, given that he was sorry about it because he did not know about it? He continued:

he got it right this time—

Well, the amount of consultation that has taken place on the Stockton factory from 30 May to date has been absolutely zero, but the manager left to go to another factory, ostensibly to conduct some business. In fact, it was for interview and he got a job elsewhere in the organisation and left the staff in Stockton to their own
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devices. I am afraid that that is typical of the attitude that has been displayed throughout the process. It is an attitude that, I have to say, I did not join the Labour party or become an MP to defend. You can anticipate, Mrs. Anderson, that my words are hardly going to be complimentary from now on.

I shall not read out all Mr. Warner’s correspondence, because it goes on—he is pretty good at turning out letters—but he wrote in April:

That is another somewhat misleading claim. The charities that say that they support change are in favour of disabled people gaining mainstream employment, but they do not support that move at the cost of closing Remploy factories. It is mendacious to try to suggest that they do. Perhaps Mr. Warner learned from some of our colleagues how to represent, or misrepresent, actuality.

A month later, in May, Mr. Warner slightly changed his tack and stated:

That is a commitment, but what will he do with it?

In an attempt to put Mr. Warner back on the rails, Mr. Phil Davies, who is the secretary of the consortium of trade unions that is seeking to introduce some logic and compassion into the situation, sent a letter to Remploy. It is dated 1 June, before the last debate. Phil Davies stated:

He says that he is appalled to learn that while Remploy intends to access

So what about the other £80 million? Mr. Davies goes on to state:

A financial miscalculation has been made. If I had conducted my management responsibilities in industry before coming into this House in the way suggested in the letter, I would have been sacked out of hand. I would have had to throw my keys—the keys to the car as well—on the desk and leg it off the site.

Phil Davies goes on to state:

When I read that, I thought, “By God, he’s right, and I was part of it.” That was all the soft soap that I had from Mr. John Waterhouse on 4 May. I am somewhat ashamed that—because I wanted to think that things would be all right, that jobs would be available and that Remploy would be able to achieve what it was setting out to achieve—I thought the proposal was great and accepted it. Now I am finding out just how wrong I was.

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The trade unions are not only criticising the situation. They put forward their own considered plan, on which they have spent some time. They asked Mr. Warner to co-operate with them by providing details, not a summary, of the full business case and the financial analysis, the losses and absentee rates for each of the 83 factories for each of the past two years, the idle and non-production time, the details of investment in the 83 factories, and an updated property portfolio. Phil Davies wrote:

That was sensible, was it not?

None of the information has been forthcoming.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): First, I must apologise to my hon. Friend that I have to leave to meet a Minister at 3.30 pm, but I congratulate him on securing this debate on Remploy. Has he ever seen a balance sheet for the Stockton factory? Indeed, does he know whether any Members have received transparent accounts for any of their Remploy factories? I certainly have not for the Bolton factory.

Frank Cook: The only way that I can answer that is to say that the employees, if we can use that term, at the Stockton factory have consistently posed questions to which they have never received clear answers. They have received obfuscation, evasion or silence.

I do not know whether there is any need to refer to the report by the group of MPs that has been reviewing the Remploy situation. MPs spent a lot of time making visits and applying their minds enthusiastically and clinically to some of the problems. They gave a list of things that needed to be done if Remploy is to sort out its remit. Remploy is justifying its decisions by saying that they are being imposed on it by the Government’s requirement that it remain within a funding envelope of £555 million over the next five years. There are other ways of achieving that, and the unions have applied their minds and all their skills—they are not inexperienced—to the matter.

However, it seems that Remploy is not prepared to engage in such exchanges, despite the fact that the Minister—God bless her and save her—said on 13 June that

I am most pleased about that, but engagement has not taken place because this is a dialogue of the deaf. Remploy is not listening. It is not participating in the conversation.

May I quote from a letter of 12 June, which was written the night before the Minister responded to the last debate? It is from Mr. Ray Fletcher of Bicester, Oxfordshire. I hope that he has not been flooded out. He states that he is writing as someone

He states that we

Mr. Fletcher poses several questions:

So why have we got this problem? He also says:

Words fail me. I say to the Minister—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): You’re doing all right. I don’t think words are failing you.

Frank Cook: I am partially deaf.

Mr. Skinner: I am not from the north-east, but I am interested in this matter because I raised it at the Durham miners’ rally when many of my hon. Friends and constituents of mine and other MPs were present. I also have a Remploy factory in my constituency that is due for closure. My hon. Friend said that his factory has changed four times. Feasibility studies should be done on the floods to see whether anything can be done to provide the wherewithal to deal with them in future. Feasibility studies should be done on climate change. That is a new thing on the horizon. But the main thing that I was told at Durham was that for people who go to work at Remploy, it is like joining a family, and they are members of a union. They resent the fact that they will not be part of a family and could finish up at McDonald’s or a non-trade union firm. We have got to preserve the family, whether it is in Durham, Pinxton or wherever.

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Frank Cook: I thank my hon. Friend for emphasising that point because when Rowland Precious, who is a highly intelligent and articulate gentleman, led a delegation to see me, he made exactly the same point and punched it home to great effect, raising in my mind another iniquitous aspect of the situation. He said, “You know, we aren’t just disabled in one sense; some of us are disabled in many ways. There are all sorts of things; not just physical disabilities, but asthma, anxiety, hearing loss, sight impairment or other problems. It could be a combination of things, but we all help each other and we all know how to help each other.”

It occurred to me that the management have all their capacities. I do not think any of the management are disabled; at least, I have not met anyone from the management who is. If we have people with the intelligence of Rowland Precious, why should he not be in a management position and be allowed to make management decisions with compassion for his fellow workers? Instead, we have people who are running around and changing their job because they see a threat on the horizon. They are moving out, or legging it. In politics I think that we call it “doing the chicken run”. I am sure that we could run the Remploy organisation with people who have perfectly adequate grey cells and who would do it a good deal more effectively, efficiently and cheaply.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue of the family nature of the factories, I, too, am not from the north-east, but I also have a Remploy factory that is due for closure and the family nature of the factory is apparent to people the minute they go into it and every time they visit it. My hon. Friend will be aware that much of this problem is based on a portmanteau statement that has come from the Government, which states as a matter of certainty that

all disabled people—

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