Previous Section Index Home Page

25 July 2007 : Column 280WH—continued

I know my factory very well, and I find that a difficult statement to accept.

I have the following question for my hon. Friend. From the considerable research that he has done on the issue, is he aware of any Government figures on the costs that are bound to occur—not from employment benefit of one kind or another, but from health, social services, and psychiatric services—when this form of therapeutic employment comes to an end?

Frank Cook: The short answer to my hon. and learned Friend’s question is no, I do not know.

The unions have called this answer a quick fix. I prefer a different phrase. I would call it finding the answer in the back of the book. Those involved have been given a proposal by the Government, but they have not sought to challenge, rationalise or justify it. They have some accountant who can probably add two and two together and make two and a bit and so they have said, “How do we do this? Well, we make a cut there, there, there and there and that is it”. They have not even thought about the consequences or the justification for doing it.

25 July 2007 : Column 281WH

I have a feeling in my water, Mrs. Anderson, and I hope that it does not discomfort you in the way that it discomforts me. I have a nasty suspicion that the Minister might turn around and say that the independent assessor that has been appointed and funded—I think that it is Grant Thornton—might have withdrawn support for the trade union proposals for consideration. I hope that the Minister does not say that because I have proof positive that it is not true. I would not like to have to demonstrate that. My dilemma, Mrs. Anderson, which you will know about as a fellow member of the Chairmen’s Panel, is that, as members of the Panel, we have to be even more careful than the run-of-the-mill Member, if I can use that phrase.

Mr. Skinner: Oh aye.

Frank Cook: Oh aye. We cannot refer to lies or liars, but I have to say—and I refer only to part of the plethora of documentation that has come my way since I involved myself in the issue—that I have found more lies than could be counted on a calculator. It is really quite disgraceful and very annoying. I say to you, Mrs. Anderson, and through you to the Minister that the union’s figures have been checked and verified right up until this Monday. I have had that incontrovertibly confirmed.

I want to give other hon. Members a chance to contribute, so I will finish in a moment. Before doing so, I wish to remind hon. Members why Remploy was started. It was founded immediately post-war as a means of providing constructive employment for men and women who came back from conflict and who were unable to go into mainstream unemployment—I think that that is the euphemism that people use. It has performed that task very well ever since.

At a time when young men and women are coming back from conflicts with a whole range of disabilities, I want hon. Members to consider the insanity of reducing budget provision—or, the funding envelope, as it is called. God, don’t we come out with some euphemisms! Those young men and women previously came back from Bosnia and Kosovo and are now coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. The disabilities are going up and the budget is coming down; what kind of sense is that? What is the logic and how can it be justified? If anyone can answer that question, they will do me a great favour. However, I do not think that they will do so under the terms that we are considering today.

I started out by reminding the House that this is only the third debate that I have initiated in this Chamber. The first was on police reorganisation. We cannot take decisions here, but the debate had the desired effect and the Government changed their mind. The second debate that I initiated was on hospital reconfiguration. Again, of course, we could not take a decision, but the Government changed their mind once more. I am saying to the Minister now that this is another occasion on which, in God’s name, and for everything that is good, reasonable and sensible, and for the sake of humanity, we must get the Government to change their mind—not immediately, but they should enter into a proper formal consultation.

Mr. Skinner: It’s a different Government, Frank.

Frank Cook: Well, change is the order of the day.

25 July 2007 : Column 282WH

The questions posed by the trade unions and those on the Remploy board should be answered in detail before any decision is made. The consultation must be a proper consultation and Remploy must listen, for the first time, to the logic put on the table for it to consider. My fear is that it does not have the intelligence to appreciate its value.

3.1 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am very glad that the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) has raised this debate and brought to it his customary verve and eloquence. I hope that he maintains his success rate and that the proposals are changed.

We had a debate in Westminster Hall not long ago to which the Minister present responded. This debate, however, rightly focuses on the particular difficulties faced in the north-east as a result of the closure of Remploy factories. My concern is for my constituents, both present and future, for whom the Ashington factory is their Remploy factory. It is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy). I know that he will be seeking to catch your eye shortly, Mrs. Anderson, and that, like me, he will want to mention the special circumstances of Northumberland.

I can say for both of us that this is not a very good day for central Government attention to the special circumstances of Northumberland. They have just taken a decision that was the opposite of that sought by every Northumberland MP and district council, whatever their party. We have not got off to a very good start today, but I am sure that the Minister will be more understanding. That was a decision about local government, however, and now we are on to Remploy, on which we can perhaps make a bit more progress.

The circumstances of Northumberland are special. Even given today’s improved employment conditions compared with those of a decade or more ago, it remains very difficult to get jobs in Northumberland. The situation is made worse by the fact that great distances are involved for many people. Certainly, those in my constituency, who do not live in Ashington and must travel to the factory, often need significant help in doing so because of their disabilities. They have even greater difficulties seeking jobs elsewhere.

I understand the basic argument behind the Government’s policy, which is the attempt to deploy resources for securing employment for those with disabilities in a way that will aid the largest possible number of disabled people. Clearly many of those people are not employed at the moment and will not be employed in Remploy sheltered workshops. There must be a way of assisting them all. I can see a certain logic to that, but, if I was going to try to develop such a policy, I certainly would not start in Northumberland, but would look to an area with a wide range of job opportunities or, indeed, a strong demand for labour and, therefore, much greater potential for seeking appropriate employment that takes account of a person’s particular disabilities and is adapted to suit them. Northumberland is not in that situation. It is a difficult place to find employment.

When we last debated this matter in the House, I asked about that, and the Minister told me to talk to the chief executive of Remploy. I went one better and had a meeting with its chairman, who actually is a very reasonable
25 July 2007 : Column 283WH
and intelligent man. We had a very constructive and useful discussion, from which some rather interesting points emerged that I hope the Minister can perhaps clarify, confirm or give her view on. One of those points was that unless jobs are found for existing Remploy employees at the Ashington factory—other than for those who retire early voluntarily or who retire because they are approaching retirement age—and for potential Remploy employees of the future, he could not make a case to the Minister for the closure of that factory, in which case, the programme would have to be re-jigged.

If the Government are to achieve the same number of closures, they will have to look somewhere else. That might very well be the case in Northumberland. I hope that the Minister will make it clear to Remploy that she does not want proposals based on anything other than absolute certainty that not only can existing Remploy employees find or be found jobs, but that there will be considerable and clear routes into many more jobs in the future. I do not think that that is currently the position.

It also became clear in our discussion that Remploy will have targets for employing disabled people. The trouble is that Remploy will make considerable progress towards achieving its targets in parts of the country with a more favourable employment situation. It could then say to the Minister, “Look, we are getting some way towards our targets”—we hear that about a lot of targets these days. However, that will conceal the fact that it is not anywhere near its target for Northumberland. There might be a feeling, therefore, that the programme is going quite well when actually it is going very badly in an area where employment is difficult to find.

In some parts of the country, it is much easier to find employment generally—not just for disabled people—because of the expansion of particular kinds of businesses. That has not been the case in Northumberland. For example, I talked to a lot of people from ex-mining communities who have had more opportunities for re-employment—although not as well paid—than have those in ex-mining communities in Northumberland. Let us look at South Yorkshire, for example, where there has been a huge development in warehousing because of the proximity of motorways, which offers opportunities of a kind that we do not have. Account must be taken of different circumstances in different parts of the country.

Then we discussed what would happen if the closure went ahead, and there was talk of a continuing presence in Northumberland, but that will not do anything if all it means is a shop front in Ashington with a sign in the window that reads: “You can call in here if you have a disability”. Most of my constituents who work at the Remploy factory could not get to Ashington without help from that sheltered-workshop environment—in many cases, they do not have that degree of mobility. If Remploy was not providing sheltered employment, every penny of that resource, and more, would need to be used to ensure that a wide range of people in Northumberland and the adjoining area of Tyne and Wear were being helped into employment. Any continuing presence, therefore, must involve at least serious training, rehabilitation and mentoring commitments and facilities, if it is to balance the losses.

25 July 2007 : Column 284WH

Those who work in the Remploy factory appreciate its value, but if they were to consider the future of other disabled people, or those who become disabled, whether through industrial accidents or military circumstances, such as those described by the hon. Member for Stockton, North, they will say, “They have not had the advantage that I had.” They have been speaking very much in those terms. They appreciate what they have had from working at Remploy, and they want others to have a similar benefit in the future. They are deeply depressed and distressed by the chain of events that seems to be unfolding.

If there is merit in and scope for the kind of transfer that Remploy has talked about, frankly, we should not pilot it in an area in which employment circumstances are as difficult as those in Northumberland. I hope that this programme will be rethought and that much more account will be taken of the circumstances in our area.

3.9 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate, which without a doubt is an important one because it concerns employment opportunities that have existed since the second world war for those with disabilities. These people feel incredibly vulnerable and they regularly feel that they are at the back end when any opportunity is identified.

For me, however, the debate has a second flavour and it is important because we inevitably—the word is inevitably—look at people with disabilities and define them as such. We do not ask, “What are your abilities? What would you like to be trained to do? Which employment could you play a part in?” It is long gone that we should be talking about people as people with disabilities, because these people have clear abilities.

The report on Stockton Remploy made some clear statements. It noted, as my hon. Friend said, that the work force were flexible and would change from one productive activity to another. It also noted that they showed an incredible ability to develop very specific skills requiring great care and dexterity, which could be used in many different ways. This is not a group of people with no skills—they have serious skills.

On 15 June, I spoke to constituents who work in Stockton Remploy and I was struck by their abilities. Many of us in the House could learn from their speaking skills. They were focused, determined and challenging, and they had clear intellectual competence. Why do we believe that we have no opportunities to use their capabilities better?

Some of those who came to see me had definite vulnerabilities. Many had worked at Stockton Remploy for more than 20 years and many had never been anywhere else in employment terms. Many had worked alongside those who were at the meeting with them for more than 10 years. There was comfort, support and a sense of trust, and those things are important when people have disabilities. One person told me with great sincerity, “I’m not laughed at by my colleagues. When they don’t understand what I’m saying, they ask me to say it again.” That is the careful way in which a good relationship opens and develops. Remploy offers not only employment, but friendship networks, and it is important that we understand that, rather than understate or undermine it.

25 July 2007 : Column 285WH

The other thing that came through during the meeting with these people, who were clearly capable and adaptable, was that management had let them down, misinformed them about some things and not informed them about others. Communication between the work force and the management took place rarely, if ever, and the implication, once again, was that management were not taking these people seriously. The attitude seemed to be that they had disabilities, so managers could treat them as they chose, which is not the way that any of us in this room would choose to be treated or would accept.

Those at the meeting went on to say that they had given loyal service and that the only time they had not been at work was when they were ill and had been signed off. They believed that the factory was making a profit, but they are sure that the premises have been put up for sale during the 90 days’ consultation. They also believed that the management had long ago stopped looking for contracts to encourage the work force to do different work or more of the same.

We should remember that the work force take apart IT systems. These days, every home has one or two such systems, as do schools and factories, and they are changed every two years. A vast amount of work is involved in taking IT systems apart, so the work force and I are wondering why there were not more contracts when everybody is saying that IT systems are an inevitable part of people’s lives, which everyone uses.

I could not understand why members of the work force believed that the factory was profitable if it was not, so I challenged the management, as hon. Members would expect me to. I got back a statement saying that the factory had lost £704,000 during 2006-07—that is the claim that the management are making. They also claim that there is no option but to close. My second question, therefore, is did the factory suddenly make a loss of £704,000? Was there no sign that things were not going well? Was the factory not getting sufficient work in? Was the working group not good enough? If so, were the management communicating that to the work force? The straight fact is that they did not. No one was warned or given the opportunity to put right something that was possibly wrong. Management have an awful lot to answer for.

Of course, I have pursued this issue not only with management, but with the Employment Service, because I am told that it is now on the case. In fact, it is not on the case. This is a 90-day consultation, so my 40 constituents who are employed at Remploy could find in November that the 90 days are up and there are no jobs. Is that the way we conduct our affairs? I do not think so. I do not think that that is the Labour way and I do not think that it is my hon. Friend the Minister’s way. Things have been botched, and Remploy has so much to answer for. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North has gone through the letters that he received, and I am now listening with serious concern to people who are employed at Remploy. The question that I am asking is, “Who has been saying what to whom?”

When I spoke to the Employment Service, it certainly wanted to reassure me. It said, “We will do a one-to-one with everybody in the factory when and if it closes. We will attempt to find out people’s talents and place people in employment.” I have no criticism of the
25 July 2007 : Column 286WH
Employment Service in that respect, but the fact of the matter is that it is not engaged, and we are into the 90 days. My people on the shop floor believe that the 90-day consultation is simply an academic exercise that will achieve nothing. It is not about what happens next or in the future, but about how the management can close the factory as quietly as they can get away with. Well, they must have heard today that that will not happen.

I lobby hard in the House for the blind and the partially sighted. I work hard with them and they are a great group of people with tremendous abilities. I work with the European regional development fund and the European single programme fund, and those I work with also have their own programme—the VISAGE programme. What approach is Remploy taking to get other, different people more involved in Remploy Stockton? I see no evidence of any approach.

I have had excellent discussions with the Minister, who knows that we are anxious about the proposals. I am well aware that we have spent more than £20 million with Remploy in an attempt to achieve profitable, good employment—indeed, just good employment—but not one additional person has entered Remploy’s doors over that period. None of my blind people is ever encouraged to be part of Remploy, and no one engages with them. We are spending money and we want to see better employment, but the fact is that we are not seeing any.

There are lots of questions, and I hope that the Minister will understand where we are coming from and give us answers. We are into new times and we have a new Government. We have an absolute commitment to treat people with dignity and to ensure that they enjoy equality. We want businesses to work and we want to ensure that management know that.

We are in new times, with a new determination. I ask the Minister whether there is a chance to pull back and see whether and how we can ensure that the management structure of Remploy will deliver, as its employees deliver. I think that we would then find that the House would be satisfied, and that the conclusions of that consultation and that approach would be acceptable to us all. Better still—better than all the hon. Members present being satisfied—the conclusions would be satisfactory to the people employed in Remploy today. That is our main concern.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): I shall call as many hon. Members as I can fit into the time, but I urge them to be as brief as possible, because I want to give the Minister and the Front-Bench spokesmen time to speak as well.

3.20 pm

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who, typically, has raised this issue on behalf of his constituents. I have known the man since I got into Parliament and I know how assiduous he has been in his duties, and about fighting for the people he represents. Well done to him again.

Next Section Index Home Page