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25 July 2007 : Column 286WH—continued

I have been a regular visitor over the years since my election at the Remploy factory in Jarrow, which has been identified for closure. It has always been a
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pleasure to visit. As has already been mentioned, there are no moans or whinges. Members of Parliament go to many factories and meet many people and employees. There is always a group in each place with a gripe or a grievance. Not in Remploy. It is a happy place, where the people get on with their job and do a good job for the community. It has been in existence for some 50 years now. The factory does similar work to two other plants in the country—at Derby and Longbenton—making textiles for car seats. There are 36 staff, who have great experience. They have a tremendous spread of skills, such is the diversification that they have had to undertake over the years to change jobs and become involved in other work.

When I have visited, I have met senior staff and management. When the review was announced I met, on the site, senior management who had come up from Manchester. I received the impression that they were not overly concerned. They said, “No one can promise you anything, but Jarrow can wash its face compared with many other plants in the country,” so there was not really a problem, and we relayed that to a mass meeting of the work force. I was honestly shocked when I found out that it was to be closed, because those were not the vibes or messages that I had been getting.

I thought about it. I thought that there must be a reason for what was happening. Was it because Jarrow did not have the disability statistics required for a Remploy plant? Certainly that was not true of the plant itself, because of the 36 people employed there 32 are registered disabled; and it was certainly not true of Jarrow and South Tyneside because more than 10,000 people there are registered with a disability. That box was not ticked. I wondered whether it was something about the economy. Was it that there was a booming jobs programme in Jarrow, so that those disabled people could easily be moved out into the wider economy and get jobs? That is nonsense. In South Tyneside we have nearly double the national average for unemployment. There are no places for those people to go. Another statistic is that four out of every 10 kids in South Tyneside have no parent in work.

Frank Cook: Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that 50 per cent. of job placements made by Remploy have lasted less than six months because the individuals could not stay the pace in mainstream employment?

Mr. Hepburn: That is a relevant point, and the whole reason for starting up Remploy in the first place. I met Bob Warner, the chief executive, and he seemed to be a very sincere man. We discussed the review and my concerns, and I admit, having listened to my hon. Friend, that I was a bit soft-soaped as well: we would find jobs for the people at the factory and sort them out with other places.

I thought, “If Jarrow is way out of line with the rest of the country—if the subsidies going into Jarrow are ridiculous—maybe there is a point.” I said my ta-ra’s and farewells, and said, “Can you put it in writing?” which he did. When I got the letter it said

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There was nothing in it about efficiencies, business plans or anything of the kind. There was no sense of that.

I got in touch with the trade unions, and among them no one is saying that one plant should stay open at the expense of another. The trade unions have been working with me because they want to expose the folly of the exercise that has gone on under the Remploy management.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): On the trade unions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) mentioned the Back-Bench group’s independent investigation, and the charitable organisations that it is claimed support the proposals. Those organisations gave evidence at the inquiry—I was a member of the Back-Bench group—and, on persistent and robust questioning, they conceded that they had not consulted anyone in Remploy prior to pledging their support. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the trade unions who represent the Remploy work force, and not those organisations that claim to represent their views?

Mr. Hepburn: That is a very good point. We all look to the Remploy management to look after its employees, but once again it has been proved that in this country—in any society—it is the trade unions that look after working people, and not the management.

The trade unions said to me that if I wanted a case for Jarrow—and no one was saying that one plant should close or anything like that—the cost per year for each employee in Jarrow is £16,000. The two plants that are staying open at the expense of Jarrow have a higher cost per year. In the south, there are subsidies ranging up to £28,000 a year for employees in factories that are staying open under the closure programme. There are 28 factories that are not closing that have a higher cost per year than Jarrow. There are plants staying open that have even been proved by the unions to have a less skilled work force than the Jarrow one; such things happen in many plants when it has been necessary to move on, reskill and do different things. Also, in other plants, there have been significant managerial and staffing issues, which have been well publicised in the press.

No case has been made for the closure of the Jarrow plant on the basis of efficiency, disability figures or economics. We must ask what on earth is going on. Can we not, at this late stage, stop this whole silly programme, and get the Minister to put a halt to it? There is a new Government. We are now talking about open scrutiny and pre-legislative scrutiny. Why not put the matter to a Select Committee and let us look at it sensibly? It has to stop; and it has to stop here today.

3.28 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate and, more importantly, on comprehensively taking apart the Remploy board’s arguments for closure.

I want to concentrate my remarks in the few minutes that I have left on the Ashington factory in my constituency. The factory employs some 60 disabled people and sits in the centre of an area of relatively high unemployment.
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It is a former mining area, and, to be fair to the Government, they have invested substantial sums of money in the past 10 years, which are starting to make a difference. Unfortunately, however, the local economy is still quite fragile.

Most of the current jobs in Remploy are in manufacturing. The Ashington site manufactures wheelchairs, but the work force are flexible enough to be able to change that almost overnight, if required. We have lost an awful lot of manufacturing jobs recently: the Dewhurst factory, which is right next door to the Remploy factory, closed recently with the loss of 450 jobs; Lite-On, a company that manufactures power transformers, closed recently with the loss of 90 jobs; two chemical companies closed recently with the loss of 250 jobs; and a local foundry closed some six months ago with the loss of 157 manufacturing jobs. I could go on and on.

The rationale behind the closure of the Ashington factory was, apparently, that there were sufficient jobs in the local economy to accommodate all the people displaced from Remploy by the closure. An appraisal was supposed to have taken place before the closure announcement was made. I put it to the Minister that no such appraisal could possibly have taken place in the Ashington area. I checked the situation with the jobcentre at 2.15 pm. There are currently vacancies for three permanent manufacturing jobs and one temporary one in the whole of the Ashington jobcentre area, which covers the majority of south-east Northumberland. I would be interested to know what work the Remploy board carried out to assess whether jobs are available elsewhere. I genuinely support the Government in trying to assist disabled people into mainstream employment, but that should not be at the expense of the disabled people currently employed in the Remploy factory.

Following the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), I should mention that there are above average levels of people on incapacity benefit in my area. Indeed, the number of people on incapacity benefit and disability benefit is 60 per cent. higher in my constituency than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Also, as was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), many of whose constituents work in the Remploy factory in Ashington, the factory covers a huge geographical area—indeed, it is the only Remploy factory in the whole of Northumberland. The rest of south-east Northumberland has exactly the same problems as my constituency.

The Remploy factory in Ashington is a centre of excellence for training. Ashington has developed an excellent learning centre in partnership with the learning and skills council. It has developed a training and conference suite with state-of-the-art information technology equipment. It is working closely with disabled employees, and 20 of them are in training for performance machine operations at national vocational qualification level 2. Eight employees are doing NVQ level 2 in literacy and numeracy through learndirect in order that they may move into IT training.

Remploy has entered into a contract with Business Link to provide 16 employees with a European computer driving licence course. That will be delivered by the GMB union on-site. Five employees have just returned from training with the Sunderland enterprise training
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association in highly skilled MIG and TIG—metal inert gas and tungsten inert gas—welding and completed their full safety appraisal in brazing and welding. There is a wide range of other specialist courses for employees: safety in relation to abrasive wheels, jig and fixture manufacture, robotic welding, NVQ level 3 in IT and much more. That training is even offered to the families of those employed in the Ashington factory.

We should not be closing the factory; we should be expanding it. It is a first-class facility. I am mindful of the time, but I ask the Minister to stop the closure programme and press for continued production at the Ashington factory. We should expand the training section on-site at Ashington and not allow it to close. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has said, people from the rest of Northumberland will not travel to a shop in Ashington. It is essential that we keep the site where it is and maintain the facility for the people who are employed there and for the other people who could use it. It would be a first-class centre for other disabled people in Northumberland to use as a training facility to move into employment.

3.33 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Remploy’s York factory employs 52 people. I have visited it many times. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said, Remploy is a family. People get more than just employment; they get companionship, friendship and social support.

I was very disappointed to learn in May that my local factory was scheduled for closure. Earlier, I had been told that the company might reduce the volume of manufacturing in York but replace it with other measures to find work for disabled people, and I support the new measures that Remploy proposes to take to get larger numbers of disabled people into mainstream employment. However, I do think that the Remploy management have misunderstood and underestimated the difficulties that existing employees will face in making the move. Many of them have worked in the factory for a long time. Some could possibly make do in mainstream employment, but they would lose the support and companionship that they have had for many years from their work colleagues in Remploy factories. If any of them do move into other employment, it is extremely important that they are not separated into ones and twos, but that contracts are negotiated with local employers to take five or six people, so that they go out together.

It is absolutely essential in a place such as York that manufacturing of some kind continues, because some people will be unable to move into mainstream employment and, although the company has offered a very generous package to maintain for life the salary that they currently receive, if people do not have a job to go for, they do not have a meaningful life ahead of them.

Last August, when it was clear that some change was in the wind in Remploy, I asked for Remploy to meet City of York council and to examine the possibility of finding alternative premises for a manufacturing base for disabled people in York. I still urge them to do that. City of York council has its own factory for disabled people in York. Why does not Remploy go into partnership with it, buy a 50 per cent. stake and provide opportunities to work in a similar environment for Remploy workers who cannot move into mainstream employment?

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I am very grateful to you, Mrs. Anderson, for giving me a few minutes in which to speak before the winding-up speeches at the end of the debate. I have no time to say more, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider what will happen to those for whom mainstream employment is not a realistic option.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman for keeping his contribution brief. I have now been able to call all those who put in a request to speak. I am sorry, but we must move on to the speeches by those on the Front Benches.

3.36 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. He and other hon. Members spoke with great passion and feeling on what is a very important issue. All of us must be conscious that we are talking about the lives and employment of a considerable number of people—more than 2,500 disabled people, whose life chances and prospects are nowhere near as great as those of other members of society. We must be conscious that in any community, and particularly in some of the communities that we have heard about this afternoon, any jobs are very hard to find and to replace. I understand that finding mainstream employment for disabled people, independent living and equality are ideals worth fighting for and working towards. However, that should not and cannot be used as an excuse to close factories where many people—I am told that half the people are over 50—have worked for many years.

I was very disappointed when I heard the hon. Member for Stockton, North speak about the lack of proper consultation and the fact that a proper business case has not been presented to show what will happen to Remploy over the next few years. I hope that the Minister can answer that. I want Remploy to change and develop, not only for current employees but for future employees. I would like it to develop and provide training opportunities for many more disabled people. However, it cannot do that if an area such as the north-east, where there is greater than average unemployment, faces such large-scale closures.

We have to be conscious of what the way forward is. I will not speak for long, because I think that it is more important that we listen to the Minister, but I believe that there can be a way forward that is constructive and that moves Remploy into spending the resources that the Government say are available. If, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North says, the unions have a plan, that should be the plan that we follow.

I hope that the Minister will take account of hon. Members’ comments and come up with a plan that will move Remploy forward and ensure that its disabled employees, many of whom have been there for many years and have little chance of gaining other meaningful employment, particularly in the manufacturing sector, can have a future.

3.40 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. He mentioned three previous Westminster Hall debates that he secured;
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I well remember the first, on police reorganisation, in which I spoke, and I congratulate him on the success that it had in changing Government policy. I fear that he will be less happy with my remarks today. All hon. Members have spoken with considerable passion and have shown their local knowledge about their constituents who are employed by Remploy. I shall try to keep my remarks relatively brief to allow the Minister to deal with the many specific points that Members have raised.

I am familiar with these issues, as I have a Remploy factory in my constituency, albeit a small one, and I have been engaging with the Remploy management. My experience has been different from those of other hon. Members, as I have found the management to be very open and transparent. My local factory was slated for closure, but a local solution has been found to place its employees with another organisation that will take over the factory and secure their jobs. Local managers have worked incredibly hard on that, but I am aware that in other parts of the country, particularly those with larger facilities, that sort of solution might not be possible.

We support the principle of reform. The Government have had the challenge of spending a limited amount of money on trying to secure the move of more disabled employees into mainstream employment. However, while we support the principle, we have some questions for the Minister, and I hope that she will address them in her remarks as well as dealing with specifics.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and I met the chief executive of Remploy to discuss some of these issues before today’s debate. It would be helpful if the Minister set out the age profile of the Remploy employees who are affected and the types of disabilities that they have, and compared them to those whom Remploy has successfully placed in mainstream employment. Members have voiced their concerns about whether the employees who would be affected by the proposed closures could be found jobs in mainstream employment. Remploy has guaranteed their terms and conditions, including their final salary pension schemes, and that is welcome, but it is important that in addition to those financial security guarantees they have meaningful, valued work to do rather than just receiving payments. I know that that is also important to the Minister. It would be helpful if she outlined for those employees who might be affected by closure what will happen if they cannot be placed in mainstream employment. What possible solutions do she and Remploy envisage for their future employment if it is not to be in a commercial, mainstream organisation?

One or two Members asked about opportunities for using public procurement in terms of new business opportunities. The trade unions have also raised that issue and written to all Members. Will the Minister touch on that point? In the public sector, much is spent on people rather than on purchasing services, so I am not sure, at first glance, how significant a business opportunity that is. However, I want to make sure that both Remploy and the Minister have considered it, just to check that every avenue is being investigated.

Many hon. Members mentioned the consultation process that is under way, which is due to finish in August. Final proposals will then go from Remploy to the Minister in early September. What are the Minister’s plans for making a final decision? Will it be
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done before the House returns in October, or does she plan to wait until we are back to announce it to the House?

The hon. Member for Stockton, North mentioned our veterans, particularly those who have served in current conflicts, and I agree with some of his comments in that regard. In my previous role as the shadow Minister for Veterans, I had the opportunity to visit such young men at Selly Oak and Headley Court. I met and talked to some very young men who have been tremendously damaged in serving our country, and the spirit and courage in their characters was truly inspirational. I just wanted to make those points, given that the hon. Gentleman had raised the issue. With that, I draw my comments to a close to allow the Minister to deal with the wide-ranging issues that have been raised.

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