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25 July 2007 : Column 293WH—continued

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing his third debate in Westminster Hall on an issue that is important to us all. I do not declare an interest, as such, but I, too, have a Remploy factory in my constituency. Like many hon. Members present, I am a frequent visitor to my local factory and I know the level of skill and commitment among the work force and management there.

It is worth remembering why Remploy was established after the second world war. As my hon. Friend reminded us, it was set up to provide rehabilitation for injured servicemen and women. The aim was to provide development and training through work to enable disabled workers to return to mainstream employment. It was not necessarily meant to be a place of permanent employment for those servicemen and women, who, with the commitment that they brought from the second world war, wanted to get back into mainstream employment. Today, Remploy has 83 sites and employs about 5,000 disabled people across a range of sectors, including textiles, the manufacture of office furniture, bookbinding and IT work. However, the progression from Remploy factories into mainstream employment is very low: only 19 people made that progression last year. If we are to reflect on Remploy’s ethic, we must consider what is happening.

In the past 60 years, the nature of the Remploy factory has changed very little in the face of globalisation, the growth of the service sector and other impacts on the economy. We must consider the changes that the combination of new technology and our having the most far-reaching disability rights legislation in Europe have made to the lives of disabled people. At the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), I have visited some of the voluntary organisations that she supports, such as Action for Blind People, and seen how technology has changed the way that many blind people work in the mainstream. They can now work in a way that was not envisaged many years ago. I see that my hon. Friend is nodding in agreement.

For the past two years, not just since May, we have been engaged in a discussion about how to modernise Remploy, taking into account that we want to get more disabled people into employment and that more disabled
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people want to be in employment. We are also considering how to manage that expectation and how to use the undoubted skills of Remploy to support that ambition. We talk about Remploy as if it is only about the factory network, but it is not. Some 5,000 people are employed in Remploy factories, but nearly another 5,000 people are supported by Remploy out in mainstream employment—they are placed there year in, year out.

I should like to clarify the situation. A misinterpretation has perhaps been given that somehow the people in mainstream employment are there only for a few weeks or a few months at a time. In fact, Remploy has a good record of sustaining people in mainstream employment. Given that we have touched on the figures, I should say that we are talking about in excess of three years in mainstream employment, and that is not a bad record. We are not talking about the 40 years of the Remploy factory, but the employment prospects and employment profile of disabled people are changing, in much the same way as the employment of non-disabled people is.

I must gently say to colleagues that disabled people have the same ambitions and aspirations as non-disabled people: they want to be able to choose what they want to do. If I were a disabled person in Stirling and I had an opportunity to go to Remploy, as my only option I would have to want to be a machinist. That is a noble profession, as I appreciate when I see people, mainly women, in my Remploy factory doing sophisticated pieces of sewing to make chemical suits and protection suits for police and our service personnel, but what if I did not want to be a machinist and I wanted to do something else? The only option in the Remploy complex in my area—I am sure that we could examine every single other area—in some ways limits the opportunities for disabled people, and that is why we need to modernise.

The ambitions and aspirations of disabled people have changed dramatically because of some of the fantastic things that this Government have done. We have opened up opportunities, opened up a rights agenda and opened up employment, and we have supported disabled people in employment.

Frank Cook rose—

Mrs. McGuire: I shall take an intervention, given that my hon. Friend initiated the debate, but I want to reply properly to the points made in it.

Frank Cook: I just want the Minister to know that I do not think that anybody present would have any argument or dispute with what is being said. We would all agree fully with the claims that are being made. What we need to get out of today is whether she is prepared to ensure that the right kind of consultation is conducted before the end of consultation period—it must be clear, transparent and open, everything must be laid on the table and a business case must be expressed.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for giving me that hook to move on in my contribution. The consultation on Remploy, the discussion with colleagues in the House and the way in which we have conducted the business of the modernisation of Remploy have all been done in open and transparent way.

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Colleagues present were at previous meetings, in which I was the Minister, when we presented the situation that we were facing with Remploy. This is not about a budget cut, because we are maintaining Remploy’s budget. Some £115 million a year, times five over the period—a guarantee of £555 million, or some half a billion pounds—will go to support Remploy. We put all of that and the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the table for our colleagues. We put the report on the website so that there was no doubt that when that independent assessment was conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Dr. Stephen Duckworth, who is an independent disability employment adviser, everyone was well aware of the challenges.

My hon. Friend mentioned that he felt that the trade unions have not perhaps had the opportunity to engage in the issue. I hope that he will accept the comments that I am about to make. Since last July, when I made a statement to the House, there have been 10 meetings of the joint working party to discuss the modernisation plans. Nothing was on the table and open discussion with our trade union colleagues—with the consortium—took place on 10 separate occasions.

Separately, the company has funded the unions’ own meetings, which have run to a minimum of nine. Remploy has also paid Grant Thornton to support the trade unions—about £100,000 was involved in that. The company has provided substantial extra data every time that they have been requested by the trade union consortium, except data that are personal and commercially confidential. Since 22 May, formal consultation meetings have taken place. There have been weekly meetings between Remploy and the trade unions—I believe that one is taking place as we sit here today.

I believe that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned that he had met the chairman of Remploy, although it might have been my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) who said that. The chairman of Remploy has had meetings with all the general secretaries of the Remploy trade unions, and the trade unions gave two presentations to the
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board—again, things are being done in an open and transparent way. The chairman met the leaders of the trade union consortium, Phil Davies and Jennie Formby, prior to the announcement on 22 May.

The fact that there is not a balance sheet for factories has been highlighted, but Remploy has given all the relevant financial information and, as I have said, meetings are held on a weekly basis. It has given the profit and loss accounts for factories and the balance sheet for businesses. I hope that colleagues will recognise that within one Remploy factory there may be different businesses; they are not all doing the same thing.

I have a few minutes left to talk about a complex subject, one that has generated a great deal of anguish among Remploy workers. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York mentioned the package that has been put together to support Remploy employees if the proposals are accepted—these are currently only proposals presented by the board. One of the reasons why it is difficult to get local solutions is that we need to get a discussion going about the proposals. We must start to engage, so that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) can have highlighted some of the issues in his area, and so that the powerful case on the training facilities that Remploy can offer, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), can be made as part of the modernisation programme.

I have said on other occasions in this House that I hope that hon. Members will engage with the consultation, but I also make a plea to them. I see more trade union officials or former trade union officials in this Chamber than one could shake a stick at, especially compared with most other debates in this House. Those colleagues know that when one enters a negotiation, one goes in to discuss things. If we are to have a meaningful consultation and negotiation, I ask us all to encourage that discussion. We have to modernise Remploy, but we are not cutting the budget. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said that he will give more money to modernise Remploy. We need to modernise it so that we can get far more disabled people into work. I hope that we should all be able to take some pride in that.

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Land Maintenance Companies

3.59 pm

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): It is a great honour and a privilege to be an elected MP, but with that privilege come responsibilities and rights. One of those responsibilities is that we should be measured in our contributions when we are talking about constituency issues or companies that are causing concern. I shall talk about Greenbelt Group Ltd, which is a discreditable building company whose performance and behaviour has been a disgrace.

As you are aware, Mrs. Anderson, as part of the planning process, developers must provide open spaces on new estates and show that plans are in place for the long-term care of those estates. In the past, open spaces were managed by local authorities, but in recent years the onus for maintaining such areas has fallen on developers. They have tended to offload that responsibility in one of two ways. They have transferred ownership of the land and responsibility for maintaining it either to the local authority, a democratically elected body, or to the home owners. Home owners have been obliged to appoint a factor; if the factor failed, they could be fired and another company could be appointed. Both arrangements gave home owners control, but a worrying new trend is emerging, and urgent action is needed to avert a crisis that could affect tens of thousands of home owners throughout the UK.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I found out this week that some of my constituents in Loanhead are having similar problems. Will my hon. Friend discuss with me after this debate how best I can help my constituents?

Mr. Devine: I shall be delighted to help my hon. Friend to deal with the company and its performance and behaviour.

Some major developers, such as Bryant Homes, Gladedale, Persimmon, and Wimpey, are transferring ownership of open spaces and the sole right to manage them to a single private provider: Greenbelt Group Ltd. Developers are awarding Greenbelt the exclusive right for all time to charge home owners for managing open spaces on new estates. Home owners are bound by conditions in the title deeds to pay the company an annual fee for maintaining open spaces on estates. In some cases, that payment is nearly £400 a year. In return, Greenbelt is obliged to look after open spaces to the standards outlined in the title deeds. However, emerging evidence shows that the company is failing to meet its obligations on many estates.

Greenbelt claims to manage various estates throughout the UK—I shall return to the number—but at least 11 are in my constituency, and constituents on every one of those estates are reporting problems. They tell me that Greenbelt continually fails to carry out maintenance work to the standard outlined in the title deeds. Greenbelt is extremely difficult to engage with, and complaints have been dismissed or ignored. The company’s management practices are poor.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Earlier this week, my office was contacted by a company purporting to represent Greenbelt following my inquiries to determine whether Greenbelt had any contracts in my constituency.
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Although I did not take the call personally, I got the impression from my staff member that the company representing Greenbelt accepted that its communication standards had fallen woefully short in the past, but said that it was taking steps to address the problem. Is that the experience of my hon. Friend and his constituents?

Mr. Devine: That is a helpful contribution. When we are in court, I hope that I can use my hon. Friend as a witness.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): The possibility of ending up in court is intriguing. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members may be aware that until this week I had two issues with Greenbelt in my constituency, and through my hon. Friend’s actions I understand that I now have three. In association with what he has just said, does he agree that there is no clear and solid working relationship between Greenbelt and residents? Residents are often confused, irrespective of what the title deeds say. Who looks at title deeds every week or every year? Residents are confused about who is responsible for green spaces, and in some instances, the local authority is also confused.

Mr. Devine: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, and I want to develop that argument. Part of Greenbelt’s success has been in getting away without being highlighted. People have not been sure who is in control of and provides the factoring for open spaces.

In my constituency, play parks are badly maintained, with dangerous objects such as broken glass, litter, large fallen trees, unfenced drainage ponds and so on in areas used by children. Many people in my constituency are withholding payment for non-delivery, and they have received threatening letters. I shall return to that, because it could be part of a court case. The company is systematically attempting to extract payment for services not rendered, and there are serious questions to answer about its practices and how much money it has obtained in that way.

Far and away the biggest complaint from home owners is that they cannot escape from that failing provider. The act of buying a home is locking people inescapably into a monopoly contract with a company, which contradicts the principles of competition and contractual and consumer law in this country.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I also have difficulties with the company in Bridge of Weir in my constituency where my constituents have suffered that sort of harassment. The fundamental problem is the company’s lack of accountability, and the way in which prices are negotiated. People are happy to pay for the service if they can see what it is and what the charge is. As I understand it, the charges are non-negotiable.

Mr. Devine: My hon. Friend makes a relevant point. People are prepared to pay for the service, but they are paying up to £400 and not receiving a service. It is striking that one of his constituents on one of Greenbelt’s estates received a letter on 12 July stating that they will not have to pay because of the disrepair of the estate, but that on 13 July another resident on the same estate was told that they must pay up. The company does not seem to know what it is doing.

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Gordon Banks: Does my hon. Friend agree that companies such as Greenbelt should be obliged by legislation to provide an annual report to individual estates stating what it has done this year and what it is planning to do next year, so that residents have an idea of where the money is being spent, if indeed it is being spent?

Mr. Devine: That is an interesting point. I shall refer to the publicity on Greenbelt’s website and its annual report later, when I shall return to my hon. Friend’s point.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD) rose—

Mr. Devine: This like the black plague. I happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Willie Rennie: I, too, have problems with Greenbelt in my constituency, which has many new housing estates. I have been trying to deal with Greenbelt on a case-by-case basis and to get it to live up to its promises. Throughout, I have heard many commitments about communication which have never been followed through.

Today, I had a report from one of the estates saying that two children have been injured during the past week by a faulty piece of equipment that had been poorly maintained by Greenbelt. Does the hon. Gentleman think that councils should be encouraged to take back responsibility for the management of such estates, as well as new estates?

Mr. Devine: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who will be very helpful when we get to court, because Greenbelt is denying that any problems exist.

I want to speak about Greenbelt’s chief executive. At two public meetings in my constituency recently, two directors of the company turned up—Alex Middleton and Richard Taylor. Alex Middleton was an interesting character. He did not like the fact that I described his company publicly as “Farepak for home owners”, and he said that it was unacceptable for me to speak in the media or to raise the issue in this place. I had to explain to him that that was part of my job as a Member of Parliament.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I have had the privilege of working with my hon. Friend for a number of years and have always felt that he acted in an honourable manner, but I have received correspondence from Greenbelt which questions his balance. It says clearly that the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend contains a number of gross inaccuracies—for example, he said that Greenbelt serves 50,000 homes when it serves just over 18,000; he said that it holds 750 developments when it has only 241; he said that the cost for each property is about £180 when it is only £100. Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that Greenbelt says that he is giving inaccurate information not only to his constituents but to the Members of this House who supported his early-day motion?

Mr. Devine: Coincidentally, I just happen to have Greenbelt’s annual report. On the back are the statistics:

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At the school that I went to, 20,000 and 30,000 made 50,000. Greenbelt goes on to say that it is

What is going on is a bullying strategy, which I will describe if hon. Members let me continue.

Alex Middleton made various comments telling me what I could and could not do. That is serious. At a public meeting, he said that the company had had problems with its subcontractors. In fact, this week’s Scotland on Sunday reported that one of the company’s directors said that there had been problems

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