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29 Nov 2007 : Column 450

Today’s announcement will come as a massive disappointment for thousands of Remploy workers, some of whom are in my constituency at the factory in Leatherhead, which is to be closed as a result of today’s news. I suspect that it is also a massive disappointment for hon. Members on both sides of the House who have campaigned in support of the factories threatened with closures. I do not imagine that many Labour Members entered Parliament expecting to be part of a Government who would take tough decisions such as this.

We know and understand the nature of the challenge that Remploy faces, and I know that its staff do as well. I have visited several of the threatened factories, which have hard-working and committed work forces who are very anxious about the future. No one on either side of the House would disagree with the objective of helping as many people as possible with disabilities back into mainstream employment. We all want to live in a society where people with disabilities are not outsiders. If the proposals are about achieving that goal, then they are worthy of support. However, there is one huge proviso: they have to work.

I understand the financial issues behind these changes and the importance of the Government offering a wide range of programmes to get people with disabilities into mainstream employment. However, we must not forget the interests of the people whose lives will be turned upside down by today’s announcement. The terms on offer to Remploy staff may be generous—their pay and benefits are protected—but no one will benefit if some of them end up being paid to sit at home.

I know that there are anxieties among the staff about whether the company can really deliver its promises on job placements. When I visited one factory, its workers had just been told by head office that there were nearly 100 vacancies open to them locally, but their local employment placement specialists in Remploy said that the actual number was only one third of that figure, so there is still some confusion. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what work he has done to reassure himself, and hon. Members, that Remploy is really capable of placing all the people who are being displaced by this announcement in proper mainstream jobs?

At the time of the Labour party conference, on the day that the unions were threatening to embarrass Ministers about the proposed closures and to call strike action, the Secretary of State responded—arguably he bought them off—with the promise of a review. The Government are good at using reviews as a way of burying bad news these days, but they are not so good at doing the actual burying. Is it not true that precious little has changed since the announcement of that review? Is it not true that even the factories not in the immediate closure programme now face financial targets so stringent that in reality they have little prospect of meeting them? Why did it take the threat of strike action to get the Government to consider seriously the issue of public procurement? I appreciate that the Secretary of State is new to his job, so it may well be that that question should be directed at his predecessor. Why did it take so long, however, before the issue was addressed in detail?

Will the Secretary of State say how much extra potential Remploy business he has identified since his announcement in September? What practical commitments have the Government made to the company to enable it
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to continue to identify potential additional business in future? What progress has he made in encouraging public bodies to adopt the permitted rules that would allow them to give Remploy and similar organisations a ring-fenced position in the procurement process?

I agree with the Secretary of State that everyone now needs to work together to ensure that the remaining factories have a strong future. Let me assure Remploy and its employees that the next Conservative Government will continue the process of identifying additional potential procurement opportunities for them and the public sector work force.

No one can have spoken to Remploy employees in the past few months without gaining the clear impression that from their perspective the whole process could and should have been handled more carefully and sensitively. If the process really works and all the employees are placed successfully in mainstream work, it will prove to be right and justified. The challenge now is for Remploy to prove that it can keep its promises to those employees.

Mr. Hain: I agree that Remploy’s challenge now is to keep its promises; the challenge for Ministers and the whole House is to make sure that that happens. Of course it is disappointing—I am disappointed—that even one factory has to close and that others are having to merge. However, that is the reality that we face. I urge the hon. Gentleman to join every other Member with an interest in Remploy in helping to make sure that the maximum amount of public and private procurement is levered in, and that, in respect of factories that are closing—I have said that 10 might—other options are explored with the help of the relevant local Members.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we might forget about the future of Remploy employees; that is precisely why we have built protections into their future in respect of maintaining their pensions and pay. We are very aware of the need to remember them and to make sure that they have the maximum support. I do not know about his information, but there are 660,000 job vacancies across the United Kingdom in every constituency, and they include vacancies at Remploy factories. Remploy has a successful record, which, as a result of the agreement and plan, will improve to quadruple the number—at present 5,000—that it gets into mainstream jobs. We have built in protection to monitor the situation and make sure that we check whether the jobs are sustainable. That is a result of last week’s meetings, which I have described.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that nothing had changed since the Labour conference, but a lot has. We have had agreement with the trade unions on a range of different measures, although they have not accepted the closures and, like us all, are disappointed about them. There has been a lot of agreement with trade union leaders, which is why we have managed to move forward. We have also identified 15 sites that will now not be closed; others may have a future under a badge different from Remploy’s.

The hon. Gentleman asked what procurement activity I had undertaken. I have discussed that matter with a range of Cabinet colleagues, and I have written to every one of them to say that we want the maximum procurement to be levered in from Whitehall and to go to Remploy.
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That has had the personal backing of the Prime Minister at a Cabinet meeting. We have also contacted the Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments about the issue and encouraged all local MPs to do the same.

As in so many other instances, after listening to the hon. Gentleman I do not know what his alternative policy is. In the absence of one, I suggest that he backs our programme.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I, too, am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement, which will mean that more Remploy factories can stay open, through better marketing and procurement of Remploy products. That is welcome. The Liberal Democrats agree that promoting mainstream employment must be the right approach to deliver independent living and that expanding Remploy’s successful inter-work programmes is the right thing to do.

Will the Secretary of State confirm—I think that he did in his statement—that the expansion of Remploy’s Interwork programme to help 20,000 disabled people into mainstream work will still go ahead? He made it clear in his statement and in his letter to Paul Kenny that the plan is based on “extremely ambitious” targets. Although it is a nice surprise to hear about extreme ambition from the Department for Work and Pensions, will the Secretary of State say where the priority will lie if the targets cannot be met? Will it be retaining the factories announced today or helping more disabled people into mainstream work? If he cannot answer that question, will he confirm that he will make available additional resources to Remploy if it needs them to meet its target of getting 20,000 disabled people into work every year?

Today’s statement will have a devastating effect on the current Remploy work force in the factories to be closed. In areas such as north Wales, there are real local concerns about the local proposals. It seems that there is still room for local flexibility in applying the plans. What process will the Secretary of State put in place to make sure that local concerns can still be heard?

Remploy employees have endured a long period of uncertainty, which has caused real stress. Over what time scale will the closures be phased, and how long will the affected employees have to find alternative employment? Does Remploy have the additional capacity to provide the counselling and skills-focused help needed by workers in the closure areas?

Finally, will the Secretary of State put the Government’s money where his mouth is on the procurement proposals? Although his Department has made good use of Remploy services and products, answers that I have received to written questions show that the Wales Office, the Scotland Office, the Northern Ireland Office, the former Department for Education and Skills, the former Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the former Department of Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury did not make any use whatever of Remploy products and services. What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage his Cabinet colleagues in those Departments to make use of Remploy services and products and guarantee that their Departments play a role in helping Remploy meet its procurement targets?

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Mr. Hain: Let me express my gratitude for the hon. Gentleman’s support for the primary objective of putting more disabled workers into mainstream employment and of sustaining a viable, supported employment network.

The hon. Gentleman asked about what other initiatives I am taking in respect of other Departments. Officials and trade union representatives are going to each Department to see what is possible. A range of Ministers has helped with that, and we are going to take it forward. He asked whether the 20,000 disabled people—that represents a quadrupling of the number that Remploy will help into mainstream work—will be at risk if the ambitious plan is not realised. The answer is no: that part of Remploy’s funding is protected. We have already committed an average of more than £111 million per year of the £550 million to subsidise Remploy for the future. There will also be modernisation funding of more than £100 million to help, particularly with the transition; substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money is rightly going to help some of our most vulnerable disabled employees.

Of course I will respond to local concerns. The hon. Gentleman will have noted that I mentioned both Brynamman and Ystradgynlais, proposals for which have been put to me. The hon. Members for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) have already made their own plans and we are happy to talk to them about the future. However, I do not want to give false optimism; my announcements today are based on a credible plan, but a very ambitious one. Of course, we will co-operate with anybody who wants to do so about alternative options.

The hon. Gentleman asked about time scales. The proposals will kick in pretty well immediately from 1 December. However, the new funding and arrangements have to come in by the end of March, when the £555 million cost envelope over five years begins.

Finally, let me point out what would happen if we did not take these steps. By the end of the five-year plan, we would be looking at funding Remploy with an additional £60 million. That is equivalent to a substantial part of our specialist disability programmes—Workstep, access to work, work preparation and job introduction. To find that money, we would need to deprive almost 20,000 disabled people of support from those programmes. There are tough choices involved. However, I believe that this plan is the best available, and I will work with anybody to improve it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware, as I am sure he is, that anybody who visits a Remploy factory is drawn to the immediate conclusion that it is a place where people go to work who would otherwise never get to work—some of them, although not all—because it is part of an extended family? Those people are also members of a trade union, which is as important today as it has always been. He said that he is going to talk to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and all these others, but will he go further? An instruction needs to go out to every Remploy management. Most of them are pathetic, as he knows. They have to be told to meet local authorities such as Derbyshire county council, Nottinghamshire county council and others in the area to try to save the two factories at Pinxton and Mansfield. If he will take
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those extra steps, I am sure that they will be able to come up with even more procurement, and the result will probably be to save another 200, 300 or however many hundred jobs.

Mr. Hain: I very much appreciate and echo my hon. Friend’s passionate support for Remploy workers. I first met Remploy workers some 17 years ago in my constituency. The Neath plant has subsequently merged and moved to Baglan, but I work closely with it. He rightly says that there is an extended family atmosphere, which is very precious, and that they are trade union organised, which he, like me, welcomes. As I said, we have already been in touch with the Administrations in Scotland and Wales, who have promised to do what they can, but every local authority, health trust, health authority and local education authority should look to do what it can. I cannot promise that the Mansfield and Pinxton factories will remain Remploy-badged factories, but there is interest in at least some of the staff transferring, and I will consider all credible options. However, I must not mislead anybody. It will be tough to keep the existing 55 sites open, and we must all concentrate on reaching that ambitious target. If there are other options for those sites, such as being transferred or taken over, we will do our best to help to achieve that.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Secretary of State did not make clear the basis on which it was decided to save some factories from closure but not others. Having visited the factory in Bradford, I can tell him that many people there are very concerned at the prospect of its closing. A lot of them have worked there for many years, and while some may be able to find jobs in mainstream employment, very many will not, and those who do so may not stay for long. I hope that he will think again about the Bradford factory, which serves a very important social purpose for those people. None of them wants to sit at home and get their money—they go there because they want to do something worth while.

Mr. Hain: I appreciate the case that the hon. Gentleman makes on behalf of the Bradford site, as I do the case made by every hon. Member on behalf of their local site. We explored every available opportunity, as did Remploy. In the process of doing so, we managed to save an additional 15 factories, and there have already been discussions involving 10 of the others due for closure. I can only repeat that if a credible option comes up we will help to support it, and I urge everybody to get behind making this plan work.

Perhaps I should now deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Yes, I do want managers to go out and do what they can. As I said, that has not been happening properly or with sufficient vigour and expertise over the years, which is why we have ended up where we are. Nevertheless, I cannot promise the Bradford site any other future than the one that I have announced to the House.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned factories several times in his statement. He will be aware that I have already made several representations on behalf of a place of employment in Fforestfach in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West
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(Mr. Williams), where 30 of my constituents work. It is an anomaly, in that it is not a factory but a shared service centre. Unfortunately, it does not appear on any of the closure lists or other lists that have been published. My constituents are very concerned about their jobs. They have been doing a sterling job in purchasing, paying bills, auditing and accounting. I would like reassurance on their behalf that they will be given the same consideration as those in the factories, because their jobs are equally important.

Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend. She has made strong representations to me and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) about the shared service centre. She will see from the documentation that it is scheduled for merger, with some of the staff being transferred to the nearby site at Baglan. We will look closely at her representations, but I cannot promise any different outcome at this stage, as we had the discussions only a couple of days ago.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I am especially concerned about young adults with learning difficulties. Does the Secretary of State agree that they need and deserve access to training and employment, because they are vulnerable adults and it is vital for their self-esteem and self-confidence that they get this help? He said a lot about physically disabled adults, but what is there in the measures that he announced specifically to assist young adults with learning difficulties who need this assistance so badly?

Mr. Hain: Our objective is to continue to work with young adults with stress or other forms of perhaps more serious mental illness, and those with a range of learning difficulties, to move them off incapacity benefit into mainstream jobs. We have been pretty successful in doing that. The hon. Gentleman is right that they need help, especially the young adults. That is why, earlier this week, we announced new programmes to support under-25s in moving off incapacity benefit—the stock of under-25s rather than those recently applying—and to reduce the numbers on incapacity benefit to significantly below what they are even now. He will know that over the past four years we have reversed the trend that started under the Conservative Government, when the numbers on incapacity benefit trebled, by reducing those numbers. In the past four years, some 120,000 people have come off incapacity benefit—the first time that this has been turned around. More and more people will do so, including those with stress, a mental illness or some form of learning disability.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): This will be a very sad day in Plymouth, which has one of the factories listed for closure, where 35 people currently work. I understand that 21 of those people are looking for alternative employment, and I hope that they will soon join the 93 who have been found employment locally since April this year in local Remploy services alone; there are a lot of other help services in Plymouth. It has already been agreed that four or five of them will go to Pluss—a sheltered workshop that has, by diversifying, done exactly what
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Remploy should have been doing all these years. May I invite my right hon. Friend, along with my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, to visit Pluss, to give assurances that there will be employment and a place for all those 35 people, and to see how that award-winning factory operates so that he can draw on that experience when he works with Remploy to take these matters forward?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion of disabled people in her constituency and I pay tribute to the way in which she has worked with the staff concerned to try to offer people a new future; she has been hugely successful so far. We will continue to work together to ensure that there is a future for others affected. The case of Pluss is a model example of what should have been possible a long time ago, and I will look to see whether I can visit, because I have heard a lot about it from her, as has my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is right—it is a good example of some of the things that Remploy should have done a long time ago.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I was pleased to hear mention of Brynamman and Ystradgynlais in the statement made by the Secretary of State. The hon. Members for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), myself, the unions, the local authorities and the work force have been working for a successful conclusion, knowing that the status quo cannot survive. Key to the issue is the Vector furniture product; without that, those two manufacturing units cannot survive. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will intervene on Remploy to ensure that the Vector furniture product can remain with those two very effective work forces?

Mr. Hain: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said, and also for the work of Joyce Watson, the local Welsh Assembly Member. She came to see me last Friday to discuss a plan that she had talked about with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) to establish whether European convergence funding could be put to a different use, perhaps involving some sort of training facility on the Brynamman site. We are also looking at what can be done on the Ystradgynlais site, but I cannot hold out any prospect of retaining the existing furniture work distributed between those sites, because that would put at risk the Baglan site—a new, state-of-the-art facility that I opened a few years ago. The matter needs more work as a result of the problems that have built up, but let us see what we can do in respect of those two sites outside the Remploy network.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people for the work that they have done to address this difficult issue. Will my right hon. Friend advise the House on whether mainstream work remains the prime objective of employment policy on disabled people and on whether supported employment should be seen, wherever possible, as a stepping stone to mainstream employment, rather than an end in itself?

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