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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 March 2008

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Remploy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Khan.]

9.30 am

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): Good morning, Mr. Atkinson; I hope that you had a good Easter weekend break. As mine are the opening shots in the House immediately following the break, I am not surprised to see that the Chamber is so sparsely populated. I should be grateful, I suppose, that there are as many Members present as there are. I ask you to give my thanks to Mr. Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate.

I am very happy to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. As you know, I normally occupy the seat in which you now sit, and I am sorry to visit this subject on you. It is the second time I have had to raise the issue. Each time I have spoken in Westminster Hall it has been about subjects that have given me particular concern and immediate pain, in regard to my constituency. I last addressed the Chamber on 25 July—eight months ago—and for the past 10 days I have been racking my brains to try to find something that might have happened in that time to change what I am about to say from what I said then. Sadly, little has changed apart from the fact that the disregard shown towards my constituents and the work force of Remploy has continued, and got worse. I am bound to ask myself, and the House, what on earth has been going on. What have the management been up to? Probably more important for Parliament, what on earth has the Department been doing? Has it been doing anything at all?

I remind the House that back in July I recorded the fact that the subject first came to my attention by way of a visit from Mr. Waterhouse, of Remploy fame, who wanted to tell me about what he called

It was more than 12 months ago that he gave me that information. He charmed the life out of me, and persuaded me to believe him. Since then, sad to say, chapter after chapter has proved conclusively that he misled me. I do not say that he did so deliberately, but if he did not he must have been a fool. The outcome has been clear evidence of negligence, indolence and dereliction of duty.

I went over a catalogue of exchanges and correspondence that had taken place up to the time of the debate. I do not want to rehearse it now, because it is already on record. However, I remind the House that the Minister remarked in replying:


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That was last July, and we are now eight months on. The situation has got worse and that will continue. At a time when the Government say that they want to move people off benefits and into work, they are going about it in a very strange way.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Frank Cook: I am getting into a real theme and you are spoiling it, young man.

Philip Davies: I certainly do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow; I congratulate him on the work that he has done. In Bradford the Remploy factory has been closed down with little consultation with the work force. Many of the people who worked there have no chance of finding another job and many of those who do so probably will not last long in it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the social value of the Remploy factories far outweighs their economic cost, simply because—the point he was making relates to this—people do not want to sit at home and get the money that they were getting before, they want to do something worth while, and work?

Frank Cook: That young man has been reading my script. I have been looking to see whether Bradford is identified in a list of factories about to close, and sadly I cannot find it, but I advise the hon. Gentleman to consult the Library debate pack. We must commend the Library for its debate packs. The one for this debate is superb; it contains a list of factories that are closing and the basis on which they are held—freehold, ground lease or leasehold. I advise him to find out which of those applied to Bradford, because I have discovered that the factory in my constituency was freehold. Would you believe it? While consultation was still going on about whether to keep the workers in employment, the factory was up for sale. That is a motive that we have not yet heard about among the arguments. Is this simply a matter of wanting to realise the value of the plots on which the factories sit, and being prepared to sacrifice the workers on the altar of financial gain? It is a serious question, and I hope for a serious answer.

I have lost my theme—I shall render that young man redundant at the end of the debate. I was reminding the House that although the Minister said that there had been two years of discussions, eight months later nothing has changed, at a time when the Government are trying to move people—I suppose we should call them recipients—away from benefit and into full employment: yet in the case we are considering, individuals—human beings who have worked for years at Remploy and given sterling service in sometimes difficult conditions—are being put out of work. It does no good for Mr. Waterhouse or the Minister to try to persuade me that those people can be placed safely in mainstream employment, because they cannot. They have characteristics, problems and needs that cannot be provided for in mainstream employment. They have been accustomed to working in a family atmosphere, where one individual takes care of another, or several others—an atmosphere full of compassion and humanity.

Now the idea is to put those employees in the mainstream: we are told they can go into charity shops. There is nothing wrong with charity shops, but good heavens, will those workers get great enjoyment waiting for customers
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to come in and ask what is on the bottom shelf, when before they were gainfully employed, doing a productive job? The whole thing is farcical.

In July’s debate, the Minister said:

In fact, that is wrong. Most of those who gained any kind of placement in mainstream employment were very temporary and found out within a short time that they did not fit in. Not only are they not happy, but the work force that must accommodate them sometimes do not make them welcome, so was that argument plausible? I prefer to use the term “specious”. That situation has gone on consistently.

I must credit some individuals who have tried to bring the circumstances into the full light of day. I name particularly Mr. Phil Davies, of the union GMB. [Interruption.]I do not find that funny. Mr. Davies, who headed a consortium of trade unions, tried to talk sense. He pleaded with Remploy, asked questions and sought answers. GMB is still awaiting information about the financial state of play that it has requested time and again. The Minister told us during our last debate that details of the financial considerations had been given, and that the process was to be transparent and open. That has not been the case. It has not been open. She said:

Any discussion must be a two-way process. It is not only a question of hearing; it is a matter of heeding, and that has not happened.

Not only has that not happened, the situation has been made infinitely worse, as anyone will find who looks at early-day motion 809, tabled on 29 January by my good friend and colleague the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). The early-day motion relates to the issue—it is only one of the issues—of work being moved from his local Remploy factory to Bulgaria. Outsourcing to Bulgaria? I have nothing against Bulgarians—I have spoken in the Bulgarian Parliament on more than one occasion, and I have visited the country several times and helped to educate it away from Soviet methods, if we have managed any progress in that direction—but I must remind the House why Remploy was formed. It was not meant to be a profit-making organisation. Its genesis was in the need to provide employment for disabled servicemen and women who had returned after fighting to defend this country and defeat fascism.

Remploy was set up to give such people a decent way to earn a living and live in dignity. Other disabled people have joined them in those factories since then, and they have provided all sorts of benefits. The factory on the south coast made survival suits at a cost of £20, yet its single franchisee, no more than 300 yards down the street, sold them for £80, and workers could not buy them for less than that. From the outset, it was a strange way to behave and that is the basis of my argument today. The management have been inept, incompetent, incapable and, to my mind, unwelcome, and something ought to be done about it.


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Why was Remploy outsourcing work to Bulgaria in January while closing factories in this country and putting workers back on benefits, when the Government were saying that they wanted to move individuals from benefits into full employment? Is nobody in Whitehall capable of joined-up thinking? It beggars belief that such a situation could be allowed to develop.

There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind, particularly the Minister’s, about whether I am exaggerating, overstating the case or allowing myself to become angry. I am not becoming angry—I am bloody angry already. It is an absolute disgrace that such conduct should be foisted on people who have done a decent job of work for God knows how long. Some of them have done it for longer than some Members of the House have been alive.

I have a letter from the Minister. It is a bit more recent than July; it is dated 29 November 2007. I shall not read it all out, because it goes on for quite a while—strangely enough, most ministerial letters do—but one particular bit says:

Two and a half years into negotiations, the Government finally considered it. Let us see how well it was considered, shall we? I am sorry to take a bit of time, but it is an important issue, and I am determined that it should have the right degree of attention.

I have a letter dated 20 February. That is not a long time ago, is it? The letter is addressed to the Minister, and it says:

“Employment services” means Remploy employment services. Remploy refuses to give leaflets about its own services to its own work force. That is what Mr. Rowland Precious says; the letter is from him.

He goes on:

shall I repeat that?—

I am tempted to say it again, but I will not. The information

If it could be made available in two hours, why was it not made available months before?

Mr. Precious continues:

What was the Department doing until it was alerted? Was it not monitoring the situation? If that is the case in Stockton, is it the case in every other factory in the
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country? Were they all denied the kind of information that they were supposed to be receiving?

Mr. Precious continues:

The factory could not find work before, but suddenly it can—and all the time, there is a “For sale” sign on the outer wall.

Mr. Precious points out that

That demonstrates how successful the process has not been.

Mr. Precious continues:

That will be their legacy.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case. Does he realise that the righteous anger, resentment and frustration felt in Stockton is also felt in York, where a factory is closing? A great campaign, led by the trade union, has met the Prime Minister, but it did not bear fruit. Does my hon. Friend realise that that anger and resentment was reinforced this morning by news in The Guardian that Remploy managers are driving around in Mercedes at public expense? Does that not show a complete lack of priorities?


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Frank Cook: I could not agree more. My thesis throughout has been about the management’s disgraceful behaviour. They have been mendacious, mischievous, arrogant and dismissive. During our last debate on this subject I made the point that if I had treated a purchaser in such a way when I was a construction project manager, I would have been sacked out of hand. I would have been told to leave the keys on my desk and go, which is what ought to happen with the Remploy management.

I have no doubt that the Stockton factory has had it—it is going—but I want to put it on the record that the management have proved themselves incapable of good, responsible management standards. As a result, they ought to be changed quickly, because they will repeat their actions. If we allow them to continue, we will simply be continuing a disease.

The letter from Mr. Precious was sent to the Minister on 20 February. To the best of my knowledge he has yet to receive a reply, but on the next day the Minister wrote to me:

What a concession! “We are now going to establish the facts.” It is a pity that they did not do that before. The Minister continued:

It was not only Mr. Precious who asked for the handbook, but the whole work force. The Minister went on:

How considerate.

Something like: the—cat—sat—on—the—mat. Those people might be disabled, but they are intelligent. They could manage the business themselves, and to infinitely higher standards than the existing management.

Apparently


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