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 Julyeight months agoand 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?
the outcome of a period of intensive consultations with the trade unions over plans to modernise Remploy.
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:
For the past two years, not just since May, we have been engaged in a discussion about how to modernise Remploy. [Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 293WH.]
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: I certainly do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentlemans 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 becausethe point he was making relates to thispeople 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 heldfreehold, 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 themeI 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 peopleI suppose we should call them recipientsaway from benefit and into full employment: yet in the case we are considering, individualshuman beings who have worked for years at Remploy and given sterling service in sometimes difficult conditionsare 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 othersan 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
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.
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...Remploy has a good record of sustaining people in mainstream employment.
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:
I ask us all to encourage that discussion.[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 294-7WH.]
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 issueit is only one of the issuesof work being moved from his local Remploy factory to Bulgaria. Outsourcing to Bulgaria? I have nothing against BulgariansI 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 directionbut 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.
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 anybodys mind, particularly the Ministers, about whether I am exaggerating, overstating the case or allowing myself to become angry. I am not becoming angryI 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 whilestrangely enough, most ministerial letters dobut one particular bit says:
We carefully considered the Companys proposals and also the alternative plan put forward by the trade unions.
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 am writing to you about the treatment of disabled workers at the Remploy Stockton factory, which is earmarked for closure. My colleagues and I have been trying to obtain information about Employment Services and how it would work for those interested in remaining on Remploys books and working for a host company. Remploy as a company and Mr. Waterhouse specifically have refused to give Stockton Remploy factory copies of leaflets with useful information about how Employment Services will work.
This information was continually refused until, during phone calls from Frank Cook...and myself...to Mr. Paul Warren, your Private Secretary, the position was clearly explained to him. Mr. Warren was extremely helpful and promised that we would have the information the same day. When Paul Warren requested this information on behalf of Stockton factory this information, which had been refused for many months
this information...had been refused for many months.
was made available in two hours.
I believe that it is a disgraceful state of affairs when we had to resort to contacting your department before this information was made available.
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
country? Were they all denied the kind of information that they were supposed to be receiving?
Remploy Senior Management have over many months force fed us with information about Voluntary Redundancy while at the same time withholding information about how Employment Services would work. This is clearly part of the Remploy Management plan to push as many disabled Remploy workers to take Voluntary Redundancy, which is the cheapest option for the company. I should also like to point out that Stockton Remploy factory has been starved of work for many months and suddenly it has been flooded with work only a few weeks before the deadline of March 6th 2008.
the former Work and Pensions Minister stated that for those disabled workers who were unable to be placed in mainstream employment suitable sheltered employment would be found. When our Remploy factory in Stockton is closed there will not be any suitable sheltered employment in the Teesside area, as Hartlepool Remploy factory will also be closed.
Remploy claim that charity shops and other voluntary work are suitable replacements for sheltered factories and workshops. The problem with charity shops is that there are grave health and safety risks, which make them unsuitable places of work for a number of disabled workers. Remploy management have consistently refused to answer the question about what would happen to those disabled workers who are unsuitable to work in charity shops or mainstream employment.
The situation is that at present because of the arrogant and dismissive way in which Remploy Senior Management have treated us over many months most of the disabled workers at Remploy Stockton will take voluntary redundancy rather than stay on Remploys books.
This clearly shows that the claim of Remploy Senior Management that they understand the needs of disabled workers is simply not correct.
Remploy have also offered voluntary redundancy to factories which are remaining open, such as Spennymoor, which is the closest factory to Stockton factory. At Spennymoor factory 66% of the disabled factory workforce have asked for voluntary redundancy, which means that a number of them will have to remain to maintain suitable manning levels while Stockton factory where most of the workforce wished to stay has been closed. This is further proof that the whole of the closure program has been very badly handled.
Could I close by asking that there is very careful monitoring of the treatment of those who remain on Remploy Terms and Conditions with Employment Services as there is a great deal of distrust of Remploy Senior Management.
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?
Frank Cook: I could not agree more. My thesis throughout has been about the managements 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 itit is goingbut 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.
My officials have contacted the company to establish the facts regarding the situation at Stockton.
in particular to enquire why Mr Precious was not given a handbook when he requested one and also to establish the reason for the recent high workload.
The company has explained that their Employment Adviser was acting on what they thought was in the best interest of their employees.
Rather than just issue the handbook, the adviser takes time to explain the content and discuss the options with the individual.
Something like: thecatsatonthemat. Those people might be disabled, but they are intelligent. They could manage the business themselves, and to infinitely higher standards than the existing management.