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25 Mar 2008 : Column 11WH—continued

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The current situation is a huge disappointment—indeed, disappointment is too weak a word. The hon. Member for Stockton, North made the case in a very emotional but very controlled way, and the same views have been expressed by a number of other hon. Members. We are absolutely appalled that, in the most deprived areas, including those of south Wales, we are losing the Remploy presence. Those are the very places where it is most difficult for Remploy employees to find alternative employment, yet they are being denuded of the opportunities provided by Remploy.

Both Brynamman and Ystradgynlais are in the communities first programme in Wales, which is a programme for the 100 most deprived communities in Wales. In those communities, special investment will be made as a result of Assembly intervention, and I am very pleased that that is happening. However, while that investment is going in, the Remploy presence is being removed. Employees are being offered alternative employment, but at a considerable distance from where they live. It is 20-odd miles away, and the public transport is not very good. Naturally, a number of those employees, who have found not only satisfaction in their work but a sense of community and of engagement with their fellow workers, are not happy to be dislocated and moved a great distance from their homes. Remploy provides such people not only with employment, but with the opportunity to find a sense of purpose and of dignity through employment in their community.

We have suffered from a huge loss of manufacturing in those areas, but both of the Remploy manufacturing units were producing a range of desirable furniture for schools and science-based furniture, for which there was a good market. If anyone could claim intellectual property rights, it was those two factories, which developed products that were in demand. I do not want to make this a party political issue, but production is being moved to Baglan, which is 20 miles away from the current factory and is in another constituency. Baglan is part of the M4 corridor and is in the more prosperous part of south Wales, so the move is a huge disappointment. Employees are dismayed that the product that they have driven forward is being taken from them and moved to another Remploy factory that could develop other products.

Frank Cook: Bad management, again.

Mr. Williams: The hon. Gentleman has made the point that I am trying to make, which is not a political point. The move is bad management and goes against the Remploy philosophy. Remploy was set up to provide employment to unemployed people and to those returning from armed conflict, so that they would have job opportunities in their community through which they could have dignity and self-worth. The project has been badly managed. Employees and the unions have been willing to bend over backwards to ensure that a presence is maintained in the heads of the valleys area, which is among the most deprived areas in Wales. It is a disgrace that Remploy has turned down that opportunity.

10.22 am

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I shall be brief and make only general points. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate and on speaking so passionately. He clearly feels very strongly about this issue.

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I visited the Remploy factory in Bradford when it was first earmarked for closure and spoke to the people who worked there, who were absolutely devastated at the prospect. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North has said, some of them have worked in the factory for many years and have been loyal and faithful. I understand that the Minister visited the Bradford factory when it was first earmarked for closure, and that eggs and tomatoes were thrown at her. I do not condone such behaviour, but I hope that it emphasised to her how strongly people feel about the closure.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): That is not true.

Philip Davies: It certainly reported to be the case in the local newspaper.

The proposed closures mean that many people face uncertainty. Previously, factories that were earmarked for closure were saved, and others that were told they would be saved were earmarked for closure. I hope that the Minister understands that the uncertainty faced by the work force in such situations was incredibly destabilising.

On securing people’s employment in mainstream employment, I sometimes wonder whether an element of political correctness comes into that. Saying that everybody should have a job in mainstream employment is similar to saying that we should close special schools and put everyone into mainstream education. We should have a “horses for courses” strategy. Mainstream employment might work for those who are capable of holding down such a job, but that is not the case for all the people to whom I spoke at the Remploy factory in Bradford, and I am sure that that is true in many other factories. Some of those people readily told me that they would not be able to get jobs elsewhere and would be out of work. Others might get jobs, only to find that those jobs last for just a few weeks. That has already happened, because some people found alternative employment but lost their jobs after a few weeks when things did not work out for them or for the employer.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North made a powerful point about the great problem of the culture of worklessness in this country. There are people who are able to work but do not want to, and there are families who have no culture of work, sometimes for generations. There are people who prefer to sit at home, on benefits, living off the back of the taxpayer. The people who work in Remploy factories are a shining example to everyone. They probably could sit at home, on benefits, living off the taxpayer and not contributing anything, but they desperately do not want that. They have consciously decided not to sit at home on benefits, languishing at the taxpayer’s expense. They want to do something worth while and go out to work.

The Government have said that everyone’s employment terms will be protected, even if their factory closes. That is all very well, and I am sure that it gives some comfort to those involved, but it does not take away the reason that those people are working in the first place. They are doing it not because of the money it generates, but because they want to do something worth while. They want to earn their money and do not want to sit at home collecting the money that they were getting before. They want to go out and do something worth while and feel some dignity for their work, but that is about to be taken from them.

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I am not one for wasting taxpayers’ money, and I believe that the burden of taxation should be lower, but the Government waste money, willy-nilly, on all kinds of things on an industrial scale. There are people in this country who should be in work but who are not, and people have benefits poured on them that they do not deserve. If the Government want to save taxpayers’ money, there are plenty of ways for them to do so, but this is not one of them. The social value of Remploy far outweighs the economic cost, and the hard work of the people who work there should be rewarded by some loyalty from the Government. The Government should reconsider what they are doing to the people who work in Remploy factories. They are punishing people who want to do the decent thing, and we should always be on the side of those who try to do the right thing.

People who work in Remploy factories are trying to do the right thing—they want to do a hard day’s work for a fair day’s pay. I hope that the Government will not close all the factories that they have earmarked for closure. Rather than saving some and closing some, they should reconsider the matter and see the value of Remploy. I hope that they will take on board the message that the hon. Member for Stockton, North has put forward so passionately and movingly, and save the jobs of the people who want to work in those factories.

10.28 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate and on the assiduous support and commitment that he has shown to Remploy over a considerable period of time. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) for raising their legitimate concerns about the way in which the policy that was announced on 29 November has been formulated and promulgated.

The Liberal Democrat party supports the broad principle that disabled people should be given employment and helped to gain employment in the mainstream. The Government can and should do much more to enable that to happen. Nevertheless, the proposals that were announced by the former Secretary of State on 29 November—to keep 55 factories open, merge 11 and close 17, which was down from the original 34—represent major changes and cause concern.

In his statement, the former Secretary of State said:

My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) was much more succinct about what those closures and changes will mean for local people, and his points have been reflected in some of the comments made today. He said:

We have heard this morning why there are local concerns about what is happening on the ground, and I hope that the Minister will respond to those when she replies. I would like to put a number of issues to her
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about how Remploy is going about its business four months on from that plan. The original plan was that sales from public procurement through Remploy would rise from £200 million to £298 million, but in the revised plan that the former Secretary of State announced on 29 November that was increased to £461 million.

We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole about the changes affecting the factory in her constituency, where the existing work stream is being moved. Despite the fact that she is willing to be a local champion and help ensure that the public procurement takes place, no one seems to be doing anything about it and the work force are sitting there, wondering what is happening. In those circumstances, if people say that they do not know what the future is, it is not unexpected that they take redundancy and go on the dole, which is regrettable.

Annette Brooke: I think that my hon. Friend will also agree that there is not only the uncertainty of not knowing the product, but the objective and requirement to generate a high level of profit on it.

Paul Rowen: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. What is the product, when will it be in place and how is that stretching target—to use the former Secretary of State’s term—of £461 million to be met? We are within weeks of the start of the new financial year, and it is intolerable that hon. Members and employees in those factories do not know what the product is or what their future will be. That is why I share the concern of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on what effect all of that will have.

I represent a constituency in which many people are on incapacity benefit—last week, one particular ward in the constituency was quoted as being the worst place in that regard. How will we ensure that we get more of those people back into work, and how do those stretching targets fit into that overall plan? When the original announcement was made, it was claimed that there was the possibility that private enterprise would be found for six factories—those based in Lydney, Glasgow Hillington, St. Helens, Treforest, Ystradgynlais and Brynamman. When asked about progress on that, the Minister responded in a written answer that it was a matter for Remploy, so I hope that she will comment on that in her reply.

Returning to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole about local concerns, will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in those factories and what is being done to find new products for those factories, such as the one in Poole, that are losing their product lines?

Finally, there is the quadrupling of the target for Remploy employment services, which is a very stretching target, as employment figures are to rise from just over 7,000 last year to over 20,000 by 2013. Will the Minister please tell us what progress Remploy is making in developing its employment services, what plans there are to ensure that the proposed new centres will be opened and how those proposals fit with the Government’s overall strategy to reduce worklessness?

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10.35 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. I was here for the debate that he secured last July, and the cast of characters was rather similar to today’s debate, as the Minister and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) were there. It was interesting and moving to listen to the update from the hon. Member for Stockton, North on what has happened in his area, and it is worth drawing attention to the speeches by the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), whose remarks, like those of the hon. Member for Stockton, North, were focused on specific factories either in their constituencies or that employ people from their constituencies.

Given the broad title of the debate, I want to focus on the employment services aspect of the business, which the hon. Member for Rochdale has mentioned, consider how that appears to be going and revisit the philosophical debate about Remploy’s purpose and what the Government’s support for that should be focused on.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North has referred to Remploy’s origins as a business that focused on supporting those who returned from the war having been injured, which is perfectly true, and he mentioned some current conflicts. If one looks further back, one sees that the business was not intended to be a destination where those employees would stay for their entire careers. It was created as a staging post and an opportunity to give those employees somewhere to go when they returned from war, possibly damaged, so that they could be trained, have their capabilities assessed and be moved into employment.

Frank Cook: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, right down to the syllable. It is right and proper that we should have that as an end game and a mission statement. Remploy was set up for that purpose, but on a non-profit-making basis. That basis has since changed without any kind of open statement.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I do not mean to sound facetious, but it is certainly true that Remploy is not a profit-making company—indeed, it gets £110 million of support a year from the Government. The Minister will correct me if I have got those figures wrong. Whatever Remploy is, it is not a profit-making business, but it needs to keep its costs low. The current problem is that the money that the Government quite rightly spend on supporting disabled people—£500 million over five years—has been focused on a relatively small number of people until now, as there are less than 5,000 people in the factory network. As the Minister said when the programme of changes was announced, the aim is to move more of that money to support people to get back into mainstream employment, and we support the broad thrust of those proposals.

Frank Cook: Once again, the hon. Gentleman is making eminent good sense, but that being the case, will he speculate on why Remploy would wish to outsource work to Bulgaria?

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Mr. Harper: I will leave the Minister to answer that, because she has the facts at her disposal to deal with the specific points concerning the factory in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, whereas I simply do not have those details at my disposal.

I want to touch on the nature of what Remploy should be doing. It is perfectly true that for those employees working in the Remploy factories—I had one in my constituency—particularly those who have been employed in them for a considerable time, the change will be unsettling and, potentially, very worrying. I can focus only on how the matter has been handled in my constituency, although I recognise that that factory was much smaller than others. I have taken great pains to speak to local management, who were open and transparent about the matter, to discover the destination of each of the individuals employed at the factory and what was sorted out for them. Around half were moved to another sheltered employer, which is run by Gloucestershire county council. Some decided to take voluntary redundancy, some because of their age and some because of what they wanted to do, and some found alternative employment.

I am satisfied that every employee has been accounted for, and although one or two of them contacted my office when the proposals were first mooted because they were concerned about the uncertainly, no concerned employees have subsequently come to see me. The concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Stockton, North are not borne out by my experience in my constituency, so his experience in his constituency is clearly different.

Mr. Roger Williams: In a sense, the hon. Gentleman is right that certain individuals who are employed by Remploy will be accommodated, although I do not believe that taking redundancy is necessarily a victory, especially when the Government are trying to get people off benefit and into employment. Surely the fact that a centre of employment for disabled people has been lost is a loss not only to the people who were employed there but to other unemployed people in the area who are looking for employment.

Mr. Harper: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he brings me nicely to my next point, which is that in the year since April 2007, Remploy’s employment services business found work in mainstream employment for more than 6,000 people. Actually, it has helped more people into such work than it employs in its entire factory network. That is worth mentioning, because I am told by all the disability organisations that I deal with in my Front-Bench role, and by most of the disabled people whom I deal with, that disabled people want to work in mainstream employment. They want the same chances and opportunities as everyone else, and they want to be able to maximise their potential.

I did not agree with the whole of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, but one of the points that I very much agreed with is that, generally, many disabled people—certainly those whom I meet who are on incapacity benefit—are absolutely desperate to work and to make a contribution. They need help and support to do so, which is why I want to concentrate the rest of my remarks on the part of Remploy’s business that enables them to do that. Looking at the information
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that I have received—no doubt the Minister will touch on it—Remploy has indeed had some considerable success.

As I have mentioned, Remploy found work for more than 6,000 disabled people since last year, which is a significant growth of 25 per cent. on the previous year. We should remember that the point of restructuring the factory network is to increase that number still further, and to get 20,000 people into mainstream employment every year. It is clear that that is absolutely necessary if the Minister’s goal, which is also my party’s goal, to get a significant number of people who are currently on incapacity benefit back to work is to be realised.

It is worth mentioning the sort of disabilities that people have. More than one third of the people placed by Remploy have a learning disability or a mental health condition. That is incredibly important, because a significant number of people on incapacity benefit have those challenges.

It is also worth looking at the types of work into which those people were placed. Several hon. Members have expressed concern about losing manufacturing jobs. However, because the economy has changed, there will be far fewer manufacturing jobs. Let us look at where Remploy has placed people: one fifth of them were placed in business and financial services; 15 per cent. were placed in education, health and social work; and some 10 per cent. were placed in manufacturing. Those roles are spread across all the different employment sectors, which is a good thing because, again, disabled people do not want to work in manufacturing only—they want the same range of opportunities as anybody else.

Picking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, Remploy works closely with employers. Employer research that it carried out shows that there is

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