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If the Conservatives were to get into power, cuts would happen-and not only in the areas to which I have referred. I also believe that the NHS would not be safe in Conservative hands. What evidence do I have?
Only this afternoon, for example, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said that the national health service was based on a plan drawn up by William Beveridge. It was not; Aneurin Bevan, a good Welshman from Tredegar, was the architect of the NHS. Of course, the Conservatives have always been lukewarm with regard to the national health service-that is why they voted against its formation back in 1948, and we will not forget it.
It is important that we recognise that there are clear divisions in this House between how we approach the central issues that face this country. This debate, although a good debate, has been a polarised one as well. In the near future, this country, too, will have to make a clear choice between what is on offer from the two main parties. The fundamental choice is between a Labour party that will talk about sensible investment and fairness and a Conservative party that will talk about austerity; a Labour party that will talk about sustained modernisation and a Conservative party that will talk about crude cuts; and a Labour party that will talk about an optimistic future and a Conservative party that will talk about a pessimistic, backward-looking future.
With that kind of choice, the people of Wales will wholeheartedly support the party that is represented on the Labour side of the House. That is why I look to the general election, whenever it comes, with confidence.
Mr. Speaker: At this, the conclusion of the debate on Welsh affairs, I should report that I have received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), withdrawing a remark made during the last Welsh questions on 10 February, and this will be published in the Official Report.
While I firmly believe that the expression I used is accurate and, in the context of a robust exchange, was appropriate, I accept your ruling with regard to the use of non-Parliamentary language and I withdraw the phrase.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House of Commons the proposed closure of the E.ON call centre in Rayleigh, in the heart of my constituency. I am glad to be supported in the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), several of whose constituents also work at this facility, and who may seek to contribute briefly if he is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who is speaking at the Oxford Union this evening, and who also has several constituents employed at E.ON, also wishes to have his support for them recorded; I shall return to his views on the matter a little later. I am of course also grateful to the Minister for being here. In a few minutes I will have several detailed questions to put to her, of which I have attempted to give her at least some notice.
The background to this decision is that E.ON UK has three divisions, one of which, the retail division, incorporates the company's call centres. Several years ago, the division was loss-making and the company therefore put in a turnaround programme, asking employees to alter working practices and improve productivity in an attempt to return the division to profitability. The work force in Rayleigh, who number more than 600 employees, actively participated in this programme to help to restore the division to financial health. As I understand it, E.ON has not yet published its 2009 results for the division, but it is apparently back in profit by some tens of millions of pounds, so quite a turnaround appears to have taken place, to which my constituents have actively contributed. I realise that the company needs to make a profit, but given that the division is now doing so again and that the employees in Rayleigh, who earn an average of less than £20,000 a year, have contributed actively to that turnaround, it seems scant reward for them to be made redundant by E.ON shortly thereafter.
Nevertheless, the company announced on 20 January that it was proposing to close the Rayleigh call centre, with the loss of more than 600 jobs. I was fortunate enough, Mr. Speaker, to catch your eye that day at Prime Minister's questions, and that gave me an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister for an assurance that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Jobcentre Plus network would do everything possible to assist my constituents if they were to be made redundant. In response, the Prime Minister assured me that the rapid response unit of the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus would be made available to assist my constituents. I shall return to that point in a moment.
On that same day, I met Mr. Paul Golby, the chief executive of E.ON UK. We spent the best part of an hour discussing the issue, and as part of that meeting I asked him directly if the company might be prepared to reconsider its decision, particularly if it were to receive any kind of counter-proposal.
I subsequently visited the E.ON call centre last Friday, during the half-term recess, where I had meetings with the management of the retail division, including Mr. David Bird, the customer services director. I then met a representative group of 20 employees from the site, including some of the trade union representatives, to discuss the situation. Some of the points that I wish to put to the Minister this evening come directly from that meeting and will be made on behalf of the employees.
The company has now initiated a consultation process on the future of the Rayleigh site, as it is required to by law. It is due to conclude by mid-April. If the company then decided to proceed with the closure, E.ON would apparently begin to make people redundant at the end of June. The trade unions at the site are apparently now preparing a counter-proposal to put to the company, with the aim of making savings but keeping the site open. It is still being generated, and I have not seen a draft, but if it is credible I urge E.ON to consider it very carefully indeed. I do not want to be accused of raising false hope, but if there were any way that the company might reconsider on the basis of the counter-proposal, my constituents, and indeed their Member of Parliament, would be very grateful.
I hope that I have been able to give the Minister a clear picture of the current situation. Given what I have said, I have several questions to put to the Minister this evening. First, with regard to the future of the site, the employees would clearly like to continue working, if not for E.ON then for someone else. The work force are highly skilled at what they do, and I understand that the company would be prepared to consider selling the centre as a going concern if a suitable buyer could be found. Given that some UK companies are now bringing call centre jobs back onshore, can the Minister offer any advice on companies that might be considering such a process? If she does not have an answer tonight, will she liaise with colleagues in her Department or elsewhere in Government and then get back to me promptly if she is able to obtain any information about a potential alternative investor for the Rayleigh call centre facility, who might be encouraged to consider the idea more closely and help save my constituents' jobs? I am sure that she can understand why I ask the question, and any assistance would be greatly appreciated.
Secondly, E.ON has employed an outplacement company called Right Management to assist employees to find other work if the proposed closure proceeds. Essex Jobcentre Plus has also attempted to contact the company to provide advice and support to employees, but so far E.ON has not actively taken up its offer of assistance. I have no prior reason to doubt the abilities of Right Management, but I would like to have the maximum possible support available to my constituents. Following my visit, E.ON has assured me that it will improve communication with Jobcentre Plus, and in fairness I
believe that it has been in contact with that organisation. However, will the Minister reiterate the types of services that Jobcentre Plus might be able to offer my constituents in these circumstances, so that they know what is available?
Thirdly, if the closure goes ahead, E.ON is apparently prepared to provide redundancy pay beyond the statutory minimum. However, it is currently also saying that if any employee were to leave before the end of June because they had been fortunate to secure another job, they might have to forfeit their redundancy payment. That seems unfair, particularly given the large number of employees who could otherwise all come on to the job market at the same time. I am told that the company might well be prepared to consider waiving that condition, but that doing so would effectively require the consent of the trade unions, at least before the consultation period concludes. I would definitely like the company to alter its position on that issue, so can the Minister confirm whether the situation as it has been explained to me is correct?
Fourthly, when I spoke to employees last week a number expressed understandable concern at the need to continue to meet mortgage payments if they lose their jobs with E.ON. Will the Minister summarise the help that would be available to help individuals meet their mortgage payments if they were to be made redundant through no fault of their own?
Fifthly, if the closure is confirmed, Rochford district council has offered in principle to organise an open day at the call centre, which staff from its economic development office and benefits division could attend to offer advice to employees on access to benefits, and links to other employers in the district. When I put that idea to the employee representatives, it was quite well received. They suggested that local training organisations and colleges might also like to be invited, to give those employees who might be interested an opportunity to consider retraining packages or even returning to further or higher education. If that were to go ahead, would the Department be prepared to support it?
Sixthly, I hope that the Minister, and indeed you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to place on record a brief letter of support from my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, who is clearly rather upset with E.ON and who has this to say about the situation:
"Whilst it was absolutely the right thing to do to contact my hon. Friend about E.ON's proposed closure of the call centre in Rayleigh, I think it was less than courteous not to contact myself as a neighbouring MP who has many constituents working at the centre. This announcement has come as a terrible blow to the region and to families who work at the centre. As of yet, I have had no explanation as to why this decision is being made, which would-at the very least-give the local authorities and Members of Parliament concerned an opportunity to see if they could persuade the company to change its mind."
"As a long-standing supporter of this energy company, I am very disappointed that they are embarking upon a very short-sighted decision, which I believe they will regret. I very much hope they will reverse their decision and intend to support my hon. Friend's efforts in that endeavour."
As I am sure the Minister can understand, I hope that E.ON might recognise the very real contribution that its employees at Rayleigh have made to returning its retail
division to profitability, and that it might reconsider the proposed closure at the conclusion of the consultation process in April. However, if that proves not to be the case, as many employees at the site obviously fear-that was apparent during my visit-I would like the maximum amount of support to be made available to my constituents, not only by Right Management under contract to E.ON, but by the Department, the Jobcentre Plus network and the relevant local authorities, including Rochford district council and Essex county council, both of which, I believe, stand ready to assist if they can.
E.ON is currently the largest private sector employer in Rayleigh, and therefore I hope the Minister can understand my concern at what the closure could mean not only for the employees and their families, but for the wider community in Rayleigh, including local businesses that have previously relied on its custom. This is a blow for the town, not just the company and the people who work there.
As I am sure the Minister will acknowledge, no Member of Parliament likes the prospect of a major redundancy in their constituency, and I am no exception. I hope she appreciates the non-partisan spirit in which I have sought to raise this issue this evening, and I look forward very much to hearing what she has to say, some of which, I hope, will be of material help to my constituents. I reiterate that some of the questions that I have put to her effectively come from the meeting I had at the facility.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) on securing this very important debate. He is not only a valued member of the shadow Cabinet, but a first-rate constituency MP and a most excellent neighbour whom I am proud to call my friend. As he said, despite E.ON being in Rayleigh, a number of constituents who I have the honour of representing will also be losing their jobs. I thank him for this opportunity to raise the issue and to develop it further by considering the call centre and high-volume processing jobs that have been lost across south Essex.
Sadly, the closure of E.ON is not an isolated case. Southend has suffered from several large closures resulting in substantial job losses in the past year or two. One hundred and sixty-four jobs were lost at Lloyds TSB, and at the end of last year, just before Christmas, it was announced that 750 jobs will be lost at HSBC. The staff at the bank based above Victoria shopping centre were taken to the Odeon and told that the entire Southend HSBC credit card and collection service would be moved to Birmingham in 2011. For most at both E.ON and HSBC, moving such a distance would not be an option. After the announcement of the HSBC closure, I wrote to the group chief executive and expressed my concern about whether my constituents were receiving all the assistance that they could. I received some reassurance and I am looking forward to meeting face to face representatives from the bank, in addition to the conversations that I have had to date.
HMRC will shed 1,000 jobs in Southend by 2011. The situation is even more difficult to come to terms with for those who have lost their jobs, because the Department
for Communities and Local Government rightly deems Southend a regeneration zone at the same time as the Treasury discourages jobs being relocated to the town.
The cumulative loss of call centre jobs deserves a co-ordinated response from the Government. This may also be an opportunity to look again at the Lyons review, which stopped civil service jobs coming to areas of deprivation such as Southend, East. I share my hon. Friend's views about the closure of E.ON and am especially interested to hear the Minister's response to his questions about the support that the Jobcentre Plus network can provide to those being made redundant, some of whom will be looking for jobs in institutions that are already closing in Southend. This is a very grave matter, and I look forward to the Minister's response.
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) on securing this debate on what is an important subject. I certainly realise that the announcement by E.ON UK is very bad news for his constituents. The company is a significant local employer and he has clearly set out the serious impact that the potential loss of 600 jobs will have in the area. The global recession that we have witnessed over the past 18 months has, sadly, left its mark on many communities around the country, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) also made clear.
I will try to address the points made by the hon. Member for Rayleigh, and I first wish to assure him that we will work with the Government office for the east of England and the East of England Development Agency to explore whether other companies might be interested in buying the centre. One of my officials from Go East spoke to E.ON this morning and I understand that the company is currently focused on the consultation exercise. Once that has been completed we can enter into more detailed discussions with the company about the disposal of the site. However, as the hon. Gentleman himself said, it is important not to raise expectations in the area, because we are not aware of any potential buyers at present. We will of course continue discussions. EEDA has also been in touch with the company and will be able to move forward as soon as the final announcement is made. I will keep in touch with him should any potential investors be identified.
On the hon. Gentleman's second point, he is right to emphasise how important it is that Jobcentre Plus plays a leading role in the support services provided to E.ON employees. The rapid response service offered by Jobcentre Plus will work with E.ON and its employees to identify the support, advice and information that they would need. I know that a meeting has taken place this afternoon between Jobcentre Plus representatives and E.ON, to discuss the package of support to be provided in the event of closure.
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