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Remploy Factory Closures (North-East)

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

In the event of a Division in the main Chamber, I shall suspend the sitting for 15 minutes, and for 10 minutes for any subsequent Divisions.

First, I wish to register my pleasure at opening this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. May I ask you to convey to Mr. Speaker my gratitude that I should have been afforded this opportunity? Normally when I speak in this Chamber, I occupy the Chair on which you sit. This is only the third time that I have initiated a debate here, and I say that with humility. The first was on police reorganisation, the second was on the reconfiguration of hospitals on Teesside and today’s is on the closure of Remploy factories.

It is difficult to know where to start, because I have so much information that I could keep the debate going for three weeks. I do not want to keep it going—I want to come to some kind of resolution. I shall try to go through things in chronological order and, being a simple man, I shall do so in simple terms.

On 4 May I was visited in my constituency office by a John Waterhouse. I still have his card. He is the director of contract services of Remploy, and he came to put a case to me. He said in a letter to me that he was

“writing to inform you of the outcome of a period of intensive consultations with the trade unions over plans to modernise Remploy.”

He went on to tell me how long the process had taken and how concerned Remploy was to ensure that individuals with certain incapacities and disabilities would be found suitable employment elsewhere—“mainstream employment”, he called it. He said that Remploy would monitor that employment throughout and ensure that those people were not exploited in any way, and that they would have every benefit that they would normally get in a Remploy atmosphere.

That was all very assuring. I thought at the time, “This sounds a bit too good to be true,” and, as my old granny used to say, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” That is how it has turned out. Since then I have had so much conflicting information and so much that is patently misinformation that I felt compelled to request a second debate on the matter. There has already been a debate on it, and my hon. Friend the Minister had the problem of responding to it. I shall refer to her responses in due course.

After Mr. Waterhouse’s charming onslaught, I received various contacts from trade unionists—Sean McGovern, John Thorman, Neville Anderson—and from the Stockton and district trades council. Most telling was the delegation that came to me from my local factory, which I know quite well. It must be 22 years ago, three years after I came into this place, that the staff there presented me with a quarter-bound, leather-bound book on the history of Stockton. I have to admit that I have never read it, but it is a beautiful piece of bookbinding, which I display on my bookshelf with pride.

Since then, the factory has changed its skills four times. On each occasion it has reskilled to an excellent standard and reports have been received saying that it has been excellent. In other words, it has done everything required of it to produce a revenue stream that justifies its existence. A delegation came to see me and, rather ironically, two of the delegation were a couple whose engagement party I had attended at the factory. The reason for my doing that was that the lady in the item had been one of my pupils when I was a schoolmaster many years ago. I know those people quite well, and they know me. For some reason, they trust me, which is why I am trying on their behalf today.

I got a letter from the leader of that delegation, a man called Rowland Precious—lovely name, isn’t it?—who is ex-military. He had written to Mr. Bob Warner, but in his letter to me he wrote:

“We were informed, yesterday, that Remploy Stockton, is one of the proposed sites for closure. This proposal is based on incorrect information. The work it is based on is Scanning documents under the Offiscope Group of Remploy. Remploy, Stockton changed from Offiscope to e-Cycle a year ago. As a result we changed trade from Scanning to Computer recycling and we have been highly praised, by a number of senior managers”.

In fact it was placed second in a group of 12 factories engaged in that work. It is not average, it is well above average.

Mr. Precious had felt so concerned about the threat of closure that he had written to Bob Warner—I suppose that I ought to explain to hon. Members, in case they do not know, that he is the chief executive of Remploy. I would not like to minimise his status—who is an important man. I do not think that he is disabled, although that might be debateable. Mr. Precious wrote to Mr. Warner:

“On 22 May…we were shown a video which informed us that Stockton factory was to close. A justification letter was read out that document preparation and scanning was no longer a viable business.”

Document preparation and scanning? They were doing computers! It was not even relevant to the factory. He continued:

“We then informed the person sent to deliver this message that the information in it was both out of date and incorrect.

Stockton factory ceased scanning documents a year ago, (as part of Offiscope). We have very successfully been recycling computers…for the past year”.

He went on to say that they

“would like to know why our closure has been based on out of date and incorrect information”.

Choosing to ignore that kind of logic, Mr. Bob Warner wrote:

“I am sorry that the message read out…did not reflect the work that the factory is currently doing.”

What kind of study had been carried out in order to justify the decision, given that he was sorry about it because he did not know about it? He continued:

“The proposal last Tuesday was the start of the consultation process and we will look again at the capacity requirement of the IT recycling”—

he got it right this time—

“as part of that process.”

Well, the amount of consultation that has taken place on the Stockton factory from 30 May to date has been absolutely zero, but the manager left to go to another factory, ostensibly to conduct some business. In fact, it was for interview and he got a job elsewhere in the organisation and left the staff in Stockton to their own devices. I am afraid that that is typical of the attitude that has been displayed throughout the process. It is an attitude that, I have to say, I did not join the Labour party or become an MP to defend. You can anticipate, Mrs. Anderson, that my words are hardly going to be complimentary from now on.

I shall not read out all Mr. Warner’s correspondence, because it goes on—he is pretty good at turning out letters—but he wrote in April:

“We are convinced that our strategy is the right one. We also know that our view that Remploy should change is supported by the main disability charities.”

That is another somewhat misleading claim. The charities that say that they support change are in favour of disabled people gaining mainstream employment, but they do not support that move at the cost of closing Remploy factories. It is mendacious to try to suggest that they do. Perhaps Mr. Warner learned from some of our colleagues how to represent, or misrepresent, actuality.

A month later, in May, Mr. Warner slightly changed his tack and stated:

“Remploy will be conducting a formal consultation programme with the trade unions over the summer. When this is completed we will need to finalise a submission to Ministers for approval and funding. The company would expect to be in a position to implement towards the end of the year.”

That is a commitment, but what will he do with it?

In an attempt to put Mr. Warner back on the rails, Mr. Phil Davies, who is the secretary of the consortium of trade unions that is seeking to introduce some logic and compassion into the situation, sent a letter to Remploy. It is dated 1 June, before the last debate. Phil Davies stated:

“The information that the company has sent us falls far short of our legitimate expectations, it does not fulfil the consultation requirements and it is likely to expose the Remploy Board to further ridicule.”

He says that he is appalled to learn that while Remploy intends to access

“some £88 million from the DWP Modernisation Fund a mere £8 million is to be used for retraining, job placement, support and counselling.”

So what about the other £80 million? Mr. Davies goes on to state:

“Whereas 10 times that sum is earmarked to be spent on redundancy, early retirement packages…and maintaining Remploy terms and conditions”.

A financial miscalculation has been made. If I had conducted my management responsibilities in industry before coming into this House in the way suggested in the letter, I would have been sacked out of hand. I would have had to throw my keys—the keys to the car as well—on the desk and leg it off the site.

Phil Davies goes on to state:

“In recent weeks you have been orchestrating a concerted campaign in the pages of the Guardian and elsewhere in an attempt to soften up MPs and the public in preparation of closures.”

When I read that, I thought, “By God, he’s right, and I was part of it.” That was all the soft soap that I had from Mr. John Waterhouse on 4 May. I am somewhat ashamed that—because I wanted to think that things would be all right, that jobs would be available and that Remploy would be able to achieve what it was setting out to achieve—I thought the proposal was great and accepted it. Now I am finding out just how wrong I was.

The trade unions are not only criticising the situation. They put forward their own considered plan, on which they have spent some time. They asked Mr. Warner to co-operate with them by providing details, not a summary, of the full business case and the financial analysis, the losses and absentee rates for each of the 83 factories for each of the past two years, the idle and non-production time, the details of investment in the 83 factories, and an updated property portfolio. Phil Davies wrote:

“In your 22 May announcement, you stated that one of the selection criteria used was the prevailing local employment conditions.”

That was sensible, was it not?

“You specifically mentioned that the two factories that otherwise would have been selected for closure were to be kept open due to high local unemployment…Please provide the local employment data that you have used against each of the 83 factories.”

None of the information has been forthcoming.

First, I must apologise to my hon. Friend that I have to leave to meet a Minister at 3.30 pm, but I congratulate him on securing this debate on Remploy. Has he ever seen a balance sheet for the Stockton factory? Indeed, does he know whether any Members have received transparent accounts for any of their Remploy factories? I certainly have not for the Bolton factory.

The only way that I can answer that is to say that the employees, if we can use that term, at the Stockton factory have consistently posed questions to which they have never received clear answers. They have received obfuscation, evasion or silence.

I do not know whether there is any need to refer to the report by the group of MPs that has been reviewing the Remploy situation. MPs spent a lot of time making visits and applying their minds enthusiastically and clinically to some of the problems. They gave a list of things that needed to be done if Remploy is to sort out its remit. Remploy is justifying its decisions by saying that they are being imposed on it by the Government’s requirement that it remain within a funding envelope of £555 million over the next five years. There are other ways of achieving that, and the unions have applied their minds and all their skills—they are not inexperienced—to the matter.

However, it seems that Remploy is not prepared to engage in such exchanges, despite the fact that the Minister—God bless her and save her—said on 13 June that

“the process has not failed. The trade unions and management will meet next week to discuss the proposals. I return to my earlier comment—there has been an extensive lead-in to the discussion of the proposals. At the moment, they are just proposals. Nothing has been confirmed.”—[Official Report, 13 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 318WH.]

I am most pleased about that, but engagement has not taken place because this is a dialogue of the deaf. Remploy is not listening. It is not participating in the conversation.

May I quote from a letter of 12 June, which was written the night before the Minister responded to the last debate? It is from Mr. Ray Fletcher of Bicester, Oxfordshire. I hope that he has not been flooded out. He states that he is writing as someone

“who worked as a member of the Board of Remploy for more than nine years…I have always believed that Remploy can play a significant part in achieving full inclusion of disabled people in UK society through the world of work and still feel that this is the case.”

He states that we

“cannot be proud of a plan which will force disabled people from their existing jobs and is already increasing fear and anxiety amongst Remploy employees…there is no doubt in my mind that Remploy can change without the enforced closure of factories and without a loss of jobs amongst disabled people…I am particularly concerned that solutions being proposed for Remploy are far more impactive on the very people Remploy is there to support than anyone else.”

Mr. Fletcher poses several questions:

“Can costs be reduced without loss of disabled people’s jobs? Yes.

Is it possible to stay within the government’s funding envelope and not close factories? Yes.

Can the factories be used as places for vocational rehabilitation and training and development of disabled people? Yes.

Is it possible to significantly increase progressions from factories? Yes.

Is it possible to align Remploy factories to the local community organisations of disabled people? Yes.

Is it possible to use the Remploy factories as a base for increasing access to Pathways to Work and other routes from benefit to work? Yes.

Is it possible to reconfigure Remploy’s status so that it becomes more of an organisation of and for disabled people? Yes”.

So why have we got this problem? He also says:

“I have to advise that I dealt directly with the Remploy trade unions for more than nine years and whilst we had many heated debates we managed to agree many significant changes through dialogue and discussion…It is my personal view that there is an alternative to the current plans for Remploy factories and it would be in everyone’s interest for an alternative plan to be examined and committed to before embarking on a plan that would be negative for existing employees”.

Words fail me. I say to the Minister—

I am not from the north-east, but I am interested in this matter because I raised it at the Durham miners’ rally when many of my hon. Friends and constituents of mine and other MPs were present. I also have a Remploy factory in my constituency that is due for closure. My hon. Friend said that his factory has changed four times. Feasibility studies should be done on the floods to see whether anything can be done to provide the wherewithal to deal with them in future. Feasibility studies should be done on climate change. That is a new thing on the horizon. But the main thing that I was told at Durham was that for people who go to work at Remploy, it is like joining a family, and they are members of a union. They resent the fact that they will not be part of a family and could finish up at McDonald’s or a non-trade union firm. We have got to preserve the family, whether it is in Durham, Pinxton or wherever.

I thank my hon. Friend for emphasising that point because when Rowland Precious, who is a highly intelligent and articulate gentleman, led a delegation to see me, he made exactly the same point and punched it home to great effect, raising in my mind another iniquitous aspect of the situation. He said, “You know, we aren’t just disabled in one sense; some of us are disabled in many ways. There are all sorts of things; not just physical disabilities, but asthma, anxiety, hearing loss, sight impairment or other problems. It could be a combination of things, but we all help each other and we all know how to help each other.”

It occurred to me that the management have all their capacities. I do not think any of the management are disabled; at least, I have not met anyone from the management who is. If we have people with the intelligence of Rowland Precious, why should he not be in a management position and be allowed to make management decisions with compassion for his fellow workers? Instead, we have people who are running around and changing their job because they see a threat on the horizon. They are moving out, or legging it. In politics I think that we call it “doing the chicken run”. I am sure that we could run the Remploy organisation with people who have perfectly adequate grey cells and who would do it a good deal more effectively, efficiently and cheaply.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue of the family nature of the factories, I, too, am not from the north-east, but I also have a Remploy factory that is due for closure and the family nature of the factory is apparent to people the minute they go into it and every time they visit it. My hon. Friend will be aware that much of this problem is based on a portmanteau statement that has come from the Government, which states as a matter of certainty that

“There is now an acceptance that disabled people”—

all disabled people—

“would prefer to work in mainstream employment alongside non-disabled people rather than in sheltered workshops”.

I know my factory very well, and I find that a difficult statement to accept.

I have the following question for my hon. Friend. From the considerable research that he has done on the issue, is he aware of any Government figures on the costs that are bound to occur—not from employment benefit of one kind or another, but from health, social services, and psychiatric services—when this form of therapeutic employment comes to an end?

The short answer to my hon. and learned Friend’s question is no, I do not know.

The unions have called this answer a quick fix. I prefer a different phrase. I would call it finding the answer in the back of the book. Those involved have been given a proposal by the Government, but they have not sought to challenge, rationalise or justify it. They have some accountant who can probably add two and two together and make two and a bit and so they have said, “How do we do this? Well, we make a cut there, there, there and there and that is it”. They have not even thought about the consequences or the justification for doing it.

I have a feeling in my water, Mrs. Anderson, and I hope that it does not discomfort you in the way that it discomforts me. I have a nasty suspicion that the Minister might turn around and say that the independent assessor that has been appointed and funded—I think that it is Grant Thornton—might have withdrawn support for the trade union proposals for consideration. I hope that the Minister does not say that because I have proof positive that it is not true. I would not like to have to demonstrate that. My dilemma, Mrs. Anderson, which you will know about as a fellow member of the Chairmen’s Panel, is that, as members of the Panel, we have to be even more careful than the run-of-the-mill Member, if I can use that phrase.

Oh aye. We cannot refer to lies or liars, but I have to say—and I refer only to part of the plethora of documentation that has come my way since I involved myself in the issue—that I have found more lies than could be counted on a calculator. It is really quite disgraceful and very annoying. I say to you, Mrs. Anderson, and through you to the Minister that the union’s figures have been checked and verified right up until this Monday. I have had that incontrovertibly confirmed.

I want to give other hon. Members a chance to contribute, so I will finish in a moment. Before doing so, I wish to remind hon. Members why Remploy was started. It was founded immediately post-war as a means of providing constructive employment for men and women who came back from conflict and who were unable to go into mainstream unemployment—I think that that is the euphemism that people use. It has performed that task very well ever since.

At a time when young men and women are coming back from conflicts with a whole range of disabilities, I want hon. Members to consider the insanity of reducing budget provision—or, the funding envelope, as it is called. God, don’t we come out with some euphemisms! Those young men and women previously came back from Bosnia and Kosovo and are now coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. The disabilities are going up and the budget is coming down; what kind of sense is that? What is the logic and how can it be justified? If anyone can answer that question, they will do me a great favour. However, I do not think that they will do so under the terms that we are considering today.

I started out by reminding the House that this is only the third debate that I have initiated in this Chamber. The first was on police reorganisation. We cannot take decisions here, but the debate had the desired effect and the Government changed their mind. The second debate that I initiated was on hospital reconfiguration. Again, of course, we could not take a decision, but the Government changed their mind once more. I am saying to the Minister now that this is another occasion on which, in God’s name, and for everything that is good, reasonable and sensible, and for the sake of humanity, we must get the Government to change their mind—not immediately, but they should enter into a proper formal consultation.

Well, change is the order of the day.

The questions posed by the trade unions and those on the Remploy board should be answered in detail before any decision is made. The consultation must be a proper consultation and Remploy must listen, for the first time, to the logic put on the table for it to consider. My fear is that it does not have the intelligence to appreciate its value.

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) has raised this debate and brought to it his customary verve and eloquence. I hope that he maintains his success rate and that the proposals are changed.

We had a debate in Westminster Hall not long ago to which the Minister present responded. This debate, however, rightly focuses on the particular difficulties faced in the north-east as a result of the closure of Remploy factories. My concern is for my constituents, both present and future, for whom the Ashington factory is their Remploy factory. It is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy). I know that he will be seeking to catch your eye shortly, Mrs. Anderson, and that, like me, he will want to mention the special circumstances of Northumberland.

I can say for both of us that this is not a very good day for central Government attention to the special circumstances of Northumberland. They have just taken a decision that was the opposite of that sought by every Northumberland MP and district council, whatever their party. We have not got off to a very good start today, but I am sure that the Minister will be more understanding. That was a decision about local government, however, and now we are on to Remploy, on which we can perhaps make a bit more progress.

The circumstances of Northumberland are special. Even given today’s improved employment conditions compared with those of a decade or more ago, it remains very difficult to get jobs in Northumberland. The situation is made worse by the fact that great distances are involved for many people. Certainly, those in my constituency, who do not live in Ashington and must travel to the factory, often need significant help in doing so because of their disabilities. They have even greater difficulties seeking jobs elsewhere.

I understand the basic argument behind the Government’s policy, which is the attempt to deploy resources for securing employment for those with disabilities in a way that will aid the largest possible number of disabled people. Clearly many of those people are not employed at the moment and will not be employed in Remploy sheltered workshops. There must be a way of assisting them all. I can see a certain logic to that, but, if I was going to try to develop such a policy, I certainly would not start in Northumberland, but would look to an area with a wide range of job opportunities or, indeed, a strong demand for labour and, therefore, much greater potential for seeking appropriate employment that takes account of a person’s particular disabilities and is adapted to suit them. Northumberland is not in that situation. It is a difficult place to find employment.

When we last debated this matter in the House, I asked about that, and the Minister told me to talk to the chief executive of Remploy. I went one better and had a meeting with its chairman, who actually is a very reasonable and intelligent man. We had a very constructive and useful discussion, from which some rather interesting points emerged that I hope the Minister can perhaps clarify, confirm or give her view on. One of those points was that unless jobs are found for existing Remploy employees at the Ashington factory—other than for those who retire early voluntarily or who retire because they are approaching retirement age—and for potential Remploy employees of the future, he could not make a case to the Minister for the closure of that factory, in which case, the programme would have to be re-jigged.

If the Government are to achieve the same number of closures, they will have to look somewhere else. That might very well be the case in Northumberland. I hope that the Minister will make it clear to Remploy that she does not want proposals based on anything other than absolute certainty that not only can existing Remploy employees find or be found jobs, but that there will be considerable and clear routes into many more jobs in the future. I do not think that that is currently the position.

It also became clear in our discussion that Remploy will have targets for employing disabled people. The trouble is that Remploy will make considerable progress towards achieving its targets in parts of the country with a more favourable employment situation. It could then say to the Minister, “Look, we are getting some way towards our targets”—we hear that about a lot of targets these days. However, that will conceal the fact that it is not anywhere near its target for Northumberland. There might be a feeling, therefore, that the programme is going quite well when actually it is going very badly in an area where employment is difficult to find.

In some parts of the country, it is much easier to find employment generally—not just for disabled people—because of the expansion of particular kinds of businesses. That has not been the case in Northumberland. For example, I talked to a lot of people from ex-mining communities who have had more opportunities for re-employment—although not as well paid—than have those in ex-mining communities in Northumberland. Let us look at South Yorkshire, for example, where there has been a huge development in warehousing because of the proximity of motorways, which offers opportunities of a kind that we do not have. Account must be taken of different circumstances in different parts of the country.

Then we discussed what would happen if the closure went ahead, and there was talk of a continuing presence in Northumberland, but that will not do anything if all it means is a shop front in Ashington with a sign in the window that reads: “You can call in here if you have a disability”. Most of my constituents who work at the Remploy factory could not get to Ashington without help from that sheltered-workshop environment—in many cases, they do not have that degree of mobility. If Remploy was not providing sheltered employment, every penny of that resource, and more, would need to be used to ensure that a wide range of people in Northumberland and the adjoining area of Tyne and Wear were being helped into employment. Any continuing presence, therefore, must involve at least serious training, rehabilitation and mentoring commitments and facilities, if it is to balance the losses.

Those who work in the Remploy factory appreciate its value, but if they were to consider the future of other disabled people, or those who become disabled, whether through industrial accidents or military circumstances, such as those described by the hon. Member for Stockton, North, they will say, “They have not had the advantage that I had.” They have been speaking very much in those terms. They appreciate what they have had from working at Remploy, and they want others to have a similar benefit in the future. They are deeply depressed and distressed by the chain of events that seems to be unfolding.

If there is merit in and scope for the kind of transfer that Remploy has talked about, frankly, we should not pilot it in an area in which employment circumstances are as difficult as those in Northumberland. I hope that this programme will be rethought and that much more account will be taken of the circumstances in our area.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate, which without a doubt is an important one because it concerns employment opportunities that have existed since the second world war for those with disabilities. These people feel incredibly vulnerable and they regularly feel that they are at the back end when any opportunity is identified.

For me, however, the debate has a second flavour and it is important because we inevitably—the word is inevitably—look at people with disabilities and define them as such. We do not ask, “What are your abilities? What would you like to be trained to do? Which employment could you play a part in?” It is long gone that we should be talking about people as people with disabilities, because these people have clear abilities.

The report on Stockton Remploy made some clear statements. It noted, as my hon. Friend said, that the work force were flexible and would change from one productive activity to another. It also noted that they showed an incredible ability to develop very specific skills requiring great care and dexterity, which could be used in many different ways. This is not a group of people with no skills—they have serious skills.

On 15 June, I spoke to constituents who work in Stockton Remploy and I was struck by their abilities. Many of us in the House could learn from their speaking skills. They were focused, determined and challenging, and they had clear intellectual competence. Why do we believe that we have no opportunities to use their capabilities better?

Some of those who came to see me had definite vulnerabilities. Many had worked at Stockton Remploy for more than 20 years and many had never been anywhere else in employment terms. Many had worked alongside those who were at the meeting with them for more than 10 years. There was comfort, support and a sense of trust, and those things are important when people have disabilities. One person told me with great sincerity, “I’m not laughed at by my colleagues. When they don’t understand what I’m saying, they ask me to say it again.” That is the careful way in which a good relationship opens and develops. Remploy offers not only employment, but friendship networks, and it is important that we understand that, rather than understate or undermine it.

The other thing that came through during the meeting with these people, who were clearly capable and adaptable, was that management had let them down, misinformed them about some things and not informed them about others. Communication between the work force and the management took place rarely, if ever, and the implication, once again, was that management were not taking these people seriously. The attitude seemed to be that they had disabilities, so managers could treat them as they chose, which is not the way that any of us in this room would choose to be treated or would accept.

Those at the meeting went on to say that they had given loyal service and that the only time they had not been at work was when they were ill and had been signed off. They believed that the factory was making a profit, but they are sure that the premises have been put up for sale during the 90 days’ consultation. They also believed that the management had long ago stopped looking for contracts to encourage the work force to do different work or more of the same.

We should remember that the work force take apart IT systems. These days, every home has one or two such systems, as do schools and factories, and they are changed every two years. A vast amount of work is involved in taking IT systems apart, so the work force and I are wondering why there were not more contracts when everybody is saying that IT systems are an inevitable part of people’s lives, which everyone uses.

I could not understand why members of the work force believed that the factory was profitable if it was not, so I challenged the management, as hon. Members would expect me to. I got back a statement saying that the factory had lost £704,000 during 2006-07—that is the claim that the management are making. They also claim that there is no option but to close. My second question, therefore, is did the factory suddenly make a loss of £704,000? Was there no sign that things were not going well? Was the factory not getting sufficient work in? Was the working group not good enough? If so, were the management communicating that to the work force? The straight fact is that they did not. No one was warned or given the opportunity to put right something that was possibly wrong. Management have an awful lot to answer for.

Of course, I have pursued this issue not only with management, but with the Employment Service, because I am told that it is now on the case. In fact, it is not on the case. This is a 90-day consultation, so my 40 constituents who are employed at Remploy could find in November that the 90 days are up and there are no jobs. Is that the way we conduct our affairs? I do not think so. I do not think that that is the Labour way and I do not think that it is my hon. Friend the Minister’s way. Things have been botched, and Remploy has so much to answer for. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North has gone through the letters that he received, and I am now listening with serious concern to people who are employed at Remploy. The question that I am asking is, “Who has been saying what to whom?”

When I spoke to the Employment Service, it certainly wanted to reassure me. It said, “We will do a one-to-one with everybody in the factory when and if it closes. We will attempt to find out people’s talents and place people in employment.” I have no criticism of the Employment Service in that respect, but the fact of the matter is that it is not engaged, and we are into the 90 days. My people on the shop floor believe that the 90-day consultation is simply an academic exercise that will achieve nothing. It is not about what happens next or in the future, but about how the management can close the factory as quietly as they can get away with. Well, they must have heard today that that will not happen.

I lobby hard in the House for the blind and the partially sighted. I work hard with them and they are a great group of people with tremendous abilities. I work with the European regional development fund and the European single programme fund, and those I work with also have their own programme—the VISAGE programme. What approach is Remploy taking to get other, different people more involved in Remploy Stockton? I see no evidence of any approach.

I have had excellent discussions with the Minister, who knows that we are anxious about the proposals. I am well aware that we have spent more than £20 million with Remploy in an attempt to achieve profitable, good employment—indeed, just good employment—but not one additional person has entered Remploy’s doors over that period. None of my blind people is ever encouraged to be part of Remploy, and no one engages with them. We are spending money and we want to see better employment, but the fact is that we are not seeing any.

There are lots of questions, and I hope that the Minister will understand where we are coming from and give us answers. We are into new times and we have a new Government. We have an absolute commitment to treat people with dignity and to ensure that they enjoy equality. We want businesses to work and we want to ensure that management know that.

We are in new times, with a new determination. I ask the Minister whether there is a chance to pull back and see whether and how we can ensure that the management structure of Remploy will deliver, as its employees deliver. I think that we would then find that the House would be satisfied, and that the conclusions of that consultation and that approach would be acceptable to us all. Better still—better than all the hon. Members present being satisfied—the conclusions would be satisfactory to the people employed in Remploy today. That is our main concern.

I shall call as many hon. Members as I can fit into the time, but I urge them to be as brief as possible, because I want to give the Minister and the Front-Bench spokesmen time to speak as well.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who, typically, has raised this issue on behalf of his constituents. I have known the man since I got into Parliament and I know how assiduous he has been in his duties, and about fighting for the people he represents. Well done to him again.

I have been a regular visitor over the years since my election at the Remploy factory in Jarrow, which has been identified for closure. It has always been a pleasure to visit. As has already been mentioned, there are no moans or whinges. Members of Parliament go to many factories and meet many people and employees. There is always a group in each place with a gripe or a grievance. Not in Remploy. It is a happy place, where the people get on with their job and do a good job for the community. It has been in existence for some 50 years now. The factory does similar work to two other plants in the country—at Derby and Longbenton—making textiles for car seats. There are 36 staff, who have great experience. They have a tremendous spread of skills, such is the diversification that they have had to undertake over the years to change jobs and become involved in other work.

When I have visited, I have met senior staff and management. When the review was announced I met, on the site, senior management who had come up from Manchester. I received the impression that they were not overly concerned. They said, “No one can promise you anything, but Jarrow can wash its face compared with many other plants in the country,” so there was not really a problem, and we relayed that to a mass meeting of the work force. I was honestly shocked when I found out that it was to be closed, because those were not the vibes or messages that I had been getting.

I thought about it. I thought that there must be a reason for what was happening. Was it because Jarrow did not have the disability statistics required for a Remploy plant? Certainly that was not true of the plant itself, because of the 36 people employed there 32 are registered disabled; and it was certainly not true of Jarrow and South Tyneside because more than 10,000 people there are registered with a disability. That box was not ticked. I wondered whether it was something about the economy. Was it that there was a booming jobs programme in Jarrow, so that those disabled people could easily be moved out into the wider economy and get jobs? That is nonsense. In South Tyneside we have nearly double the national average for unemployment. There are no places for those people to go. Another statistic is that four out of every 10 kids in South Tyneside have no parent in work.

Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that 50 per cent. of job placements made by Remploy have lasted less than six months because the individuals could not stay the pace in mainstream employment?

That is a relevant point, and the whole reason for starting up Remploy in the first place. I met Bob Warner, the chief executive, and he seemed to be a very sincere man. We discussed the review and my concerns, and I admit, having listened to my hon. Friend, that I was a bit soft-soaped as well: we would find jobs for the people at the factory and sort them out with other places.

I thought, “If Jarrow is way out of line with the rest of the country—if the subsidies going into Jarrow are ridiculous—maybe there is a point.” I said my ta-ra’s and farewells, and said, “Can you put it in writing?” which he did. When I got the letter it said

“we therefore plan to concentrate on the two larger factories and cease production at Jarrow.”

There was nothing in it about efficiencies, business plans or anything of the kind. There was no sense of that.

I got in touch with the trade unions, and among them no one is saying that one plant should stay open at the expense of another. The trade unions have been working with me because they want to expose the folly of the exercise that has gone on under the Remploy management.

On the trade unions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) mentioned the Back-Bench group’s independent investigation, and the charitable organisations that it is claimed support the proposals. Those organisations gave evidence at the inquiry—I was a member of the Back-Bench group—and, on persistent and robust questioning, they conceded that they had not consulted anyone in Remploy prior to pledging their support. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the trade unions who represent the Remploy work force, and not those organisations that claim to represent their views?

That is a very good point. We all look to the Remploy management to look after its employees, but once again it has been proved that in this country—in any society—it is the trade unions that look after working people, and not the management.

The trade unions said to me that if I wanted a case for Jarrow—and no one was saying that one plant should close or anything like that—the cost per year for each employee in Jarrow is £16,000. The two plants that are staying open at the expense of Jarrow have a higher cost per year. In the south, there are subsidies ranging up to £28,000 a year for employees in factories that are staying open under the closure programme. There are 28 factories that are not closing that have a higher cost per year than Jarrow. There are plants staying open that have even been proved by the unions to have a less skilled work force than the Jarrow one; such things happen in many plants when it has been necessary to move on, reskill and do different things. Also, in other plants, there have been significant managerial and staffing issues, which have been well publicised in the press.

No case has been made for the closure of the Jarrow plant on the basis of efficiency, disability figures or economics. We must ask what on earth is going on. Can we not, at this late stage, stop this whole silly programme, and get the Minister to put a halt to it? There is a new Government. We are now talking about open scrutiny and pre-legislative scrutiny. Why not put the matter to a Select Committee and let us look at it sensibly? It has to stop; and it has to stop here today.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate and, more importantly, on comprehensively taking apart the Remploy board’s arguments for closure.

I want to concentrate my remarks in the few minutes that I have left on the Ashington factory in my constituency. The factory employs some 60 disabled people and sits in the centre of an area of relatively high unemployment. It is a former mining area, and, to be fair to the Government, they have invested substantial sums of money in the past 10 years, which are starting to make a difference. Unfortunately, however, the local economy is still quite fragile.

Most of the current jobs in Remploy are in manufacturing. The Ashington site manufactures wheelchairs, but the work force are flexible enough to be able to change that almost overnight, if required. We have lost an awful lot of manufacturing jobs recently: the Dewhurst factory, which is right next door to the Remploy factory, closed recently with the loss of 450 jobs; Lite-On, a company that manufactures power transformers, closed recently with the loss of 90 jobs; two chemical companies closed recently with the loss of 250 jobs; and a local foundry closed some six months ago with the loss of 157 manufacturing jobs. I could go on and on.

The rationale behind the closure of the Ashington factory was, apparently, that there were sufficient jobs in the local economy to accommodate all the people displaced from Remploy by the closure. An appraisal was supposed to have taken place before the closure announcement was made. I put it to the Minister that no such appraisal could possibly have taken place in the Ashington area. I checked the situation with the jobcentre at 2.15 pm. There are currently vacancies for three permanent manufacturing jobs and one temporary one in the whole of the Ashington jobcentre area, which covers the majority of south-east Northumberland. I would be interested to know what work the Remploy board carried out to assess whether jobs are available elsewhere. I genuinely support the Government in trying to assist disabled people into mainstream employment, but that should not be at the expense of the disabled people currently employed in the Remploy factory.

Following the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), I should mention that there are above average levels of people on incapacity benefit in my area. Indeed, the number of people on incapacity benefit and disability benefit is 60 per cent. higher in my constituency than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Also, as was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), many of whose constituents work in the Remploy factory in Ashington, the factory covers a huge geographical area—indeed, it is the only Remploy factory in the whole of Northumberland. The rest of south-east Northumberland has exactly the same problems as my constituency.

The Remploy factory in Ashington is a centre of excellence for training. Ashington has developed an excellent learning centre in partnership with the learning and skills council. It has developed a training and conference suite with state-of-the-art information technology equipment. It is working closely with disabled employees, and 20 of them are in training for performance machine operations at national vocational qualification level 2. Eight employees are doing NVQ level 2 in literacy and numeracy through learndirect in order that they may move into IT training.

Remploy has entered into a contract with Business Link to provide 16 employees with a European computer driving licence course. That will be delivered by the GMB union on-site. Five employees have just returned from training with the Sunderland enterprise training association in highly skilled MIG and TIG—metal inert gas and tungsten inert gas—welding and completed their full safety appraisal in brazing and welding. There is a wide range of other specialist courses for employees: safety in relation to abrasive wheels, jig and fixture manufacture, robotic welding, NVQ level 3 in IT and much more. That training is even offered to the families of those employed in the Ashington factory.

We should not be closing the factory; we should be expanding it. It is a first-class facility. I am mindful of the time, but I ask the Minister to stop the closure programme and press for continued production at the Ashington factory. We should expand the training section on-site at Ashington and not allow it to close. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has said, people from the rest of Northumberland will not travel to a shop in Ashington. It is essential that we keep the site where it is and maintain the facility for the people who are employed there and for the other people who could use it. It would be a first-class centre for other disabled people in Northumberland to use as a training facility to move into employment.

Remploy’s York factory employs 52 people. I have visited it many times. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) said, Remploy is a family. People get more than just employment; they get companionship, friendship and social support.

I was very disappointed to learn in May that my local factory was scheduled for closure. Earlier, I had been told that the company might reduce the volume of manufacturing in York but replace it with other measures to find work for disabled people, and I support the new measures that Remploy proposes to take to get larger numbers of disabled people into mainstream employment. However, I do think that the Remploy management have misunderstood and underestimated the difficulties that existing employees will face in making the move. Many of them have worked in the factory for a long time. Some could possibly make do in mainstream employment, but they would lose the support and companionship that they have had for many years from their work colleagues in Remploy factories. If any of them do move into other employment, it is extremely important that they are not separated into ones and twos, but that contracts are negotiated with local employers to take five or six people, so that they go out together.

It is absolutely essential in a place such as York that manufacturing of some kind continues, because some people will be unable to move into mainstream employment and, although the company has offered a very generous package to maintain for life the salary that they currently receive, if people do not have a job to go for, they do not have a meaningful life ahead of them.

Last August, when it was clear that some change was in the wind in Remploy, I asked for Remploy to meet City of York council and to examine the possibility of finding alternative premises for a manufacturing base for disabled people in York. I still urge them to do that. City of York council has its own factory for disabled people in York. Why does not Remploy go into partnership with it, buy a 50 per cent. stake and provide opportunities to work in a similar environment for Remploy workers who cannot move into mainstream employment?

I am very grateful to you, Mrs. Anderson, for giving me a few minutes in which to speak before the winding-up speeches at the end of the debate. I have no time to say more, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider what will happen to those for whom mainstream employment is not a realistic option.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for keeping his contribution brief. I have now been able to call all those who put in a request to speak. I am sorry, but we must move on to the speeches by those on the Front Benches.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. He and other hon. Members spoke with great passion and feeling on what is a very important issue. All of us must be conscious that we are talking about the lives and employment of a considerable number of people—more than 2,500 disabled people, whose life chances and prospects are nowhere near as great as those of other members of society. We must be conscious that in any community, and particularly in some of the communities that we have heard about this afternoon, any jobs are very hard to find and to replace. I understand that finding mainstream employment for disabled people, independent living and equality are ideals worth fighting for and working towards. However, that should not and cannot be used as an excuse to close factories where many people—I am told that half the people are over 50—have worked for many years.

I was very disappointed when I heard the hon. Member for Stockton, North speak about the lack of proper consultation and the fact that a proper business case has not been presented to show what will happen to Remploy over the next few years. I hope that the Minister can answer that. I want Remploy to change and develop, not only for current employees but for future employees. I would like it to develop and provide training opportunities for many more disabled people. However, it cannot do that if an area such as the north-east, where there is greater than average unemployment, faces such large-scale closures.

We have to be conscious of what the way forward is. I will not speak for long, because I think that it is more important that we listen to the Minister, but I believe that there can be a way forward that is constructive and that moves Remploy into spending the resources that the Government say are available. If, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North says, the unions have a plan, that should be the plan that we follow.

I hope that the Minister will take account of hon. Members’ comments and come up with a plan that will move Remploy forward and ensure that its disabled employees, many of whom have been there for many years and have little chance of gaining other meaningful employment, particularly in the manufacturing sector, can have a future.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. He mentioned three previous Westminster Hall debates that he secured; I well remember the first, on police reorganisation, in which I spoke, and I congratulate him on the success that it had in changing Government policy. I fear that he will be less happy with my remarks today. All hon. Members have spoken with considerable passion and have shown their local knowledge about their constituents who are employed by Remploy. I shall try to keep my remarks relatively brief to allow the Minister to deal with the many specific points that Members have raised.

I am familiar with these issues, as I have a Remploy factory in my constituency, albeit a small one, and I have been engaging with the Remploy management. My experience has been different from those of other hon. Members, as I have found the management to be very open and transparent. My local factory was slated for closure, but a local solution has been found to place its employees with another organisation that will take over the factory and secure their jobs. Local managers have worked incredibly hard on that, but I am aware that in other parts of the country, particularly those with larger facilities, that sort of solution might not be possible.

We support the principle of reform. The Government have had the challenge of spending a limited amount of money on trying to secure the move of more disabled employees into mainstream employment. However, while we support the principle, we have some questions for the Minister, and I hope that she will address them in her remarks as well as dealing with specifics.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and I met the chief executive of Remploy to discuss some of these issues before today’s debate. It would be helpful if the Minister set out the age profile of the Remploy employees who are affected and the types of disabilities that they have, and compared them to those whom Remploy has successfully placed in mainstream employment. Members have voiced their concerns about whether the employees who would be affected by the proposed closures could be found jobs in mainstream employment. Remploy has guaranteed their terms and conditions, including their final salary pension schemes, and that is welcome, but it is important that in addition to those financial security guarantees they have meaningful, valued work to do rather than just receiving payments. I know that that is also important to the Minister. It would be helpful if she outlined for those employees who might be affected by closure what will happen if they cannot be placed in mainstream employment. What possible solutions do she and Remploy envisage for their future employment if it is not to be in a commercial, mainstream organisation?

One or two Members asked about opportunities for using public procurement in terms of new business opportunities. The trade unions have also raised that issue and written to all Members. Will the Minister touch on that point? In the public sector, much is spent on people rather than on purchasing services, so I am not sure, at first glance, how significant a business opportunity that is. However, I want to make sure that both Remploy and the Minister have considered it, just to check that every avenue is being investigated.

Many hon. Members mentioned the consultation process that is under way, which is due to finish in August. Final proposals will then go from Remploy to the Minister in early September. What are the Minister’s plans for making a final decision? Will it be done before the House returns in October, or does she plan to wait until we are back to announce it to the House?

The hon. Member for Stockton, North mentioned our veterans, particularly those who have served in current conflicts, and I agree with some of his comments in that regard. In my previous role as the shadow Minister for Veterans, I had the opportunity to visit such young men at Selly Oak and Headley Court. I met and talked to some very young men who have been tremendously damaged in serving our country, and the spirit and courage in their characters was truly inspirational. I just wanted to make those points, given that the hon. Gentleman had raised the issue. With that, I draw my comments to a close to allow the Minister to deal with the wide-ranging issues that have been raised.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing his third debate in Westminster Hall on an issue that is important to us all. I do not declare an interest, as such, but I, too, have a Remploy factory in my constituency. Like many hon. Members present, I am a frequent visitor to my local factory and I know the level of skill and commitment among the work force and management there.

It is worth remembering why Remploy was established after the second world war. As my hon. Friend reminded us, it was set up to provide rehabilitation for injured servicemen and women. The aim was to provide development and training through work to enable disabled workers to return to mainstream employment. It was not necessarily meant to be a place of permanent employment for those servicemen and women, who, with the commitment that they brought from the second world war, wanted to get back into mainstream employment. Today, Remploy has 83 sites and employs about 5,000 disabled people across a range of sectors, including textiles, the manufacture of office furniture, bookbinding and IT work. However, the progression from Remploy factories into mainstream employment is very low: only 19 people made that progression last year. If we are to reflect on Remploy’s ethic, we must consider what is happening.

In the past 60 years, the nature of the Remploy factory has changed very little in the face of globalisation, the growth of the service sector and other impacts on the economy. We must consider the changes that the combination of new technology and our having the most far-reaching disability rights legislation in Europe have made to the lives of disabled people. At the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), I have visited some of the voluntary organisations that she supports, such as Action for Blind People, and seen how technology has changed the way that many blind people work in the mainstream. They can now work in a way that was not envisaged many years ago. I see that my hon. Friend is nodding in agreement.

For the past two years, not just since May, we have been engaged in a discussion about how to modernise Remploy, taking into account that we want to get more disabled people into employment and that more disabled people want to be in employment. We are also considering how to manage that expectation and how to use the undoubted skills of Remploy to support that ambition. We talk about Remploy as if it is only about the factory network, but it is not. Some 5,000 people are employed in Remploy factories, but nearly another 5,000 people are supported by Remploy out in mainstream employment—they are placed there year in, year out.

I should like to clarify the situation. 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. In fact, Remploy has a good record of sustaining people in mainstream employment. Given that we have touched on the figures, I should say that we are talking about in excess of three years in mainstream employment, and that is not a bad record. We are not talking about the 40 years of the Remploy factory, but the employment prospects and employment profile of disabled people are changing, in much the same way as the employment of non-disabled people is.

I must gently say to colleagues that disabled people have the same ambitions and aspirations as non-disabled people: they want to be able to choose what they want to do. If I were a disabled person in Stirling and I had an opportunity to go to Remploy, as my only option I would have to want to be a machinist. That is a noble profession, as I appreciate when I see people, mainly women, in my Remploy factory doing sophisticated pieces of sewing to make chemical suits and protection suits for police and our service personnel, but what if I did not want to be a machinist and I wanted to do something else? The only option in the Remploy complex in my area—I am sure that we could examine every single other area—in some ways limits the opportunities for disabled people, and that is why we need to modernise.

The ambitions and aspirations of disabled people have changed dramatically because of some of the fantastic things that this Government have done. We have opened up opportunities, opened up a rights agenda and opened up employment, and we have supported disabled people in employment.

I shall take an intervention, given that my hon. Friend initiated the debate, but I want to reply properly to the points made in it.

I just want the Minister to know that I do not think that anybody present would have any argument or dispute with what is being said. We would all agree fully with the claims that are being made. What we need to get out of today is whether she is prepared to ensure that the right kind of consultation is conducted before the end of consultation period—it must be clear, transparent and open, everything must be laid on the table and a business case must be expressed.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me that hook to move on in my contribution. The consultation on Remploy, the discussion with colleagues in the House and the way in which we have conducted the business of the modernisation of Remploy have all been done in open and transparent way.

Colleagues present were at previous meetings, in which I was the Minister, when we presented the situation that we were facing with Remploy. This is not about a budget cut, because we are maintaining Remploy’s budget. Some £115 million a year, times five over the period—a guarantee of £555 million, or some half a billion pounds—will go to support Remploy. We put all of that and the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the table for our colleagues. We put the report on the website so that there was no doubt that when that independent assessment was conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Dr. Stephen Duckworth, who is an independent disability employment adviser, everyone was well aware of the challenges.

My hon. Friend mentioned that he felt that the trade unions have not perhaps had the opportunity to engage in the issue. I hope that he will accept the comments that I am about to make. Since last July, when I made a statement to the House, there have been 10 meetings of the joint working party to discuss the modernisation plans. Nothing was on the table and open discussion with our trade union colleagues—with the consortium—took place on 10 separate occasions.

Separately, the company has funded the unions’ own meetings, which have run to a minimum of nine. Remploy has also paid Grant Thornton to support the trade unions—about £100,000 was involved in that. The company has provided substantial extra data every time that they have been requested by the trade union consortium, except data that are personal and commercially confidential. Since 22 May, formal consultation meetings have taken place. There have been weekly meetings between Remploy and the trade unions—I believe that one is taking place as we sit here today.

I believe that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned that he had met the chairman of Remploy, although it might have been my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) who said that. The chairman of Remploy has had meetings with all the general secretaries of the Remploy trade unions, and the trade unions gave two presentations to the board—again, things are being done in an open and transparent way. The chairman met the leaders of the trade union consortium, Phil Davies and Jennie Formby, prior to the announcement on 22 May.

The fact that there is not a balance sheet for factories has been highlighted, but Remploy has given all the relevant financial information and, as I have said, meetings are held on a weekly basis. It has given the profit and loss accounts for factories and the balance sheet for businesses. I hope that colleagues will recognise that within one Remploy factory there may be different businesses; they are not all doing the same thing.

I have a few minutes left to talk about a complex subject, one that has generated a great deal of anguish among Remploy workers. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York mentioned the package that has been put together to support Remploy employees if the proposals are accepted—these are currently only proposals presented by the board. One of the reasons why it is difficult to get local solutions is that we need to get a discussion going about the proposals. We must start to engage, so that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) can have highlighted some of the issues in his area, and so that the powerful case on the training facilities that Remploy can offer, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), can be made as part of the modernisation programme.

I have said on other occasions in this House that I hope that hon. Members will engage with the consultation, but I also make a plea to them. I see more trade union officials or former trade union officials in this Chamber than one could shake a stick at, especially compared with most other debates in this House. Those colleagues know that when one enters a negotiation, one goes in to discuss things. If we are to have a meaningful consultation and negotiation, I ask us all to encourage that discussion. We have to modernise Remploy, but we are not cutting the budget. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said that he will give more money to modernise Remploy. We need to modernise it so that we can get far more disabled people into work. I hope that we should all be able to take some pride in that.