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Remploy

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 25 March 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For the past two years, not just since May, we have been engaged in a discussion about how to modernise Remploy”. —[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 293WH.]

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

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

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

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

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

In July’s debate, the Minister said:

“A misinterpretation has perhaps been given that somehow the people in mainstream employment are there only for a few weeks or a few months at a time…Remploy has a good record of sustaining people in mainstream employment.”

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

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

“I ask us all to encourage that discussion.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 294-7WH.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We carefully considered the Company’s proposals and also the alternative plan put forward by the trade unions.”

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

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

“Dear Anne,

I am writing to you about the treatment of disabled workers at the Remploy Stockton factory, which is earmarked for closure. My colleagues and I have been trying to obtain information about Employment Services and how it would work for those interested in remaining on Remploy’s books and working for a host company. Remploy as a company and Mr. Waterhouse specifically have refused to give Stockton Remploy factory copies of leaflets with useful information about how Employment Services will work.”

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

He goes on:

“This information was continually refused until, during phone calls from Frank Cook…and myself…to Mr. Paul Warren, your Private Secretary, the position was clearly explained to him. Mr. Warren was extremely helpful and promised that we would have the information the same day. When Paul Warren requested this information on behalf of Stockton factory this information, which had been refused for many months”—

shall I repeat that?—

“this information…had been refused for many months”.

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

“was made available in two hours.”

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

Mr. Precious continues:

“I believe that it is a disgraceful state of affairs when we had to resort to contacting your department before this information was made available.”

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

Mr. Precious continues:

“Remploy Senior Management have over many months force fed us with information about Voluntary Redundancy while at the same time withholding information about how Employment Services would work. This is clearly part of the Remploy Management plan to push as many disabled Remploy workers to take Voluntary Redundancy, which is the cheapest option for the company. I should also like to point out that Stockton Remploy factory has been starved of work for many months and suddenly it has been flooded with work only a few weeks before the deadline of March 6th 2008.”

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

Mr. Precious points out that

“the former Work and Pensions Minister stated that for those disabled workers who were unable to be placed in mainstream employment suitable sheltered employment would be found. When our Remploy factory in Stockton is closed there will not be any suitable sheltered employment in the Teesside area, as Hartlepool Remploy factory will also be closed.

Remploy claim that charity shops and other voluntary work are suitable replacements for sheltered factories and workshops. The problem with charity shops is that there are grave health and safety risks, which make them unsuitable places of work for a number of disabled workers. Remploy management have consistently refused to answer the question about what would happen to those disabled workers who are unsuitable to work in charity shops or mainstream employment.

The situation is that at present because of the arrogant and dismissive way in which Remploy Senior Management have treated us over many months most of the disabled workers at Remploy Stockton will take voluntary redundancy rather than stay on Remploy’s books.”

That demonstrates how successful the process has not been.

Mr. Precious continues:

“This clearly shows that the claim of Remploy Senior Management that they understand the needs of disabled workers is simply not correct.

Remploy have also offered voluntary redundancy to factories which are remaining open, such as Spennymoor, which is the closest factory to Stockton factory. At Spennymoor factory 66% of the disabled factory workforce have asked for voluntary redundancy, which means that a number of them will have to remain to maintain suitable manning levels while Stockton factory where most of the workforce wished to stay has been closed. This is further proof that the whole of the closure program has been very badly handled.

Could I close by asking that there is very careful monitoring of the treatment of those who remain on Remploy Terms and Conditions with Employment Services as there is a great deal of distrust of Remploy Senior Management.”

That will be their legacy.

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

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

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

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

“My officials have contacted the company to establish the facts regarding the situation at Stockton.”

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

“in particular to enquire why Mr Precious was not given a handbook when he requested one and also to establish the reason for the recent high workload.”

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

“The company has explained that their Employment Adviser was acting on what they thought was in the best interest of their employees.”

How considerate.

“Rather than just issue the handbook, the adviser takes time to explain the content and discuss the options with the individual.”

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

Apparently

“the adviser takes time to explain the content”—

that is generous—so they thought it better to hold on to the handbook. The Minister continues:

“As Mr Precious had not decided what option to take, the adviser did not offer the handbook as a matter of course.”

As he did not know what the options were he could hardly decide which one to take, yet the company says, “You don’t get it until you decide on the options, but we are not telling you what the options are until you decide.” What kind of farce is this?

The letter continues:

“I understand that after my officials had spoken to the company, Mr Precious has been provided with information regarding placements and separate information regarding voluntary redundancy that is normally provided when employees have made their decision.”

That is like saying, “Sign on for the Army son, but you don’t have to know that there is a prospect of getting shot.” It is incredible.

Apart from Mr. Phil Davies of the GMB, another person comes out with credit, although unfortunately it will probably condemn his career: Mr. Paul Warren, the Minister’s assistant. At my instigation, he promptly took up the matter, although he took some persuading to start with. At my insistence, he spoke with Mr. Precious and realised that we had a problem and something needed to be done about it—so he did it. However, having thanked him for doing that, I must ask why nothing was done before. The situation had gone on for two and a half years. The exasperation is almost incontrollable.

On 21 February, Mr. Precious wrote to me:

“I am writing to you on behalf of my colleagues and myself to thank you for the help you gave us… I am sure that you will be pleased to know that this information has been very useful in helping a number of people make their final decision—

at least they got it in the right order—

“concerning remaining with Remploy or taking Voluntary Redundancy.”

I wrote to the Minister alerting her to the ludicrous situation in which people have had to go to that extent and commending Mr. Warren on his behaviour. I have asked Rowland Precious to let me have a copy of the Minister’s reply to his letter of 20 February—when the reply arrives.

Precious wrote to me on 27 February in answer to my letter:

“Hi Frank I have just received your letter dated 25th February 2008 which also contained the reply from Ann McGuire MP, Minister for Disabled People to your letter… This letter was unfortunately very unhelpful”—

I had noticed that myself—

“as it did not answer the questions which were asked, It was also not entirely factually correct as a large number of people at Stockton factory asked for this information and were refused it, It was only after repeated refusals that I as UNION REPRESENTATIVE then asked for the information. It is also a fact that one of the workers in our factory who had already signed the required document”—

I stress that: he had “already signed the required document”—

“after making his choice was then refused this information”.

It beggars belief. The letter continued:

“This information was only given after a request was made from the Private Secretary of Ann McGuire, Minister for the Disabled.

I would also like to pass on to you some further information which has come to my attention namely that Spennymoor factory”—

we have heard of that before—

“which is to remain open but where the workforce had been offered voluntary redundancy had 66 per cent. of the workforce who were willing to take up this option. This meant that some of these workers will have to be forced to remain to maintain manning levels. This is further evidence that the whole of the modernization program has been badly organized and even more evidence is available in that Wisbech factory which was to remain open is now to be closed as everyone at the factory has either requested voluntary redundancy or early retirement. This is a ridiculous state of affairs when Stockton where the workforce wish to remain is being closed,

In my letter to Ann McGuire MP, Minister for Disabled People I pointed out that Peter Hain while still Minister for Work and Pensions stated in his Remploy factory closure announcement that for those disabled workers who required sheltered employment this would be made available for them. Could I point out that yesterday 26th February 2008 the Stockton Disabled Employment Advisors came to visit our factory and when I asked them what sheltered disabled employment was available they stated that at this time there was none available in the Teesside area.”

None available in the Teesside area. Teesside is a big area.

The letter went on:

“Please note that the Hartlepool factory is also due to close,

I believe very strongly that there is still a need for sheltered disabled employment in the Teesside area and that it would be feasible to set up a small sheltered workshop either by Government funding or a Stockton Council run scheme. This would be on a non profit making basis”—

as Remploy was when it was first set up—

“but without the very large expenditure which Remploy spends on wages and other perks”—

such as the Mercedes, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) referred—

“for the senior management this workshop with government procurement work guaranteed could be made to break even.”

In fact, the work force have broken records before and since—even when their work pattern has been changed.

The work force were so upset about that situation that they were naturally easy prey for the media, so I went along to try to help them make sense of it—for obvious reasons. I did not want the situation to be exaggerated, but I found it impossible to ameliorate it.

In conclusion, I shall read out three statements. The first is from Rowland Precious—length of service, 13 and a half years:

“I received a letter on 7th March”—

a Friday—

“2008 stating that my last working day was 6th March”—

the day before—

“and that I should not turn up for work on the following Monday. This disgraceful treatment meant that I was not even given the chance to say good-bye to my work mates. The letter was sent dated the 6th March 2008 and my Manager was not even aware that I had”

been finished. The statement continues:

“Could I point out that many of the jobs posted on our work notice boards (Jobs in mainstream employment)”—

that the workers can apply for—

“are already taken or are unsuitable for disabled workers. (LGV Drivers, Crane Drivers, Press Brake Operators And MIG Welders).”

For disabled people?

The statement goes on:

“Many of these jobs are unsuitable for disabled workers due to their age and types of disability. There is clearly still a need for some form of sheltered employment, in the Stockton area, for vulnerable disabled workers.

In conclusion could I say that Remploy Senior management claim that they understand the needs of disabled workers, but the dreadful recent treatment proves that this is simply not true. It is very clear that to move forward then change at the top of Remploy is clearly urgently needed.”

Rowland Precious was not saying that when I first took up those cases. I do not think that he is just mimicking me. He is an intelligent man and he has come to his own conclusions.

The next statement is from David Rock: 50 years old, length of service 30 and a half years, which is longer than I have been in Parliament, and that goes back a long time, as you well know, Mr. Atkinson. Mr. Rock says:

“Originally I was very happy to stay on Remploy’s books and transfer to Remploy Employment Services. I have been the Union Learning Rep, at the Stockton site, for the past 5 years and I have successfully managed the Learning Centre with the help of lecturers from Stockton Riverside College.

As I have a very good working relationship with Stockton Riverside College, I was very interested in taking on voluntary work and training courses, at the College, hoping that this would lead to a full time job in Adult Education, whilst effectively looking for work. It was my understanding that doing training courses, voluntary work and effectively looking for work coincided with the Remploy Employment Services criteria.

The working week ending 6th March 2008, I discovered that this was not the case, at midday on Thursday 6th March 2008 I reluctantly signed for Voluntary Redundancy and I was the last employee at the Stockton site to do so. To my surprise on Saturday 8th March 2008, I received a letter in the post from Mr Waterhouse”—

we have heard of him—

“Director of Contract Services, Dated 7th March 2008 advising me that my last working day at Remploy will be 6th March 2008.”

That gives some indication—does it not?—of the lack of organisation in that organisation. What an Irishism. Mr. Rock said:

“I am disgusted with the disgraceful treatment, by Remploy, towards disabled people.”

The third statement is from Amanda Campbell, who is 38 and has worked at Remploy for 21 years:

“Remploy says whether I stay with Remploy or not they will help me find work. The only jobs Remploy have found people have been less than 35hrs so where are all these jobs coming from? No one from here, Remploy Stockton, has found work yet. There are not many jobs out there for able-bodied people, so what chance have we got? There was 1-week notice given to anyone who left the company”.

After 21 years? One week’s notice? The statement continues:

“Employees have now been asked to work up to 6 weeks of the 12 weeks in lieu because the company decided 12 weeks in lieu starts when most people have finished. This means that the people working extra time will lose up to £1500.”

I need to think about that final paragraph, because I do not follow it myself. What I do follow, however, is that there has been an atrocious record of mismanagement and a dismissive attitude, and it has gone on for two and a half years. It is not just the management. It is not just that they have taken the easy way out, or that they are outsourcing work to countries in eastern Europe; it is that the Department, with the exception of Mr. Warren, who responded to my telephone call, has manifestly failed to monitor what the management were doing and to assess their failure to fulfil their responsibilities. In other words, the Department has failed to conduct its duties with due care and attention.

It is my intention to see that there is a memorial Remploy debate every year to remind every Minister that they cannot just allow things to go on behind their backs in spite of what they say ought to go on. Things must be checked. Simply issuing an instruction is not sufficient; any sergeant-major could tell us that. It is not just a question of issuing an instruction, but of ensuring that the instruction is carried out responsibly and faithfully. That has not happened in the case of Remploy, which is an absolute disgrace.

May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate today and on reminding us in such a moving way that we are talking about vulnerable people who are not being treated very well?

I want to make a brief contribution to the debate and refer to the Remploy factory in my constituency in Poole. It seemed that we had received good news on that factory, because it was proposed for closure and was then reprieved, but it lost its product, which was a marine product. Bearing in mind that we have the headquarters of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in Poole, that we are a major sailing centre and that we are very close to Southampton, we could have secured extra orders from within the vicinity to keep the factory producing that same product.

We have been told that there must be a new product in the factory, so what is happening now? The answer is that machinery is being taken away. I am pleased that there is another factory that will be taking on board the orders and that some Remploy employees in Scotland will keep their jobs, but the employees in the Poole factory are seeing, day by day, the machinery being taken away and realising that they will not have orders. There are set dates when the existing orders will just come to an end. The employees in the Poole factory are being offered increased redundancy pay. What should people do in those circumstances? There is uncertainty and bewilderment among the employees, because they do not know what the new product will be and because the factory is being run down. Surely we need to treat people better than that.

I agree with the earlier point that redundancy was not the right option for some Remploy employees, who will sit behind closed doors and not socialise—perhaps they will be tempted into alcohol abuse or all sorts of other problems. We have a responsibility here, and I join the hon. Member for Stockton, North in asking what type of management is that? If management are promising a new product, should they run down their factory and reduce the work force to only 16 to 20 people, who still do not know what the new product is?

I recently met the new employee at the Poole factory who will be responsible for public procurement, and the meeting was positive—I liked his approach. I went into that meeting wholeheartedly. I have dutifully written to all the leading people in the town who can form my champions group. I want to lead that group with enthusiasm and vision, but I cannot do so until I have received some answers to my questions. The existing situation in the factory must be stabilised while we search for the new product. Talking vaguely about “scanning”, which is the only example of a new product or new service that I have heard so far, is a long way removed from the skilled techniques required to work on machines that are used to make lifejackets and so on.

As the Minister will recall, I had a vision for the Poole site. The site is large, and I am not averse to half of it being sold to reinvest in a centre of excellence for training the disabled. I realise that we need to change over time, but I want to protect the existing vulnerable work force in Poole. I want to see short-term work in a work situation, the provision of IT suites and the creation of something positive, but others have not developed such a vision.

The concern that the hon. Lady has expressed is important, but it is not only disabled folk in factories whom we must consider. What does she think about disabled people returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and other such places who will need that kind of engagement, while the factories that could accommodate them are being closed?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. As the Minister knows, it is part of my vision to have a training centre for the 21st century, which will have IT suites alongside basic work disciplines. We have to move on, and the returning troops who are disabled will probably be looking for jobs in IT rather than for jobs using sewing machines and so on. We must manage the process properly.

I have a question for the Minister: is this process slow death by poison, or can we turn the situation around and deliver the vision, which will benefit Dorset, support the many people on incapacity benefit who need to get into work and, most importantly, help the vulnerable people in the Poole factory, who need adequate support? I agree with the hon. Member for Stockton, North, that creating uncertainty and bewilderment through appalling management of the transition from one product to another is not the way to treat people.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, although the subject is very serious and very sad. I also apologise for being slightly late in attending today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing the debate. I, too, will home in on the situation in my own constituency, rather than discussing Remploy in general.

There has been a Remploy factory in my constituency in Ystradgynlais for many years. Ystradgynlais is a rather deprived part of Wales, at the top of the Swansea valley, and indeed all the communities at the top of the south Wales valleys feel themselves to be at a disadvantage, because they are far away from the more economically active parts of Wales in the south-east around Cardiff, Swansea and the M4 corridor.

The factory in Ystradgynlais has also been linked with the factory in Brynamman in the neighbouring constituency of Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) has been working with me and a range of organisations to see whether we can secure a Remploy presence in the local area, because the factories in Ystradgynlais and in Brynamman have both been earmarked for closure.

The employees in those factories were aware that they had to move with the times and that they had to be as productive and as profitable as possible. They realised that the best way to do that was to bring the two operations on to one site. I have not corresponded with Remploy for some time, but, unfortunately, I do not believe that that merger will be possible, yet the two sets of workers were prepared to make sacrifices and to work together. Indeed, not only were the employees in both factories prepared to work together, but so were the local authorities, the trade unions and all the voluntary organisations that had an interest in Remploy.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

“The proposals…are both realistic about the challenges facing Remploy and ambitious for the future.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 449.]

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:

“Today’s statement will have a devastating effect on the current Remploy work force in the factories to be closed…there are real local concerns about the local proposals…What process will the Secretary of State be putting in place to make sure that local concerns can still be heard?”—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 452.]

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 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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 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

“widespread agreement among employers that disabled people are capable of performing most jobs.”

Clearly, there are disabled people who have severe disabilities and who are not capable of working at all, but the number of people in that category is relatively small, and it is important and right that they get appropriate benefits to enable them to live a decent life. For the much larger number of disabled people who can work, however, the range of opportunities that they can fulfil, particularly if employers are flexible, is much greater than many people thought in the past.

In the two minutes that I have remaining, I want to touch on one of the things that Remploy is doing to focus on keeping people in work. Under a programme that it operates in south Wales called healthy minds at work, it works with employers to pick up on mental health problems in the workplace before somebody falls out of work and becomes unemployed. There is a good reason for that:

“Supporting employees with a mental health issue to remain in work costs an average of £2,500, compared to an average cost of £25,000 per annum to support an individual who loses their job”.

Remploy, by restructuring the factory network in the way in which it has, has so far shown considerable success in getting disabled people into mainstream employment and in helping to keep people in employment.

I believe that the hon. Member for Stockton, North touched on my final point, which is about how long people stay in work. It is worth noting that individuals on Remploy’s Workstep programme sustain employment, on average, for three years and six months. We are not talking about people having work for a few weeks and then losing their job. They achieve a record of sustained employment, which means that for the programme as a whole, notwithstanding concerns about individual factories, Remploy is moving in the right direction.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate, which, as he said, is his second on the issue. I know that he feels strongly about Remploy, and I hope that we all share his strength of feeling.

I decided not to make a preordained contribution because I appreciated that plenty of points would be raised, and I wanted specifically to answer them. I start with the challenge that was thrown down by my hon. Friend, but before I get into that, I should say that I will relay his comments to my assistant private secretary, Paul Warren, whose ears will be burning if he is watching this debate.

At the beginning of my hon. Friend’s contribution, he threw down a challenge and asked what had changed since 25 July last year. I believe that the phrase he used was, “What has been going on?” Since 25 July, there have been intensive consultations and discussions with trade unions, and between trade unions and the Remploy board. There have been meetings involving the general secretaries, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), and me on Remploy and how we plot the way forward. Roger Poole was appointed in August last year to bring an independent mind to the work with trade unions and the Remploy management. For those who are not aware of it, he has extensive experience on the trade union side as a former assistant general secretary of Unison.

The then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath, made a statement on 29 November 2007, after which he took numerous questions. Although hon. Members might still have issues with some of the details, there was general support at that point for the direction of travel in which we are taking Remploy. I hope that it will give my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North some confidence to know that, since then—in fact, in the past few days—the first high-level monitoring meeting, chaired by me, has taken place between the trade unions, Remploy’s chairman and chief executive and my senior officials to review exactly how the plan has been implemented.

Hon. Members share the view that, to make the process work, it is not just about words and the plan that was delivered on 29 November: this is a living plan that has to be monitored, not least in the interests of the disabled workers currently employed by Remploy, the disabled people no longer employed by it and the 20,000 disabled people whom we want to get into employment using Remploy as the vehicle.

I say to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that this has never been a money-saving exercise—never has money been one of the major issues. I thank the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) for indicating that Remploy has received and will continue to receive a significant, multi-million pound amount in support from the Government. Indeed, the last out-turn figure on the grant in aid from the Department for Work and Pensions for 2006-07 was £133.8 million. We want to ensure that more disabled people benefit from the input from that resource.

Let me also be clear that we have never said that there is no room for sheltered factories, or supported employment as it is now called. We also continue to give support to the Remploy factories that continue to operate. Through our Workstep programme, we support people in some 83 factories throughout the country. Many of those factories are managed by the voluntary sector and some by the private sector, and others are run by local government. There is no change—our support should be there.

We want to ensure that we support disabled people into employment. However, we also have to recognise that the ambitions and aspirations of disabled people have changed over time. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, in July last year the six big disability charities were prepared to go public and say that they supported the general direction of travel that we were taking. It is not about getting fewer disabled people into employment; it is about getting more disabled people into employment.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will quickly answer the many points that he raised.

My hon. Friend is right: some work—shelf manufacture —is being done temporarily in Bulgaria while the factory at Neath gets up to speed. Remploy has to do that to maintain customers for the products that will eventually go to another factory. Otherwise, we will lose not only the factory but the customers. Although it almost makes for an amusing anecdote, the work has to be outsourced until we get that position stabilised.

My hon. Friend mentioned that there are no jobs in the Teesside area. In 2006-07, there were 14,000 vacancies in Stockton Jobcentre Plus, and 600 disabled people secured employment in the first six months of 2006-07. In Hartlepool, nearby, there were 5,000 Jobcentre Plus vacancies and 650 disabled people moved into jobs.

I want to deal with the story in The Guardian this morning, which implies that Remploy managers are driving around in Mercedes cars while closing factories. I understand that the only person who drives a Mercedes car is the chief executive, whose terms and conditions and salary package have allowed that. For the benefit of colleagues, it is a taxable benefit. As far as I am aware, no one else in Remploy drives Mercedes cars.

I do not want to deal specifically with my hon. Friend’s letters regarding Mr. Precious, but I hope that he has received an acceptable explanation about why it was important that Mr. Precious and other workers throughout Remploy were given face-to-face, support rather than just a document saying what was going to happen.

I made it plain in my statement—I quoted chapter and verse, with dates and days—that it is nonsense because it did not happen. In the sequence of events, the employee, for want of a better term, had to make a decision based on information that was not available to them. To say anything other than that is, frankly, misrepresenting the truth.

I am sorry, but I do not misrepresent the position. I think that we have laid it out fairly clearly. We would have been lacking in our duty of care if we just handed employees a document saying, “This is what the options are”. As has been well aired in this Chamber and in other parts of the Palace of Westminster, the process is intended to ensure that we support people by explaining what is going to happen and what the options might be. That was the situation in Stockton.

No. I only have another two or three minutes and I want to deal with some other points that were raised.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has taken a great deal of interest in the future of the Poole site and she is a worthy champion of Remploy. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution contract, as I think she put it, was never made with the RNLI, but with the distributor of lifejackets. The work was transferred because there is now only work for one factory. I hope that I can give the hon. Lady some comfort by saying that the scanning, which she mentioned somewhat disparagingly, was part of the iON consortium’s work for the DWP and is a good example of public procurement. However, I fully appreciate her concern that workers will feel worried where there is instability and uncertainty. I will make it my business to ensure that as much information as possible is given to her and to the workers in the Poole factory.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) spoke about the Welsh factories and mentioned transport costs. We tried absolutely everything, including consulting local authorities and the Welsh Assembly Government, to put together a package that would save those factories. More than half the employees have opted to transfer to the Baglan site. Transport has been arranged and costs will be met. I say to the hon. Member for Shipley that the Bradford employees have had the option to transfer to the Leeds factory and 12 have opted to do so.

This has been a difficult process for us all: trade unions, individual workers, Members of Parliament and Ministers. Change is difficult, but we have put in place the right support systems to ensure that we can take Remploy from what it undoubtedly was when it was established nearly 60 years ago to what it needs to be to meet the aspirations and ambitions of disabled people in the 21st century. Obviously, there will be details that I will have to look at as a result of this debate, but I want colleagues to realise that we are trying to ensure that we get more disabled people into employment in a way that meets their ambitions and aspirations, and in as supportive a fashion as possible.

This issue is difficult for everyone, and it has been a difficult decision for Ministers to make. I think that we have made the right decision and, over the five-year period, disabled people will see the difference that a new Remploy will make to their lives.