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Volume 555: debated on Monday 10 December 2012

I am grateful for the opportunity to provide the House with an update on Remploy. On Thursday, I laid a written statement in the House about stage 2 of Remploy factories—a continuation of a process announced by my predecessor, now Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, on 7 March. She then gave a further statement to the House on 10 July. In it, the Remploy board announced the outcome of its analysis of the remaining stage 2 businesses. Remploy will now start a commercial process to mitigate potential job losses. At this stage, no final decisions have been made about factory closures or redundancies. Our priority throughout the process is to safeguard jobs, which is why we are offering a wage subsidy of £6,400 for each disabled employee to encourage interested parties to come forward.

We want substantially to improve employment opportunities for all disabled people. We engaged with disability experts and organisations to undertake a review of our specialist disability employment support. The Sayce review findings and the responses we received to the public consultation strongly supported the idea of moving away from the Remploy model for disabled people.

The first point that I want to make is that a sixth of the money for the sustained employment of disabled people is currently spent on supporting the Remploy factories, which means that a sixth of the budget went to 2,200 out of 6.9 million disabled people of working age. I remind the House that, before the last Government closed 29 factories, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said:

“The reality is that without modernisation Remploy deficits would obliterate our other programmes to help disabled people into mainstream work.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 448.]

The current Government are committed to protecting the budget of £320 million for specialist disability employment support, but we know that we must use that money much more effectively to help far more disabled people to fulfil their ambitions and move into mainstream work. In these economically difficult times, it is more important than ever for the Government’s disability employment programmes to represent value for money and to deliver the most effective possible support to help disabled people to find and keep employment.

Remploy has faced an uncertain future for many years, and in 2008, under the last Government, 29 factories closed. A modernisation plan failed, having set excessively ambitious targets which were never achieved. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) knows that only too well. As a result, the factories have become increasingly loss-making, and their future has become more precarious. That has left all staff in a vulnerable position. The answer must be to find them work and help them into mainstream employment, and the changes that are being made are focused on ensuring that they all obtain long-term, sustainable jobs.

I do, of course, understand how unsettling it is for Remploy employees to find that they are faced with the threat of losing their jobs. I know that a large number of them have given many years of service, and that they now face the prospect of looking for alternative work. That is why we set up the people help and support package especially for them. All disabled Remploy staff affected by the changes who give their consent will be guaranteed access to £8 million of tailored support to help them to find alternative employment. Despite a slow start, we are making a number of improvements to the package. Over the past three months, 148 of the 960 or so disabled people who have come forward to work with us and our personal case workers have found employment. We have every expectation that the number of job outcomes, which is already increasing daily, will increase further. We are monitoring and tracking these people and helping them to obtain work, which is something that the last Government never did when they closed their factories.

Jobcentre Plus reached agreements today with five major national employers—some of the biggest high street retailers and restaurant chains—to help ex-Remploy staff into work, and they will also have access to support from Remploy Employment Services. Since 2010, despite the tough economic climate, it has found 50,000 jobs for disabled and disadvantaged people, many of whose disabilities are similar to those of staff in Remploy factories.

Let me give a few instances of former Remploy staff who have begun work in a vast array of jobs. Four former employees from Aberdeen have started a co-operative business in their old factory. Red Rock Data Processing Services in Wigan is reopening its factory and employing former Remploy staff. Ex-employees have found work at Dekko Windows in Oldham, Camborne college in Penzance and Hayman Construction in Plymouth, and at Asda. All those people are moving into mainstream work, and I expect that, as the support continues, we shall see an increasing number of such good outcomes.

I have met many Members on both sides of the House to discuss this matter, and I shall continue to do so. We seek the best possible outcomes and opportunities for all Remploy staff.

I am grateful to the Minister. She did somewhat exceed her allotted time, which simply means that I must allow some modest latitude to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne).

May I start, Mr Speaker, by saying how grateful we are to you for allowing this urgent question this afternoon? I say to the Minister that, frankly, it is shameful that her Department tried to sneak out through a written ministerial statement last week news that it was shutting a further 10 Remploy factories and putting five more at risk. It was a mark of contempt for Remploy workers that the Minister sought to duck a debate in the House.

This statement marks the destruction of a tradition that stretches back to the foundation of the welfare state. If there is an ideal that Labour Members cherish, it is that the welfare state should be strong on the ethic to work and strong on the ethic to care. Remploy epitomises both those ideals, yet over the past year all we have heard from the Government is one plan after another to close Remploy down, without any regard for how its workers are connected to a future—to jobs and prosperity in the years to come.

Months ago, a Minister from this Department promised the House that the Government would move hell and high water to ensure sacked Remploy workers got into jobs, yet today about 90% of those workers sacked this year are still out of work. That is not good enough. The Work programme is not delivering for disabled people. Fewer than 1% of people on employment and support allowance have been found sustained jobs. When we undertook the modernisation of Remploy, we set aside £500 million to help support the process. I am afraid that is in sharp contrast to what we heard from the Minister this afternoon.

It is now apparent that this closure programme must stop until we are clear about what has gone wrong in getting sacked Remploy workers back into jobs. We need to learn far more from the example set by the Welsh Government, who have already provided 97 opportunities for 250 workers who have lost their jobs. The Minister will have heard, as I have, just how important this is, because she will know, as I do, that for Remploy workers their job is far more than simply an income; it is their connection to a social network and to a world outside. It is often everything to them.

Let me ask the Minister this: will she apologise to the House for trying to sneak this announcement out through a written ministerial statement? Especially after the Secretary of State dismissed Remploy workers as doing nothing more than sitting around drinking coffee, I think that that would be an appropriate gesture. Will the Minister stop this closure programme until we have a report on the table from her Department about what has gone wrong in getting the workers sacked earlier this year back into jobs? Specifically in respect of Wales, will she take up the proposal of Leighton Andrews that two factories in Wales be transferred to the Welsh Government, because although she does not feel they have a future, the Government of Wales certainly do?

I am quite taken aback by your bluster and, I have to say, false words. Your words would have far more emphasis—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman’s words would have far more worth were it not for the fact that he put these plans into place in the first instance. Indeed, he closed 29 factories in 2008 and rightly put in a lot of money, but it was put into a failed modernisation plan with targets that could never be reached. A target of 130% was expected of public sector contracts; that never happened. Worse still, he has the temerity to talk to us about what we have put in place for individual workers when he did absolutely nothing; he did not track them, and he did not put in place any personalised casework or any support. That is really rather shocking.

The right hon. Gentleman might be making cheap jibes and cheap statements on the back of these workers, but frankly I find that rather disingenuous and beneath him. He has a failed modernisation plan behind him, and also failed support, and he was also the chap who said that no money was left in the bank. I will not apologise, therefore, because, frankly, I am picking up his pieces.

Order. I am sure the Minister was not suggesting that anybody would knowingly mislead the House.

I was guilty of many cheap gibes and bluster as a Back Bencher, but the Speaker does not engage in cheap gibes or bluster. Just as long as we are clear about that—very good.

The Minister will be aware that the Remploy factory at Alder Hills in my constituency closed; she wrote to tell me that it was closing in her first days in her new job. She will also be aware that Giles Verdon and his team at that factory were working to put together a community interest company. May I tell her that in all their dealings with Remploy centrally phone calls went unanswered, information requested was not forthcoming and deadlines were too short? They did not stand a chance. Will she agree to meet me and representatives of Remploy in Poole so that they can tell her about their experience in dealing with Remploy centrally?

I will indeed meet my hon. Friend, just as I have met so many hon. Members to discuss the best way forward and to learn from what has happened so far.

I am on record as saying that I have been to the Remploy factory in my constituency so often that I am on first-name terms with most of the work force, and I have always regarded them as a happy work force who are reasonably well paid and happy to be where they are. This morning, I visited that factory and, needless to say, found that the work force are distraught at the fact that they are going to be closed down. What succour can the Minister give the Remploy work force in Dundee? What sort of perverse policy is it for a Government to throw the disabled work force on the dole and then tell them that if they cannot find alternative work they should work for nothing?

An announcement has been made and there is now a 90-day consultation to find out who would wish to take over the business as an ongoing concern; otherwise it is open for people to buy the assets to open up social enterprises, as has happened in Aberdeen and is happening in Wigan. I also wish to mention at this point that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency there are 10,300 people with disabilities, while at the factory itself there are 37, and that last year alone Remploy Employment Services did find 169 people jobs. First we have to go through the process and see what we can do for the good people of Dundee.

Labour Members are very keen to list disability charities when they happen to be in agreement with each other. Having listened to Labour Members preach equality for the past hour on the previous urgent question, will the Minister remind me how many disability charities—and which ones—made a contribution to the Sayce review supporting the Labour party’s policy of segregated employment for the disabled?

The vast bulk of charities agreed with the Liz Sayce review and added to that, so my hon. Friend makes a very good point.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The real problem at the Remploy factory in the Rhondda is that, although the vast majority of disabled people in the Rhondda are in mainstream employment, we have 72 people there who are affected, some of whom have been transferred from a previous Remploy factory that was closed, and we have rising unemployment and very little prospect of jobs for people. So will the Minister please take up the offer that Leighton Andrews, the Assembly Member for the Rhondda and also a Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government, made to take over the Welsh factories with their assets, so that if she is not prepared to do anything to protect these jobs, the Welsh Assembly can?

I will correct the hon. Gentleman; we are doing everything we can to protect jobs for disabled people. I spoke with Leighton Andrews last week on what we have agreed to put in place; obviously the commercial process has to be gone through correctly, as other people might put a better offer on the table. What we have to do is get the best offer for those disabled people, whom we so want to help. Should Leighton Andrews have the best offer, that will be the path we take.

My hon. Friend will know that I did not favour closing any Remploy factories, but does she agree that it sticks in the throat to hear the feigned outrage of the Opposition, who closed 29 factories without a care in the world? Nobody could do more than she is doing to try to help these disabled people to find jobs. May I urge her to continue on that path, because at a time when so many people do not want to work we should do everything we can to help these people, who do want to work?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend and we are working tirelessly every day. We are getting updates every day on how we are getting the ex-Remploy staff into work. As I mentioned earlier, when I first came to the House 35 people had a job. Within three months, by beefing up the personal support work, we have more than quadrupled the number who get into work. We are doing a positive job and we will continue to do so.

May I just clarify what the Minister said about the situation in Aberdeen? A group of workers have set up a public interest company, but they have had to move out of the Remploy factory because it is now closed. The group of workers who have managed to get themselves together and continue to produce textiles have managed that despite Remploy, not because of it.

Will the Minister tell us what the Government’s position is on sheltered workshops and sheltered placements for disabled workers? Are they in favour of them or not?

What we are in favour of is getting as many disabled people as possible—there are 6.9 million disabled people of working age—into mainstream work. If anything will help with that journey for those people, we will be in favour of it.

Last year, the Remploy factories made a £70 million loss. I listened carefully to the shadow Secretary of State and he gave no indication of how that loss could be made up. Has my hon. Friend the Minister received any representations from Opposition Members on how that £70 million gap can be filled?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. No, I have heard no ideas on how that gap would be filled—it would be another spending commitment from the Opposition requiring more money. They have lots of things they oppose but no ideas about what they would actually do.

The previous Government closed the Brynaman Remploy factory in my constituency. In the space of a year, this Government have announced the closure of the remaining nine Remploy factories in Wales—different Government, same policy. Why not just agree to the Welsh Government’s reasonable request for devolved control over the Welsh Remploy sites?

I feel that I have already answered that question in responding to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). It is part of a commercial process, and should that offer be the best for the staff at Remploy, that will be the path we take. Should somebody else come up with a better offer to support more disabled people, we will obviously pursue that, because we want to see more of these people in work.

Can my hon. Friend explain to me what special arrangements might be made for Remploy employees who lose their jobs but who were disabled in the service of their country?

We have significant measures in place for ex-members of the armed forces which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence but are supported by the DWP.

The Minister did not come to the Chamber to inform the House of the closure of a number of Remploy factories, including the one in my constituency. The local trade union rep from GMB has not yet been invited into the factory, in breach of the accord. Does she feel that that is an appropriate way to treat Remploy workers, some of the most vulnerable workers in our society, who are in danger of losing their jobs?

The hon. Lady is correct to say that I made a written statement to the House. I have met many Members, trade unions and ex-members of Remploy to figure out the best way forward. I had one-on-one meetings because, as the hon. Lady will appreciate, each of the factories is significantly different, with different commercial processes and outcomes. It makes far more sense to deal with this on an individual basis so that we can put the personalised support in place.

Does the Minister agree that the policy is all about helping disabled people into mainstream employment and not at all about cutting the budget for disabled employment support, which despite the difficult economic circumstances is being protected?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is precisely what the Sayce review recommended—that we get as many people as possible into mainstream work. There were 2,200 disabled people working at the Remploy factories, and in the last two years alone Remploy Employment Services has put 50,000 similar people into mainstream work.

The Minister will be aware that the two factories in Fife, in Cowdenbeath in my constituency and in Leven, are both left in limbo and unclear about their future. Will she meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) early in the new year so that we can understand better the possible options for the future of those two important factories?

Is not the reality that there is a total consensus among disabled people’s organisations and charities that segregated employment is not really the model for the 21st century?

My hon. Friend is correct; more and more people are calling for disabled people to be in mainstream jobs. I believe in choice and that people should choose where they wish to work, but mainstream work is what most people must aim for.

The facts and figures, rather than the rhetoric, in respect of former Remploy employees throughout the north-east who have so far been helped back into work are truly shocking: Gateshead, none out of 13; Newcastle, six out of 56; Ashington, one out of 26; and Spennymoor, three out of 41. Given that appalling failure to support the workers to find new jobs, does the Minister really think that now, just two weeks before Christmas, is the right time to make 35 workers at the Sunderland factory redundant?

The hon. Lady is quite right; as I mentioned in my statement, it has been a low start, but the numbers are increasing daily and we are doing as much as we possibly can. When I was given the choice whether to announce to the work force what was happening now, or to do so later, I believed that it was necessary that everybody had as much notice as possible. This is the start of a consultation period of 90 days, followed by a further consultation for a month. It is right and fair that everybody knows what is happening and that is why I took the actions that I did.

Before I became an MP I used to represent Remploy workers, and I saw the special nature of Remploy factories. We lost our factory in Bradford. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) tried to oppose that closure, as I did, and 90% of the people who were there are not in employment. If this is about consultation, as the Minister says, will she ensure, as she tracks these people, that if they do not get employment, the closure process will be stopped until a successful scheme is in place?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point: when the factories were closed in 2008, no plans, process, tracking or special consideration were given to the workers. That is now changing. We are obviously starting from a stop-start position, because we did not have this in place previously. As each day goes by, the process becomes better and more people are in work.

The Minister has admitted that 812 of the 960 workers are still waiting for work in the first phase. In view of the Department’s failure to get the most vulnerable people into work, should not the Minister, if she has any heart or sensitivity, postpone any future closures until the figure falls from 812 to nothing?

I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. Those are the numbers. I also announced today, because we are working on a daily basis, that five major businesses have come on board to support ex-Remploy staff. More people are getting jobs every day, and we will help them as best we can.

Can the Minister give a specific answer: why has no Remploy worker from Wishaw, whose factory was closed over the summer, been helped into a job?

I will meet the hon. Gentleman, because I do not understand why none of them has been helped into a job. The offer was there for them to come forward for personal support, and it was their choice whether to do so. More people have come forward; the number was only 800 previously, but it is now up to 961. Perhaps we could work together and he could ensure that they come forward so that we can track and support them. I believe that that is just as much up to him as it is up to me, so let us work together to help those people.

Remploy Sheffield was described by the Minister in her statement as potentially commercially viable. Does she not accept that her efforts would be better spent securing that potential, rather than risking every job in this ill-considered sell-off, and does she not see that, given the Government’s record, her talk of securing long-term employment for those disabled workers will be viewed with nothing but cynicism?

When we were deciding whether to proceed with stage 2, many factors had to be taken into account. With the factories that were seen as potentially viable, such as those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I was told that, were I to delay, they would become more vulnerable as contracts came to an end and that it was therefore imperative that we pursued stage 2 as soon as possible, because only that would ensure that the staff had a more certain future.

In the Ashington factory in my constituency, they bolted the doors, boarded the windows, ripped down the Remploy signs and cast the disabled people on to the dole queue. The promises made from the Dispatch Box for support for individuals have never materialised. Why?

That support is in place and is increasing daily. If the hon. Gentleman has found that that has not been the case in his constituency, again, I ask him to meet me and the trade unions. I have met many other Members, and he is no different; as we all have the same intention, which is to get those people into work, I think that it would be best if we met up, so I make that offer to him here and now.

In spite of the tremendous efforts of the staff, and indeed increased sales, there is now a “For Sale” sign outside the Remploy factory in Wythenshawe. The Minister recently confirmed to me that only one of the 19 disabled staff who used to work there has so far been found work. Given that evidence, how can she possibly justify the closure of further factories?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that 19 disabled people were employed at the factory, but in his constituency there are 16,700 people with disabilities, so we have to see what we are doing for all those people. I hope that he can take some comfort from the fact that last year alone Remploy Employment Services found jobs for 527 people with similar disabilities. Therefore, we have faith that we can get jobs for those 19 people.

The closure of these Remploy factories—I believe that they will inevitably close, just as with the closures that took place over the summer—will lead to a payment to the Minister’s Department of a capital receipt on the sale of the premises. Will she confirm that that capital receipt, which is over and above the commitment of £320 million that she mentioned, will be used for the benefit of disabled people?

I will certainly look into whether the capital receipt can be ploughed into future work and support for disabled people. Equally, I would like the hon. Gentleman to take into account the fact that some of these sales are not freehold but leasehold, so the figures might not be as high as he expects.

We have heard about the initiative taken by the Welsh Assembly Government. Has the Minister had a similar approach from the Scottish Government? What discussions has she had with Ministers in Scotland on trying to provide alternative employment for the many Remploy workers in Scotland who are losing their jobs, including those at the Edinburgh plant, which closed just 11 days ago?

I have had many discussions with the Scottish Government about what can be put in place, and they are still coming forward with their plans. Across Scotland, 152 disabled people are employed in Remploy, but there are 668,000 disabled people in Scotland, and last year alone 2,550 disabled people were helped into work by Remploy Employment Services. So I do believe we can help, but the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks has not yet been forthcoming to me.

Given the lack of jobs and growth in the economy as a whole, is not this the worst possible time to be pushing ahead with the closure programme? If the Government are serious about supporting disabled people, surely the way to deal with this is to make sure that the jobs are there, readily available, before any closures take place.

I do not recognise the statistics that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward, because since the election a record number of jobs—1.2 million—have been created in the private sector. As I said, 50,000 jobs were found by Remploy Employment Services in the past two years. We can find these jobs, and that is entirely what we are aiming to do.

With unemployment among the disabled having risen by 63,000 in the past year, this Minister, sadly, has presided over an unmitigated shambles of a tendering process in the Springburn Remploy factory in my constituency, with nearly 50 disabled workers not even given the dignity of her making a written statement to this House. Does she not accept that with the Daily Record in Scotland having made very serious allegations about the propriety of the tendering process at that factory, the only way she can restore confidence in her own policy is to bring in a moratorium so that she does not further preside over the incompetent chaos affecting hundreds of Remploy workers across the country?

It is a pleasure to debate with the hon. Gentleman again. I have had two Westminster Hall debates with him on this subject, and we have spoken on various occasions. He knows only too well, from the written and verbal replies that I have given to him, what we are doing, what is happening and what has happened in his constituency.

As the great-grandson of a British soldier who lost his arm in battle but worked all his life, may I say to the Minister how important it is to our national character that we provide employment for disabled people who can work and provide support for those who cannot? Will she undertake to look into the reality gap in Corby and east Northamptonshire between her rhetoric about providing support for people to get into employment and the daily distress of being harassed by Atos and finding it incredibly difficult to find employment?

We are working with and supporting these people. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to see what is happening. However, as I have said, our main and only priority is to get all these people into work and support them as best we can.

The Minister’s view seems to be that we should equalise downwards and that, if some disabled people are not working while others are employed in Remploy factories, it would be better to move those in the second group into the first one, because at least then they would all be treated fairly. Given the failure to get the people affected by the first round of closures into work, surely the fairest thing to do now would be to stop, get it right and then move on. This is not about whether we should or should not try to get people into mainstream work; it is about whether we can get these people into work.

Of course it is about getting these people into work. It has nothing to do with levelling down. We have taken the advice of the Sayce review and disability organisations, which have said that they want as many disabled people as possible in mainstream work. We are proceeding with that. I do not need to remind the Opposition that their failed modernisation plan, which started in 2008, was a disaster and we, as always, are picking up the pieces.

Since March, neither the management nor the unions at Remploy Sheffield have received any information about, or any assistance with, securing the future of their factory. I have identified some local business people who may be interested in becoming involved. They contacted Remploy HQ, but received no reply. I have tried to set up a meeting between a local Remploy manager and these local business people, but he says that he cannot meet them, because everything has to go through KPMG. Is it not time for the Minister to start cutting through the bureaucracy and provide real assistance to people who want to become involved in trying to keep Remploy Sheffield as a going concern?

Of course we are cutting through any bureaucracy. However, a process has to be fulfilled and carefully followed. The process has only just started and a 90-day consultation will begin in January, so those people whom the hon. Gentleman has found who might be interested in taking the factory forward should now make their case and it will be taken up by the Remploy board.

When the last round of closures was announced by the Government, I was visited by several of my constituents who worked at the nearby Remploy factory. They sat in my office and were absolutely devastated, and I tried to console them. Now we hear that hundreds more across the UK face the same fate. We also know that 90% of those who were sacked last time by the Government are still not in work. Will the Minister make it clear why 90% are not in work and, if she cannot, why she is pressing ahead with these closures?

As to why the previous Government failed, that question should be put in the direction of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne). I reiterate that we are working as closely as possible with these people. We have put in place personal support and that is increasing on a daily basis. We intend to get as many of these people as possible into work.

Points of order come after statements and we have a statement now, so if the hon. Gentleman is patient he may have his opportunity ere long.

I understand that it relates to this matter, but I am afraid that the rules do not change for the circumstance.