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Future of Specialist Disability Employment

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in the House of Commons by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The Statement is as follows:

“I would like to make a Statement on Remploy and I am sure honourable Members will agree that Remploy employees must be first and foremost in our minds today. That is why they have been notified first of the decisions of the Remploy board in advance of this Statement today.

In her independent review published last year, disability expert Liz Sayce made it clear that segregated employment is not consistent with equality for disabled people. The Sayce review sets out that money should support individual disabled people, not segregated institutions, as well as recommending that Remploy factories should be set free from government control.

It cannot be right that the Government continue to subsidise segregated employment, which can lead to the isolation of disabled people. This is no alternative to promoting and supporting disabled people in mainstream jobs, the same as everyone else.

I have been absolutely clear that the £320 million budget for disability employment services has been protected, but by spending it more effectively we can get thousands more disabled people into work. It is important that this money is spent in a way that is consistent with what disabled people want, consistent with this Government’s commitment to disability equality, and consistent with helping more disabled people live an independent life.

When Labour put in place the Remploy modernisation plan in 2008, it started a process with £555 million to put factories on to a proper financial footing. It closed 29 factories as part of this process. What is clear is that the performance targets it set were not realistic, the reduction in costs could not be achieved and the modernisation plan has failed. In 2010-11, factories made almost £70 million of losses—money that could have been used to support thousands more disabled people into work. That is why the Government took the decision to implement Liz Sayce’s recommendations in March to stop funding Remploy factories that have been losing millions of pounds, year after year, but committed to doing everything possible to minimise the number of redundancies.

Today I can inform the House that the Remploy board has considered in detail 65 proposals to take factories out of government control as part of a commercial process. These proposals have been scrutinised by a panel, independent of Remploy, established by the department. The Remploy board and the Government have done all we can to support bids and safeguard jobs. This includes a wage subsidy for disabled members of staff totalling £6,400 and professional advice and support worth up to £10,000 for employee-led bids.

On this basis, nine sites have had business plans accepted and will now move forward to the “best and final offer” stage, where detailed bids will be considered. Back in 2008, when the right honourable Member for Hodge Hill, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, started this modernisation process and closed 29 factories, there was no such offer. No factories were given the opportunity to continue outside of government control. Remploy is hopeful that these negotiations may lead to the transfer of business and retention of jobs. At the current time, this does mean that 27 Remploy sites will no longer be operating. Details of these sites will be placed in the Library of the House. Remploy employees have been informed of the board’s decision this afternoon. The Remploy board will now move into a period of individual consultation with employees.

Undoubtedly, for those employees who have been told that their factories are closing, this is difficult news. But let me make one point absolutely clear. We are doing everything we can to ensure that Remploy workers who are affected will receive a comprehensive package of support and guidance to make the transition from government-funded sheltered employment into mainstream jobs.

We have put in place £8 million to guarantee tailored support for every single disabled person affected for up to 18 months, including a personal case worker to help individuals with their future choices, as well as access to a personal budget for additional support. We are using the expertise of Remploy Employment Services, which, despite difficult economic times over the last two years, has found jobs for 35,000 disabled and disadvantaged people, many with similar disabilities to those working in Remploy factories. We are working with the Employers Forum on Disability to offer targeted work opportunities for disabled people through the First Shot, including guaranteed interviews, job trials, work experience and training. We have set up a community support fund to provide grants to local voluntary sector and user-led organisations. We have protected the budget for specialist disability employment services of £320 million on average for every year of the spending review period, and we have added £15 million specifically to Access to Work. This means that 8,000 more disabled people will be able to be supported into work as a result of today’s announcements.

This is an ongoing process. Over the Summer Recess, I commit to keeping right honourable and honourable Members—and noble Lords—updated on the status of the business plans going through to the next stage. I will provide a further update on progress when the House of Commons returns in September. Our approach has been led by disabled people’s organisations and disabled people themselves, many of whom have welcomed the move to end the pre-war practice of segregated employment. I believe that it should be welcomed by all sides of the House. By spending these protected government funds more effectively we can support thousands more disabled people in work. What is more, we can spend it in a way that fits the needs and aspirations of disabled people in the 21st century by promoting disability equality and supporting disabled people in leading full and independent lives”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister said about the worthy objective of ending what I used to call “sheltered employment” and moving towards more integrated employment, but the Government on this occasion have a duty as an employer to employees who are incredibly vulnerable. There are already 515,400 disabled workers out of work in the UK, as well as 1.9 million people who are not disabled looking for work. I fear that unless there is a U-turn by the Government on closing the Remploy factories, the 2,800 disabled employees will be put on the scrap heap and most of them will never work again.

Quite simply, this is the wrong plan at the wrong time. To use another phrase: it is too fast and too deep. I am afraid that the Government have not understood all the implications of Liz Sayce’s report. She understood the need for change, but in making that change she also understood the need to involve the employees and the people who work hard in Remploy in ensuring that they have the possibility of a future. The Government have ignored those recommendations—in particular, about the time and speed of the implementation of these changes.

Why do the Government not honour the recommendations of Liz Sayce that they have chosen to ignore? Why do they not give factories six months to develop a business plan and two years before the subsidy is fully withdrawn? Why is there not a proper plan for transition that gives hope to people in work to remain in work? The viability of the Remploy factories could be decided not by a panel appointed by the department but by one that genuinely involves business and enterprise experts, as well as trade unions, rather than a simple unilateral action by the department. Will the Minister consider restarting the process on a proper basis that will enable businesses to examine whether they have a proper viable future? The public sector in each local authority area could be involved so that we can properly understand how government and local purchasing and employment policies impact on the viability of these factories.

I welcome the commitment in Liz Sayce’s report. The Government need to take a more flexible approach to transitional funding. Some of these factories—beyond those that the Minister has referred to—may need more time, particularly in areas with the highest unemployment. As we have heard today, some may need less. We are talking about the future of nearly 3,000 workers, and it is time for the Government to put the emphasis on ensuring the success of enterprises rather than saying there is no hope. I urge the Minister to look at this issue. It is not impossible to look at the tender process and to work in a way that meets the timeframe set down by Liz Sayce’s review. It is simply not credible to suggest that potential bidders can be drawn up at such short notice. With the number that we have got in the report and in today’s Statement, it is the clear position of the Opposition that not enough time has been given to the future prospects of these factories. I urge the Minister to consider these points and look at the whole picture and the impact of the proposals, which will mean thousands of workers having no future.

Let me clarify one or two points on the numbers. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about 2,800 workers on the scrap heap. The actual figure for the 27 sites we are talking about today is 1,422, of which 1,212 are the disabled group. There is a second process starting in the autumn with the next 18 factories. Those are the numbers that we are talking about.

There were two questions on process. The length of time taken to get this through, end to end, is just over five and a half months from the commercial process launched by Remploy on 20 March, not including the time for locking down the approved bids. We have had 65 bids, which we have boiled down to bids for nine particular factories. There has been an open process during which we have also put in support to provide subsidy for the first two years of £6,400 in the first year, tapering down to £1,000 in the second year. We have tried to find ways for local groups to take part in this process, including finding funds to support employee-led bids. We have run a process which, within the context of commercial and legal obligation, has been transparent and open.

It would not be appropriate or necessary to restart the process as the noble Lord said. We need to remove uncertainty and get on and finish this process in a satisfactory way so that people can work out their futures and take advantage of the very considerable package of support that we are putting behind getting people into alternative work.

My Lords, the Minister will not be surprised that I protest about the decisions which have been made in relation to Remploy, because I have raised the issue previously in debate in this House. He will be aware, of course, that the unions representing their members in Remploy have already protested very strongly against the decisions that have been taken.

Although I understand what the Minister says about it being much better for workers to work with other people and not to be segregated, for many people segregated employment is the only work available and appropriate for them, particularly in the neighbourhoods in which they live. The local siting of Remploy factories is very important.

I believe that the decision has been taken on a number of grounds, not necessarily in favour of the individual workers. There is an ideological attitude here on the part of the Government, who prefer privatisation to publicly owned enterprises. This was a publicly owned enterprise, a government enterprise, which everyone felt for many years was entirely successful. Many of the workers do not seem to have the organisation to effectively protest, although apparently they all belong to unions.

There is also the question of the people who supervise these workers. Supervising disabled people often requires a great deal more skill than supervising in ordinary circumstances, and the people concerned are trained to deal with the disabled people for whom they are responsible.

This is an entirely bad decision. I challenged it when I understood that it was in the process of consultation, and the unions protested at the time. I very much regret that the Government have taken this decision. As my noble friend on the Front Bench said, I hope there will be an opportunity for reconsideration, because there should be reconsideration. This is an important matter to the people who are directly involved, and I would like to protest on their behalf.

My Lords, the first claim of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, about segregated employment being the only employment available, is undermined somewhat by the fact that many of the jobs provided by Remploy Employment Services are in the areas where the factories are situated. Indeed it is having a great deal of success in getting jobs for disabled people in non-segregated employment—I think that the figure is roughly 12,000 jobs in those areas in the past few years. Clearly it is tough to get jobs for disabled people but Remploy Employment Services’ remarkable performance shows how, with the right strategies and policies, one can be successful in getting people into non-segregated employment—which is, of course, our central strategy.

I do not think that the noble Baroness really believes that this is an ideological public/private issue. It is about segregated and non-segregated employment and trying to spread money as efficiently as possible among the disabled community. When you compare an operation which lost £70 million in 2010-11 and cost £25,000 year-on-year for each worker supported with Access to Work’s one-off investment, in many cases, of just under £3,000 to help people into non-segregated employment, you have to take these basic value-for-money considerations into account. I therefore commend this approach, which is being done with great concern and care for the individual workers involved, as a far better way of spending our budget for disabled people in work.

I share my noble friend’s aspiration for getting the people currently with Remploy into integrated, paid employment. However, this proposal, by any other definition, is something of an experiment by putting so many people into the jobs market at this particular time. I think that he mentioned that each worker would have a mentor and assistance in getting back into work for 18 months. However, I wonder if he would agree that the House should receive a full report from him in 18 months’ time telling us how many people are in contracted paid employment and how many are not. I must say to him that, in evaluating value for money, it is not only the public money that his department spends that would come into the equation. For those who might not be in paid employment at the end of the 18 months we would have to take into account not only the money that they had perhaps drawn in unemployment benefit but also a much wider expenditure which might include things such as mental health costs, physical health costs and costs associated with family breakdown. Those sorts of things—the therapeutic values and costs associated with this group in terms of their stability in the workplace—are not only important to them personally, although that is the most important part, but also involve a cost to the public purse. I really feel that the House should be able to access that information in 18 months so that we can make a judgment on just how successful this experiment has been.

My Lords, the monitoring of what happened in the 2008-09 closures was not very good—I appreciate my noble friend’s point, and I will look into the nature of the reporting back. There will be information and, if I may, I will specify the nature and timing of the feedback in a letter. I appreciate the point. On value for money, the assessment is that, over the current and the next spending review periods, this move will be worth just over £200 million. That is the context in which we are talking.

My Lords, very briefly, perhaps I may press the Minister on what steps the Government are taking to overcome the reservations that employers might have in taking on disability labour.

My Lords, we are undertaking quite a major exercise around Access to Work, and one of the areas that we are working on is exactly the noble Viscount’s point about making employers feel comfortable. When Remploy began after the war, manufacturing was a major part of our economy. It is quite hard to be full steam in a steelworks, for instance, if you have a physical disability. As the economy has moved over to the service sector, it is very different, and the idea that many disabled people—certainly physically disabled people, around whom the concept of Remploy was developed—cannot do a whole stream of mainstream jobs is incongruous today. That is what we are talking about in the modernisation process. As I said, there is an issue about mental health. There, we are trying to push Access to Work so that people with mental health issues are pulled in and involved. We have a lot of work still to do about stigma. The Mind campaign has been extraordinary in starting to turn attitudes, and we need to get right behind it. That is a big and important issue to get employers behind.

My Lords, I shall make a couple of points. First, the point made by my noble friend Lady Browning about reporting back is vital. This is probably the final public step of the process of looking at those with disabilities as individuals as opposed to people who are put away in blocs. I have always felt that the Remploy factories were on a time limit, and the previous Government accepted that. It is never the right time to make that change, and it is particularly unfortunate that it has to be done now, at a time of high unemployment. Can my noble friend assure me that in this process, those who are placing people outwith the specialist teams—normal job centres and secondary support services—are given greater briefing, particularly in the areas where people are being made unemployed? This may well be a useful test case for those who are providing better services overall. Unless we get that process right across the board, we will have merely pockets of good practice, not good practice overall.

I thank my noble friend for that point. As I said, I will outline exactly how we will report back and timings. The more important point is the level of support we are providing in this case, where we have the personal help and support package, which is considerably tailored with consultation at every stage with, most interestingly, a specific caseworker per person, so people’s individual requirements are analysed and taken into account, plus a fund to help people in. In this case, there is a lot of tailored support. One lesson may well be how important individual caseworkers are in helping people.

I have been following the development of this policy area, and it is very difficult. I understand the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about timing, but I disagree with him. I also disagree with him on his interpretation of the Sayce report. Liz Sayce, who did sterling service to this House and others by writing her report, is looking much more long term and I think that her long-term principles are absolutely correct. We have to get the implementation right to look after the individuals who will be directly and, in some cases, starkly affected by this change. I want an assurance from my noble friend that there will be a comprehensive package of support for the individuals affected.

In particular, as it affects these workers that we are all so concerned about this afternoon, transport access through the Access to Work programme is vital, because a lot of these factories and establishments are in very hard labour market areas. They may have to look further afield to find employment opportunities that are appropriate for their special circumstances.

I am reassured to hear my noble friend mention the individual personalised package. I am also reassured by his undertaking to report back. It seems strange to me that we spend £320 million or £330 million on disability specialist employment services but £7,000 million on disability unemployment services. As the architect of the famous DEL-AME switch I will be looking to him in the longer term—and I hope that these short-term problems are sorted out—to use his ingenuity to try to lever some of the money out of disability unemployment support to employment support in the future.

I support what is being suggested. I just hope we get the individual support packages correct.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend, who understands this area as well as anyone in the House.

This is not easy—it is a change in direction. However, it does reflect a world which is moving on, away from the physical disability area, into the mental health disability area. There is a lot of work to be done there. We need the money to be used very efficiently. In terms of efficiency, roughly half of the money spent on Access to Work is in achieving things that would not have happened otherwise. In other words, there is, in the jargon, not too much dead weight. Clearly one of the objectives of any Government must be to ramp up the level of efficiency and reduce the level of dead weight as we direct the money to help people who particularly need it. As noble Lords will know, that is something I am trying to push hard, in every direction that I possibly can.