Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:04 am on 14th June 1995.

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton , Barrow and Furness 10:04 am, 14th June 1995

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments, but I think that he should speak to the people in Remploy, who would give him a different view about what the future holds under the special contracts arrangement scheme. The reality, if I can press him on this point, is slightly different. I believe that the changes will mean that Remploy's textiles business in particular, which is already competing with imports from the far east, will not have priority in bidding for the large contracts that it needs to survive. Business for the textiles division is drying up, and some factories are getting close to the point where they are running out of work.

That is not—I need to make this clear—the result of any peace dividend. The MOD budget, to 1988, amounts to more than £100 million for textile-related business. The bulk of the contracts, however, are now going to the far east, to purchase clothing produced by cheap labour. That affects the job security and employment of severely disabled workers.

Recently, because of the lack of textile contracts, Remploy made a commercial decision to close the Alfreton factory, which, I believe, is in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State, and the work force was shifted to a new location. I am aware that the work force at Alfreton was offered alternative employment at Mansfield. For able-bodied people, the extra time involved in travelling to work in a new location may be an inconvenience, but for severely disabled people with special needs it can be uncomfortable and distressing.

I believe that the Government's whole handling of the issue has been abysmal. The consequences for Remploy, and the textiles group in particular, could be very serious indeed. The consolidated supplies directive, which has been used as, the excuse for scrapping the priority suppliers scheme, could not have been intended to have had that effect on companies such as Remploy, which is fulfilling a social need of employing people with special disabilities. I believe that the case for the Government to rethink their whole strategy in this area is very persuasive.

Before I leave the point about the textiles group and its future in the north-west, I bring to the attention of the Minister an issue that deserves consideration by the Government. If MOD contracts that previously went to Remploy factories in the UK are going to the far east, I would draw the Minister's attention to the work that was done by Remploy at Barrow during the Gulf war, when the Army and the other services desperately needed new and additional equipment: uniforms for the desert, and special biological and protective suits.

During the Gulf crisis, the work force at Barrow worked long overtime hours, throughout the weekends, to produce the equipment that the armed services needed to discharge their responsibilities. If an increasing volume of that business goes to the far east, to countries outside the United Kingdom, there can be no guarantee that such an opportunity for the MOD will be available in times of crisis. The MOD has always said how satisfied it is with the work that comes from Remploy. If we push those contracts abroad to the far east and take them away from Remploy, there is a strategic implication that the Government need to take on board.

I shall now say a few words about the interwork scheme. Concern has been expressed about recent statements made by the company about the size and shape of the Remploy work force and the implementation of the interwork scheme, under which Remploy workers are being encouraged to move out of supported workplaces and into supported placements in open employment. The chief executive of Remploy has said that he hopes to expand the interwork scheme from the present figure of 1,700 to nearly 5,000. He also said, in the company's golden jubilee pamphlet: What I see for our future is far fewer products being produced … leading to fewer factories and fewer people. I believe that Remploy workers have genuine concerns about a move to low-skilled jobs with poor training and less security, in inaccessible workplaces. There is some evidence of a failure to observe the basic requirement: an employer under the interwork scheme must not pay less than the Remploy rate for the job. There are also fears that interwork will result in the creaming off of the less disabled, leaving those with the greatest disability in the factories to compete for what contract work becomes available. I believe that that would be totally unacceptable.

It would be helpful if the Minister would provide details to the House today of the type of work being undertaken under the interwork scheme, and the extent of the protections that exist against abuse.

I shall end my remarks now, as other hon. Members want to speak. I shall end on a positive note. Labour Members believe that the case for supported employment for people with disabilities is as strong today as it was in 1945 when Ernie Bevin, as Minister for Labour, set up Remploy.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give a firm promise to support Remploy and its work force into the future and to ensure that it is still able to celebrate many more anniversaries over the next few years.