I am disappointed that the Minister focused mainly on scoring political points. She will be well aware, because my colleagues have made many representations to her, that Remploy workers see many problems with the process for the transfer of the factories, but she addressed none of those. It is the Opposition’s job to oppose, but she has ministerial responsibility and I would have liked to hear her view on some of the points that have been raised.
I will focus my remarks on the Remploy factory in my constituency and the broader context in which it is trying to function. The Aberdeen factory was scheduled to close in the most recent round of closures, but we managed to save it. In the past couple of years people in the factory, with the fine assistance of the manager, Mr Ben Mardall, have been planning to develop a programme that would see five or six types of business in the existing factory. Currently, the factory works in the textile business and furniture refurbishment; it also has a small market garden, which has been sponsored by BP, a canteen, and aspirations for a commercial laundry, and it is reaching out to other social enterprises in the area. I have organised a meeting quite soon with representatives of a number of those social enterprises to consider the development of a social enterprise hub. Added to the industries would be a development programme for work placements so that long-term unemployed and disabled people would have the opportunity to work, gain proper training and experience a variety of different types of work to improve their skills and build up a CV. We see the possibility of such a facility as an important contribution to the city’s resources. Remploy’s management has never been particularly commercially minded—I think this is the first time that any commerciality has been seen in the Remploy process.
Experience in the company is limited, but the management seem to have become completely hung up on commerciality and to have abandoned almost completely the principles of social service, which were the hallmark of Remploy’s previous 70 years’ operation. For example, the process for transferring the factories is long, cumbersome and often difficult to interpret. The management’s communication with the work force is in business-speak, convoluted and, most of the time, inaccessible to most workers, many of whom are vulnerable individuals. Many workers are completely bamboozled.
Most Remploy businesses and workers have had their hands held for the past half century—it is not the way in which I would operate, but it is the way in which Remploy has—and they are finding it difficult to understand what exactly is expected of them in order to move forward.
When the Government’s decision on Remploy was announced, social enterprises wanted to look at the factories and businesses that might become available, but they were told that they could not have access because a consultation period was under way. It may be hard to get these people who were interested in the factories back again.
There are also tight deadlines for the applications, and I know that many representations have been made to the Minister on this point. It is a virtually impossible timetable—partners have to be brought in and business cases put together, and finance has to be raised for any new start-up. It is worth remembering that the previous round of redundancies started with a consultation in May, ended in November and was not implemented until January—and the factories closed with redundancies in March. The 90-day period, which mirrors the consultation period on redundancy, is totally inappropriate to a business situation, so I hope that the Minister understands why we think that the Sayce report was much more realistic than the current arrangement about what to expect and what could be achieved.
There is a growing sense also that the process is not there to help Remploy staff to move on and create new social enterprises, which many wish to do. There are also strong rumours of a likely management buy-out of the remaining 18 functioning factories, and of the work of the closing factories being transferred to those remaining factories, but that would diminish the viability of any social enterprise that might emerge out of the closing businesses. That is a serious conflict of interest for the board, so I hope that the Minister will examine the issue and consider whether new management, or at least arm’s length, independent consultants, should be engaged to consider the whole process of factory transfer.
In the meantime, I urge the Minister to take a more hands-on approach to what is happening to Remploy. She can change things. When the closures were announced, the press were extremely critical of the Government, even though the main problem lay with Remploy management over many years. from years of contact with my local Remploy factory in Aberdeen and with others throughout the country, I know that there is potential for something very real and very positive to come out of this process. There is an opportunity for disabled people to run their own social enterprises and businesses, and to develop facilities to help others to find employment, which is what will happen at the Aberdeen factory if we are given the chance. All they need is a fair chance. They are not being given one by Remploy at the moment, and it is the Minister’s responsibility to ensure that they are.