Disability Benefits and Social Care

Part of Opposition Day — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:11 pm on 20th June 2012.

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Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour, Islwyn 3:11 pm, 20th June 2012

I want to speak about one of the worst days that I have ever had as a Member of Parliament. On the day that workers at the

Croespenmaen Remploy factory were told that it was to close, I was rung up by a union official and asked to go there to address them in their canteen. I remember standing in that canteen and telling them about the Government’s proposals to close their factory. I had been to that factory many times before when people were working to capacity, flat out, and had to come off the shop floor to speak to me because they were so busy. But on that day, everyone was there, and everyone was scared. They were worried, fearful and upset—and who could blame them? They were facing a bleak future in a local economy where 11 people are chasing every jobcentre vacancy and youth unemployment has gone up by over 250% in the past year.

The warm words of the Government are all very well when they say, “But we’re making an offer.” It seems strange to me that nobody ever gets sacked or made redundant any more—they are given an offer or future options to take. Well, the future that those workers face is very bleak. Things have been made worse by the crass comments of the Secretary of State. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, he said that people working in Remploy were good enough only to make a cup of coffee. He also said, “Let’s get away from the Victorian era of employment segregation.” Has he has ever visited a Remploy factory? Has he ever been round one of those modern facilities? Has he ever seen the skills that some of those people have when they operate woodworking machinery that cuts wood to within a fraction of an inch? These are really skilled jobs. If they are in sheltered employment, as he keeps saying, why do blue-chip companies such as BAE Systems want to take out contracts with them? The Government have presented Remploy as merely outdated and outmoded, whereas in my experience it is a modern, forward-looking company with a very motivated work force. If anyone wants further evidence of that, they should consider the fact that the workers at Croespenmaen tell me that they have had sales of £0.5 million since the closure announcement on 9 March. For a company that is supposedly failing, they are still motivated and still want to make things work.

As we face the end of the consultation on Monday, the question is what can be done. I say this: having changed the rules halfway through, the Government need to rip up the rulebook and start again. They could take on Liz Sayce’s recommendations and give the company six months to get a business plan together. When I spoke to the workers, they asked me, “How are we going to save our jobs and our factory, and talk to people who might want to take it over, if we only have three months?” Those workers should be given two years so that they can go about trying to save their business, and the Government should not take their funding away from them straight away and cut their legs off from under them, as they are proposing to do.

The cruellest thing about what is happening to the workers at Croespenmaen is that there is a solution for them. I remember my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd, in Prime Minister’s questions, asking the Prime Minister whether he would devolve the Remploy budget to Wales for the next three years. At that time, he seemed quite optimistic, and gave them false hope, but when we had the official letter, we got a big fat no. Maybe, just for once, this arrogant, blind Government, who think they are right about everything, might have been proved wrong by those proud workers who are trying to save their factory, but we got a no, and they are facing a bleak future. We have already heard the Minister say that the disability budget is going to be ring-fenced at £320 million, so what do the Government have to lose by devolving that budget to the Welsh Assembly? The answer is absolutely nothing. To me, it is a no-brainer. If it works, that is great, because those 44 people in the Croespenmaen factory will keep their jobs. If it fails, the Government can do what they have always done and blame the Labour Government.

People are always saying that this is all about sheltered employment. As I said, the Secretary of State referred to segregated employment. It is not about employment; it is about something that the Tories used to say they represented—choice. There are people at Remploy who cannot go into mainstream work but want the choice of being able to stay at Remploy, and that choice is being taken away. I sincerely hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will think of all those people who are still worried about their future.