The Remploy factories have closed, but the pain continues

The media moved on, but the people who used to be employed by the charity Remploy are still suffering, writes Alan White.

It’s odd, really, how little coverage the closure of Remploy factories has been getting. The factories, we’re reminded, operated at a loss: but you’d think even the most pitiless right wing axeman would be a bit shaken by the thought of 3,500 of the most vulnerable people in our society losing their jobs, and all the things that go with them – routine, an income, a sense of self-worth.

Oddly, the paper that’s been most strident in its support for the workers has been the Sunday Express, which has expressed outrage that its campaign has “fallen on deaf ears in Downing Street”. There’s been little else of note. Maybe the media bought Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that the workers just used to “sit around drinking cups of coffee.” Here’s another possible reason: you’ll have noticed that some us hacks have come to the conclusion that the DWP’s approach to statistics is, well, somewhat creative. So when it put out the line that: “Almost half of the ex-Remploy factory workers – around 450 disabled people – who have taken up the Government’s employment support package have found work or are in training,” we probably should have paid closer attention.

It’s rather like when I claim I’ve only had two pints after stumbling in on a Friday night: literally true, but the bigger picture (e.g. the eight gin and tonics that followed) is liable to get me in trouble. At the time of the claim, the figure ignored 500 plus people who retired or did not take up the employment support package. Of the remaining 1,000 people, 240 were doing training and just 180 were in employment. As the figures stand now, of the 1,500 people laid off in the last round of closures, the DWP is aware of 351 who have managed to find new jobs.

But it would be wrong to point the finger solely at the Coalition. The first round of closures actually began in 2008 under Labour, when 1,600 workers were given the boot. Of this group, the DWP is aware of under 200 who found new jobs. We’d heard little from those who’d not found employment until yesterday, when Radio 4’s Face the Facts managed to track them down. Their testimonies were rather heartbreaking, and you can read some of them here. Unemployment is a stressful, ghastly experience at the best of times. One can only imagine the toll it took on these people.

That said, the factories were losing money. In fact, the decision to close them was the result of a review by Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability UK. She came to the conclusion that there would be a human cost whatever conclusion she reached, since the failing factories were costing money that could be spent on those unemployed or who were losing jobs elsewhere and needed support.

Remploy closures were the least bad option in her view. But it appears, given her recent comments on the aforementioned Radio 4 programme (“the Government needs to go much further and faster [in providing support]”), she was let down. Admittedly, more people have come forward for employment support under the Coalition - but of course this isn’t the same as being in a job.

And there’s an interesting little exchange in Hansard from March 4th:

Jim Sheridan: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions with reference to the statement of 7 March 2012, on employment support, when he plans to allocate £8 million to help ex-Remploy staff find work or access benefits; and if he will make a statement. [145250]

Esther McVey: We have already started to use the £8 million that we made available to fund the delivery of a People Help and Support Package across Great Britain. Through this package, support is available for individuals to access for up to 18 months following redundancy to help them make the transition from working at Remploy to mainstream employment.

Right. So what’s become of this £8m? Private Eye has cited figures from the Office for Disability Issues which shows most has been spent on projects to get people involved in unpaid volunteering, work experience or coffee mornings. It’s something, but it’s not work: and above all, that’s all these people want.

But there’s another aspect to this story which is, in its own way, just as disturbing – and this is the sketchy manoeuvring surrounding the closure of a wheelchair factory in Glasgow, currently being investigated by the National Audit Office. The story, spelled out in these minutes, is extremely complex –  but the bare facts are these: the company to which the Remploy factory was sold, R Healthcare, was revealed to have been handed its sales and marketing operation last year, long before the factory’s closure was announced.

According to a rival bidder, Green Tyre in Middlesbrough, this made it all but impossible to tender for the factory. Green Tyre wanted to save the workers’ jobs - R Healthcare closed the factory down. In short, it looks suspiciously like Government-backed asset stripping. When questioned on this, Esther McVey has said that “If people have evidence they want to come forward with, then they should, via the right paths” - i.e. don’t start crying to the media. We wait to see what the National Audit Office finds. If the claims of impropriety stand up, it might lead to further questions over the fate of other factories: a final sting in this sorry little tale.

Former Remploy workers protest in April 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.