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.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.