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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser