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 praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution