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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder