Friday, 9 March 2012
Let Down By Two Governments
I was angry to hear the announcement on Wednesday that seven out of nine Remploy factories in Wales are earmarked for closure, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 jobs. The Westminster coalition, with this decision, has jettisoned the livelihoods of so many disabled people. Wales has, once again, been hit disproportionately hard compared to other countries in the UK yet the Welsh Government seems to lack the motivation, inclination or gumption to do anything about it.
The workers of Remploy are in a particularly acute situation as many are disabled and in the current climate are unlikely to find work elsewhere. The situation is worse now after the programme of Remploy factory closures under the Labour Westminster Government in 2008. Anecdotal evidence from former workers at the Trefforest factory has indicated that very few found work after Labour swung the axe there. As anyone who is out-of-work will know, finding a job is very difficult in the current economic climate. If you are disabled and living in the valleys where jobs are scarce, then your prospects of working are very dire.
Anyone who follows plenary sessions in the Assembly will know that I have raised the situation at Remploy repeatedly over the last six months. I have warned the Welsh Government time and time again that the situation was looking bleak and that urgent action was needed if the principle of supported employment in Wales was to be protected. I don’t mention this to say ‘I told you so’ but to highlight the culpability of the minority Labour Welsh Government in this whole sorry episode.
Here are some of the exchanges from The Record that I have had in plenary with the First Minister and Education Minister:
September 27th 2011:
Leanne Wood: "Given the economic situation that has been outlined by previous questioners, I would argue that jobs should be the top priority for the Government. I recently wrote to the Minister for Education and Skills, who replied that the Welsh Government recognises the importance of supported employment. There are two Remploy factories in my region, South Wales Central, both of which are under threat. First Minister, will you agree to make the case for the devolution of the budget for Remploy factories in Wales? Further to that, will you make a commitment that, in the event that you are successful with that argument, you will ensure that those Remploy factories remain open?"
The First Minister: "First, the Government fully supports Remploy workers. Many people work for Remploy. The Remploy factory in my own constituency was the first of its kind. Many people working for Remploy would find it difficult, even with the right level of support, to achieve employment elsewhere. We know that many Remploy factories have a full order book. However, there are question marks over the drive and commitment of Remploy’s senior management, in my view, to ensure that those order books continue to be full. With regard to the devolution of the budget, that is something that I would like to explore—alongside the Minister for education—with the unions, to see if they have a settled view on this matter."
October 4th 2011:
Leanne Wood: "First Minister, last week, I raised the issue of the two Remploy factories that are in the South Wales Central region that are under threat and I asked you to explore the possibility of getting the budget for Remploy devolved to Wales, and I asked to undertake a commitment that, if the budget is devolved, those jobs would be safeguarded. You agreed last week to explore the matter with the Minister for Education and Skills. Given that the Remploy workers are on the brink of losing their jobs and livelihood, time is of the essence, so can you update us on your discussions, please?"
The First Minister: "The Minister for education and I are both aware of the situation at Remploy and have discussed the situation many times in the past. I cannot pretend that getting the budget for Remploy devolved is going to be easy, or that the UK Government would acquiesce to that, but we will continue to press the case."
November 29th 2011:
Leanne Wood: "First Minister, I too recently visited the Remploy factory in Porth, and was told quite clearly that, if the factory secured the public procurement contract with Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, the business would be viable. In reality, public sector sales for Remploy in Wales have reduced by two thirds in the last three years. Can you update us on what discussions you have undertaken recently to secure the future of Remploy and, specifically, what you can do to ensure that Remploy has access to public contracts to secure its long-term viability?"
The First Minister: "I refer you to the point that I made earlier to the Member for Pontypridd ("It is right that local authorities should set an example and look to procure from companies such as Remploy in order to help those people who are in supported employment").
"In addition, I raised the issue with the Secretary of State in a meeting with her and asked her to consider the mechanics of the financing of Remploy being devolved. I have not had a response yet."
Then we have this exchange from Wednesday of this week between Leighton and I following the announcement that 7 out of 9 Remploy factories are earmarked for closure:
Leanne Wood: "Minister, this announcement could not have come at a worse time. Welfare reform is only just with us and, already, many people are very concerned about their future income and are asking questions such as, 'Will I qualify for benefits in the future?’ and 'Will I get a job if I’m knocked off benefits?’. It is only a short time ago that we lost the Treforest factory and other Remploy factories. Anecdotally, I have heard that many of those sacked workers—who, remember, were sacked by a Labour Government—are still out of work and have all but given up on finding a job in the current economic climate. I am sure that you will agree, Minister, that that is a terrible waste. All of those workers have a contribution to make. None of them deserves to be on the scrapheap. This is yet another example of the worst off in our society being forced to pay for a financial crisis that was not of their making. How many such examples do we all need?
"Minister, what representations did you make regarding the devolution of the budget and responsibilities for the Remploy factories in Wales? You tell us that the UK Government did not listen, but I would like to know whether you made the point. What discussions have there been between the Government’s health department from a public procurement perspective to see what business can be provided to guarantee the future of the Aberdare factory in my region? Does the Government, in principle, support supported employment? What concrete measures can you take to try to safeguard at least some of these jobs, if you cannot safeguard all of them? Finally, with the Jobs Growth Wales programme, will you commit to making a percentage of the jobs available for disabled people who may otherwise have found work within the Remploy network?"
Leighton Andrews: "The First Minister raised the issue of the devolution of the overall budget for Remploy factories in Wales with the Secretary of State for Wales. I have to say that that proposition was seen by the trade unions representing Remploy workers as very much a last resort when I discussed the issue with them. Of course, the issue is that Remploy factories have operated across Great Britain on specific lines of employment and that, for us as a Government, there would be a need to disaggregate the overall budget of those factories from those specific business lines, which operate on a Great Britain basis. We have not been given access to that information. Therefore, it has been impossible for us to make a calculation as to whether that would make those factories more or less viable. It has also been a situation on which we have wanted very much to work with the trade unions representing the Remploy workers, and we have sought to do so.
"With regard to procurement, not only the health department, but other Welsh Government departments have extended opportunities for Remploy factories to be considered in the supply of goods and services, as I said in my statement. With regard to supported employment, we recognise the role for supported employment. Currently, the responsibility for that lies with the UK Government. We believe—I still believe today—that it is for the UK Government to take its responsibilities to these workers seriously and to demonstrate that it is putting the support behind them. In respect of Jobs Growth Wales, we will look at the opportunities there may be for specific support for workers with disabilities. My colleague the Deputy Minister for Skills will make a statement on that in due course."
I would argue that with seven out of nine factories earmarked for closure, the situation is at a last resort now. Much more could have been done to safeguard the Welsh Remploy jobs and work to improve the financial viability of the factories that have struggled to balance the books. It needed political will; it looks like that will was not there. It is starting to look like the Labour party is content to sit back and do nothing while blaming the Westminster coalition for everything. Of course a lot of blame lies at the door of the socially regressive Con/Dems, but the mantra for Labour AMs seems to be: ‘love complaining, hate responsibility.”