HC Deb 06 May 1952 vol 500 cc342-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Butcher.]

11.37 p.m.

Mr. John Paton (Norwich, North)

The subject which I wish to raise tonight is that of the conditions in Remploy factories throughout the country. My approach to this subject is one of sympathy and appreciation for the work of these factories in recent years, and I wish to express my desire that they may develop and extend the benefits which they have conferred on an unfortunate section of our community. Since I first raised this subject, the matter has assumed new importance through the publication of the Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, which is concerned with this very subject, and which contains some very severe strictures upon the organisation of Remploy Limited, and on the administration of its business.

To the original Questions which I put down some weeks ago, I received answers from which this debate has arisen, and I want tonight to call attention to two matters: first, recent changes in policy with regard to the treatment of sick people in Remploy employment; and, second, the sudden discharge of four long-service members of the staff of the Remploy factory at Norwich.

First, I shall deal with the question of sick leave. The matter was brought to my notice, originally, by one of the sick employees who had subsequently been discharged, and who showed me a letter signed by the manager of the local factory. I will read the terms of that letter which, I am sure hon. Members will agree, are completely shocking when one remembers that this was sent to a disabled man, employed in a sheltered occupation in this factory; and a man who, at that time, happened to be extremely sick. The terms of this letter, dated 23rd January last, are: We would advise you that a new ruling by head office to the effect that if an employee is absent over a month and there is no likelihood of his return within the second month, that he be struck off the strength of the factory, with the promise that when he is again fit and able to follow his occupation, he shall contact the factory manager with a view to reinstatement. This reinstatement is subject to the conditions prevailing and at the discretion of the manager. I have no hesitation in saying that this letter is in extremely improper terms. In fact, I should characterise them as being harsh and even brutal terms. When we remember that it was sent to a disabled worker who was sick, it could not be thought that the receipt of a letter such as this would be in the least conducive to the recovery of that sick person. I would say that the decision conveyed by this letter shows up disadvantageously against the normal practice of all decently run factories, for no decent employer would think of sending a letter in such terms to a sick employee at the end of one month's sickness.

It is true that after I began my inquiries into this matter I received a letter from Remploy telling me that they had reverted to the former practice by which a sick man was given two months' sick leave, and if his doctor then reported that he would be unable to resume in one further month, he would be struck off the strength of the factory. But it is significant that the same harsh, clumsy terms are used in the letter from Remploy headquarters itself as were used by the local manager in the letter I have quoted. So it is obvious that the local manager was not responsible for the harsh terms of the letter, but that they were laid down by the head office.

That is evidence of what I think is an extremely undesirable trend in Remploy recently. That brings me to the question of the dismissal of the four employees. One was a man with four years' service, two others had three years' service, the fourth had 2½ years' service. All of them were dismissed within a short time, one after the other. When I asked if this indicated a change of policy in Remploy, I was assured by the Minister, on behalf of Remploy Limited, that there was no change of policy.

Nevertheless, it is a singular occurrence that four men, after lengthy service of that description in this factory, should suddenly be found, about a certain date, to be of too low efficiency to remain in the factory. It seems to me to be unquestionably the case that this indicates that there must have been pressure from headquarters to step up the efficiency of the factory. Taking the two things together—the original attempt to alter in such an adverse way the terms of sickness leave, together with the subsequent discharge of four employees with relatively long service—I think there is ground for the belief, which is widespread now among the employees in Remploy, that there is distinct pressure coming from headquarters to step up the productive efficiency of the factory.

That brings me to the consideration of one or two of the points raised in the Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates. There is running through all the evidence given in that report the obvious desire of the management to see Remploy factories raised to a far higher level of efficiency. There is in the report of the Committee itself, as well as in the evidence given by those presenting evidence on behalf of the management, a great sense of sin obviously with regard to the losses incurred in the 97 factories established throughout the country.

I agree that it is the duty of any company operating as a public service, as this one is, to seek in every legitimate way to cut out waste and extravagance, to cut out any kind of expenditure that cannot be related to the real purposes of the factories. But I think that right throughout the Report, and certainly the whole trend of evidence given before the Committee, there is a wrong point of view with regard to the real functions and purposes of these factories. They tend to regard them from a commercial standpoint instead of from the proper standpoint of considering them as a social service.

The loss last year was formidable. It was some £2 million, but, again, it is obvious from the Report that a large part of that loss was not due to recurring purposes but to the rapidity of extension of a desirable service on behalf of this unfortunate section of our fellow-citizens. It is emphasised in the Report that the opening of new factories was a wasteful and extravagant way of setting about the job. So, when we consider the loss of over £2 million, we must remember that part of it, probably, is of a non-recurring nature and that the loss in future will, perhaps, tend to diminish since these unusual circumstances attending the rapid development of the factories will no longer operate.

But even though we face a formidable loss I would take a totally different view from the Select Committee or the managers of Remploy themselves. I want the loss kept to a minimum, of course, but I would say, frankly, that I believe the expenditure of even £2 million in the rescue of these unfortunate citizens, from the circumstances in which they formerly lived, was a useful and valuable expenditure, from which we may hope to get good return. We have to remember that if these men were not working in Remploy, thus building-up their self-respect and their self-reliance, they would be maintained by the National Assistance Board, standing at street corners, sitting idle in poor homes, and becoming more demoralised and more useless as citizens.

Even with this fairly heavy expenditure on the maintenance of the Remploy factories, we are getting a great gain and social boon in the way we have lifted a large number of our disabled fellow-citizens into reasonable, decent conditions of life. I shall not detain the House very much longer as I notice that an hon. Member opposite wants to say a word. I have another case, which has been brought to my notice, of a citizen in my own constituency, who was disabled by disease. He was taken to the Egham Industrial Rehabilitation Centre, had considerable sums of money spent upon him in training for a new life, was returned to Norwich and registered for sheltered employment. But, after making repeated applications to be accepted by Remploy, he has been turned down every time.

I know that Remploy, in Norwich, has the capacity and space to take in a considerable number more men than it now has. I cannot understand why we should have gone to the expense of training the man I have just mentioned if we cannot find a place for him in the Remploy, which is established for him and his like. This man is suffering from frustration; he has been unemployed for months, sitting at home all the time. His condition is deteriorating. He is losing the advantage of the training he received. There can be nothing more wasteful than that.

I suggest this man could be found employment in Norwich in the factory with the 15 men now registered for sheltered employment and that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour thus could get rid of this small problem. These men are a special category of people. They suffer from a feeling of isolation and a feeling of segregation from the normal stream of industrial productivity. I think there is room for something to be done to try and break down this feeling of isolation.

I suggest the Parliamentary Secretary might look at the possibility of bringing the local disabled committees, in all the districts where Remploy factories are established, into a much closer and more intimate connection with the workers in these factories so that these committees will have a continuous interest in the welfare of those workers. I put these points to the Parliamentary Secretary, and now give way to the hon. Member for Lonsdale, who may be able to say something on this subject, of which he knows so much.

11.50 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Paton). It will be understood that in a debate so brief one can make only two or three short and sharp observations. All of us will wish that every means should be used to find work for disabled men and women. Happiness does not come alone from pensions or money, but only from work. That is my experience personally, and in regard to very many thousands of men with whose cases I deal. There is another factor: the work must, as far as possible, be useful and fruitful, and, as nearly as possible, competitive commercial work. I do not say that hardly in any way, but unless there is that element of reality it does not give satisfaction.

It is not true that disabled men must do only simple hand work. They are very skilled at machine minding. Men disabled in the highest degree—blind and limbless, without hand or eyes—can do machine work. If they do machine work, then the capital employed in the machines makes them feel much more worth while. Further, while there is a place for sheltered factories for some who are most severely disabled, it is my experience that where a man can go to work in an open competitive factory, alongside normal workmen, he is happiest. If you can place one man who is severely disabled with 50 others who are not, it is better than placing 50 men in a sheltered factory where they feel they are apart from their fellows. One man among the 50 is helped by them: he takes part in the factory life, goes to the canteen, joins in the sports, and is looked after.

My suggestion is this: we have a system under which we compel every substantial employer to employ 3 per cent. of disabled persons, varying from the most severe cases to some quite light cases of disablement. Can we not alter the percentage so that where an employer takes into employment a man disabled in the most severe degree we would allow the man to count two in the percentage? The employer will then have done his duty by finding a job for this particular disabled man. He will put him in a situation where he is more likely to be a real producer and where he will gain much more happiness than in a sheltered factory. Do not let it be thought I am opposed to the sheltered factory. There is a place for it, but we have exaggerated its importance. The men are happier when they feel they are normally employed in normal industry.

11.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Sir Peter Bennett)

I am very pleased to have this opportunity of dealing with this matter and to be able to thank the two Members who have made their contributions to this short debate. But I do not know whether the position of Remploy is quite understood. It does not cater for disabled people who are capable of working in an ordinary factory and in ordinary work. Fortunately, as the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has said, a large majority of them are able to live and work normally.

Remploy is a new venture, which has been carried out over the last few years, in an attempt to find long-term continuous employment for the severely disabled who cannot, in the ordinary way, find employment on their own in normal factories. It is intended for those who, after medical treatment, surgical and industrial rehabilitation, have to be selectively placed in jobs; for those who are beyond all the ordinary methods of placing, and are unable to find work because of their special disabilities.

This is not the only effort being made for these people. The Lord Roberts Workshops and the Papworth Village Industries, have similar aims, although, because they have to raise money privately, they have not been able to carry on the work to the same extent as Remploy. So far as we know, no nation has tackled this work on a scale equal to ours. There are 7,500 out of 55,000 unemployed disabled persons who come into the category with which I am concerned tonight. In the Norwich area there are 13 severely disabled unemployed, and 355 ordinary, registered disabled. This is an expensive business. The average cost per worker is £7 a week. The Ministry covers the capital expenditure, and it makes up the trading losses.

The estimate for this year is £2,500,000, which is £500,000 less than the amount spent last year, which shows that the matter has been carefully considered from the point of view of the national taxpayer. As has been said, we hope that certain expenses will not recur. We are not going ahead with developments, owing to the standstill order. The reason for the trading loss is low productivity because of disablement. Wages paid are 75 per cent. of the outside rates. That has been agreed with the trade unions.

Throughout the country there are 92 of these factories, each having an average of 70 workers. There is no standing down, and there is no short time. With the rapid growth of the scheme, these matters have made this an expensive venture. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Paton), has not been quite fair to the managements and the way they handle this job, because Remploy is not a profit-making concern and the Minister does not assume responsibility for the whole of the work. That, naturally, must be left to the directors, who are mainly people doing the work as a labour of love. I cannot imagine anyone putting up his hand for a job like this if he did not regard it as a calling, and not exactly as a career.

In Norwich, 105 persons are employed there and there are 13 outside who are eligible. The factory makes and repairs Utility furniture, and makes industrial woodwork and baskets. The hon. Member's complaint was with regard to the sick. That is not a matter in which the Minister has any right to interfere. That is a matter for the management of the company.

Mr. Paton

That is something that the House cannot let pass. This is a national concern, which costs the taxpayer a considerable amount of money, and when we get complaints of what seems to be harsh treatment of the workers within the concern, surely it is a legitimate matter to raise in the House.

Sir P. Bennett

I am not complaining about the matter being raised. I simply say that the Minister is not the one to deal with the detailed day-to-day working. I will come presently to the point of hardship which the hon. Member mentioned. The questions of service and the methods of handling are arranged by the company and the trade unions.

The House will appreciate the effect which there is upon a man when he becomes sick, but we also have to remember that there are people outside the factory who are waiting. The practice, which, as the hon. Member said, has been restored, is that if a man is sick for two months and his doctor reports that for at least another month he will be unable to do any work, he is stood off for the time being. It is explained to him that when he recovers he will be reinstated if possible. In the large majority of cases, that is automatic.

This is a low efficiency organisation, catering for persons so handicapped that they cannot produce in the same manner as an ordinary person. It is not intended, however, to keep people who are so severely handicapped that they cannot make any contribution whatever or are medically unfit for any form of employment. There comes a stage when a man's deterioration is such that the medical authorities advise that he can make only a token contribution, and in those conditions the medical advice might be that it is better in the man's own interests that he should retire, because his continuing at work would in all probability aggravate his disease.

Something else which has to be borne in mind, and which is most important, is the effect upon the workers. It is essential that those who are working should not feel that they are being carried, that it is a matter of charity or that they can remain whether they work or not. It is essential that if the scheme is to succeed, we should influence their self-respect. A man should feel that he is making a contribution, and one that is worth while, and that he is doing as much as he can in view of the handicaps under which he labours. If people were to feel that they could stay as long as they liked, that it did not matter whether or not they worked, the effect upon the others would be most reprehensible and would have a very bad effect.

I assure the hon. Member that there is a very human approach to the matter. The average output of a man is about 30 per cent. Even if it is less than that, no man is rejected until that is necessary in his general interest, to which I have referred. The position is explained in detail to every man who is stood off. The factory medical officer sees each man, and the cases are reviewed by the company's principal medical officer, who is accompanied by a director of the board. The reason that the hon. Member thought there had been a change in policy was because decisions of that kind are kept until the visiting medical officer comes to verify them, and a large number of cases had accumulated. It is following the medical officer's visit that that procedure is put into operation.

The decisions in the four cases in Norwich to which the hon. Gentleman referred represented no change of policy. Two of the men were epileptics, one was suffering from muscular wasting, and the other from shaking paralysis, Parkinson's Disease. The visiting medical officer agreed with the diagnosis of the resident medical officer that the time had come when these men did not fulfil the conditions laid down. They were past the stage of making any contributions at all. It was in their own interests that they should be stood off as well as in the interests of the whole organisation that the normal policy should be carried out.

The whole business is carried out in the most human way possible. It is most difficult and we are proud of the way it has been done so far. The matter will be watched, and we hope that as time goes on it will be less costly to the taxpayer and more helpful to the individual.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.