HC Deb 21 March 1956 vol 550 cc1425-34

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

12.32 a.m.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

At this early hour in the morning I wish to raise a question that has caused me much concern over a considerable period. It is a matter which I have raised on two occasions by Questions in the House, and I have also raised it as a member of the Women's Consultative Committee of the Ministry of Labour. The worry, the frustration, and indeed, what I would call the heartbreak of those who suffer from tuberculosis in their attempts to find employment has been brought very forcibly to my attention by such people coming to me—when all their own efforts have been of no avail—to ask me to try to find work for them.

I think that most hon. Members must have had the same sort of experience. All of them, and the Ministers, must be aware that when persons who have suffered from tuberculosis attempt to get work it very often happens that when the employer finds that the men or the women have suffered from that disease he finds that there is no work available for them, even on occasions when it has been made abundantly clear to the employer that the man or woman no longer suffers from that disease and would be able to do a job as any other normal man or woman could.

The difficulty of finding work for those who suffer from tuberculosis is very greatly increased in areas where unemployment is high. Where many are on the unemployment register today in what is known as a time of full employment we are often told that those on the register for any length of time are really unemployable. I wish to show by figures taken from the Ministry of Labour Gazette that that is just not the case. I would be willing to say that a very small number of those people might form a small hard core of unemployable people, but I am certain that the majority should not be placed in that category.

When we look at the unemployment figures for January, the latest figures I could get, we find that in Glasgow there were 15,360 unemployed. I looked for a comparable city in England and found that Birmingham, with a population slightly larger than that of Glasgow, in the same period had 3,635 unemployed, a very small number compared with Glasgow—less than 25 per cent. of the Glasgow figure in a city of comparable size.

Those figures support my contention that the majority of people in our Scottish cities, particularly in Glasgow, and in our industrial areas, although many of them have been unemployed for a very long time, are certainly not unemployable. Everything depends on the availability of employment in the area. I suggest that it is easy for a man or woman to find employment in Birmingham when they would never be able to find it in Glasgow or any of our industrial areas in Scotland such as Lanarkshire where unemployment is high.

In a Government document entitled "Services for the Disabled" I found these words: The problem of the industrial rehabilitation and settlement of those suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis is one of the most difficult of all the disablement problems. Those words apply to Britain in general. How much more difficult is it for those who suffer from tuberculosis or those who have suffered from it to find rehabilitation in work in Glasgow, the West of Scotland, or indeed most of our Scottish industrial areas. Those men and women in our industrial areas know that they are defeated in their object right at the beginning.

In Scotland, over the last few years there have been and are great efforts to rid our country of this scourge of tuberculosis, but the responsibility of the Government and we as a nation certainly does not end there. It seems to me that there is a moral responsibility on any Christian nation to do everything possible to help in the rehabilitation of these disabled people.

One of the best ways of rehabilitating them and returning them to a normal way of life is to provide employment for them. There is only one way of providing employment for those who are still considered to be infected by this disease, and that is to provide sheltered work in a Remploy Factory. I put a Question to the Minister of Labour on 6th March. In reply to one of my supplementary questions, the right hon. Gentleman gave an answer which I can only describe as a "smart alec" one. He said: … it may be as well to explain why seven Remploy factories for this purpose were built in England, and, under her Government, none was provided in Scotland."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 1919.] I made further inquiries from the Minister's own Department and found that between 1946 and 1951, 89 Remploy factories were opened in Britain, but from 1952 until the present day only one has been opened. It was opened in 1952, and there is every likelihood that it was planned and begun under the Labour Government. The Parliamentary Secretary appears to be nodding assent. That means that under the present and previous Conservative Governments not a single Remploy factory has been provided for disabled workers anywhere in Britain.

The figures show the Minister's reply in its true light. That reply brought despair to those people in my constituency who were waiting for the Minister to give them hope on 6th March. Scotland secured 10 of the Remploy factories that have been built, the last in 1951. During the same period, Scotland was accorded a far greater proportion of the general building of factories in Britain than it has ever been accorded during any year under the present Government.

In their early years, the Labour Government were faced in Scotland and Wales with the very serious problem of the old distressed areas. They went ahead in those years with providing work for many thousands of people who previously had not known what it was to work. At the same time, Labour decided that both in Scotland and Wales the first Remploy factories must cater for those who were generally disabled. I have no doubt that if Labour had remained in power after 1951 I should not be asking at this hour of the morning for a factory to be established to serve those suffering from tuberculosis.

I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to make the strongest representations to his Minister about the very grave need for such a factory in Scotland. I know that the Government are operating an economy drive now and have chosen in that drive to carry out some form of control of building, but only in the public sector. There has been not only control but cuts in building programmes for schools and factories, and certainly Remploy factories. My constituents, and people in other constituencies in industrial Scotland who are suffering from tuberculosis, cannot understand the attitude of a Government who make cuts in these essential services and refuse to provide sheltered employment for these people when, at the same time, there can be seen in all these districts what one can only term luxury building in the form of public houses, cinemas and luxurious houses.

It seems to them that the Government's priorities are wrong. I know that one cannot put the whole of the blame on the Parliamentary Secretary or on his Minister. What I am asking them to do is to make the strongest plea to the Treasury on this subject. I want them to ask the Treasury to show humanity. If they can get from the Treasury a decision to provide a Remploy factory in Scotland they will not only have the good wishes of these people, but their blessings.

12.46 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Mr. Robert Carr)

I would like to say how much I agree with the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) about the special difficulty of finding work for those who have suffered tuberculosis. I know that there is fear, even prejudice arising from that fear, which makes it difficult to place people who have suffered this disease in normal employment, even though they are fit for it and there would be no risk to their fellow workers. The safety of employing these people is something which all of us ought to do our utmost to publicise. I can assure the hon. Member that my regional and national officers do their best to reduce that prejudice. I can assure her that in Scotland, particularly, our disabled resettlement officers are doing all they can in this direction.

I want to do the best I can to answer this debate helpfully and sympathetically. I am bound to say that I thought it a pity that the hon. Lady introduced such a sharp political note into what she said, but as she has done so, I am sure she will understand that there are one or two of those points to which I feel compelled to reply. She said a good deal on the subject of what the Labour Government did about employment in Scotland. I realise that the level of unemployment in Scotland today is above the national average; but it is lower than it has ever been before at this time of the year. It has gone down under the administration of a Tory Government.

The hon. Lady spoke unfairly, I thought, about the cuts in the social services in the employment of disabled persons by Remploy Ltd. That is really the greatest nonsense. I can prove that by figures. In 1950–51, the money spent by the Treasury on Remploy to cover losses totalled £1,732,891. In 1954–55, that sum had risen to £2,699,113. That was an increase of not far short of £1,000,000; an increase, if I can do my arithmetic quickly on my feet, of nearly 50 per cent. in expenditure on Remploy. That cannot be described as a cut in this service. During that period the number of unemployed severely disabled persons in this country went down from 8,704, as it was in 1950–51, to 3,896, as it is today. So, during these four years, the number of severely disabled persons unemployed who might want this employment more than halved.

Miss Herbison

The hon. Gentleman has quoted figures of expenditure. If he would add to the Labour Government's figures the money that was spent to provide those factories, we would have a very different picture from taking just one year and comparing it with another single year.

Mr. Carr

Time is short, and I want to deal with all the matters raised by the hon. Lady. With the one exception of 1952–53, when expenditure was £60,000 lower than in the previous year, there has been a steady expansion from year to year in Remploy expenditure by the Conservative Government.

The claim for a Remploy factory in Scotland, specially allocated for the tuberculous disabled, has been accepted. I confirm, as my right hon. Friend said in answer to a Question on 6th March, that this factory will have a high priority in any future expansion programme. Equally, it is only fair to say that we cannot at present make any promise about when Remploy will again be able to start building new factories; I do not want to mislead the hon. Lady or the House in any way.

I wish to discuss for a few moments the factors which determine when Remploy may once again start to build new factories. First, however, I should like to give a short history of the position. In all, there are 90 Remploy factories, 10 in Scotland, 13 in Wales and 67 in England. The number of factories in each country is roughly proportionate to the respective numbers of unemployed severely disabled persons registered in the three countries. The proportion is fair as between England, Wales and Scotland.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)


Mr. Carr

Time does not permit me to give way.

As the hon. Lady undoubtedly knows, people who are disabled by tuberculosis are employed in any of these factories provided that their disease is no longer active and the risk of infection does not prejudice the safety of other workers. Our problem arises in finding employment for those in whom the disease is still active and whose presence would constitute a danger to other workers in the same factory. To meet this need, seven of the Remploy factories in England are specially reserved for the tuberculous, but, unfortunately, there is no such factory in Scotland. It is in this respect that Scotland is worse off than England. In view of the unfortunate higher incidence of tuberculosis in Scotland, I find this complete lack of a special Remploy factory for the tuberculous in Scotland, whilst seven were being provided in England, a very extraordinary matter.

That is the point to which my right hon. Friend referred in his supplementary answer on 6th March. It was the decision of the Labour Government which gave seven factories in this category to England while none was provided in Scotland. Our intention, which, I am sure, both sides of the House support, is that this deficiency shall be put right as soon as possible, and that as soon as it can be done there shall be a special Remploy factory in Scotland for the tuberculous disabled.

What are the chances of doing that? At the moment, a consolidation and reorganisation of Remploy is actively in progress. The whole of the 90 factories were opened in only seven years, from 1946 to 1952, 71 of them in the first four years, from 1946 to 1949. In 1949, the Labour Government imposed a ban on the starting of further factories, and the last 19, which were completed between 1950 and 1952, had all been begun—or if the bricks were not actually being laid, the process of building had been put into operation—before the 1949 ban was imposed.

That was why I readily nodded when the hon. Lady said that the one completed since the Conservative Government came to power was not one for which we could claim credit. But the ban was imposed in 1949, and I am afraid that the cessation in the provision of the factories has had to be maintained ever since.

I should like to explain to the House why this is so. First, it is said—and the hon. Lady repeated it tonight—that this has something to do with Treasury meanness. It would be idle to deny—and I certainly do not want to attempt to deny it—that we cannot disregard altogether the cost of running Remploy. Of course, we cannot; no Government could do that, whatever party was in power at the moment. But there is something more at stake than merely the matter of whether the Treasury will find the money.

There is a fundamental social purpose behind Remploy, and that purpose is that it exists not merely to provide occupational therapy, still less to provide charity, but to give severely disabled people the chance to contribute really useful productive work and to feel themselves active members of the community. It has been recognised throughout—and it is certainly still recognised by this Government—that a loss would inevitably be incurred in the working of Remploy factories, because of the disabilities involved, the very small factory units sprinkled all over the country, and so on. There must be a loss, but in fairness to the whole conception of sheltered employment and to the disabled themselves it must be a loss which can be defended.

The protection of the social purpose of Remploy is just as important as the protection of the Treasury's interest. Both these interests demand that the business should be run efficiently and that people should feel that is so and that it is not just another form of charity. Over the years there has been accumulating evidence by investigations, which were quite free from any possible taint of party bias, that the efficiency in Remploy was not as high as it could be.

I want to say straight away that that is no criticism of those responsible, who have given really wonderful service in building up this unique form of social service in this country. After all, it is not surprising that the efficiency lacks something. Here is a business, employing about 6,000 people in 90 factories scattered all over the United Kingdom, which had been built up from nothing in only seven years. It is not surprising that such a business is inefficient at that stage of its development and that it needs a long period of consolidation in order to become efficient. That would be so even if there were no special difficulties, such as there are in the case of Remploy, connected with the employment of disabled people.

The Government feel that this basis of full efficiency must be given to Remploy before it can go forward in further expansion on any healthy basis. The Government have been responsible for vigorous action to bring Remploy into the state of maximum efficiency. An investigation was carried out by the O. and M. Division of the Treasury. The Board of Remploy has accepted the recommendations which came out of that investigation. As a result, two business men have been appointed to the Board, Mr. Dowty and Mr. Zealey. The latter has become Vice-Chairman with a view to taking the chairmanship a little later on. A full-time sales director has been appointed and a full-time production director is shortly to be appointed.

The types of business and orders sought and obtained by Remploy have been reviewed in order to try to make them more suitable for efficient working, and other efficiency measures have been adopted. More recently, one Remploy factory has been sponsored by a local firm which supplies that factory with materials for manufacture at a stated cost while Remploy supplies the management and the labour. All those, I suggest, are important measures of reorganisation and activity in the field of Remploy.

On the financial side, an important agreement has also been reached which should be of the greatest benefit to Remploy. Hitherto, it has had to live on a year-to-year basis. Now it will be able to operate on a five-year basis. It has been arranged that over the next five years Remploy will be able to work within an average of £200,000 per year for capital expenditure and up to £2½ million per year for running expenses, subject in each case to adjustment of those sums to take account of inflation if such should unfortunately occur. For the first time, therefore, Remploy can plan ahead on a firm basis, which I believe, from my own business experience, is a most important, if not a vital, condition for bringing itself to full efficiency.

A great deal has been done by way of organisation and finance, and anybody who knows the reluctance of the Treasury to depart from the strict annual basis of financing with no long-term commitment will realise that the Ministry of Labour can never again be accused of not fighting a tough battle on behalf of Remploy. In coming to this five-year agreement for Remploy, I suggest that we have fought the right and proper battle. I do not want to make the Treasury seem ungenerous. The Treasury approved this agreement in the interests of helping to put this important social service on a good footing; and for its part. Remploy has undertaken to make it a definite aim to bring down the loss per worker to about the average weekly wage of its disabled employees; it agrees that this is a reasonable yardstick of efficiency.

As efficiency grows, as we hope and believe it will, as a result of these measures—the changes in administration, organisation, business methods and finance which I have announced—the aim of Remploy will be to build up the total number of employees above the present minimum of 6,000, and the building of new factories may also again become possible. If and when the building of new factories again becomes possible, I can, in conclusion, assure the hon. Lady that the factory for which she pleads in Scotland, for tuberculous disabled, will have a very high place indeed on the list of priorities. In trying to put Remploy on a sound basis, I believe sincerely that the Government are doing what is best in the long-term interests of Remploy and in support of the magnificent work which it has done and still has to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past One o'clock.