HC Deb 31 July 1974 vol 878 cc858-66
Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This should finish at one minute to three o'clock precisely.

2.34 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

We now turn to the problem raised in the consultative document issued by the Department of Employment dealing with sheltered employment for disabled people. I have an interest to declare, altough not a financial one, as the deputy chairman of one of the voluntary societies providing employment for the blind, the General Welfare of the Blind.

We have workshops in London and Luton. We employ over 100 blind people making up-to-date products such as aerosols Thanks to our very able general manager and his supporting staff, the enterprise is carried on successfully. The consultative document is in the nature of a Green Paper. It is said at the outset that it is intended to provide a basis for widespread consultation and public debate on the issues involved. That is why it is appropriate that we should discuss it this afternoon.

The first point I have to make about the document is that the opportunities offered for consultation were not quite adequate. The document came out in December 1973 and the deadline for comments was fixed as 31st March. That was far too short for proper consultation, particularly in a period covering the three-day working week, the coal strike, the General Election and the reform of local government. It is fair to say that the deadline was later extended, but the initial short period was perhaps an example of the rather autocratic and inconsiderate behaviour too often adopted by Government Departments. Another barrier to full consultation was that the document was not available to the blind in braille until a late stage.

The main question canvassed in the document was whether sheltered employment ought to be run by local authorities or by a central agency. This was a consultative document in the sense that it did not make any conclusive recommendations. It set out the arguments on both sides, but anyone reading it can see that the authors felt no doubt that a system of central control would be more efficient and convenient and that the chosen agency should be Remploy Ltd., which would take over the work carried on by the blind workshops. We see here a tendency of central Government to prefer a national uniform solution.

It is significant to consider the reception the document had from people working in these specialised fields. The reception was pretty well unfavourable. A memorandum issued by the Association of County Councils states that the association resolved: That the Government be informed that the Association consider a unified sheltered workshop service should be under local rather than central Government control on the understanding that adequate financial provision is made for this purpose. The association also refers to the work done by local authorities in providing day pastime centres and points out that the work of these and the work of sheltered workshops merge into one another and so there are good arguments why the two functions should be carried out by the same body. There should be a flexible range of work opportunities under one control. The association goes to the root of the argument for local government control when it says that its function is to provide local services for local people, with central Government setting minimum standards. Locally managed services should be under local democratic control. The association argues that Remploy may be useful in regional planning and national marketing and management expertise, but not to the extent that it should overthrow local control. Tribute is paid by the association to the invaluable work of voluntary organisations, and I can testify to the friendly relations between local authorities and the various societies involved.

The association prefers that the service should be financed by a specific grant rather than through the rate support grant.

I turn now to comments made on the consultative document by the Joint Committee of the London Workshops for the Blind. That committee also refer to the obvious bias in favour of a central Government system based on the convenience of using the existing Remploy set-up. The Committee poses the basic question whether sheltered workshops are a social welfare or an employment service, and it expresses the firm view that they are primarily part of the social welfare service and that as such ought to come under the control of the local authorities, as is now the case with the sheltered workshops for the blind.

It concludes that a satisfactory service can best be developed under a local authority system of control, with some facilities for consultation and co-operation at national level, and recommends the formation of a working party, representative of all interests, to make recommendations, using the consultative document as a starting point.

I come now to the views of the National Association of Industries for the Blind. It, too, is against a central Government system and comments that this would run counter to the policy of successive Governments on devolution of power, as witness the Kilbrandon Report. It would involve control of some 250 factories throughout the country, with common rules and rationalisation. It, too, points to the bias in the report in favour of the Remploy system, and comments that the document makes no attempt to quantify the capital costs involved in support of that system.

The statement in the document that Sheltered employment finds its justification on social and not on financial or economic grounds. … is, the NAIB thinks, a conclusive argument for some form of local authority control. Under such control, the sheltered employment services can properly be integrated with the full range of services provided for the handicapped.

The NAIB refers to the interesting question of whether there should be special facilities for the sheltered employment of blind people as contrasted with people otherwise handicapped. Many experts think that the blind present special problems which justify their separate treatment. For example, if they are mixed with mentally disturbed people, it is frightening for the blind not to be able to see them or to ward off trouble in ways that sighted people can do. The association refers to the freedom of severely disabled persons to choose their own employment. These people are not mere pawns on the board to be moved at will. Finally, the association asks for much more time for consideration.

I come next to the National League of the Blind and the Disabled, the trade union, as it might be described. It has secured wages for the blind equivalent to those of manual workers employed by local authorities. These wages are a good deal higher than those paid by Remploy, and the league is naturally not prepared to see this advantage whittled away. If anyone wants to know why Remploy pays low wages, he must ask the Department of Employment. Hence, the league says roundly: We would resist any efforts to merge the Blind Workshops into Remploy. We do not like their wages and other conditions of employment nor the remoteness of control. To use a parliamentary metaphor, when the question was put on the recommendations in the consultative document the "Noes" had it by a large majority.

This is a little example perhaps of the struggle that goes on between two strands in English thought. On the one hand, there are the rationalists, who want to build a universal administrative system and have no time for sentimental feelings. On the other hand, there are, and always have been, people who look at life less logically and think that local ways and customs are important. Such people are often the despair of Government Departments; they are people who, to take a topical example, revolt against projects like Stansted or Cublington or Maplin; they are people who want to restore derelict canals; they are people who care about individuals. They remember the phrase, which I think belongs to Emerson: System-grinders hate the truth. These are the people who want to retain the voluntary societies and local control of sheltered employment. I hope that their reasons and views will prevail and that the consultative document, valuable though it has been as a survey, will be consigned to the proper pigeon-hole.

2.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

I am extremely glad to have the opportunity to speak on this subject, because, despite its importance, it does not receive the publicity which it should. I know that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) is primarily concerned with the provision of sheltered employment for the blind, but I first make a few general comments about the progress we have made and the way in which we are proceeding in the post-consultative document period.

The ideal arrangement is, of course, for disabled people to take their places alongside fully fit people in ordinary employment. It is my Department's objective to ensure that as many disabled people as possible are enabled to do this. However, there are some people who are so severely disabled that this is not possible, although they are willing and able to work if special conditions of employment can be provided. Sheltered employment has developed over the years to meet this need. There are now some 13,500 severely disabled workers employed in over 200 establishments run by a variety of organisations—local authorities, voluntary bodies, and, since the last war, Remploy, a non-profit-making limited company set up specifically for this purpose. I should like to pay a tribute to all those concerned—both the severely disabled workers themselves, who in their work overcome what are often very severe handicaps and the others who help to make their employment possible.

As the hon. Member will know, my Department has for some time now been engaged in a comprehensive review of its policies and services for disabled people. One of the most important matters that this review has covered has been sheltered employment. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West has referred to the consultative document on sheltered employment, published last year under the previous administration. I think it might be helpful in these circumstances if I reminded hon. Members of the main features of the document and the way in which consultations about its contents have been pursued.

It is not true to suggest that the consultative document proposed centralised control of sheltered employment throughout the country. That is only one of several options which it posed. It suggested a number of ways in which the present arrangements might be improved—for example, that there should be more diversification in types of sheltered work, more emphasis on rehabilitation to outside industry from sheltered workshops, and more integration within sheltered employment; for instance, between blind and sighted workers, who are largely provided for at present in separate establishments.

The document also argued that whilst some progress in making these improvements could be made within the present system, under which responsibility for the provision of sheltered employment is divided between a number of agencies, on balance it would be sensible to unify responsibility for this provision. The document suggested that overall statutory responsibility should be placed on either central Government or local government. However, it came to no definite conclusions on this question. This was reasonable since the document was intended to provide the basis for a full discussion of the issues involved, rather than to provide definite answers.

It was recognised at the outset that wide consultation was essential before any decisions could be taken about the future of sheltered employment. This was why a consultative document was produced. Nearly 20,000 copies of the document were distributed to a large number of interested organisations and individuals. These included all the voluntary bodies and other organisations which provide, or are concerned with the provision of, sheltered employment, all local authorities, many organisations representing disabled people, and all the Department's district disablement advisory committees.

In all, a period of some four-and-a-half months was eventually allowed, after the publication of the document in mid-December last year, for the submission of written comments. Although I know of a few organisations which experienced some difficulties in submitting their comments in the time available—in the main as a result of the three-day working week and State of Emergency declared by the previous administration—on the whole this period seems to me to have been sufficient. We appreciate the difficulties facing blind people who have had to wait a long time for braille copies. We shall look into the situation.

The Department has now received about 400 separate comments on the document. These have revealed a wide range of opinions about the future of sheltered employment. They are proving most helpful in our consideration of the issues involved, and I should like to take the opportunity of thanking all those who took the trouble to write to us to contribute their views. We have also had the benefit of the helpful advice of the Department's National Advisory Council on Employment of Disabled People.

I should perhaps say at this point that it was never envisaged that the submission of written comments should constitute the sum total of the consultative process, nor that the ideas put forward in the consultative document were the only ones which could be considered. Over the last two or three months officials of my Department have had a number of meetings with some of the more important organisations with an interest in sheltered employment in order to discuss their views in more detail. I envisage that a number of further discussions of this kind will be necessary before definite decisions can be taken. I can assure hon. Members that there is no intention of taking any decisions on the future of sheltered employment without very careful assessment of the views of those concerned. We still have an open mind on the subject, and nothing could be further from the truth than the suggestion, made in some quarters, that the Government had made up their mind at a very early stage of the consultative process on how it wanted to reorganise sheltered employment. I hope that statement assuages some of the hon. Gentleman's anxiety.

However, on the other hand, I am certain that unnecessary delay in reaching decisions could also be harmful. The issue of the consultative document has provoked a good deal of interest and discussion, as was the intention. But it has also aroused some feelings of uncertainty about the future among the disabled workers in the workshops and other people concerned with the provision of employment for them. I should not want to see this state of affairs continue longer than is required to discuss the matter adequately with those concerned.

Mr. McLaren

I am reassured by what the Minister said. Nevertheless, will he admit that the document has an inbuilt bias in favour of the Remploy system?

Mr. Walker

A lot depends on the interpretation people place on the document. I do not take issue with the hon. Gentleman on that point, particularly in regard to his strictures on the time factor.

Perhaps I could turn to some of the points which I know have caused particular concern in some quarters. First, I will refer to the future of workshops for blind people. I am well aware that a number of organisations representing blind people are unhappy at some of the ideas put forward in the consultative document—particularly the implications of the suggestion that there should be closer integration between blind people and sighted workers in sheltered employment, and the possibility of national control in the future of what has previously in the case of blind people been a local responsibility. In this matter, as in the others dealt with in the consultative document. I can assure the House that no changes will be made unless we are certain that they are in the interests of the blind and other severely disabled workers.

I am also aware of the concern expressed about the natural need of the blind, the disabled and other organisations to ensure that the wages and other conditions of employment enjoyed by those in the workshops for the blind do not suffer as a result of the reorganisation of sheltered employment. Nothing of the kind was proposed in the consultative document. The document said that it was desired to eliminate the disparities which had developed, and it suggested that a national negotiating body should be established to agree a basis of a national uniform wage structure for all disabled people in sheltered employment. Any change will only be made after consultation with all those concerned, and if we are sure that they are in the interests of the blind and other severely disabled people in the workshops.

I want now to say a few words about the future of Remploy. Doubts have been expressed about the appropriateness of giving an organisation like the present Remploy overall responsibility for planning, directing and co-ordinating the provision of sheltered employment. This was one of the possibilities discussed in the consultative document. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall bear this view very much in mind in reaching our decisions on the future of sheltered employment because I know that it is strongly held in some quarters. However, I trust that the hon. Gentleman will join me in paying tribute to the excellent work done by Remploy over the years, especially with respect to the steadily increasing numbers of severely disabled people whom it has been able to employ in its factories.

Finally, there is the future rôle of voluntary bodies. The consultative document made it clear that, whatever organisational solution was adopted for the future, there would be a need for continuing co-operation with voluntary endeavour which has played such an important rôle in the development of sheltered employment in the past. This point has perhaps been lost sight of to some extent in the subsequent debate generated by the consultative document. I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's belief that there will continue to be a most important rôle for voluntary bodies.

To sum up, the Government are committed here, as elsewhere, to improving the arrangements made for disabled people. But further discussions and careful consideration of the views of all those concerned will be required before definite decisions can be taken. The comments of the hon. Gentleman today have been valuable and constructive. I assure him that his remarks will be taken fully into account, with all the many other suggestions which have been made to us, before we reach our final conclusion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

I am much obliged to the Minister. We now have one minute in the bank.

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