With Government plans to close the factories that have given disabled people jobs for half a century, Sarah Freeman goes behind the scenes at Remploy.
Pauline Purchase leads a simple life. Every Monday to Friday she leaves her modest bungalow in Leeds and travels the few miles to the city’s Remploy factory. Suffering from severe hip problems and learning difficulties, she has made the same journey for the last 28 years. However, come this summer, the 54-year-old fears she, along with the 60 other disabled people employed at the Morley site, will not only be out of work, but destined for the scrapheap.
Earlier this month the Government announced plans to close two thirds of the factories operated by Remploy, which first opened in 1946 to give work to injured soldiers returning from the Second World War. The Leeds site was among 36 on the blacklist, and few there have been comforted by the emergency statement issued by Disabled People’s Minister Maria Miller assuring funds will be diverted into job creation schemes in mainstream workplaces.
“I had three other jobs before I came to Remploy, but they didn’t work out because I wasn’t quick enough,” says Pauline, her voice cracking as she thinks about the future. “I worked in tailoring once, but I couldn’t keep up with the others. I live on my own and I honestly think I would end it if this place closes. This job is my only reason to get up, without it I would be left living in a prison.”
Pauline’s story is typical of the 1,518 disabled people who look set to lose not only their jobs but the comfort which comes from a set routine if the Government pushes ahead with its plans. In the 10 years since Nicola Murray joined as a team leader she’s lost count of the horror stories she’s heard of the bullying of disabled workers outside the safe confines of Remploy – one man she says came to them after he was locked in a deep freezer at a previous job.
When the official company statement regarding possible closure was read out to the Leeds employees, shock was followed by tears and then a barrage of questions, few of which Nicola has any answer to.
“They are asking me how they will get another job and what will happen when they lose their friends. The truth is I don’t know. They are already telling us they are not sleeping for worrying about what might happen to them.
“In an ideal world of course we would have mixed workplaces, but we don’t live in an ideal world – even when I take them out to the bank or to the shops you see people laughing behind their backs. They have lots to offer and I’ve never known them once miss a deadline, but small companies just can’t afford to take a chance on them. I understand that, they understand that, but unfortunately I don’t think the Government does. My real fear is that if Remploy goes the safety net will be lost and these people will end up the forgotten victims of the cuts. It’s just breaking my heart.”
When news of the cuts filtered through, Nicola was planning a trip for the employees to Cadbury World. They don’t know now whether it will go ahead, but it’s the kind of activity that goes above and beyond simple job provision, unlikely to be replicated by whatever scheme replaces Remploy.
“We are mums, sisters and social workers to those who come here,” she says. “If they have to move house we are there, if we notice someone isn’t eating properly we’ll make sure we bring in extra food. We remind them to take their medicine and when their parents die, we are the ones who help pick up the pieces. There is no way that social services can provide the care we do because we see them every day.”
The final nail in Remploy’s coffin came with the publication of the Sayce Report which highlighted serious problems within the organisation. According to figures, it costs the taxpayer £25,000 a year to keep one factory worker in their job compared with £3,000 under the Government’s Access to Work scheme. Last year the service, which accounts for a fifth of the £230m budget for specialist disability employment services, lost £68.3m. In Leeds workers spend their days picking and packing, putting together everything from water-saving kits to orders on behalf of a jam company. However, with the number of contracts having declined in recent years some of the sites are effectively paying the employees just to turn up.
The decision to shut the factories – Pontefract has also been earmarked for closure – will now be subject to a 90-day consultation and Nicola admits Remploy is not without its problems. However, she, along with the GMB Union, which represent the workers, insists it could be profitable if there was a willingness from Government to award public sector contracts to the factories which they say have been the victim of costly mismanagement.
According to a GMB report, in the early 1990s Remploy made a profit for two consecutive years but a top-heavy management structure introduced in 2000 has crippled the organisation. The union cites the £6.8m spent on consultants in one year and the £4,497 paid in bonuses to each of Remploy’s 288 managers as evidence of poor financial management.
They also say that no-one has so far calculated the cost of closing the service and claim the final bill, including lost revenue from council tax if staff aren’t re-employed, could be more than £1bn. “There seems to have been a conscious effort to allow Remploy to be run into the ground so there is an easy reason to get rid of it,” says Nicola. “There would seem to be so many options going forward, but no-one wants to listen. It could be turned into a different sort of service whereby our employees educate companies on the needs of a disabled workforce. It can be whatever they want it to be as long as it stays.”
Aside from financial concerns, the Sayce Report said the basic model, which had served its purpose in the 1940s, was simply out-dated.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith went further when he said in the 21st-century he could see no justification for the Government subsidising “Victorian-era segregated employment.” His suggestion that Remploy is a modern-day workhouse served only to ignite an already inflammatory situation.
“I find it completely offensive,” says Elaine Newell, production controller at Leeds. “It just shows you how out of touch this Government is with the most vulnerable people in society. The fact is that anyone can become disabled at any time of their life and when that happens they need to know that there is something and someone who understands the problems they face. We can’t and won’t just stand here and take it.”
An online petition has now been launched against the closures, but it will need 100,000 signatures before a full debate is even considered by the Government. At the moment it has just over 1,000 and with the majority who stand to be most affected by the change lacking access to the internet they will have to rely on others to make their voice heard.
“Coming here keeps my mind working,” says 54-year-old Peter Williams, a Remploy employee for more than three decades. “I want to work until I retire, I don’t want to be left on the scrapheap.”
Ed Balls, Labour MP for Morley, has written to the coalition asking for clarification on details of the closure plans and insists Remploy is “more than just a workplace”.
“He’s right,” says Martin Glover, who aside from numerous health problems is also profoundly deaf. “This is my family. It’s just not fair It has made me very sad.”
For some of those working in Leeds, the proposed closure is a case of history repeating itself. John Buttress, who was born with cerebral palsy, was one of about 10 employees who relocated to Leeds when the Bradford Remploy site closed in 2007.
“I get up at 4.30am to make sure I’m ready in time to be picked up, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. They understand me here and I don’t like to think too much about what will happen if this place goes.
“There are people who don’t have disabilities who are finding it really hard to get jobs, so what chance do we have? I’d like to ask David Cameron who he thinks is going to give me a job? If he answered honestly, he’d have to say no-one.”
‘An excellent organisation’
Steven Catherall joined Remploy as a trainee three months ago. For the 33-year-old who suffers from mental health problems, the placement was a sign that someone was finally willing to take a chance on him.
“For two years I applied for hundreds of jobs, but no-one wanted to know,” he says. “When you’re disabled you can feel very alone, but here you feel wanted.”
Steven has been working producing water- saving kits for Leeds-based company Straight, one of Remploy’s vital private sector contracts.
“The Remploy staff are an inspiration,” says Straight’s Jonathan Adler. “It is a sad day when we as a country can no longer support the activities of such an excellent and worthwhile organisation.”