3.18 pm

On resuming

Philip Davies: No one has yet been able to tell us which of those people should not be in prison, so I presume that we can conclude only that all of them should be in prison. Therefore, we do not really have a problem.

I want to decouple one other thing. The number of women who receive short sentences in any one year is a completely different figure from the female prison population at any one time. Looking at recent figures as an example, just under 16% of female prisoners are serving sentences of less than six months, which is clearly a minority. If that is not classed as a short sentence, a further 6% are in prison for up to one year, so 22% of female prisoners are in custody for up to 12 months, which covers all cases heard in magistrates courts and some cases heard in Crown courts. All other female offenders are serving sentences of more than one year, which means their offences were so serious that they had to be dealt with by a Crown court. Those women, 78% of the total female prison population, are not serving short sentences for not-so-serious offences, as people would have us believe, but are serving much longer sentences for the most serious crimes. The figure of 78% of the female prison population comprises 34% serving between one and four years, 28% serving sentences of four years to life and 11% serving indeterminate sentences. A further 5% of offenders are in prison because after previously being released, they have either reoffended or breached their licence conditions. That is the second myth: women are imprisoned for short sentences and not very serious offences.

The third myth is that women are often remanded in custody but then are not sentenced to custody. I have heard the misuse of many statistics over the issue of remand and female offenders, so I want to introduce the House to the facts. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that women are more likely than men to get bail. The figures are in “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System” of November 2010:

“In 2009 80% of females were bailed, compared with 62% of males; 20% were remanded in custody compared with 38% of males. The percentage remanded for both males and females is at a five-year low.”

Those figures yet again back up the fact that more men than women are sentenced to custody. The document goes on:

“Of those remanded in custody, 66% of females were then sentenced to immediate custody in comparison with 75% of males.”

When people complain about women being more likely to be remanded in custody and then not sent to prison, it is solely due to women being treated more favourably when they are sentenced. It is not that they are more harshly treated when the decision is made to remand them in custody or give them bail. The figures are perfectly clear—it is yet another deliberate myth.

The fourth myth is that prison separates mothers from their children, which unfairly punishes them. It is said that 17,000 children are separated from their mothers

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and that 60% of women in custody have children under the age of 18. It is also suggested that about 700 of more than 4,000 women are in prisons more than 100 miles away from their children. Let us take that in stages. First, it is not the system that separates any mother from her children. It is that individual’s actions in breaking the law that have led to prison and that is almost certainly 100% their fault and their responsibility alone. As we already know from the evidence, they are less likely than men to go to prison. In addition, recently updated sentencing guidelines also incorporate consideration of the effect that custody would have on others, when the defendant is the primary carer for another. That again is likely to benefit further more women than men when they are sentenced.

If we are so concerned about the children of women offenders, what about the estimated 180,000 children who are separated from their fathers who are in prison? In this age of equality, what about that much higher figure? Should we not be more, or at least equally, outraged about that? If not, why not? Some women may be further away from their children than others in prison, but let us turn to the main point about all those women who are allegedly being so unfairly dragged away from their poor children by over-harsh magistrates and judges. That is another big myth.

My understanding is that a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Justice has helpfully confirmed recently that two thirds of the mothers sent to prison who have children were not even looking after them at the time. She apparently said of the women being sent to prison:

“Two-thirds of them didn’t have their kids living with them when they went to prison.”

Why on earth is there such a huge outcry about separating mothers from their children, when most of the mothers in prison were not being mothers to their children anyway?

Jenny Chapman: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman; he marshals his argument well. He makes good use of statistics up to a point. However, on this I must differ. Only 5% of children with a mother in custody are able to stay in their own home. That is not the case for men. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that? What is the effect? We know that people who have parents in custody are much more likely to commit offences in future. We are trying desperately hard to break that pattern of offending, so it seems an obvious step to try to keep those relationships alive. We know that, especially with women, that is one of the single most important factors in preventing their reoffending.

Philip Davies: My point is that men are parents as well as women. The problems that the hon. Lady articulates apply to men as well as women. The argument goes that this is all about women; it is not all about women. Let us not focus just on the very small proportion of women who are in prison. Let us also think about all the men, too. The whole point of the debate is to make people aware that where there are issues they apply equally to men, and that some of the issues are not even issues at all because the facts do not back them up.

Mrs Grant: On mother and baby units, it is not, with the greatest respect, all about the mother. The principal criterion for entering a mother and baby unit is that it

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must be in the best interests of the child. That is the most important criterion. Does my hon. Friend not accept that?

Philip Davies: The point is that 66% of women sent to prison who have children are not actually looking after their children when they are sent to prison. That is the point I am making, so I am not entirely sure why we are all pulling our hair out about people who are not even looking after their children. Those children have probably either been put into care or are being looked after by other family members, probably because the mother is considered unfit to look after the children. Why should the courts treat her less harshly when the children have already been removed from her? It is a completely spurious argument.

When it comes to the minority who are looking after their children, we should not assume that they are all fantastic mothers and role models for their children. Many will be persistent offenders with chaotic lifestyles. Some will end up dragging their children into their criminal lifestyles and some will scar their children for life along the way. We presume it is in the children’s best interest to stay with those mothers. It may not be in the best interest of the child for the mother to be released. It may be in their best interests for their mother to go to prison in some cases.

Others will have committed very serious offences. The same official from the Ministry of Justice said recently of women offenders:

“They can be very damaged and also very damaging.”

That is absolutely right. Sarah Salmon of Action for Prisoners’ Families said:

“For some families the mother going into prison is a relief because she has been causing merry hell.”

That is another worthy point we should consider. Let us, finally, not forget those who are in prison for being cruel to their children—for abusing their own children.

The final myth is that women are generally treated more harshly than men in the justice system. It is clear that women are less likely than men to be sent to prison. Therefore, we need to look at other court disposals to see if they are then treated more harshly than men in other areas. If they are not being sent to prison as frequently as men they are presumably being sentenced at the next level down—a community order. They are not. The Ministry of Justice’s figures yet again show that men are more likely than women to receive a community order: 10% of women sentenced are given a community order compared with 16% of men. The Ministry of Justice goes on to confirm that

“these patterns were broadly consistent in each of the last five years”.

Women are less likely than men to go to prison and less likely to be given a community order. That is not all. Of those who are given a community order the ones given to men are likely to be much harsher. The Ministry of Justice says:

“The average length of all community sentences for men was longer than for women…For women receiving a community order, the largest proportion had one requirement, whereas the largest proportion of men had two requirements.”

I do not want to veer into the realms of domestic violence that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle tried to go down; that is a debate for another day.

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However, one thing worth noting about sentencing is that despite all the evidence that shows women as the perpetrators of domestic violence in far more cases than some would like us to think, the community requirement imposed on those who commit an offence in a domestic setting is imposed only on men and cannot be handed down to women. As usual, this shows that the whole issue of equality works only one way, even when we are dealing with exactly the same offence.

Given the more severe sentences for men at the higher end of the sentencing spectrum, it is unsurprising that women are more likely to receive low levels of punishment at courts. It is a fact that a higher proportion of female defendants receive fines. All of that shows that throughout the court sentencing regime men are on average treated more severely than women.

Before I conclude there is another interesting statistic that is worth sharing. There is even an imbalance in the number of women reaching court compared with men, as more females than men were issued with pre-court sanctions. That has been consistently the case in recent years according to the Ministry of Justice. That is the evidence.

All the hysteria surrounding women in the justice system is completely without foundation, yet people want to be seen to be doing something about the so-called problem. We have the Together Women project, women-only groups for community sentences, a criminal justice women’s strategy unit, women’s centres, a proposal for women-only courts and, just the other day in Manchester, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) proposed a women’s justice board. That is all on top of the Corston report, which looked at the whole issue of female offenders and came up with even more suggestions.

Looking at the evidence, there appears to be sex discrimination in the sentencing of offenders, but the people being discriminated against are men not women. Women cannot have it both ways. They cannot expect to be treated equally in everything in society except when it comes to being sentenced by the courts for the crimes that they commit. People may want to argue that it is reasonable for women to be given lighter sentences than men, and that it is right that fewer women are sent to prison than men. That is an argument for another day, but at least when we have these debates about sentencing for men and women let us stick to the facts as they are and not what we would like them to be. Men are treated more harshly by the courts than women. If we can at least have debates that flow from that, based on the facts, we will have made a good start today.

3.30 pm

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing it. It is useful for debates to be formed on the basis of fact, and I think that we will all go away and have another look at some of the statistics. However, I do not think that we will all necessarily jump to the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman.

I take exception to the charge of inappropriate political correctness and hysteria on my part and on the part of the Minister. We are trying to devise a criminal justice system that is sensible, just, effective and helps to reduce

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reoffending and the number of victims. I think that that is something that we all share, and we are trying to do it within a very tight budget. In the past, I have agreed with the hon. Member for Shipley on issues such as indeterminate sentencing. It is slightly rich for him then to say that we are all getting a bit woolly-headed and soft. We are not; we are trying to deal with these issues sensibly.

If we take a look at what we know about women in the criminal justice system, the first thing that we see is that there are far fewer of them than there are male offenders. As the hon. Gentleman said, women make up only 5% of the prison population. However, being a minority has meant that in the past they have not been served as appropriately as the male population. For example, as well as committing less crime, the female population tends to commit different types of offences. Importantly, they are less likely to commit violent crime. Conversely, we know that they are more likely than their male counterparts to be given a custodial sentence for their first offence. We will all go away and frantically try to check that out. Their most common offence appears to be theft, particularly shoplifting. Once there, women experience prison differently from men. Despite inhabiting only 5% of our cell spaces, female offenders account for nearly 50% of all incidents of self-harm that happen inside prison walls. The majority of women in prison are serving short sentences of six months or less. Once out, the majority of them reoffend and are back within one year. Clearly, something is not working.

Philip Davies: I can only conclude that the hon. Lady did not listen to what I said. The fact is, at any point in time, 78% of women in prison are serving a sentence of over one year. It is simply not true to say that the majority of women in prison today are serving a short sentence—they are not.

Jenny Chapman: The majority of women who are sentenced serve less than six months. It goes without saying that serious and violent offenders, whether men or women, should be punished and imprisoned to protect the public. However, it needs to be said that the majority of women, viewed by sentences, have committed minor, non-violent offences. We are aware that our new Secretary of State for Justice is keen to tell us that prison works, but when 62% of women who serve a short custodial sentence get out and quickly reoffend, it is a sure sign that something is not working. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like all classes of offender to serve longer sentences, but I am curious to know where the budget will come from.

Philip Davies: There are plenty of areas from which the extra resources for the prison budget could come. A starter would be the £19 billion that we give to the European Union. Perhaps the recent vast increase in overseas aid—the money that we give to India—would be a good place to start, actually to have some prison places in this country.

Jenny Chapman: I really should have thought before I said that; I should have predicted that answer. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman raising that point with the leader of his party.

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In 2007, the Labour Government published the Corston report, which was commissioned precisely to consider this cohort of offenders. Irritating though it is to the hon. Gentleman, we still believe that specific things can be done for this group of offenders to reduce their reoffending that are not currently taking place, and they are different from those interventions that may be successful for male offenders.

More than 50% of the women in prison report that they have experienced domestic abuse. One in three of them have suffered sexual abuse, and a quarter of the women in prison were in care as children. They are disproportionately more likely to suffer from serious mental health problems than either male offenders or the wider population. Some 37% of women sent to prison say they have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, and 74% left school before they were 16. Drugs and substance misuse are also disproportionately a factor in women’s offending before entering custody—75% of women had used illegal drugs. I have already mentioned the appallingly high amount of self-harm that occurs in this population.

Baroness Corston was led to describe these women as “troubled” rather than simply “troublesome”, although they certainly can be troublesome. A short prison sentence, mandated on top of an already chaotic life, does little to address the root causes of offending. The problems that were there before a female offender entered the gates will be there when she leaves them, only then there might be more. Some 30% of women lose their accommodation while in custody. Many of them had inadequate housing or were homeless before arrest, and they are not the only ones at risk of losing their homes due to imprisonment.

Nearly 18,000 children are separated from their mothers every year by a prison sentence. Female offenders are often the primary or sole carer in a family—this is where they differ from male offenders. Some 66% of women in prison have dependent children under the age of 18. Only 5% of children with a mother in custody are able to stay in their own homes while their mum is inside. The burden often falls on extended family members or on the care system. We cannot afford inappropriately to sentence female offenders who do not pose a serious risk to the public. It costs children their family and their homes. It makes it harder for women, who are often vulnerable or victims in their own right, to get their lives back on track. It condemns communities to have offenders returned to their streets without any meaningful preventative work done; and on top of it all, it simply costs too much.

The Prison Reform Trust, which I know the hon. Member for Shipley holds in very high regard, reports that it costs an average £49,000 per year to hold a woman in prison. The Independent, which I am also sure that the hon. Gentleman reads very carefully, recently ran an article about a woman who had been sent to prison for stealing a lasagne. The ex-governor of Styal women’s prison tells a story of a woman who was given a custodial sentence for stealing a sandwich when she was hungry. In a women’s centre in Manchester earlier this month, I talked to a woman who had been made

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homeless due to domestic abuse and had been sent to prison after committing petty theft to survive—she had stolen a sandwich.

I reiterate that of course there are crimes where a custodial sentence is the most appropriate punishment for an offender, female or not. However, a disproportionate or ineffective custodial sentence, as is clearly suggested by current reoffending rates, is an awful lot to pay for a solution that solves very little.

Baroness Corston made a series of recommendations about changes that needed to be made to the content and provision of women’s sentences. Her report was greeted with strong support by all parties, including the two—or the one—that now sit opposite me.

Philip Davies: Is the hon. Lady claiming that someone was sent to prison for stealing a sandwich as a first offence? Is that really what she is claiming? If so, I find that very hard to believe. If people are sent to prison for what she considers to be minor offences, I can guarantee that men are more likely to be sent to prison for those offences because, for every category of crime, men are more likely to be sent to prison than women. This applies equally to men—it is not only women.

Jenny Chapman: Of course, that is true. If something positive can come out of this debate, it might be a sense that in raising issues concerning women we are not solely concerned about women offenders. What is true, however, is that we could have much more success with that group of offenders if they were dealt with slightly differently. Given that we have such a problem with reoffending, it makes perfect sense to break offenders down into groups to be dealt with and with whom we could first have some success.

The Labour Government accepted almost all of Corston’s 43 recommendations, and a lot of good progress was made. Five years on, some of the achievements that we should be most proud of are the end to mandatory strip searching and the targeted investment in community and diversion services for women. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) who, according to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), argued ferociously for change and did not stop until she got her way—a fine example of the effectiveness of a women’s justice champion, a role that has, sadly, been conspicuous by its absence in the first two years of this Government.

Progress, I am disappointed to report, has stalled. I have already noted that the current Secretary of State for Justice did not find time to make women a priority in his conference speech, although, to be fair to him, he is simply following the example set by a Government who did not include a single mention of female offenders in a Bill with the size and scope of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The Secretary of State has made much of his desire to be tough on crime and, even more perhaps, of his fractious relationship with community sentencing. This is not about being hard or soft, however, but about what works, and smart community interventions are the most effective way to sentence and rehabilitate the majority of women who enter the criminal justice system. Such reform is tough on crime, as it reduces it. When I asked staff and service users at the Pankhurst women’s centre in Manchester

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what needed to change, they answered that politicians needed to grow a backbone—they were actually a lot less polite, but I think we know what they meant.

In opposition, Labour has continued our commitment to such reform—this month my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) announced plans to set up a women’s justice board. Reducing the number of women in prison, he argued, should be a priority for any Government. The Secretary of State for Justice is not known for his desire to reduce the prison population, but if our criminal justice system is to be sensible and effective and provide value for money, it may be time for the Government to think outside the gates.

3.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing this important debate, and I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the steps that justice agencies are taking to address women’s offending. Before doing so, I want to set out two important parts of the wider context on female offenders: to explain how our current sentencing framework deals with gender and to show how important it is to look carefully at the evidence on how women are sentenced by the courts.

To begin with, therefore, it is important to be clear about how our sentencing framework is gender-neutral: everyone is absolutely equal before the law. The same criminal offences and maximum penalties apply to every case, regardless of the offender’s gender. Alongside that, however, we also need to remember that every offender who is brought before the courts is unique. A long-standing principle of our justice system is that courts should consider the full circumstances, not only of the offence but of the offender, when sentencing. A sentencing framework that did not allow courts to take into account individual circumstances would not be a just one.

In many cases, an offender’s personal characteristics, such as previous convictions, failure to comply with earlier court orders or abusing a position of trust, can all be treated as aggravating factors when sentencing. Other personal characteristics, however, may provide mitigation. Previous good character, age, physical or mental health and caring responsibilities are all factors that courts can take into account when deciding the appropriate sentence.

All such factors may apply to both male and female offenders. For example, that an offender is a primary carer for dependent relatives is the important fact for the court, not whether the offender is the mother or the father. Probation pre-sentence reports give courts the detailed assessments that they need to make informed judgments about the factors that they should take into account.

I should make it clear that courts need to weigh mitigating factors against the others circumstances. For example, although it is recognised that parental imprisonment can have considerable effect on the lives of children, caring responsibilities will not necessarily mean that an offender will be spared prison. The overriding aim of the courts will always be to impose a sentence

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that reflects the seriousness of the offence and that is proportionate to the culpability of the offender and the harm caused.

We need to bear in mind all such issues when looking at the sentences imposed on male and female offenders. Differences in the type and severity of sentence given to men and women may be attributable to a wide range of factors, such as the type and gravity of offence committed and the individual’s previous offending history.

Philip Davies: Is the Minister therefore conceding—the main purpose of my debate—that for each category of offence men are more likely to be sent to prison than women? She did not say so explicitly, but she was about to give reasons for that being the case.

Mrs Grant: No, I do not accept that at all. What I have just said is that the sentencing framework and guidelines are gender-neutral: everyone is absolutely equal before the law. That is exactly what I said.

Philip Davies: I will give the Minister one more chance, because I do not want her to mislead the House inadvertently. She can use her Ministry of Justice figures for the answer. Does she accept that, for each category of offence, men are more likely to be sent to prison than women? We can take all the reasons why that may be the case and we can put in all the mitigating factors, but will she confirm for the benefit of the House, as the Minister in this Department, that for each category of offence men are more likely to be sent to prison than women? The reasons are irrelevant; it is only the facts that we want at this stage.

Mrs Grant: We could go round in circles, but I shall repeat myself: the sentencing framework and guidelines are gender-neutral and everyone is equal before the law. The sentencer has an obligation to take into consideration all factors relating to the offence and to the offender. In our judicial system, if the sentencer failed to do so, we would have an unjust system.

We need to be careful when interpreting the statistics, many of which have been cited by my hon. Friend today. At a high level, for example, the figures show that 10% of male offenders and 3% of female offenders were sentenced to immediate custody in 2011. The average custodial sentence length for males was longer than for females, at 15 months and 10 months, respectively. Equally, however, proportionally more males than females received sentences in 2011 for serious offences such as violent crime, sexual crime and robbery. There were also differences in the severity of offences committed within the groups. For example, 343 offenders were sentenced in 2011 for murder, but only 23 were female offenders.

The available statistics on aggravating factors suggest that a similar proportion of males and females sentenced to short custodial sentences are persistent offenders. In June 2011, around half of both men and women serving sentences of six months or less in prison had 15 or more previous convictions.

A number of mitigating factors are particularly associated with women offenders, including the high prevalence of mental health needs and child care responsibilities. Prisoner surveys tell us that more than a quarter of female

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prisoners reported having been treated for a mental health problem in the year before custody, compared with 16% of male prisoners.

Women are also more likely than male offenders to have child care responsibilities, and 60% of mothers with children under the age of 18 lived with those children prior to imprisonment, compared with around 45% of fathers. So there is a nuanced story behind the statistics, which reflects the fact that every offender, whether male or female, is a unique individual. Whether offenders are punished in custody or in the community, the Government are committed to ensuring that both men and women who offend are successfully rehabilitated.

For those offenders who are best dealt with out of court, we are piloting mental health and substance misuse liaison and diversion services in police custody and at courts by 2014. We are also developing intensive treatment options in the community for offenders with drug or mental health problems, including four women-only services in Wirral, Bristol, Birmingham and Tyneside.

In prisons, we are piloting drug recovery wings for short-sentence, drug and alcohol-dependent prisoners at three women’s prisons: HMPs New Hall, Askham Grange and Styal. We are also ensuring that courts have the right mix of punitive and rehabilitative requirements available when sentencing female offenders to community sentences. The National Offender Management Service is providing £3.78 million in this financial year to fund 31 women’s community services that can be used as part of, or in conjunction with community sentences. To protect the provision of services for women in these times of financial challenge, that funding will be embedded within the baseline for future probation trust settlements with a requirement that it results in enhanced services for women.

We have issued gender-specific standards in all areas of the prison regime, including training for staff working with women offenders in prisons, now extended to services provided in the outside community, and new search arrangements, ending routine full searches of women prisoners.

Seven mother and baby units in England and Wales provide an overall total capacity of 77 places for mothers, with capacity for up to 84 places for babies to allow for twins. Mother and baby units provide a calm and friendly place within prison for babies to live with their mothers. They enable the mother and child relationship to develop, thereby safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare.

In closing, I thank the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman), as well as the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), for contributing to the debate. We can continue to improve how we tackle offending together only if we continue to address the wide range of factors associated with offending, whether the offenders are male or female. I welcome the constructive and knowledgeable contributions from all hon. Members this afternoon, as they have highlighted how important it is to continue to focus on responding to the specific circumstances of women offenders.

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Tonbridge Hospital/Edenbridge Hospital

3.53 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Osborne.

My constituents are most fortunate in that they have within my constituency geographical boundary not one community hospital, but two. We have the Edenbridge and District War Memorial hospital, and Tonbridge Cottage hospital. Both were founded between the two world wars with the outpouring of philanthropic and generous donations in remembrance particularly of those who suffered terrible injuries on such a huge scale during the first world war.

Of all the public assets in Edenbridge and Tonbridge, those two hospitals are the most highly prized by the two communities. The support for Edenbridge and Tonbridge community hospitals is far reaching and profound. In the forefront of that support are their two leagues of friends. Edenbridge Hospital’s League of Friends, chaired by Mrs Jo Naismith, and Tonbridge Hospital’s League of Friends, chaired by Dr David Goodridge, voluntarily and in an unceasing and dedicated way provide outstanding support to the two hospitals. I stress particularly the quality of the care and treatment provided at the two hospitals, and I pay tribute to the NHS nursing staff and doctors, and all the others who work in them for the quality of provision for local patients.

I want to raise two issues. First is the proposed transfer of the assets of both hospitals in April 2013 in accordance with the Government’s policy of relieving the former primary care trusts of their property assets. The Government’s policy in this area is seriously misguided. It is a major failure and misconception of policy to divide those property assets into the sheep and the goats with property from some community hospitals being transferred to mainstream NHS providers when that of other hospitals—the goats—is being transferred to NHS Property Services Ltd.

Despite all the soothing words and honeyed letters that I have received from Ministers about the issue—I am grateful to the Minister for the letter she wrote to me yesterday, which I received this morning—I am in no doubt whatever from the statements by the previous Secretary of State for Health that the main reason for the creation of NHS Property Services Ltd is to set up a vehicle inside the Department of Health that will count among its main objectives asset realisation, or asset stripping as some might say. To make the point clearly, it is necessary only to go back to the former Secretary of State’s original written statement in which he outlined the objectives of NHS Property Services Ltd, which included to

“deliver value for money property services; cut costs of administering the estate by consolidating the management of over 150 estates; deliver and develop cost-effective property solutions for community health services; and dispose of property surplus to NHS requirements.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 19WS.]

It is quite clear, therefore, that NHS Property Services is an asset realisation and disposal company being set up within the NHS.

I also find some of the criteria used by Ministers for whether community hospital assets go to NHS providers or to NHS Property Services Ltd seriously flawed. For

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example, why should a community hospital, simply because it shares parts of its property with another NHS trust, as is the case with Tonbridge Cottage hospital, automatically be sentenced to going to NHS Property Services Ltd? I see absolutely no justification or rationality for that criterion.

My anxieties about the policy were, if anything, increased when my hon. Friend the Minister gave the following reply in a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston):

“NHS Property Services Ltd will own and manage buildings that are needed by the NHS. However, it will also be able to release savings from its properties that are declared surplus to NHS requirements.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 485.]

Therefore, many other MPs may be in a similar position to me: will I wake up one morning, as will my constituents in the Tonbridge and Edenbridge area, and find that Tonbridge Cottage hospital or Edenbridge and District War Memorial hospital have been declared “surplus to NHS requirements”? That is a worrying and apparent possibility, and I hope that the Minister will be able to relieve me of my anxiety on that score. I appreciate that she cannot give any assurances beyond the lifetime of the present Government, but will she give a categorical, unequivocal, unqualified assurance in Hansard, in black and white, that during the lifetime of the present Government, neither of those hospitals will be declared surplus to requirements?

My other criticism of the whole policy is the lack of proper consultation. General statements have been made, but we as constituency MPs are deeply concerned about the specifics. So far, there has been no consultation with MPs, local councillors or local people on the specific intentions of the Government about the property assets of individual community hospitals. Here we are today, with less than six months to go before April 2013, and I, local councillors, leagues of friends, and local people have not received any official information about whether the two hospitals will belong to NHS providers or go off to NHS Property Services Ltd. As far as I am concerned, that lack of consultation with the public and their elected representatives is unacceptable. I hope that in her reply the Minister will convey this request to the Secretary of State, urging him to ensure that before final ministerial decisions are taken on whether individual hospitals go to NHS providers or to NHS Property Services Ltd, the public and their representatives are consulted, so that they can express a view on the Government’s proposals.

The second issue that I want to raise is equally serious: the failure of the West Kent primary care trust to discharge its statutory consultation obligations when it put into effect a major change of use recently at Tonbridge Cottage hospital. I stress that I am not here to debate the merits or otherwise of the change of use; I have come to discuss the legality or otherwise of the process that was followed, and whether there was a breach of statutory consultation obligations.

However, in brief, and by way of background, the change of use has arisen because the West Kent primary care trust had to find a home for the stroke rehabilitation unit that was at the Kent and Sussex hospital when the hospital was closed relatively recently. The unit was not incorporated in the main buildings of the hospital; it was in temporary buildings—so-called pods—placed

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on the car parking area of the Kent and Sussex hospital. The West Kent primary care trust had the option of moving those pods, which clearly had been working perfectly satisfactorily and to NHS standards, lock, stock and barrel, and putting them in the car parking area, which has recently been expanded, at Tonbridge Cottage hospital. Instead, it took the easy option, deciding to shut down half the community beds at Tonbridge Cottage hospital and move the stroke rehabilitation unit there. That process, which involved a major change of use at the hospital, was carried out with no statutory consultation whatsoever.

I make it clear to the Minister that I am perfectly happy, as are the Friends of Tonbridge Cottage hospital, to have stroke rehabilitation at the hospital. However, we are profoundly unhappy that instead of its being an additional facility at Tonbridge Cottage hospital, the change was achieved at the expense of cutting in half the number of very valuable community beds there. That has now left Tonbridge Cottage hospital with the smallest number of community beds in Kent, among all the community hospitals there; I have the figures from the West Kent PCT. Notwithstanding the fact that Tonbridge Cottage hospital is the one and only community hospital serving the entirety of Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and the surrounding areas, it now has the smallest number of community beds in Kent.

I have to make it clear that the policy runs directly contrary to the stated policy of the Government. The Minister, in her reply of 6 September said

“this Government support improvements in community hospitals across the country. That is because we know that community hospitals make it easier for people to get care and treatment closer to where they live.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 483.]

The action taken by West Kent primary care trust has made it significantly more difficult for people in the Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and Southborough area to get care and treatment closer to where they live.

I come now to the statutory requirements. I raised them originally in my letter of 17 June 2011 to the former Secretary of State for Health. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), in his reply of 18 July, set out very clearly the two statutory obligations falling on NHS trusts to consult. He referred me to sections 242 and 244 of the National Health Service Act 2006. The key provision in section 242 is subsection (2):

“Each body to which this section applies must make arrangements with a view to securing, as respects health services for which it is responsible, that persons to whom those services are being or may be provided are, directly or through representatives, involved in and consulted on—

(a) the planning of the provision of those services,

(b) the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way those services are provided, and

(c) decisions to be made by that body affecting the operation of those services.”

In my view, the breach of that statutory consultation obligation by West Kent primary care trust is absolutely clear. There was no consultation, directly or through representatives, in the Tonbridge area about those significant changes. It seems to me entirely clear that section 242 was not complied with.

Even more stark is the failure of West Kent primary care trust to comply with its obligations under section 244. That is the section of the 2006 Act that places on

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NHS trusts a statutory duty to consult local authority overview and scrutiny committees—in this case, the overview and scrutiny committee of Kent county council. The key document in this respect is “Overview and Scrutiny of Health—Guidance”, which was published by the Department of Health in July 2003 and which is now statutory guidance, as the former Secretary of State made clear to me. The key paragraph is 10.4.1, which states:

“Where an NHS trust plans to vary or develop services locally, it will need to discuss the proposal with the overview and scrutiny committee to determine whether the proposal is substantial. If the outcome of those discussions is that it is a substantial development or variation, the trust must consult the overview and scrutiny committee.”

I therefore asked the leader of Kent county council, County Councillor Paul Carter, if the council’s overview and scrutiny committee had been consulted on whether the change was substantial. In his letter to me of 18 September 2012, he replied that

“there was no formal consultation on the specific decision relating to stroke rehabilitation beds at Tonbridge Cottage Hospital…Nor was the issue specifically brought to the attention of the Committee. Therefore the Committee has not been in a position to determine whether the proposal was substantial.”

That, I suggest, is starkly clear evidence of a breach of the statutory consultation obligation.

I do not expect the Minister, in her reply to this debate, to give an instant response to and judgment on the legal case that I have advanced for there having been a breach of statutory consultation obligations. It would be unreasonable of me to expect that when I have only just presented the evidence, but I do request that in the light of what I have said in the debate, she consults the Secretary of State, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will take his own legal advice. I wish to hear in writing—I hope from the Secretary of State himself, following the legal advice that he has received—whether he agrees that West Kent primary care trust failed to discharge its statutory consultation obligations in bringing about a substantial change of use at Tonbridge Cottage hospital.

I hope that if the Secretary of State comes to the same view as I have done that there has been such a breach and that therefore the change of use process was unlawful, he will tell me what action he believes is appropriate. I hope that he will tell me what action he would see fit to take in relation to the individuals in the former West Kent primary care trust who were responsible for non-compliance with statutory duties. I hope most of all that the Secretary of State will take this action: I hope that he will issue a direction to the successor body to West Kent primary care trust, NHS Kent and Medway, and that that direction will instruct NHS Kent and Medway to carry out—admittedly belatedly—the statutory consultation on the change of use at Tonbridge Cottage hospital that has occurred.

If the consultation takes place, as I earnestly hope it will, it will give me, the Friends of Tonbridge Cottage hospital and, most important of all, the people of the entire Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and surrounding area the opportunity to make it clear to the NHS and to the Secretary of State that although we welcome the stroke rehabilitation facility at Tonbridge Cottage hospital, we want the half of our community beds that have been removed to be restored for the benefit of the people of the local community.

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4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate and on the many questions that he has raised. As the clock is against me, I shall deal at the beginning of my response to his speech with some of the issues that he has specifically asked me to deal with.

It strikes me that these matters should and could have been dealt with locally. As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, one of the Government’s aims has been to ensure that national politicians do not get involved in the stuff of sorting out the NHS locally. He raises concerns about his local PCT and calls into question procedures undertaken by it. He says that decisions that it has made should have been referred to the overview and scrutiny committee. I do not know whether that is right or wrong. What I do know is that it is incumbent on local politicians to raise such matters, as they do the length and breadth of England. It may be that the horse has bolted from the stable and it is too late, but I think that I can say with some certainty that it is not the role of the Secretary of State for Health to seek legal opinion on whether the PCT has acted lawfully.

With respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, I suggest that those are local matters, to be determined locally, and it is for the league of friends, himself, councillors and other concerned people to look into the legality of the decisions that have been made and the processes that have been chosen. It is for the local NHS and local politicians to deal with that. It is not the role of Whitehall and Ministers to get involved in the stuff of local NHS decisions and those processes.

Sir John Stanley: The league of friends and I have pursued these issues in detail over a considerable period with the local PCT. Does the Minister not agree that under primary legislation, the Secretary of State ultimately has a responsibility for addressing issues of NHS trusts’ compliance with statute?

Anna Soubry: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. I will look further into the matter. I cannot give a definitive answer, but in my experience such matters are invariably taken up by local politicians, often led by their local Member of Parliament, who go to the overview and scrutiny committee of the county council to urge upon it all the reviews and challenges that he has sought and raised in this debate. I will, however, look into this further, and if he will forgive me, I will come back to him probably by way of a letter or a meeting between the two of us. May I move on to the future of his community hospitals?

I am reliably informed that there are no plans whatsoever to close either of the two hospitals. I will get through as much of my speech as I can in the time available—I will be guided by you, Mrs Osborne, but I think I have to sit down at half-past 4. I make it absolutely clear again that the future of hospitals is not determined by national Government, but is in effect determined by the local commissioning process. From what I am told, there is no reason to fear for the future of either the Tonbridge Cottage hospital or the Edenbridge and District War Memorial hospital, because the services that they provide

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will be commissioned by the local clinical commissioning group. They are doing a grand job now, so there is no reason to think that they will not continue to do a grand job, and therefore their services will continue to be commissioned.

Many Members have great affection for their community hospitals, and rightly so. As my right hon. Friend alluded to, they provide a wide range of vital services, from minor injury clinics to intensive rehabilitation. They inspire much love and respect in their communities. They are fiercely defended and rightly inspire loyalty.

My right hon. Friend and the local league of friends have raised the issue of the beds at Tonbridge hospital. I am not the PCT’s mouthpiece, but as he will appreciate, inquiries are made and I am supplied with information. I am assured that the 12 community beds in question were designated as general rehabilitation beds. They were then redesignated as stroke rehabilitation beds and are now housed in the new £400,000 purpose-built stroke unit, which opened at the hospital in September 2011. The PCT then created 12 additional general rehabilitation beds across west Kent, to replace the 12 community beds that had been redesignated. Of those 12, two, as he mentioned, are at Tonbridge hospital. We do not agree that there was a loss of beds, because 12 of the beds became stroke rehabilitation beds. I take the point that there were 12 community beds previously and now there are two community beds, but we should not forget that there are an additional 12 stoke rehabilitation beds.

It was the opinion of the PCT at the time that there was no real change in the use of the beds at Tonbridge hospital, because their primary function had been rehabilitation. The 12 community beds were designated for rehabilitation, and the 12 stroke beds are obviously for rehabilitation, too. The hospital has gained two extra beds for community rehabilitation that were designated specifically for older people. The PCT therefore considered that there was no real service change, so it did not deem formal consultation necessary or appropriate.

The Government have pledged that in future all service changes must be led by clinicians and patients, not driven from the top down. That principle has been at the heart of our reforms for the NHS. To that end, we have outlined and strengthened the criteria that we expect decisions on NHS service changes to meet: they must focus on improving patient outcomes, consider patient choice, have support from GP commissioners and be based on sound clinical evidence.

Everything that we do in central Government is designed to support local clinicians and patients changing the local NHS for the better and to ensure that improvements are made to primary and community services. As a result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, primary care trusts will be abolished from

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April 2013 and responsibility for commissioning services will move to clinical commissioning groups, so local doctors, clinicians and experts are in control. I see no reason why they would not commission services from those two excellent community hospitals.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the community hospital estate and its future. The 2012 Act requires new ownership arrangements for current PCT estates. In August last year, the Department of Health announced that NHS providers would have the opportunity to acquire parts of the estate. Therefore, providers, such as community foundation trusts, NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts, will be able to take over those parts of the PCT estate that are used for clinical services. That of course includes the community hospital estate. We have put safeguards in place, so that providers cannot just dispose of newly acquired land and make a quick profit. I hope that that satisfies him.

Sir John Stanley: Before the Minister concludes, will she respond to my request that before Ministers take a final decision on whether individual hospital properties go to NHS providers or NHS Property Services Ltd, they consult on the proposed final destination of the properties, so that local people have an opportunity to express a view?

Anna Soubry: I cannot give that undertaking. The point is well made; I will take it back to the Department and ensure that the Secretary of State is aware of it. Many such decisions will be taken locally. My right hon. Friend and the league of friends should continue to make all the representations that they have already made, and I know that they will do so.

The safeguards have been put in place. As my right hon. Friend knows, where any former estate becomes surplus to NHS requirements, 50% of any financial gain made by the provider must be paid back to the Secretary of State for Health and will go straight to front-line NHS services. Based on what I have been told and what I have seen in the 2012 Act, I am of the view that if a community hospital—if this is what occurs—is transferred to NHS Property Services Ltd, it will not in some way be deemed surplus to requirements by NHS Property Services Ltd.

The two hospitals that my right hon. Friend rightly champions would only ever become surplus to requirements if the CCG stopped commissioning their services. I am told that that is extremely unlikely to happen. He should have no fear at all that NHS Property Services Ltd will sit and looking at its assets and simply decide to sell things off for a quick buck. The hospitals’ future is secure. I thank him for securing the debate and for the points that he has made. I have not answered them all, but I will, in either a meeting or a letter.

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4.30 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Osborne, for what I believe is the first time—I hope that it is not the last time—and it is a pleasure to have secured this debate on behalf of the more than 1,421 people at Remploy factories across the country whose jobs have gone, or will be at risk by the end of the year, in particular the staff who have worked so hard in the Springburn factory in my Glasgow constituency.

Stage 1 of the Department for Work and Pensions process is set to lead to the closure of up to 30 factories by the end of the year, with decisions still due on Barrow, Bridgend, Bristol, Chesterfield, Poole, Croespenmaen and Springburn, as well as on the Cook with Care business. A further 18 factories are under threat of closure by 2015. With as many as 6 million people across the country trapped in joblessness or under-employment because they are unable to find full-time work, and with the Office for Budget Responsibility reporting this morning that the Chancellor’s austerity measures may have stripped even more demand out of the economy than even it expected in June 2010, sustaining good-quality, full-time jobs in manufacturing, particularly for disabled workers, must be a priority for any Government.

In my constituency, 19 people are chasing every vacancy advertised in local Jobcentres Plus, but the situation is even worse for people with a disability. According to the labour force survey, the employment rate gap between disabled and non-disabled people has narrowed slightly over the past decade, by about 5.8%, but it still stands at a staggering 29.9%, in 2012. Only 46.3% of disabled people are in employment, compared with 76.2% of non-disabled people, and disabled individuals are twice as likely as the rest of the work force to need full-time rather than part-time jobs. Without alternative jobs for disabled people to go to, the effect of closing Remploy factories will be to consign those people to a greater likelihood of a future of long-term unemployment, and a greater chance of ending up in poverty, when what they want and deserve is the opportunity to work.

When the Government began the process of factory sales and closures, they relied on the figure that each job supported by Remploy involved a taxpayer subsidy of £25,000 a year, and the Sayce report came up with a figure of a £22,700 annual subsidy per job. The methodology, however, which is based on dividing the total Government subsidy for each scheme by the number of employees, has been queried as a crude measure of the cost per employment place, by the fact-checking organisation Full Fact, among others. It does not account for the different infrastructure costs and asset values that each model is likely to accrue and, similarly, the Government cannot provide data on whether those whose jobs are at risk at Remploy would necessarily find work under the Access to Work programme.

Members are already encountering testimony from constituents who have been laid off by Remploy that shows that the measures promised by the Minister’s predecessor to support them back into work have simply not yet appeared on the ground. Sacked workers with severe learning difficulties are turning up at Jobcentres Plus without a clue about what to do or what the future will hold. Surely disabled workers who have offered

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years, and in some cases decades, of service, deserve better than that. Should not a Government with a proper moral compass be moving more quickly to end the appalling scandal of sacked workers being given emergency tax codes and suffering the indignity of paying more than half of their final pay packets out in tax, at a time when the Government are cutting taxes for the super-rich?

Like many Members with Remploy factories in their areas, or with constituents employed in a nearby factory, I have been working with the management, the work force and excellent local GMB and Unite trade union officials to reach a settlement that will ensure a durable future for the factory. In the tendering process, the priority has to be to guarantee the viability of the job of every disabled person working for Remploy. I remain hopeful that the strength of the record of the skilled work force in Springburn, in productivity and innovation, will ensure that, once the due diligence stage is completed by Remploy Ltd, the factory will have the opportunity for long-term growth under new ownership.

The local factory in my constituency specialises in the assembly and manufacture of high-quality wheelchairs for use by NHS patients. Once the issue of ownership is settled, there is much that this Government and the Scottish Government can do to help grow the business for the future by better use of procurement processes, within the rules set by the European Union, to ensure that through the application of article 19 of the EU public procurement directive, supported employment workplaces can properly compete for public sector contracts. The Scottish Government could be more creative and proactive in their use of procurement processes within the NHS in Scotland and other public agencies to generate more contracts and more work for the Remploy factory in Springburn.

The UK Government could undertake a similar process to boost demand in supported employment workplaces elsewhere in the UK.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend has been working incredibly hard on behalf of his constituents in Springburn, and we have been speaking a tremendous amount about this matter because both our factories—his in Springburn and mine in Chesterfield —are under the Remploy Healthcare banner. We agree entirely about the role of Government, but does he also agree that there needs to be a real collective working together by the management, the Government and the trade unions to ensure that the work force, who are under tremendous stress at the moment, feel empowered and involved in this process and have an understanding about what the long-term future might hold? Recent events have been incredibly stressful for those people, and have led to difficult working circumstances for them.

Mr Bain: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There has been an impression of a lack of transparency about the way in which this tendering process has operated, which means that lessons could be learned for stage 2 for the other factories that are under threat.

I am aware that the Minister cannot provide guarantees that there will not be any compulsory redundancies, but I hope that she will be able to assure us that the Government will strive to ensure that as many as possible

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of the disabled workers at Remploy Springburn and the other factories involved in the current tendering process keep their jobs under any new ownership.

Will the Minister also provide a guarantee that TUPE regulations will apply to any sale of the Springburn Remploy factory and any of the others involved in the current tendering round and in any future round of tendering for those factories potentially involved in stage 2?

The right to a fair and stable pension matters greatly, especially to disabled people with higher living costs. Will the Minister guarantee that the current accrued pension entitlements up to the point of transfer will be honoured by any new owners of Springburn Remploy and the other factories in the current tendering round? Will she further outline what minimum criteria for future pension entitlements of current staff and of any new staff in the future the Government will insist on from future Remploy factory owners, mutualisations, leases, or employee buy-outs if the fair deal for staff pensions policy is not to apply to this tendering process?

There are some serious questions to answer about the conduct of this tendering process. Given the shambles that we have seen elsewhere in government over railway franchising, is the Minister content that this process has been conducted in a procedurally and legally watertight manner? Is she sure that there are no grounds for disappointed bidders to challenge the way in which this has been conducted? Will there be a full external audit of the process that both the public and the Members of this House can have confidence in? Is she satisfied that the 90-day consultation is anywhere near adequate? The Sayce report makes it clear that a consultation period of no less than six months is required to help bidders or employee-led buy-outs put together proper business plans to save factories. Why, for example, did the Minister’s predecessor not provide me with any information on the Springburn factory’s profitability, despite repeated requests in writing, whereas she was happy to comment on the financial position of other factories in her original statement? What lesson have the Government learned about providing additional support for management-led or employee-led mutualised ownership of Remploy factories beyond that which her predecessor was prepared to offer earlier this year? Will greater consideration be given to leasing factories to local authorities, other public agencies or even the devolved Administrations, if that might help save jobs or reopen factories, as is hoped in Wrexham?

Households with a disabled person are more likely to live in poverty than those without a disabled person. The hundreds of disabled people who work for Remploy deserve more certainty about their future than the Government have been able to provide to date. The critical thing is not only the ownership of the factories and finding jobs for those Remploy workers who have already, tragically, been laid off after the Government’s wilful refusal to listen and protect proper rights at work for Remploy staff. It is also the procurement procedures that public bodies apply to ensure that supported employment workplaces get a fairer deal for the future. That is the challenge for the Government and their devolved counterparts elsewhere in the UK.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter before the House. In Northern Ireland we have an organisation called

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Accept Care, which is similar to Remploy. Accept Care is partially funded by the Northern Ireland Assembly and creates jobs for disabled people, gives them the training they need and, afterwards, employs them. Does he feel that perhaps the Government need to spend a wee bit now to help those people find jobs and make those businesses profitable?

Mr Bain: Absolutely. My hon. Friend has illustrated that the Government have not done enough to learn lessons from other jurisdictions that have had more progressive policies on care for the disabled and support for disabled workers than, sadly, this Administration have followed in recent months.

If we are truly to build a society that values the disabled, it is critical that we do more to protect the right to the dignity of a good job for those able to work and provide proper lifelong skills and training and a decent standard of living for all. That is no less than my constituents who work in Remploy Springburn and those who work in the other Remploy factories across the country deserve, and it is the Government’s duty to deliver.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Esther McVey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North-East (Mr Bain) on bringing this important debate before the House. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne.

I have met the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who are present on various occasions—if we did not meet in person, we have spoken on the phone—about their Remploy sites. Everything he says is correct, but I want to consider everything in its entirety, because we all want the best support for Remploy staff, not only now but in the future.

We have to be open and honest about why we have this case for change, which is about sustainable work and sustainable jobs. We have to consider all disabled people of working age, which at the moment is 6.9 million people, 2,200 of whom work in Remploy factories. A fifth of the £320 million supports those in Remploy factories. Those are the finances.

However, we are also considering sustainable employment, what disabled people and disabled organisations want and what Liz Sayce’s report says. Many people want to work in mainstream employment. They want to look at different ways of engaging and moving forward. We have taken all that into account, and also looked at the losses that were being accrued year on year—£70 million. I appreciate that four years ago a £555 million package was put in over five years for a modernisation plan. However, targets were not met. They were not realistic and they did not allow the factories to continue, because they required an increase in public sales of 130%, and that just did not work.

I know that 28 factories were closed in 2008. We hoped that that could be the end and that the others would move forward, but that has not happened. As an additional way of mitigating the risk of redundancies to employees, Remploy was looking at how to put a commercial process in place. That process had to work with the Remploy staff; it had to work as a proper business model, work with Government and work with

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everybody whom it would touch. That is what we were trying to do, so the commercial process for stage 1 was open and transparent. It was published on the Remploy website on 20 March. That process was developed using expert advice on its design and structure and it took into account the need to ensure that employees and employee-led groups had an opportunity to take part actively and develop robust bids. The process has taken in excess of five months, and it continues.

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for twice giving me the opportunity to meet her and discuss the process in detail. The latest meeting was yesterday. One concern that I did not raise with her is the persistent belief, at least among the staff of Remploy, that the best factories will be cherry-picked by the management. When I raised the issue with her predecessor in the House, I was assured that there would be independent oversight of the whole process. First, who is conducting the independent oversight of the process, and, secondly, will a report of their findings be made public?

Esther McVey: Recognising the need to ensure proposals were robustly addressed, an independent panel was set up to provide independent assurance to the assessment process, and the panel is playing an active part in what went on. I can write to the hon. Gentleman with further clarification on that, but that was one of the key facts.

There was also encouragement of employees and employee-led groups to take advantage of a £10,000 support fund for expert advice, and also a time-limited tapered wage subsidy of £6,400 to successful bids to keep on disabled members of staff. That came about because of Remploy and the Department’s responses and the various people who came forward to look at that.

On the factories that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) mentioned—Chesterfield and Springburn —discussions are going forward. Information was put on the Remploy website in September. Nothing has been finalised yet. It is going through due diligence at the moment, but it is in best and final offer stage and getting all the support it needs. We are still waiting on facts.

Toby Perkins: To return to the process, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) asked whether the Minister was satisfied that there was no threat of legal recourse from disappointed bidders and that the process was robust. I want to clarify whether the Minister is satisfied that the process was robust and that she is happy to take responsibility for it going forward, and that, as far as she is concerned, we are not going to come back to a west coast main line situation in which everyone says, “It was not my fault”. As long as she is happy and the process is robust, she can take responsibility for it.

Esther McVey: I have held numerous meetings on the matter. I have asked the very same questions that the hon. Gentleman has asked. I have felt reassured by the answers I have been given. Remploy announced and published the commercial process on 20 March and the

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company has been following that process. We are aware that some people and some bidders may be disappointed, but we are content that the commercial process has been followed. So I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman suitable comfort about what is going on.

A substantial package of help and support for employees has been put in place. An extra £8 million has gone into that package. People will get their own personal caseworker, who will give them tailor-made support and help them to move forward.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East asked several questions. One was about the emergency tax code. That was brought to my attention last month and immediately my team and I worked with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to get it sorted so that the Remploy staff and their caseworkers knew what would happen and they would have their money back as soon as possible, so special measures were put in place absolutely immediately. I also checked that the staff would have money and would not be short. They would all have had their redundancy pay packages, so they would have money to live on—it would be fine—but this was put through as a special concession.

Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) on securing this very important debate on a subject about which I have received many representations from constituents and others. On the issue of support for the work force and for those who are losing their jobs, will the Minister confirm how many people from Remploy who have lost their jobs have found alternative employment to date?

Esther McVey: So far to date, 35 staff immediately found work. But we are content that with the support, the packages and the monitoring that we are hoping to provide for everyone, we will get that number up as soon as possible.

I actually got figures that I again hope will put the hon. Gentleman’s mind at ease. In Scotland, there were 111 people—that does not seem quite right. I apologise; I will look again. I will go back to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East and say that in his constituency a total of 14,600 people are disabled, and 43 of them work at the Remploy site. However, in the last year, under the Remploy employment services, 534 people had got into work. So, if we look at those figures, we can see that incredible support has gone in there to help find work for people similar to the staff working in Remploy.

I will continue with the Springburn site. Remploy communicated via its website in September that it had selected a preferred bidder for the site and that that preferred bidder is now entering a period of due diligence, which will hopefully end in Remploy’s successful exit from the business. A final decision on Springburn will be made as soon as the commercial due diligence process is complete, which we understand will be some time at the end of October.

Going forward, for Springburn and Chesterfield to secure future health care business as part of the commercial process, the Scottish Government would have the opportunity, under their devolved powers, to support

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medical contracts and help to secure the continuing viability of those sites. Again, that is possibly something that hon. Members can work on together.

Graeme Morrice: The Minister mentioned the Scottish Government. Have the UK Government had any consultation with the Scottish Government on this issue?

Esther McVey: We have indeed, and I will be in Edinburgh on Monday. We will have continued dialogue on that subject. I also hope to meet the factory workers in Edinburgh and while I am there I would like to see as many staff as possible—those who do not have their job now and those who do. There is an open invitation for people to come and meet me, and I will be in the factory.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East also raised the issue of TUPE. Any purchaser of a Remploy site will have to offer a pension scheme in which transferring employees can accrue future rights. If TUPE regulations apply to a transfer, purchasers will have to match employees’ contributions up to 6% of pensionable pay, in line with pension legislation. We understand that for the Springburn site TUPE regulations will apply to the transfer.

I hope that I have answered as many questions as possible.

Mr Doran: The hon. Lady answered my question about whether there was independent oversight, but not my question about whether a report on that oversight would be published.

Esther McVey: I will find out and let the hon. Gentleman know. If there is, he will be the first to know.

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Graeme Morrice: Inspiration.

Esther McVey: Absolutely. It is not just inspiration, but the support of a good team. The independent panel has considered the comments of Scottish and Welsh representatives. I think a report will be coming out on that. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and I met yesterday, and I hope that he now has a meeting with the CEO of Remploy. Straight away, I asked what we could do in the Aberdeen factory. All the points he raised with me about the assets, the factory and site ownership were dealt with this morning. I do not have the answers, but we are on to that. My phone lines are open. I am always here. If anybody wants to know anything more, I will be available to answer their questions.

Jim Shannon: As I said earlier, we have something similar in Northern Ireland. Do the Government intend at least to seek it out and see how it works? The finance comes from the Northern Ireland Assembly and it does the same thing that Remploy does in England and Wales. A new Accept Care is opening in the north-east too, in Darlington, so some things are happening that could benefit us all.

Esther McVey: I will take advice from wherever it comes and that could possibly play a part in stage 2. I do not know how it could possibly go backwards and affect stage 1, but I will listen and consider what can be done for stage 2.

Question put and agreed to.

4.57 pm

Sitting adjourned.