Bat Girl Meets Remploy

Remploy is a government quango set up at the end of WW2 to employ "Disabled Persons", including ex-servicemen. It originally did so by providing jobs in its own subsidised chain of factories manufacturing furniture and such like. More recently it diversifed into employment services, placing and supporting disabled people into Real Jobs (ie unsubsidised jobs).

It currently costs taxpayers £134m pa (2006-07 Annual Report), but unfortunately it gives shocking value for money. Apart from the cost of its executive perks, that's because, according to reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, its traditional focus on direct employment is hugely expensive: the average subsidy per job is around £20,000pa. So they demanded Remploy switch focus urgently onto its cheaper and apparently much more cost effective employment services.

That switch was subsequently agreed by government, and Remploy drew up a Masterplan to implement it. Just one problem: even though Remploy would quadruple (from 5,000 to 20,000 pa) the numbers of disabled it would place in Real Jobs, to pay for that, they'd need to implement closures and job losses right across their inefficient factories.

Which was never going to be easy. And with this dithering faffing union funded "government" it turned into a protracted nightmare of indecision and flipflops.

Eventually they did agree to the closure of 28 out of the 83 factories, not as many as originally proposed, but quite enough to sow the whirlwind. Thus, last week's Socialist Worker reported the GMB union's decision to withdraw funding from individual Labour MPs:

"The betrayal of the disabled Remploy workers by the government gave a cutting edge to the general anger of delegates.

James Stribley, a Remploy worker, said, “Last year we trusted Peter Hain when he twice promised consultation over the factory closures. But he lied. We should only support those who support us.” Alan Mills, ex-convenor for Remploy in St Helens, said, “I am a Labour Party member but I can’t say for how much longer. We simply can’t trust them anymore.”

Now, if you're a Labour MP facing slaughter in less than two years, you may be wondering why your leaders have done this to you? You may scream at them.

And if you're James Purnell, cabinet minister reponsible for Remploy, eyes firmly on the top job post-slaughter, screamed at by your "colleagues", you may be wondering quite why you've been bequeathed such a nightmare by Peter Hain. You may phone the £125,000 pa head of Remploy and scream at him.

"What are you doing down there?" you scream. "You're meant to be placing these people into Real Jobs, not chucking them onto the front page of the Daily Mail!"

And if you're the head of Remploy (with your £29,000 company sports car), you may be wondering why your job placement people aren't placing more people into real jobs. Your Masterplan quite clearly calls for an extra 15,000 punters to be placed into Real Jobs every year, so why has your placement business only placed 7? Especially since according to the PAC, you have an eye-watering "220 first line managers/professionals, 187 middle managers and 16 senior managers" under your command. What are they all doing? You may roar down there in your 2.7 litre CLK and scream at them.

And if you're the head of the employment placement business, you may...

Well, we get the idea.

So what are they doing?

As per, the first thing is that they've put their spin machine into overdrive. From Bootle to Burnley, local papers are full of upbeat stories about how Remploy has placed, or at least "helped to place", disabled people into Real Jobs. And according to a recent story in Personnel Today:

"A record number of disabled people found work through using Remploy's services last year. The specialist provider said in the 12 months to the end of March 2008, it found 6,600 jobs in mainstream employment for people with disabilities - an increase of 27% on the previous year." Bob Warner, Remploy chief executive, said: "These excellent figures are all the more remarkable because they were achieved while Remploy was going through a period of substantial change as we implemented our modernisation programme."

Sounds like things are going quite well: 6,600 annual placements is a huge increase on the 1,400 reported by the NAO for 2003-04.


Enter Bat Girl. Aka Mary, she suffers from ME and writes a blog about her experiences.

Last week she wrote about a quite extraordinary experience she's just had with Remploy:

"The other day, I got a letter from Remploy. Here's a direct quote:

"To enable us to validate your employment status we require further evidence of your registration and job start. Therefore, we are writing to ask you to sign the enclosed documentation and provide us with a copy of [list of documents such as my work contract, payslips, etc]....... We understand the inconvenience this gives you and to address this, we will give you with a £50.00 giro (sic) on receipt of this pack/evidence."

Fifty quid for signing some forms? As Mary points out, that's quite a lot of cash for a typical disabled worker - for her it would be half a week's wages.

But this was a most peculiar communication.

For one thing the documents were seriously incomplete. In fact, they merely comprised the pages where the customer's signature goes - no detail at all about what she was being asked to sign.

And why should she need to "validate" her employment in the first place? She has a job - a Real Job - her employer is happy with her validation, and HMRC and DWP are happy. Why should Remploy require her to validate anything?

And why were the forms backdated to before her local JobCentre had even suggested referral to Remploy might be an option?

And since she wasn't even contacted by Remploy until after she'd already found a job by herself, why, months later, was it now suddenly their business? Quite reasonably, Mary phoned Remploy to get an explanation and ask for the rest of the forms.

It's well worth reading Mary's blog for the full details, but in brief, Remploy told her they hadn't sent the full forms in order "to save postage" (er... and that £50 giro?). They told her not to worry her pretty little head about the details, but just to sign, and get the fifty quid.

When told the dates were false, Remploy said "they had to backdate things".

Finally, when Mary persisted asking awkward questions, they said "okay, fine, don't sign the forms then. Just put them through a shredder and forget about it." Mary wonders why Remploy wanted her to destroy the evidence.

We wonder too.

OK, Watson, here's a hypothesis. Suppose Remploy found itself under huge pressure to increase the number of disabled people it places in Real Jobs, in order to distract attention from those it had fired from its own subsidised jobs. But suppose it found it difficult to reach the wildly ambituous targets laid down by its political masters. We might well suppose those masters would scream at it to do something or face losing all those executive CLKs, not to mention their jobs.

Now, suppose down in the bowels somewhere there was a threatened rat. What might such a rat do?

Yes, that's right. It would use all means at its disposal to increase the recorded number of job placements. It would comb through its records for anyone it had helped in the past, however slight that help might have been, and cook up some backdated successes. It would snuggle up to other employment agencies and coat-tail on their success in placing people. It would look round for anyone who might be disabled and already in work and send them incomplete forms to sign in exchange for fifty quid. Etc etc.

In other words, it would turn itself into precisely the sort of game-driven producer-captured monstrosity we've come to expect.

But really, we're talking about some pretty vulnerable people here. Somebody needs to go down into the sub-basement of Remploy and sort out the rat problem before it gets out of hand.

PS Remploy's job placement service is all part of the drive to job-broke people off Incapacity Benefit and into work. We have some serious concerns about it. As we blogged here, in theory, job brokers sound like a good idea. But in practice, in the hands of our simple shopping evidence-lite commissars, it's turned into yet another opportunity for sharp operators from the private sector to get their noses even deeper into the public trough.
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