HC Deb 02 August 1972 vol 842 cc914-20

9.38 a.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

As the House has been sitting for so long, I intend to be extremely brief. However, as I received such an unsympathetic reply from the Under-Secretary for Trade and Industry on 1st August, when I asked for special help to be given to Clacton-on-Sea where there is a high rate of unemployment, that I decided to take this opportunity to raise the subject now.

I drew the Government's attention to this problem in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill on 15th December last year. At present, there is only one town of a similar size to Clacton with a higher rate of unemployment outside the development areas and only three towns of similar size within the development and the intermediate areas have higher rates of unemployment. I press the Government to do something to help to solve this localised problem.

The average rate of unemployment for men in Clacton since June, 1969, has been 11 per cent. Last December, it was as high as 13.9 per cent. Unemployment in Clacton is now almost twice the rate for Essex as a whole and more than three times that of the South-East Region. That is why I am concerned. I know that there are fluctuations because of seasonal employment and that figures may be interpreted differently in some instances, but in general that is the position.

I welcome the Government's decision to go for growth and they have helped with reductions in tax, in SET, and by giving help to the hotel and guest house trade, but locally something more is needed. Many, including myself, felt strongly when the firm of Barr Davos left because it was given special incentives to move to a development area. This, as I am sure the Minister can understand, raised considerable feeling locally.

The next stage in the loss of industry in this town of high unemployment is that a horticultural firm is having to close down because of growing fuel prices. I raised this matter with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last year, and early this year. Perhaps this is part of the price that we have to pay for joining the EEC, but this closure will mean the loss of 100 jobs if not more.

I know that it could be said that building licences have been given and that these will provide some jobs locally to these men, but many of the employees of this firm are women and I am anxious to see that long-term solutions are found, and not just short-term solutions. I hope that the Hardman Committee on office development will be able to help, and that more Government Departments will move to the coast.

There are many points which I could raise and which I mentioned in my speech to the House in December. I ask the Government to give the same consideration to this town of Clacton as they would to a development area or a special development area.

I know that much of this problem is to be found amongst the over-50s, but if the Government cannot give special help, will they set up a special committee to consider the problem? Clacton is but a mirror of what is happening in other seaside towns. I am more than disappointed at the Under-Secretary's reply to my Question on 1st August asking for special help. I hope the Minister or the Under-Secretary will spell out the reasons why special help for such towns of similar size is considered to be unjustified, bearing in mind that in development areas and intermediate areas there are many towns with a lower rate of unemployment than Clacton-on-Sea which get special help. I cannot help but feel strongly when I think that the unemployment rate amongst men in this town next winter is likely to have reached 12 or 14 per cent. I ask that the Government should do far more than they are doing to help solve this problem.

9.43 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Dudley Smith)

This is a localised problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) said. The fact that it is a localised problem and that it comes at the very end of these Consolidated Fund Bill debates in no way minimises the seriousness of the situation which affects my hon. Friend's constituents. I know full well that he has shown very real concern over a long period about his constituency's unemployment problems, particularly in the Clacton area. It is a concern which my Department and I understand and share. We are only too well aware of the problems and anxieties which unemployment brings to workers of all ages and the harm that this can do to local communities and, indeed, to the whole economy.

I recognise, of course, that unemployment in Clacton, as in many other parts of the country, is still far too high. I should mention, however, that the July rate of 4.7 per cent. for Clacton was marginally lower than it was in July last year when it was 4.8 per cent. It is encouraging also to note that unemployment fell slightly between June and July this year, whereas there was a marginal increase over the same period in both 1970 and 1971. There were 326 notified unfilled vacancies last month as against 271 last year. Thank goodness, the trend is in the right direction.

My hon. Friend referred to the considerable seasonal fluctuations in unemployment in Clacton, of which we are all aware, a state of affairs which always bedevils seaside resorts. For example, last January the rate in Clacton was 8.9 per cent., but, as I said, it fell to 4.7 per cent. in July. These seasonal fluctuations are not new, and, as my hon. Friend will agree, Clacton is by no means alone in having much higher rates in the winter than in the summer. This is a problem shared, alas, by many other seaside resorts, though I realise that it is, perhaps, rather more difficult in Clacton than it is in some.

I do not wish to appear in the least complacent about Clacton's problems, but I should mention another important feature of the unemployment register, to which my hon. Friend was good enough to make a passing reference. In January, the latest date for which figures are available, no less than 38.2 per cent. of those registered as wholly unemployed in Clacton were aged 60 or over. This was more than double the corresponding Great Britain percentage of 15.8.

I must tell my hon. Friend that our area manager's impression is that a substantial proportion of the older workers on the unemployed register in Clacton are in receipt of occupational pensions from their previous employment, and that a number of them moved to Clacton after, or shortly before, leaving those jobs. I am not suggesting that those occupational pensioners are in any way outside the employment field, but they should be taken into account when comparisons are made between the unemployment situation in Clacton and in other parts of the country.

It is important to bear in mind also that the employment situation for younger people in the Clacton careers office area is fairly good. In July this year, 17 young people were registered there as unemployed, as compared with 33 in the same month last year. Notified unfilled vacancies this July totalled 93, which means that there were more than five unfilled vacancies for each young person on the unemployed register. I am sure that we are all glad that, although there is a severe problem with older people, it is not at all bad for the youngsters.

True, the July unemployment count was made before the summer term ended, but we would not expect the placing of school leavers to present any problems in the Clacton area. All the 200 boys and girls who left school at Easter have been absorbed into employment—absorbed, indeed, by the end of May—and I understand that of the 530 or so summer term leavers all but 120 have obtained offers of jobs and the remainder are expected to be placed in the course of the next few weeks.

My hon. Friend referred to the decision of Messrs. C. R. Bard to move to Sunderland rather than expand in Clacton. The decision to move to an assisted area is one for the firm to make having regard to the facilities which are available. The disappointment in Clacton is readily understandable, but it remains our view that, if a firm is prepared and able to move to an assisted area, where the basic problems are more intractable than they are in the South East, the special incentives should be available to it. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree about that.

My hon. Friend spoke briefly but effectively, if I may say so, in support of his constituents, pursuing this matter as he has done so assiduously over past month and years. He made once more a special plea for help for Clacton, urging that it should become an intermediate area. I can assure him sincerely that we are most conscious of the problems of rural and coastal areas such as Clacton, but they must be considered against the background of the situation in the country as a whole, because the Government have a responsibility to look at a nation's difficulties as a whole. In reaching the decisions on changes in coverage of assisted areas announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 21st March it was necessary to take account of a number of factors including structural decline, dereliction and environmental problems, as well as unemployment, and their relative effect upon the economy of various parts of the country. After very careful study our conclusion was that priority must be given to areas where the basic problems are far more intransigent than in the South East and East Anglia.

There are many other rural and coastal areas with even more acute problems than Clacton, even though my hon. Friend might not believe it, and I expect that many of his constituents might not believe it, either, but I assure him that that is the case. His area's prospects seem to be a good deal better than those of a number of comparable parts of the country. Government financial incentives are only one of a number of factors of which industrialists take account when considering a move, and I do not believe that intermediate area status would solve Clacton's unemployment problem.

I submit to my hon. Friend and to the House that we can best solve Clacton's unemployment problems by expanding the national economy. Indeed, that is the way in which we can solve the country's unemployment problem. I need hardly remind someone like my hon. Friend of our absolute determination to secure sustained economic growth over a prolonged period and thus to reduce unemployment in Clacton and elsewhere.

I should, however, like to emphasise the extent of the measures that we have introduced to secure that objective. Since June, 1970, we have reduced taxation by more than £3,000 million. Free depreciation on all plant and machinery for use in both service and manufacturing has been extended to the whole country, and there is also an initial 40 per cent. tax allowance on industrial buildings. Other measures which will help to increase demand include increases in social security payments, the removal of hire-purchase controls in July last year and the repayment of post-war credits. All this represents a very substantial stimulus to industrial investment and to consumer expenditure, as I believe any unbiased person will recognise, and the substantial reduction in seasonally adjusted unemployment figures for Britain since April shows that these measures are working, and I firmly believe that they will go on working.

In view of its proximity to London and the rest of the South East, Clacton is well placed to benefit from the continuing expansion which we expect as the economy feels the full benefit of the policies which we are advancing. I recognise that there is a difficult problem at Clacton, and while I cannot promise special aid for that area, I can assure my hon. Friend—and I know that he will continue to do his duty by badgering us about it—that we shall pay special attention to the problem and study it closely. Although some of the matters to which my hon. Friend referred come under the Department of Trade and Industry, the facilities of my Department are available to provide help and we are conscious of the duty that we have to discharge in that part of Essex.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee this day.