HC Deb 05 December 1972 vol 847 cc1083-9
6. Mr. Sydney Chapman

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if the monthly unemployment figures published by his Department will henceforth differentiate between the various reasons for, and kinds of, unemployment.

9. Mr. Duffy

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will review the basis on which unemployment figures are compiled in the light of the recent census report.

12. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what steps he is taking to review and improve the accuracy of the unemployment statistics.

18. Mr. William Price

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he is satisfied with the accuracy of unemployment statistics; and if he will make a statement.

45. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will order a re-examination of the method of collecting unemployment data, in view of the findings of the 1971 census.

53. Mr. Harper

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement about the White Paper on unemployment statistics.

56. Mr. Meacher

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what changes he proposes to make in the procedure for the monthly enumeration of the unemployed.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan

The report of the Working Party on Unemployment Statistics was published on 20th November as a White Paper, Command 5157. The working party made a very thorough review of the existing statistics, it took into account information from the 1971 Census of Population and made a number of recommendations for improving and simplifying the presentation of the statistics and for supplementing them. The Government have accepted the recommendations of the working party. I am satisfied that the statistics provide the best available indicators of monthly changes in unemployment at national and local levels.

Mr. Chapman

I am grateful for that reply but does my right hon. Friend agree that the overall figures will become increasingly meaningless unless they can be broken down to indicate the ages of the unemployed, the time they have been unemployed, differentiating between long-term unemployment and the inevitable short-term turnover, and the type of employment—for example, unemployment caused by redundancy where compensation has been paid and where people therefore expend the financial means they have received while necessarily taking their time before seeking re-employment?

Mr. Macmillan

There is always room for improvement in most sets of figures but the difficulty comes in breaking them down into too much detail. There are problems of collecting the figures on a regular basis when broken down in that fashion. That is why we are setting up the sample surveys to see what information can be gained and how best it can be regularly gained in order to analyse the nature of unemployment as well as the numbers.

A great deal of the information which my hon. Friend suggested should be acquired and published is contained in the Department of Employment Gazette. It is not published, of course, in the monthly figures and in the Press notice because the monthly publication of such detail would considerably delay publication of figures and would not be assimilable by the public.

Mr. Duffy

Does the Secretary of State agree that the advanced analysis of the 1971 census does not invalidate some of the current unemployment statistics? Does he maintain that the numbers out of work, both male and female, are not under-estimated to a disturbing extent, and is there not a grave danger of unemployment statistics among teenagers, particularly coloured teenagers, being distorted?

Mr. Macmillan

I must remind the hon. Member that the census was not an advanced analysis; it was the subject of a reply to a particular question. It is an objective analysis of the specialist matters that the hon. Member raised concerning the damage of unemployment and the need to improve the figures as an indicator of the reserve of manpower and as an indicator of social distress.

Mr. Hamilton

Will the Secretary of State agree that however the figures are "cooked" they show the worst unemployment statistics for 40 years? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Indeed, yes. Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that when he publishes the index in subsequent months or quarters he will compare like with like? Will he explain why he did not come to the House and make a special statement about why he was altering the format of the figures?

Mr. Macmillan

I am surprised at the hon. Member continuing the absurd suggestion that the figures were "cooked". [Interruption.] The figures which were published in the last Press statement were precisely the same as those available in the previous Press statement. The figures for the temporarily stopped were published separately and were not included within the total of unemployed in order to achieve greater accuracy about the reserve of manpower, which is something that Labour Members have been seeking. Those who are temporarily stopped are not unemployed in the sense that they are seeking further work. [HON. MEMBERS: "What are they?"]. They are people who have registered as unemployed for the purpose of drawing unemployment benefit until they go back to their previous job. They are not seeking work, nor are they unemployed in the sense that Labour Members have sought to suggest. The marked improvement shown by the unemployment figures last month would have been greater had those who were temporarily stopped been included. As it is, it is the first time that there has been a fall of unemployment in this month since 1950.

Mr. Redmond

Is not the main point of unemployment figures to show where there is an unemployment problem with people who are genuinely and anxiously seeking work? Is it not important from an economic point of view that we should know where the hard core problems lie, and are we not moving towards that with the new system of publication of the figures?

Mr. Macmillan

That is the point of trying to break down the figures as we are now doing in the Department of Employment Gazette and in the monthly unemployment figures and the Press release. Students, for example, constitute part of the labour reserve only during vacations. They are therefore separately identified in the unemployment figures. There were 30,000 of them on the unemployment register in August, 1972 and in November, 1972 there are clearly none. It is difficult to make a further breakdown without the additional work which will be done by the working group in their more detailed studies of the characteristics of unemployment.

Mr. Whitehead

The Secretary of State looks as though he is imitating one of his distinguished ancestors who is said to have dreamed that he was addressing the House of Commons and then woke up to find that he was. Does he not realise that the effective standard for measuring unemployment is those who have no work on the day the survey is taken? In view of the widespread discrepancy in the November figures between those seeking work and those registered as unemployed, will the Secretary of State look once again at the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that we should have an all-party Select Committee to look at the compilation of these figures?

Mr. Macmillan

I do not accept that the situation is in any way different from what it has been in the past. The figures enumerate those who are on the unemployment register. There is a discrepancy in 1971 as there was in 1966 when the Labour Government did not even notice it or think to do anything about it in their period of office. We are trying to make the figures more accurate both as an index of the reserve of manpower and as an index of social distress. A Select Committee would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Cockeram

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent figures reveal the first fall in unemployment in the month of October for 22 years and that this, coupled with the dramatic increase in the number of situations vacant, points hopefully to the future?

Mr. Macmillan

Those two facts show that the Government's policies for reflating the economy and for improving the unemployment situation are working and I have no doubt that that is precisely why the Opposition are making such a storm in a teacup about the relatively small change in the method of presentation.

Mr. Harper

The rapidity with which the Secretary of State accepted the working party's report and the speed with which he put it into operation have sown the seeds of suspicion in the public mind. Would it not have been better to allow time to debate the working party's report before altering the method of calculating or ascertaining the statistics about unemployment?

Mr. Macmillan

If there was any question of altering the method of calculation or of changing the figures in the monthly presentation, the hon. Member might have had a point. But there has been no change. We have added a line for those who are unemployed for four weeks or less, who are some 20 per cent.-plus of the total, and we have removed from one table the temporarily stopped and shown that figure separately. We have emphasised once again that the figure which has always been in the report and which has always been considered the most important indicator—the seasonally-adjusted figure—is precisely the same as it was before. It would seem unnecessary to have a debate on such a small change as that.

Mr. Marten

For those who believe that the age when a person becomes entitled to a retirement pension should be reduced, can the figures indicate the proportion of the over-60s who are unemployed?

Mr. Macmillan

Yes, I think it would be possible to improve the analysis by age as well as by the length of time that people have been unemployed. I must warn my hon. Friend, however, that it is a complicated matter and that there is a limit to the amount of information which can be collected under this particular method. We shall have to examine more carefully the methods of survey sampling and so on.

Mr. Harold Walker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that to the Opposition any person who is able and willing to work but is denied the opportunity to do so is unemployed and that no dodging around with figures will obscure the fact that at Christmas over 800,000 people will be unemployed and looking for work as a consequence of the Government's policies? Is it not clear that the census, which was taken from every household in the country, showed a yawning gap between what the Secretary of State's officials have produced in their White Paper and the census figures? Ought there not to have been, before the right hon. Gentleman clutched at his straw, a thorough investigation so that we could have analysed the discrepancy between the figures? The hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) asked for more detailed information. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us, therefore, why he has altered the presentation of the numbers of young people unemployed, which used to give a detailed breakdown but is no longer shown as such in the Press notice?

Mr. Macmillan

The census of population provides information about the number of persons who described themselves as either seeking work or waiting to take a job in April 1971. The hon. Gentleman asked why we did not break down the analysis any further. We are breaking it down. The figures include many who were sick; the exact numbers are not yet available. In addition, probably about 100,000 men and up to about 300,000 women described themselves as waiting for or seeking work but were not registered as unemployed. These include many people, especially women, who would accept work only on certain conditions—convenient hours, travel and so on. In the 1966 census about half the people in this category were waiting to take up jobs or were not seeking to take up work at all. The corresponding figure for 1971 is very likely to be much the same. Therefore, there is no difference between the situations in 1971 and 1966. We have not in any way sought to confuse the issue or to reduce the amount of information in the Press notice. Rather have we increased it.