HC Deb 23 February 1976 vol 906 cc27-34
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

The unemployment figures to be issued tomorrow will show a considerable fall in unemployment. This is almost entirely due to students leaving the unemployment register. Such fluctuations arise from the large and increase- ing numbers of students who now register in the vacations, particularly in the short Christmas and Easter vacations, and who are not yet seeking permanent employment. The consequent flow of over 100,000 on to and off the unemployment register has distorted the change in the unemployment figures in six months of the year and created considerable problems in interpreting those figures.

It has therefore been decided, with effect from March 1976, to separate from the unemployment statistics adult students who register for vacation employment. The numbers of students registering for employment will continue to be published in the unemployment Press notice but separately from the unemployment figures.

The announcement today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science that he proposes to change the student support arrangements for the 1976–77 academic year means that the number of students claiming supplementary benefits at Christmas and Easter should be reduced from Christmas 1976. It does not mean that all students will be removed from the register in those vacations, nor that the numbers registering in the summer vacation will be reduced.

Mr. Hayhoe

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for coming to the House and making that statement. As he referred to a considerable fall in unemployment, may I ask whether the seasonally adjusted trend tomorrow will show a fall or an increase? Is he aware that, among many others, the Centre for Policy Studies has been pointing out for some time the absurdity of including students on holiday in the unemployment figures?

Will he understand that a more wide-ranging review is desirable? Today's tinkering seems directed more towards avoiding newspaper headlines about over 1½ million unemployed in April, and taking account of the start of this year's conference season for trade unions than getting the basis for comparative unemployment figures right. Is not this another example of the right hon. Gentleman putting short-term political presentational considerations first? What effect, if any, will there be on students' entitlement to supplementary benefits?

Mr. Foot

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to await the seasonally adjusted figures tomorrow.

Mr. Hayhoe

They are misleading.

Mr. Foot

They are not misleading. I am making this statement today so that, when the figures are published tomorrow, people are under no misunderstanding about the situation. The figures to be published tomorrow will be in the same form as they have been hitherto. As we shall be announcing a different form for the following month, I thought it right to tell the House today so that hon. Members could put questions about it. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the statement on that ground.

Neither my statement nor that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science implies any criticism of students who have put down their names for supplementary benefits in any of the vacations. We think it is a commonsense arrangement that those, such as students, who are not seeking permanent employment should not be included with those who are seeking permanent employment.

I have stated previously my reasons for not accepting what has been said by the Centre for Policy Studies. I do not accept that the figures should be reduced on the scale suggested. That would be misleading. In some respects the figures would be higher than the heavy figures we have had to report to the House.

Mr. Whitehead

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is extremely difficult to adjust to what he said as we have not had the opportunity of seeing the statement by the Secretary of State for Education and Science, which I understand is to be published as a Written Answer? Is he happy that this will be seen by students as more than sleight of hand? Many students have to pay rent in their halls of residence during the two shorter recesses. Will they find that the new block grant gives them the right amount of money to pay their rent?

Mr. Foot

No sleight of hand is intended or is operating in any sense. My hon. Friend and others, including students, will no doubt wish to look at the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. I am sure that if they have any questions they will put them to him. They may not be able to do so today, but there are other opportunities for putting questions. I do not believe that there will be any misapprehension. I know that the House and the country are naturally deeply concerned about the unemployment figures. Therefore, I thought that, before the statement was published, it was only right to say what was happening.

Mr. Hordern

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there are many others, apart from students, who are seasonally unemployed for one reason or another? Therefore, if there is a case for distinguishing students in this way, is there not also a case for those other categories of people? Does he also appreciate that many of us find disturbing the number who have been unemployed for more than six months? Will he revise these statistics so that the figures for those who have been unemployed for more than six months appear monthly, not three-monthly as they do now?

Mr. Foot

As I have said, the figures do not require restatement or rearrangement in other respects than those which I have announced. I do not accept the proposals for rearrangement made by the Centre for Policy Studies. If other suggestions are made by hon. Members for looking at the way in which we consider the figures in order to make them clear, we shall be ready to consider them. This month there are some on the register who are not seeking permanent employment. They do not represent such a large number as the students. However, it would be difficult to differentiate. As the hon. Gentleman rightly indicated, there are some who could come in that category. But it would not be right for the House to judge that there could be any great reductions in the unemployment figures as suggested by the Centre for Policy Studies. I repudiate that suggestion altogether. That would be misleading the House and the country.

Mr. Pardoe

Could not the right hon. Gentleman approach the problem more constructively in view of what has been suggested by the Conservative Opposition Front Bench? Now mat both the major parties agree that unemployment is good for us, should he not accept the invitation to fiddle the figures so that future Governments can be absolved from responsibility for dealing with the problem?

Mr. Foot

I do not think that unemployment is good for anybody, including me. It is an appalling business, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. I think that he made a joke in very poor taste.

Mr. John Mendelson

If we accept, as I think we should, that today is not the time to go into the unemployment figures, as they have not yet been published, does not that lead us to ask my right hon. Friend to make a statement tomorrow so that his statement on unemployment and what the Secretary of State for Education and Science will be announcing later today can be considered in questions to him tomorrow afternoon?

Mr. Foot

It is not normal for statements to be made when the unemployment figures are published. I made a statement to the House when the figures rose most spectacularly in November last year. Whether it would be wise or right to have a statement every month on unemployment figures is a matter which the Government are prepared to consider if hon. Members wish it. I agree that the figures are so serious that we should constantly debate them in this House, whether or not we have replies to questions on days when the figures are announced.

Mr. Tugendhat

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and Crawley (Mr. Hordern)? His announcement today represents a welcome improvement in the presentation of the figures but a great deal more needs to be done, especially in differentiating between the long-term unemployed and those unemployed for such a short time.

Mr. Foot

I think that the figures now give the clearest picture. If we can make further improvements we shall give those matters consideration. I make it clear that I do not accept the proposals of the Centre for Policy Studies. I do not accept that the figures it lists give an accurate impression of unemployment totals. I am ready to consider any suggestions for further improvements in the figures. I repudiate the recommendations of the Centre for Policy Studies, which I think are misleading.

Mr. Skinner

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that some of us feel that while the figures are abnormally high it would do the Government good for the Minister responsible to come to the Dispatch Box whenever necessary to try to explain why such extraordinary totals have been reached? Does he accept that while he may be spiriting away a few thousand students from the list, it will need more than spiritualism to get rid of £1½ million currently unemployed? That will need some positive action from the Government of which my right hon. Friend is a member.

Mr. Foot

I am not talking about spiriting away any people or figures from the unemployment total. I am proposing—I think that the House will accept this—a commonsense way of presenting these serious figures. I agree that unemployment is the most serious problem facing the country. My hon. Friend knows perfectly well that I have never run away from any debate or discussion in the House, and I do not propose to start doing so now. I am prepared to discuss these matters if the House wishes discussion to take place.

Mr. Whitelaw

I think that the House will recognise that the right hon. Gentleman was right to make his statement, and it was characteristic of him that he did so, but will he explain why his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science was not prepared to make a statement on a matter of considerable importance, a matter which has a considerable bearing on what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, bearing in mind that the right hon. Gentleman has himself made a statement?

Mr. Foot

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I do not accept any reflection on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The proposals that my right hon. Friend is making for an alteration in the arrangements for students' grants will not come into operation until the next academic year. Therefore, the House will have the fullest opportunity for any discussions in which it may wish to engage. I believe that the more the House considers these matters, the more it will recognise that the combined statements represent the commonsense approach to the problem.

Mr. Noble

As the unemployment statistics are a most important indicator for determining Government policy, does my right hon. Friend accept that we welcome the fact that the figures will be more accurate even though we deplore the present unemployment levels? We deplore the Government's refusal to listen to the words that have come from my hon. Friends and from the TUC.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in determining Government policy it is more important to consider the loss of job opportunities in many areas rather than the level of unemployment statistics? Will he urge his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to take that factor into account when determining such matters as development area status in North-East Lancashire?

Mr. Foot

I agree that it is not only unemployment statistics but the loss of job opportunities that has to be taken into account. There is no dispute between us on that. I come from an area which suffers serious unemployment and a great loss of job opportunities. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that. My hon. Friend suggested that we do not listen to the views of members of the TUC, but I have listened to them on quite a number of occasions. In fact, I listened to them again this morning. The Government will take the fullest account of the representations that they have made.

Mr. Burden

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the unemployment figures that will be published tomorrow, although showing a reduction on last month, will show a substantial increase when compared with the comparable month of last year? Does he agree that that is the relevant comparison? Will this fact be made clear when the figures are published?

Mr. Foot

The figures will show the comparisons as they have done previously. Anyone can make comparisons between a year ago or any other period. Although the removal of the number of students applying for supplementary benefit will appear in the statement, that removal will not alter in any way the seasonally adjusted figure for unemployment. That is the true figure to be taken into account. Students have always been excluded from that figure. It would be right for the House and the country to pay chief attention to the seasonally adjusted figure, which is the most accurate figure.

Dr. Bray

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that the seasonally adjusted figure on the new basis will be published for past months so mat we can judge the true current trend in unemployment? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the numbers of unemployed for periods longer than six months are already published every quarter, and that those who are unemployed for more than four weeks are published every month?

Mr. Foot

We publish very full figures. No attempt is made to suppress them. If the House wants to make comparisons with earlier periods the figures will be published. What I have said makes no difference to the seasonally adjusted figure.