HC Deb 23 June 1976 vol 913 cc1598-602

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to permit the payment of unemployment benefit to unemployed persons engaged in work of social or community benefit. Yesterday the Government released some disastrous and bizarre figures which revealed that more than 1,300,000 people are unemployed and that 85,000 more school leavers had joined the dole queues since last month. That catastrophic situation is an indictment of the Government's policies and at variance with their election pledges, but it is more than that. It is an example of Government obstinacy and indifference to the supreme importance of satisfying the needs of the individual and the necessity to maintain his dignity.

My Bill could make unemployment a thing of the past. If the Government willed it, unemployment would be a legend. There are serious moral implications to standing by when 1¼ million people have nothing to do.

In Monday's debate on youth unemployment, the speeches from the Government Front Bench were full of apologies and adopted a defeatist attitude. Ministers seemed confused, yet convinced that they had done everything possible. They cited the job creation programme, the recruitment subsidy, the labour mobility programmes and other measures. Clearly, none of these is enough if unemployment continues to rise. In addition, the projects are very expensive. About £55 million has been spent on the job creation programme but only 17,000 people are employed under it. Something radically new is called for. We have an extreme situation and we therefore need progressive and radical policies. More of the same thing will not do.

My Bill proposes a simple solution which the Government could put into practice overnight. It is recognised that the Welfare State cannot cope with the number of people needing help, and the size and complexity of social deprivation far exceeds the resources available. There are 8 million elderly people in Great Britain, and many of them live alone. Thousands live in miserable homes with rooms that need redecorating and windows that need cleaning. The lonely cry out for companionship. Single parents ask for help with the care of their children. Institutions such as hospitals and children's homes desperately search for more helping hands. There is a large reservoir of unnecessary human suffering which could be considerably alleviated if there were people available who could make the lives of others better and happier. This is work which will otherwise never get done.

My Bill will offer a challenge to unployed people by giving them, as individuals or in groups, the opportunity to do this work and to relieve the plight of others by tackling the worst problems of their neighbourhoods as they see them. The Bill invites them to develop their own programmes and to create their own jobs. In this way they would gain invaluable experience and new skills by planning and operating projects. They would participate in the identification, selection and planning of projects and, ultimately, in the performance. They would be responsible for all aspects of administration, and by dealing with local people they would develop a sense of pride in their neighbourhood and an innate sense of social responsibility. By introducing those with time on their hands to others who need their help, the human and social problems in this country could be eclipsed.

It may be that not all those who are unemployed are capable of giving personal service. The list of other projects which could be tackled is limitless. Preschool playgroups could be set up and adventure playgrounds built. The meals-on-wheels service could be assisted. Hospitals could be helped. Litter could be recycled and young people with practical skills could build furniture for low-income groups. Others could repair children's toys by setting up toy hospitals.

I am convinced that if local people were involved in redecorating public buildings in their neighbourhood, such as the school and community centre, far less vandalism would result. Indeed, for those who are not equipped to develop personal relationships and do not feel able to create their own practical work, another choice will be open to them. Each local job shop should keep a running list of all the supervised community jobs that require to be undertaken voluntarily. Therefore, the unemployed would have a wide range of jobs from which to choose, would be told where and what they were, and would discuss these matters with the sponsoring organisation direct. In these ways the solution to unemployment would come from the unemployed themselves. The jobs would be real and important and would offer the supreme reward of all—job satisfacton.

With regard to materials and supervision costs, the Government could act in a similar manner as they do with job creation programmes. On community jobs the unemployed could work on a four-day week basis. In return, the unemployed would be offered wages at the equivalent rate of the benefits they receive as unemployed persons. Although the payments would be relatively modest, they would act as a spur to the unemployed to seek more remunerative work elsewhere. The rates of pay would be an incentive to make projects short-term and would provide some income.

I doubt whether anybody on any side of the House would argue that it is immoral to pay wages on the current unemployed benefit level since these provide at least some basic level of subsistence. The whole philosophy of the insurance scheme is that the seven fat years should pay for the seven lean years. To continue to pay it when there is so much to be done is to make a mockery of the principles on which the system is based. Instead of going to the employment or social services offices to get the dole, those at work in the community would get their wages from the wages office.

For those who argue that the rates of pay should be at the market rate, let me say this. There can be no market rate for work that will never be carried out. By paying the inflated NALGO rates of pay for those under the job creation programme, it means that the £55 million already spent has created only 17,000 jobs. It also means that the young, when paid some £45 per week, will develop a false sense of values.

My Bill will give people a range of choices, but if at the end of the day they decide to do nothing, even though there is so much to be done, the Government should feel no obligation to pay them. If after a period of two months the unemployed person refuses to co-operate, again the Government are free to pay him nothing. If the unemployed person is ill, he will continue to receive all benefits.

In the researches which I have carried out on Merseyside, I have discovered that 75 per cent. of the 2,000 young people who are unemployed have said that they are bored stiff and will gladly undertake this work. But the Government have done nothing about the situation. Perhaps they want to keep control only of the unemployment situation.

The Bill which I propose is a radical departure, but if the Government refuse to give my proposals serious consideration they will be turning their back on this country's unemployed.

3.44 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Ogden

I wish to express limited opposition, Mr. Speaker.

The constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) is a neighbouring constituency to my own division of Merseyside. But the gap betwen us in the city of Liverpool is certainly very much wider than it is across the Chamber. I know from experience that the hon. Gentleman has great experience of backing good causes. However, on this occasion perhaps his enthusiasm has gone too far.

The hon. Gentleman said that his Bill would make unemployment a thing of the past. I can only say that I hope that that will be the case, but my fear is that some people on Merseyside might believe that assertion—in other words, hopes might be raised unnecessarily. I ask the hon. Member not to press the Bill or to allow it to be introduced—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not argue on those lines but must say why he is opposing the measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Anthony Steen, Mr. Tim Renton, Mr. Leon Brittan, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Edward du Cann, Mr. Michael Marshall, Mr. Andrew Bowden, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Peter Morrison, Mr. Michael Neubert and Mr. David Lane.