HC Deb 18 May 1976 vol 911 cc1193-6
5. Mr. Michael Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what is the current level of unemployment in the construction industry; and what proposals be has for reducing it over the next few months.

6. Mr. Loyden

asked the Secretary of State for Employment, what action he is taking to reduce unemployment in the building and construction industries.

Mr. Booth

At 8th April 1976, 213,480 people who last worked in the construction industry were registered as unemployed in Great Britain.

The measures taken to relieve unemployment, which were announced in February 1976 and September 1975, included the provision of over £80 million to help provide employment where it was most needed in the construction industry. The priority given to house building by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and the measures taken to encourage industrial investment have also benefited the industry.

Mr. Latham

Is it not certain that these deplorable figures will get worse, since the latest industry survey shows a further sharp decline in new orders since January?

Mr. Booth

We are not certain as yet what the movement of these figures will be, but we are certainly taking steps that we would not take unless we believed that the intolerable level would continue for some time.

Mr. Loyden

Is the Secretary of State aware that on Merseyside more than 13,000 construction workers are unemployed at the moment? This represents 50 per cent. of the total unemployed construction workers in the North West. At the same time 16,500 people are on housing waiting lists in Liverpool, awaiting accommodation. The steps that have been taken so far are inadequate to deal with this problem. I urge the Secretary of State to discuss with his right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and Industry the need for urgent action on this matter at this time.

Mr. Booth

I certainly appreciate that this is a very special problem on Merseyside. I do have regular discussions with my colleagues in the Department of the Environment and I give the undertaking that my hon. Friend seeks. If the solution that he suggests is one that can be achieved only in terms of considerable increases in public expenditure in that field, we have to realise that we are talking about a choice of priorities.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Will the Secretary of State particularly address himself to the problem of craftsmen workers in stone and wood and ensure that these crafts are kept alive?

Mr. Booth

This is one of the serious problems created by construction industry unemployment. It is a question not merely of maintaining the crafts, but of ensuring that training takes place. That is why we have introduced special training measures through the MSC and TSA to ensure that there will be no shortage when the upturn comes.

Mr. Watkinson

I accept the figures that my right hon. Friend has given about housing, but does he accept that there has been a fall off in public sector demand in the construction industry? Will he stress the importance of introducing some form of counter-cyclical construction programme so that we do not have to go through this same story yet again in the next business cycle?

Mr. Booth

There is certainly a cyclical aspect to high unemployment in the industry. This is one of the areas in which we are considering the most effective counter-cyclical measures that can be developed. But what we can do at present is limited by public expenditure considerations, and we should be looking very much to the future in determining how we can introduce a wider range of counter-cyclical measures to deal with future unemployment.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Does the Secretary of State accept that if these appalling figures are not reduced by June it will be too late to do anything about them in 1976? If he cannot find a solution in the relationship between unemployment in the industry and the serious shortfall in housing programme he should confess to his failure now.

Mr. Booth

Some of the measures announced by the Chancellor were in anticipation of a worsening problem that would develop, but the choice between the amount that is devoted to building and the amount that is devoted to easing the social cost of unemployment is a question of priorities. That does not mean that we shall not reconsider this matter in the light of what we accept to be very high unemployment in the building industry.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does my right hon. Friend not accept that it is totally irrational for there to be so many unemployed construction workers on Merseyside when there is also a great need for many construction projects such as housing, a new hospital in Skelmersdale and the replacement of many of the Victorian schools in my constituency? Would it not be sensible to reorganise resources to achieve these social objectives now and to reduce unemployment?

Mr. Booth

I will accept my hon. Friend's proposition if he will accept from me that it is irrational to have over 1 million people unemployed when we need to reorganise wealth to solve a number of social and economic problems. It is within that context that I see a longer-term solution, which does not deal separately with the building industry but builds up this country's potential to create wealth.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Does the Secretary of State agree that the public sector cannot resolve this matter, since public funds are not available to it? Does he accept that the private sector can? What encouragement and incentive will he provide the private sector to reduce unemployment? The funds are available in the building societies, and the demand for owner-occupation exists. What steps does he intend to take?

Mr. Booth

I do not accept the implication of the question. The public sector has made a considerable contribution to easing unemployment. The private sector should be making as big a contribution.