HC Deb 22 July 1980 vol 989 cc247-50
1. Mr. Radice

asked the Secretary of State for Employment by how much unemployment has increased since May 1979.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. James Prior)

Between May 1979 and July 1980 the number of people registered as unemployed in the United Kingdom, seasonally adjusted and excluding school leavers, increased by 299,900. The figure is provisional.

Mr. Radice

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that if he includes school leavers, as he ought to, he will find that the number is nearly 600,000, which is the highest total since the 1930s? Nobody knows when it will end. Does the Secretary of State also realise that if he wants to avoid going down in history as the man who led Britain into mass unemployment he must either use his political muscle to get some change in Government policy, or have the grace and honour to resign?

Mr. Prior

On a day of very serious unemployment figures the country will expect more from the House than just a brawl. The figures are bound to cause deep concern, particularly among school leavers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are increasing the school-leaver programme by about 50,000. The loss of many jobs can be avoided only if excessive pay deals are matched by increased productivity, and if we do not price ourselves out of markets, both at home and overseas.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the level of unemployment is distressing to all hon. Members and that the true answers are likely to be those rehearsed in 1975, and in other years, by the present Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition? Does he agree that we must reduce inflation and ensure that pay increases are in line with increases in productivity?

Mr. Prior

I think that the whole House knows that spending our way out of the recession is an option that no longer exists. Experience of the past 15 years shows that each recession has started with unemployment at a higher level. We start this recession with about 700,000 more unemployed than existed at the beginning of the previous recession.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Does the Secretary of State realise that the figures announced today represent a 2 per cent increase in the North-West, and that much of that increase has occurred among textile workers, who are some of the lowest-paid workers in the country? How does he square a low-paid industry and rising unemployment with the Chancellor's belief that low wages mean more employment, which is what the right hon. Gentleman has just stated? If the country expects more than a brawl this afternoon, what can the right hon. Gentleman offer it?

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman knows only too well that one of the great problems with Britain in recent years—including, unfortunately, the textile industry—is that our competitive position has declined. We are 50 per cent. less competitive as a nation in the things that we produce and have to sell than we were three years ago, and 70 per cent. of that is due to the fact that our wages have increased faster than productivity. There is no escape for anyone in the House or in the country who believes anything else.

Mr. Needham

Does my right hon. Friend accept that among the main reasons for these appalling figures are the lack of competitiveness and productivity in British industry, and that the present situation is just as much, if not more, the responsibility of the previous Administration as it is of the Government?

Mr. Prior

All of us in this House, particularly those of us who have been here for a number of years, must accept our share of the blame for what has happened. I suggest that this afternoon we conduct our affairs in that manner.

Mr. Varley

Is not the tragedy of today's unemployment figures the inevitable outcome of the dogmatic and doctrinaire policies which the Government have been pursuing over the past 14 months? It is no answer to tell the House of Commons that mass unemployment is the crude remedy for keeping wages under control. The Secretary of State professes to be very sorry about the situation, but the bleeding heart which he has displayed today will not provide the jobs for the people whom the Government's policies have thrown out of work.

Mr. Prior

The right hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the unemployed—[Hon. Members "What has the Secretary of State done?"]—when he pretends that the problem can be put right simply by Government spending and changes in policy. To produce a few extra jobs now at the expense of prolonging our industrial weakness and producing fewer real soundly based jobs in the future is no help to the country or to the unemployed. Nor is it any help to this country for the right hon. Gentleman to throw accusations such as that across the Floor of the House when his record in government, whether he likes it or not, was no better than ours.

Mr. Varley

Does the Secretary of State not accept that it is the responsibility of the Government—any Government, no matter what their ideology—to take some responsibility for the appalling figures that have been announced today? When will he use his minority voice in the Cabinet to ensure that these policies are changed?

Mr. Prior

Of course it is the Government's responsibility, and I am prepared to accept that responsibility. However, I am also prepared to say to the country that I believe that this problem goes back further than 15 months. It probably goes back 15 or 20 years, and Labour Members know that as well as we do.