HC Deb 04 July 1983 vol 45 cc127-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

11.44 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I begin first by thanking you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise the important issue of unemployment and its effects on the people of Liverpool.

It is two years ago to this very day that violence erupted on the streets of Liverpool, following the disturbances in Brixton. While I do not believe that unemployment was the sole factor in provoking those riots I do believe that it was a contributory one. Two years later I regret to tell the House that unemployment in Liverpool is worse than ever. The picture is bleak and depressing. In the Liverpool travel-to-work area the latest jobless figures tell their own story. About 88,000 people are registered as unemployed and only 2,025 jobs are advertised as available.

The situation nationally is bad enough with one person having become unemployed every minute of every day since the Government were first elected in 1979. Imagine life in a city where one in five people are on the dole, where half the people in some districts are without a job and where young people face a lifetime without employment. Imagine life in an area where the major employer—such as United Biscuits—suddenly decides to pull the rug from under the feet of its 2,000 employees. What prospects do those people have of finding another job? At their local Old Swan employment office 15,610 people are shown to be without work and a miserable 130 jobs available. At the Toxteth office 9,405 people are jobless with only 110 vacancies. At Garston 9,148 people are without work with only 103 vacancies. At Everton 3,795 people are unemployed and only 32 jobs are available.

Since the general election on 9 June the situation has become worse. A further 3,000 redundancies have been announced in the last three weeks. The city planning officer says that a further 30,000 could go the same way by 1986.

Liverpool has been losing jobs hand over fist, at the rate of as many as 10,000 a year recently. A host of firms have shed jobs or left Liverpool and its hinterland. The litany of names includes Kraft, Bowyers, Lyon's Maid, Plessey, the Harrison Line, Barker and Dobson, Tate and Lyle, Courtaulds, Kellogs, Peyton Calvert and, more recently, Binns, United Biscuits, Schweppes and the Liverpool Central Oil Company.

The latest round of announcements has left Liverpool with a deepening sense of dismay and unparalleled despondency. For generations now, there has been a feeling of insecurity in the city. All live with a question mark over their head. Will they be next? Since 1971 unemployment has risen by a staggering 200 per cent. and the lives of citizens have been destroyed and their family lives decimated. One by one whole families succumb to the creeping plague of unemployment.

Abraham Lincoln said that a nation cannot survive half slave and half free. In the north of England, in Liverpool, life is different from parts of the leafy suburbs of the southeast where unemployment is only 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. Liverpool people are becoming the slaves of the employment exchange. This is a different world — another nation—and its case is rarely listened to in the House. If it goes on much longer, the area will become the Siberia of western Europe.

I do not blame this, or any other Government, for every person who is out of work. But I blame them for abandoning the unemployed, for simply blaming the victims and for failing to show sufficient compassion for their plight. The Government appear to be bystanders rather than effective participants in trying to turn the tide of unemployment.

Jobs and a more just society, like the kingdom of God, do not come by observation alone. The Government do not have a choice between fighting inflation and fighting unemployemnt. They must do both. If they do not, the scourge of unemployment will threaten order in our free society.

The Prime Minister rightly said in 1980 that poverty, wherever it exists, is the enemy of stability. Unemployment breeds poverty and that in turn breeds instability.

After the disturbances two years ago, Lord Scarman reported that unemployment was a significant factor in the causation of the disorders". Last week the Select Committee on the Environment confirmed that view.

The Prime Minister claimed that she had not been warned about the seriousness of the situation in our inner cities. I remind the House that on 7 April 1981, three months before the riots, in a debate on youth unemployment I told the House that forces are at. work in the city of Liverpool which were praying on the disadvantages of our young people. I also wrote privately to the Prime Minister and raised the matter again in a letter to The Times published on 18 April. I raised the matter yet again in a debate on unemployment on 25 June when I said that a timebomb was ticking away in the heart of our city. How much warning do the Government need before they act? In answer to my appeal at the time that she meet civic and church leaders, the Prime Minister refused to see that delegation.

It is that refusal to listen which I find most disturbing of all. The greatest tragedy, however, is that two years later the Government appear to have learnt nothing. Only today I received word from Downing street that the Prime Minister will not meet a delegation of workers from the United Biscuits Company factory.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will allow me to intervene on behalf—

Hon. Members


Mr. Fields

I wish to make a contribution on behalf of Labour supporters on Merseyside who—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is not giving way, and therefore the hon. Member for Liverpool, broadgreen (Mr. Fields) cannot make an intervention.

Mr. Alton

Many of the people at that factory have given 40 years of their lives in loyal service to the company. There has not been a strike there since the turn of the century, and last year productivity rose by about 20 per cent. In showing so little interest in the plight of these decent, hard-working men and women, the Prime Minister is playing right into the hands of political extremists in Liverpool. She has unwittingly become Militant's best recruiting agent.

She does not seem to realise what being unemployed really means. It is about being deprived of what so many in society take for granted, the ordinary things in life so intimately associated with what is termed "the normal standard of living" as powerfully presented through the media. It is about not being able to take the children to the seaside; about longing for a good mead with a joint, two veg and a sweet; about the absence of a full pantry; about the lack of savings in the bank for a rainy day; about going to someone else's home and seeing what they have, then going home and seeing what one does not have.

Being unemployed is about girls like Janet Williams, who is 22 and slightly handicapped. Janet's mum and dad came to see me at my weekly advice centre last Saturday. Janet has been working in a voluntary capacity at a home for the handicapped, having been passed from pillar to post, from one scheme to another. Each time she leaves a scheme, her parents told me, she leaves with good references and a broken heart. In six years she has had one interview for a proper job. Perhaps she should go to the Falkland Islands and help build an airstrip, her parents suggested.

Being unemployed in Liverpool is a deeply debilitating and degrading process. Geoffrey Coyne of Allerton wrote to me saying: Since the leaving of my last job at Dunlop, Speke, at approximately the beginning of 1979, I have been unable, despite a tremendous amount of effort, to secure a position anywhere. As a 27-year-old individual who has not worked for over four years, I would like to know at what point I'm supposed to crack. Unemployment drives people into extreme political positions. It is a breeding ground for militants, but it is also a breeding ground for criminals. During the weekend I spoke to Merseyside's senior probation officer, Mr. David Mathieson, who told me: Almost 100 per cent. of offenders under our supervision are unemployed. If a few do have jobs, that is a bonus. this means that we can no longer use work as a means of rehabilitating offenders. As well as providing alternatives to imprisonment, we are now having to provide alternatives to employment. Our task in relation to crime prevention is in danger of becoming much less effective, and that would be very harmful to society on Merseyside. Yet the Prime Minister continues to assert that there is no clear link between unemployment and rising crime rates. Clearly, she has not listened to the former Home Secretary, Merseyside's chief constable and Lord Scarman, all of whom disagree with her. The facts show that for every 1,000 increase in youth unemployment, 23 additional young males are sent to borstal or prison. On Merseyside alone last year about 42,000 homes were broken into. The Devil has not just been making mischief for idle hands. He has been having a field day.

Seen as a challenge rather than a curse, unemployment can become an instrument for social change. That requires imagination and determination by central and local government, private enterprise and the people of Liverpool themselves. Beginning with the people, Liverpool has for too long been dogged by a militant, strike-happy image. The current dispute at Cammell Lairds reinforces that impression. A minority of trade unionists are more interested in making a political point than in ensuring long-term security for their members.

There must be a determined effort to replace confrontation on the factory floor by a sustained effort to produce co-operation and harmony. The rest of the world does not owe us a living and the remedy to Liverpool's appalling industrial image lies in our own hands.

Secondly, private enterprise must be more responsible, too. Sir Hector Laing, the chairman of United Biscuits, said in 1980 that wealth would only be created if management inspired trust in the work force. Presumably that does not include letting a loyal work force first read about the closure of its factory in the national press. When Sir Hector was given the Hambro business man of the year award in 1979 he was cited for his tireless commitment to communication; and for breaking down barriers between management and shop-floor workers. In the light of the events at his Liverpool factory, he should re-read that citation and demonstrate to his work force that it was not merely a string of words. It is not too late for him to do that.

Thirdly, the city council must realise that without an increase in the rate support grant there is no future in pumping ratepayers' money into increased public sector expansion if that is at the expense of jobs in the private sector. In May, Mr. T. F. J. Galley, the chairman of the Liverpool chamber of commerce, said at the chamber's annual meeting that an increase of £7,000 in the rate bill can mean the loss of one job in industry and commerce, and it is small consolation if that £7,000 ultimately goes towards financing a job in local or national government or, even worse, an increase in the wages of local government employees. That kind of trade is just not acceptable. If the Liverpool Labour party's election manifesto is implemented, the city treasurer estimates that it could add 50 per cent. to the rate bill. That would be downright irresponsible. United Biscuit's current rate bill is £371,000. A 50 per cent. increase next year would increase its bill to over £500,000. The rates on large city stores are equally crippling. Binns paid rates this year amounting to £374,000. Cuts in rate support grant of £109 million over the past four years have not helped, but if rates are driven up the effect is to drive out business.

The people of Liverpool are fed up to the back teeth with a city council that practises financial irresponsibility, and by appalling behaviour such as that seen last week, which gives the impression of mob rule. If we are to attract new enterprise and retain employment in Liverpool, that sort of behaviour must stop. It was simply to downgrade the city by sacking the lord mayor against the overwhelming wishes of the people. That has nothing to do with—

Mr. Eric Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. I thought that it was directed to the problems of Liverpool's unemployment, but it seems that it is being turned into an attack on the Liverpool city council, which has only recently been elected. We had a Liberal city council for eight years and that council was responsible, basically, for what the hon. Gentleman has described. I am asking — it is not usual for me to intervene in Adjournment debates and I would not do so normally—for a ruling that the hon. Gentleman keeps to the subject and does not continue to abuse the opportunity that has been afforded to him.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

This is an Adjournment debate and, therefore, is fairly wide-ranging.

Mr. Alton

I was saying that the city's image, as demonstrated by the Liverpool city council, is being damaged, mob rule at the town hall and demonstrations do nothing for the city's image. Sacking the lord mayor of Liverpool does nothing for the city either. It simply smacks of the iron-fist approach of Eastern European states and does not help to repair the city's battered image.

I urge the local authority not to abandon the joint venture scheme, which has been a great success. Instead of turning away private investment we should be encouraging it. I understand that 46 per cent. of Liverpool people now live in their own home compared with 31 per cent. about 10 years ago. However, Liverpool is turning away private firms that would invest their own money and provide jobs for those in the construction industry. That is giving way to blind dogma rather than employing common sense.

The council has been successful in promoting new factory and office development through partnership schemes. About 1.1 million sq ft of new factory and office space has been built during the past four years. The chief executive of Liverpool, Mr. Alfred Stocks, whom I met last Friday, tells me that two thirds of it has been let and that the other third is being let. We need more of that sort of development. I hope that the city's new economic development committee, whose establishment I welcome, will press on with these sort of projects.

We in Liverpool are looking for some signals of hope. This is not the moment to take away our Cabinet-ranking Minister on Merseyside, a post which I advocated should be created in my maiden speech in 1979. Instead the job should be revamped with the emphasis being placed on employment rather than the environement. The Secretary of State for Employment has a great deal to say about Merseyside workers. He and his Department should take on the task of spearheading the drive to create more work opportunities.

We are not asking for more short-term schemes. The only growth industry on Merseyside has been in acronyms —WEPS, TOPS, YOPS, MSC and so on. We need to look at what made Liverpool prosperous in the first place. That was the river. I suggest that we look at imaginative schemes—for instance by impounding the Mersey by the construction of a barrage, thousands of construction jobs could be created. At the same time new deep sea water port facilities could be provided. By placing turbines in the barrage, electricity could be generated and a third estuarial crossing could be provided. Perhaps linked to a free port, that would help to revitalise our marine industry. Both the local authorities and the university believe that such a project would be feasible. All that I do is ask for an assurance from the Minister that that scheme might be considered.

There should also be direct job subsidies to employers instead of more bureaucratic short-term work experience projects. In the longer term, we must share the work that is available. As Bacon observed some 400 years ago, wealth, like manure, is most effective when spread as widely as possible. Surely the same principle applies to spreading work around.

At present we have a crude system of work sharing. It is called unemployment. Some 88 per cent. of the people have some sort of job and 12 per cent. have none whatsoever. In Liverpool, the figures are worse. Surely we can organise things so that everyone has a chance of doing some sort of job. The Government should also calculate the costs of not tackling unemployment and balance them against the £17.5 billion that it now costs to keep people out of work. That is not the sensible way to use our precious resources.

Those are all matters that I hope that the Minister will turn his attention to, to give hope to the people of Liverpool. Over several generations the people of Liverpool have made a magnificent contribution to the life and well-being of the nation. That battle of the Atlantic was fought and won from the port of Liverpool. The people of Liverpool still have a great contribution to make to the future of the country. What they need is practical help and encouragement. There needs to be a national war on unemployment and our objective must be total victory.

12.2 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has rightly drawn attention to an issue that he cares about deeply and that all Members on both sides of the House are concerned to face and solve. He will agree that in the junior capacity that I hold in the Department of Employment, almost the first visit that I made was to the port of Liverpool. That is a centre where unemployment is a particular difficulty. The port has suffered perhaps more than many others.

I commend some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, which I hope will be listened to in all parts of the House. It is not helpful merely to catalogue the depressing scene that has been Liverpool for some time, nor is it helpful to place the blame on one side or the other. We need to seek the best ways to solve the problem, which we jointly feel to be there.

Therefore, I take this opportunity of joining the hon. Gentleman and suggesting that some of his remarks, which were objective, were close to the point. There are grave enough difficulties in Liverpool without making it a laughing stock of the rest of the country by trying to impose upon it policies that will make the situation much worse—

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It has an elected council.

Mr. Gummer

Elected council or not, to use the position of the council to make it more difficult to bring jobs to the area is something that even those of extremist Militant Tendency ought to think about seriously. They are putting their party political, narrow, extremist views in front of people's jobs, lives, homes and families. That is an attitude that all people in the House should be concerned to set their face against. We would be opposed to that if they were black Fascists. We would be opposed to that if they were red Fascists.

Mr. Nellist

The Minister should withdraw that.

Mr. Gummer

It is time that we spoke about extremism—

Mr. Nellist

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a political term such as "Fascism" to be applied to democratically-elected Members of the House? Will you give a ruling?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. As I understand it, it was not a direct allegation against any individual hon. Member. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman must listen. It was not a direct allegation against an hon. Member.

Mr. Gummer

As the hon. Gentleman was opposite me at the time it would have been difficult not to say it directly to him. As my mother would say, if the cap fits let him wear it.

Mr. Nellist

The Minister has admitted that he was saying it in this direction.

Mr. Gummer

Given the very serious situation in Liverpool and the fact that all political parties in local or national government have to admit that they have failed to solve the problems, we must ask everyone not to make the problems worse. I hope that those who seek to make it more difficult for private industry' to come to Liverpool will think again and consider whether they should put the needs of the people of Liverpool before their own policies, however much they feel that they may have been supported.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gummer

I shall not give way as I have very little time and I must answer the points raised by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) will discover, it is usual not to interrupt in an Adjournment debate except with the permission of the hon. Member who introduced the debate.

Mr. Heffer

It is quite something for the Minister to suggest that a Labour council elected only in May is responsible for the situation in Liverpool. There has been a Conservative Government for the past four years and there was Liberal-Conservative alliance in Liverpool for eight years. The Tory Government are basically responsible for what has happened in Liverpool, and the previous local council helped them.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) with his customary fairness, will think back to what I actually said. I did not lay all the blame on the Labour party ar d refuse any blame for my own party or for that of the proposer of the Adjournment debate. I said that we should approach the situation in Liverpool with a degress of corporate humility as none of us in our various capacities has managed to solve the problem. I began my making a plea that we should not make things worse. In a situation as serious as that in Liverpool, those who seek to drive away jobs that would otherwise come are making the situation worse and have very little to contribute to the debate.

On the allegations about United Biscuits, I hope that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill will look closely at the facts in two regards. First, we must consider the future not just of the works in Liverpool but of the company's other works. It is perfectly reasonable for the hon. Gentleman to disagree with the management of United Biscuits, and it would not be suitable for me to give a view as to whether the management is right or wrong, but it has made a commercial judgment as to whether it is possible to continue employment on Merseyside as well as in east Glasgow. The difficulty is that both are areas of high unemployment. United Biscuits has a record of taking considerable care about the conditions of those who work for it and the problems of unemployment. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that in general that is true.

The difficulty facing the company is that there is a decline in demand for biscuits and considerable competition from Nabisco and other companies which have spent and are spending very large sums on re-equipment. United Biscuits has to compete. It must therefore decide whether to hang on to a very uneconomic building and site in Merseyside and put at risk the jobs not just of the people employed on Merseyside but of their employees in other centres, especially in Glasgow where unemployment is also very high, or to undertake an orderly rundown to protect jobs elsewhere. It is perfectly reasonable for people to try to make a judgment, but I ask the hon. Member for Mossley Hill to accept that the management has given the undertaking that it has made the decision in order to protect as many jobs as possible Short of forcing people to eat more biscuits or to pay higher prices for biscuits to avoid mechanisation, I see no other way to deal with a smaller market and greater competition without imperilling many more jobs than those already in danger on Merseyside.

The hon. Gentleman should consider carefully the way in which the announcement was made. I understand that the arrangement was made not to make the announcement publicly, in order that the details and the discussions could be carried through the proper channels. It was not the management that released the information to the press; that information was released elsewhere. The management, concerned with good communications, is extremely embarrassed by that. It sought to do it in the right way. It may have failed, but that is what it sought to do.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept from me that I have sought very carefully to find out from the management what happened. I have its assurance—he may wish to believe it or not—that it sought to act in the way that is traditional and clearly part of its normal policy. I should like the hon. Gentleman to look carefully —it is not for me to comment.at how that aim of the management was destroyed. He may find that there are others who were to blame. In that case, I know that he will have the decency to blame them and not the management.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the question of rates. I take this position very strongly.

Mr. Wareing


Mr. Gummer

I shall not give way because it is my job to try to answer the debate as raised by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. The hon. Member for West Derby will have many years in which to raise Adjournment debates in this House and I shall be happy to reply to them. I shall be here for a very long time, and probably at this Dispatch Box, long after he has lost his seat in Liverpool, having shown that extremist positions are of no use.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill rightly pointed to the fact that if we want new industry to come into Liverpool—there are some hopeful signs that a number of companies are coming—and if we want particularly the very important schemes of the port of Liverpool, in which I have been interested because of my responsibility for the dock labour scheme, the thought of a threatened addition of 50 per cent. to the rate bill will drive away the very jobs that we ought to be seeking to get.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look again at his comments about the growth of schemes. I think we should accept that a number of the schemes in Liverpool are ones that he would want us to continue. The comments about acronyms and so on make good copy, but I am not sure that they are fair. I know that the schemes are not enough, but it is very important to have them, and the Government are right to have them. The hon. Gentleman would attack us very strongly if we did not have them. But in the end the question is how to bring real employment back to Liverpool. [HON. MEMBERS: "Resign."] The entire Liverpool city council ought to resign first. The extremists should be thrown out. Their noise today shows once again that they are not willing to listen to— [Interruption.] Anger does not stand in place of real answers. We have not heard a single real answer from the extremist hon. Members from Liverpool. I dare say that we shall have to put up with them for a long time. I doubt whether we shall have a single answer from them, but we shall put up with them on the Opposition Back Benches for a long time because that is where they will remain for a long time.

If we are to deal with the problems of Liverpool, we can do so only if Liverpool is an attractive place to which to bring jobs. That means creating an environment in which private enterprise, which creates real jobs, can flourish. It means having a rate burden which can be carried by private enterprise. It means spending the amount of money that can be raised reasonably, and not asking for a rate support grant so that even more money can be spent. There are many parts of the country, such as the one that I represent, which have to pay the rate support grant on wages that are considerably lower than the average. They have to pay towards that rate support grant and they can therefore reasonably ask that the Liverpool Members—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.