HC Deb 03 July 1984 vol 63 cc133-5
4. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Employment what is the latest number of unemployed in the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)

On 10 May the number of unemployed claimants in the United Kingdom was 3,084,457.

Mr. Flannery

Will you accept from me, Mr. Speaker, that I am about to talk in a non-party political way, like the chairman of the Tory party?

Will the Minister agree that, after the figures have been massaged so brilliantly, there are 1 million more unemployed than the number to which he is confessing? In view of the Government's grand passion to get the miners back to work, will the Minister begin by getting the other 4.5 million people back to work? They all want to work, but the Government will not allow them to go back to work.

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his bipartisan approach to the question. I do not see the point of trying to argue about whether or not the figures are massaged in a particular way, unless there is an hon. Member who actually thinks that 3 million unemployed is an acceptable figure and that 3.5 million is not acceptable. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in saying that the figure is too high, that it is a matter of concern to everybody in the House, and that we are all concerned to see that unemployment is reduced and people are able to get real jobs. Against that background, I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that in the past month, in his city of Sheffield, placings in the jobcentre were 22 per cent. higher than for the same period last year.

Sir Dudley Smith

In view of that last answer. will my right hon. Friend say whether productivity is increasing, and, if it is, what effect it is having on employment generally?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a very important point. Of course, we have the problem of a further 160,000 people corning into the work market at present. It is also important to note that we have a continuing improvement in productivity of about 8 per cent. in manufacturing. That is very important indeed for the future competitiveness of Britain, but it raises problems at the present time in regard to employment. It is vital, if we are to have real jobs, that we continue to improve our productivity.

Mr. Nellist

Is the Secretary of State aware that, despite his attitude about the unemployment figures in the west midlands, the unemployed to vacancy ratio stands at over 35? Even if every one of the unemployed—on the Secretary of State's definition—got a job, there would still be 34 in the west midlands, on his statistics, who would not. Does the Secretary of State agree that he actually likes to have 3 million unemployed, because he uses them as a weapon against the rest of the organised trade union movement?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say categorically from this Dispatch Box that the present level of unemployment is unacceptably high, and I do not in any sense regard it as acceptable. The only hope of getting jobs that last is to have an economy in which inflation is low, in which interest rates are lower than those of some of our major competitors overseas, in which productivity keeps rising, and in which growth continues to improve. Those are the conditions that we have established and they are the best hope for the unemployed.

Mr. Latham

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that there would be a further severe rise in unemployment if there were to be a public sector moratorium on construction work? Will he make it clear to his Cabinet colleagues that such a thing must be resisted at all costs?

Mr. King

I feel that, in a previous incarnation, I have been here before. My hon. Friend will know—I do riot wish to trespass on other matters—that one of the most important issues which we must tackle are the levels of public expenditure to ensure that, through them, interest rates do not rise and that we do not have inflation rising again, otherwise we shall do infinitely more damage to the construction industry and every other industry, but I have no comment to make on the point that my hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has been telling the House, can he say whether unemployment at the end of this year will be lower than it was at the beginning of the year?

Mr. King

So far as I know, no Minister of any Government has forecast future levels of unemployment. I have put these issues to the House in what I hope is a sensible and responsible way. The House knows the challenges that we face. The rates of unemployment of some of our partners in the EEC are now at significantly higher levels than those which we face. This is a world problem that we are tackling, and we are tackling it in a responsible way.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the mad antics of Arthur Scargill and his cohorts are likely to cause more long-term unemployment than anything else that is happening in Britain, because of the effects of what they are doing on other people's costs, coupled with the fact that people will find substitutes for coal, which in turn will damage long-term employment in the mining industry?

Mr. King

The present situation is extremely serious. It is interesting to note, for example, that were serious damage to be done to the steel industry by the present dispute, that would be likely to cost more jobs in the mining industry than possibly even in the steel industry. Therefore, the present situation poses a major threat to jobs.

Mr. John Smith

Is the Secretary of State aware that included in the appalling unemployment total is the high figure of long-term unemployed, now running at more than 1.25 million? Is he further aware that we would take his protestations of concern more seriously if the Government would, for example, give the long-term rate of supplementary benefit to the long-term unemployed? If the Government are not prepared to give these people social justice, what hope does the right hon. Gentlemam offer to more than 1 million people, most of whom will never work again?

Mr. King

That was an irresponsible statement for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to make. He knows that about 6 million people will get new jobs in Britain this year and that among them will be many of the long-term unemployed. I have complaints coming to my Department about the difficulties faced, for example, by London Transport in recruiting bus drivers in London, and about the difficulty that is being experienced in getting people for skilled and semi-skilled jobs in London and the southeast. It so happens that the greatest number of long-term unemployed are in London and the south-east. I do not accept that they must feel that there is no chance of getting a job. We are determined to see that they have that chance.