HC Deb 21 January 1986 vol 90 cc170-2
5. Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

asked the Paymaster General why he uses the number of people drawing unemployment benefit as a definition of the unemployment total.

The Paymaster General and Minister for Employment (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

We have no administrative means of producing quickly, accurately and at reasonable cost each month the precise number of people without jobs who are actively seeking work, which would be my definition of unemployment. As the best monthly snapshot measure of that number, we can produce statistics based on records of people claiming benefits. In practice, these statistics usually prove to be broadly in balance with the figures produced by our less frequent survey estimates of the number of people unemployed.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the number drawing benefit include many people, such as married women with children and people who take early retirement, who are not actively seeking work? Should not the published official statistics for the unemployment total reflect more accurately the number of people actually looking for work?

Mr. Clark

In considering the figures one has to bear in mind that at the time of the last survey about 940,000 people claiming benefit had not recently been seeking work, but about 870,000 people not drawing benefit say that they would take work if it were available. As a result, the figures produced each month and the results of the periodic detailed surveys are roughly equivalent. There is no cheap and easy way to be more precise than that.

Mr. James Hamilton

Does not the fact that many unemployed people are not drawing benefit prove, as we have said many times, that the figures are falsified and do not represent the true level of unemployment?

Mr. Clarke

I invite the hon. Gentleman to study what I have just said. From the number of claimants one must deduct the number who do not appear to be seeking work, perhaps for good reasons, but one must add the number not receiving benefit but seeking work. The result is about 3 million. It serves no useful purpose for the Opposition to load on top of the official figures all kinds of categories of people to produce the inflated figure of 4 million to which so many Opposition Members refer.

Mr. Ralph Howell

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the labour force survey figures merely confuse the issue? Does he agree that the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. HeathcoatAmory) is much more serious, because many people not receiving unemployment benefit are classified as unemployed because benefit has been disallowed? Does he agree that we shall never have meaningful unemployment figures until a work test is instituted, as envisaged in the Beveridge report, on which the welfare state is based?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend rightly points to the confusion and attempts to clarify the position. The key point is that there are too many people out of work and seeking work. That is why the Government are actively pursuing steps to increase the number of new jobs created. It serves no useful purpose to inflate the unemployment total, as the Opposition do. It is important to bear in mind that all those claiming benefit should be available for work. That is the test of eligibility for benefit, and the Government are entitled to take steps, as we are doing, to ensure that benefit is paid only to people genuinely available for work.

Mr. Foot

Does the Minister admit that for several years the Opposition have been asking questions about the unemployment figures and the Minister has been saying that that is not fair and that we should ask about the number of people in employment, but now that we put down questions about employment he says that that is even more unfair?

Mr. Clarke

Questions about employment have just been answered very clearly by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. We welcome as many questions as possible about employment and the creation of new jobs, because our best estimates are that about 709,000 new jobs have been created since the last general election.

Mr. Watts

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that out of the 3 million unemployed only 379,000 are registered at jobcentres? Does he further agree that the jobcentres are hampered in seeking to fill the vacancies for skilled labour that many employers have, especially in my constituency in the Thames valley? Will he carefully consider a further pilot scheme to require the unemployed in areas of low unemployment and clear skill shortage to register at jobcentres so that the jobcentres can actively seek to match the unemployed to the vacancies?

Mr. Clarke

Registration at jobcentres is now voluntary, and only just over 400,000 choose to register. As more jobs are now being notified to jobcentres, in a number of pilot areas we have launched proposals to get in touch, first, with the long-term unemployed to bring them to the jobcentres so that jobs, training, job club membership and so on can be offered to them. This has been very successful in a number of areas.

Mr. Prescott

Does the Postmaster General accept—[interruption.] Does the Paymaster General accept that if there is any confusion about the figures being inflated, it is because the Government spend all their time deflating the figures by massaging them downwards? If the Government used the previous criteria for those who are registered as unemployed, unemployment figures would be about half a million more than they are now.

Does the Paymaster General accept that the December unemployment figures—his registration figures—are the highest ever recorded? Would he care to guess whether the January figures will be a further record of mass unemployment resulting from the Government's policies?

Mr. Clarke

I have been entirely clear about our figures. It is no good the hon. Member complaining about the inadequacy of the figures, when every time that we seek to improve them he accuses us of fiddling them. There is no point in the hon. Gentleman, as he consistently does, seeking to inflate those figures in bogus ways to produce the figure of 4 or 5 million, or whatever figure that he uses in his speech.

The December figures follow three successive months in which the total was falling. We shall wait to see what the underlying trend is. The trend during the past six months seems to be the best that we have had for a long time. With the economy growing at its present rate, I expect the outlook for 1986 to be very good.

Back to