HC Deb 22 July 1986 vol 102 cc163-5
1. Mr. Evans

asked the Paymaster General what is the present rate of unemployment; and how it compares with the figures for June 1983 and June 1979, respectively.

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

The seasonally adjusted level of unemployed claimants in the United Kingdom this June represented 11.7 per cent. of the working population. Estimates on a consistent basis for June 1983 and June 1979 were 10.8 and 4.2 per cent. respectively.

Mr. Evans

Will the Paymaster General confirm that, despite the 16th massaging of the figures since the Government took office, the underlying level of unemployment is at its highest point for over 50 years? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that virtually every employers' organisation has joined the Select Committee on Employment in demanding a Government programme of infrastructure work, which would not only put hundreds of thousands of people back to work, but would improve the nation's productivity? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of the people now want measures to tackle unemployment even more than income tax cuts?

Mr. Clarke

The rate of unemployment is too high, and reflects the difficulty of creating new jobs quickly enough to keep up with the rising numbers of people looking for work. The fact is that over 1 million new jobs have been created in the British economy since spring 1983, and the rate of employment—people in work—has gone up by 4.3 per cent. since the first quarter of 1983, but obviously we have to improve on that record. I am intrigued to see that the hon. Gentleman is now going back to infrastructure spending as the cure. I continue to watch the varying suggestions put forward by the Opposition as to how they can live up to their claims for reducing unemployment.

Mr. Sayeed

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there are now more people in work in my constituency of Bristol, East? Is he further aware that that trend is reflected throughout the country?

Mr. Clarke

There are more people at work in this country all the time. We actually have a higher proportion of our population of working age in work than any other country in western Europe, apart from Denmark. Of course, we are having to tackle the problem that all the time more young people and more women are entering the labour force, so that we still have not caught up with the level of unemployment.

Mr. Leighton

Is the Minister aware that in 1978 unemployment fell by 90,000. In 1979 it fell by 60,000. In the following year, 1980, after the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Government came into office, unemployment increased by 700,000. In 1981 unmployment rose by over 900,000 and it has risen every year since. Is that not because the Government's economic policies have turned off the engines of economic growth and wealth creation? We are producing fewer manufactured goods now than we were in 1979. When will the Minister show some contrition and apologise to the unemployed, rather than taking the flippant attitude that he does to this disaster?

Mr. Clarke

I have not been flippant. The hon. Gentleman's figures cannot disguise the fact that, in 1979, the country's economy was in a dire state. A great deal of our industry was in a non-competitive condition. When the last Labour Government left office we were set on a course for higher unemployment and the world recession made it worse. However, unemployment rose at a faster rate in West Germany than it rose here. We are now back on the road to recovery. The number of new jobs in the British economy continues to rise steadily, quarter by quarter, and has done ever since early 1983.

Mr. Charles Wardle

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall a book written by the general secretary of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs when the last Labour Government held office? Its title was "The Collapse of Work" and it postulated an unemployment level of 5 million under that Labour Government because of Britain's lack of competitiveness. Does he agree that unemployment could rapidly reach the level contemplated by Mr. Clive Jenkins if Opposition Members were ever able to put their inflationary spending plans into practice?

Mr. Clarke

I certainly recall some such analysis. I think the figure of 5 million people unemployed is wholly credible when one looks at the state of the economy as the last Labour Government left it in 1979. Unemployment would probably be at that figure now were it not for the fact that we are in the sixth successive year of economic growth and we are witnessing a steady increase in the number of new jobs in the economy.

Mr. Wainwright

Is the Minister aware that during the first quarter of this year and for the first time in several years there was an actual .decrease in the number of employees in employment. The Government were only saved from the greater embarrassment of a decrease in the national total of people at work, of any kind, by the convenient arrival of a round figure of 30,000 people assumed to be in self employment and hence representing an increase in the numbers at work. Will he explain to the House the particular witchcraft by which figures like this 30,000 are produced in respect of the self-employed?

Mr. Clarke

There is a changing pattern of employment in this country. For some years the number of people in self-employment have been steadily rising. More than one person in 10 working in this country is now working on his own account. The estimates that have been produced are carefully calculated. They are checked regularly against the labour force survey and are produced by well-tried methods showing the estimated increase month by month. There is no witchcraft in it. These are careful, accurate statistics, as has been well proven in the past.

Mr. Marland

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we are facing another industrial revolution? The reason why it is so painful has been the reluctance of past politicians and trade union leaders to embrace new and modern technology for the opportunities that it offers.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. The attempt to delay the impact of new technology and to ignore the increased competitive pressures of the 1970s led to the disaster that we eventually suffered at the end of that decade and the beginning of this one. What is happening now is that new industries are emerging, more people are working in smaller businesses, we are witnessing a good rate of new business creation and more people are working in self-employment. The labour market is changing, but it is providing more jobs. We must not allow the Opposition's policies to try to put the clock back.