HC Deb 18 November 1986 vol 105 cc427-9
9. Mr. Tinn

asked the Paymaster General what the estimated effect has been on the unemployment figures as a result of the changes made in the method of counting since 1979.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

We have made only three changes in the method of counting, and two of those were to correct errors. It is impossible to estimate what the unemployment count would be today if these changes were reversed.

Mr. Tinn

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that, on our reckoning, the number of changes is nearer 18? The effect of the changes is to reduce the numbers appearing on the register by nearly 500,000. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give corrected figures? Which changes, even those to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman can admit, have resulted in an increase, and which have resulted in a decrease, in the numbers on the register?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman is drawing from a highly publicised survey of all the administrative changes which, it is said, have been made in the implementation of the benefits system. The list, which gets up to 18, includes things such as a strike, which is hardly within the Government's control. In a system as complex as the national insurance system, it is obvious that one is always making changes, but it is impossible to work out what the upward and downward effects of most would be. The vast majority have no effect.

The hon. Gentleman asked about changes made in the method of counting. There have been only three. Two of them corrected errors, one a Northern Irish mistake and another in this country, and the third, the only one to make any major change to the figures, was when we went over to registration at jobcentres in October 1982. That enabled us to computerise the count and gave us a more accurate and up-to-date record, which reduced the count by about 78,000. All the other estimates about what would be the effect of suddenly going back to the 1979 administrative change and bringing back errors and old rules are completely bogus. The people who put those claims forward have no way of knowing, for example, how many people would register at jobcentres in the unlikely event of our going back to that system.

Mr. Holt

My right hon. and learned Friend might like to note that, whatever method of calculation was in operation, in the district shared by the hon. Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn) and myself the number of young people unemployed could be reduced by 25, according to the Labour chairman of the employment committee on Langbaurgh, if it was not vetoed from doing so by the local trade union.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have difficulties of that kind placed in the way of the youth training scheme by the last recalcitrant trade unions which take that view. We also have some school leavers still on the register. All those who leave school at the age of 16 are guaranteed a place on the youth training scheme. Therefore, they are unemployed only if they have chosen to be. Unfortunately, they are sometimes encouraged in that way by some of the remarks of Front Bench Opposition spokesmen.

Mr. Prescott

Does the Paymaster General not accept the Library's calculation of the real levels of unemployment? It says that the real level is equivalent to 4.4 million. Does the Paymaster General not accept the statement of the research department, which calculates six changes to the figures? Two of those changes increase the unemployed by 43,000 but the remaining changes reduce unemployment by nearly 400,000. Everybody accepts that the figures are reduced by nearly 500,000 on whatever assessment is used.

Mr. Clarke

I have not heard the hon. Gentleman use the 4 million figure for some time, because he knows that it is arrived at by adding on all the people in training, all those on the community programme and adding on people who were not counted when the Labour Government were in office and who ought not to be counted becaue they are not unemployed. The six changes are administrative changes which have had some effect on the figure. I repeat that there is no way of calculating what the effect would be if we had that system today. It would be ridiculous suddenly to go to our officers and tell them to reverse every administrative change made in the national insurance system over the past six years and go back to every error that was made. What is worrying the Opposition is the fact that the number of people now workng in this country has increased by over 1 million since the last election. It has gone up by over 200,000 in the last full year alone. The figures are getting better, as the hon. Gentleman knows. That is why he is doing his best to knock them down.

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