HC Deb 05 November 1992 vol 213 cc513-22

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

10 pm

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

I am grateful for this opportunity to draw the attention of the House to the intolerably high unemployment in my constituency, which is getting worse daily.

I was born and bred in Jarrow and have lived there all my life, and I am proud to represent that constituency. As I said in my maiden speech in 1979, Jarrow is a proud constituency, populated by honest, hard-working people: miners, not millionaires; shipbuilders, not shipowners; builders, not bankers; and engineers, not racketeers.

It is 56 years almost to the day since 200 proud men and Ellen Wilkinson, our then Member of Parliament, left Jarrow to go on their historic crusade to London demanding the right to work. I was born—and later educated at an elementary school—within 200 yd of the start of that march. Those men marched to London not for an extra slice of bread or bowl of soup but for the right to work and the dignity of a pay packet. If one good thing has come of the savage cuts in the mining industry, it is that it has focused the nation's attention on the plight of the unemployed—as the Jarrow march did in 1936.

The town of Jarrow was destroyed. Ellen Wilkinson wrote a book entitled "The town that was murdered". Such is the scourge of unemployment in Britain that people throughout the country could write similar books about their own communities. Month after month, we hear of increases in the unemployment figures, and it makes my blood boil when Ministers shed crocodile tears at the Dispatch Box.

I speak with some knowledge about unemployment. I have been unemployed on numerous occasions. I have had to stand in a queue at Victoria road, Hebburn, and sign the book with a one and a half inch pencil tied to a 2 ft piece of string so that no one could steal it. I have known the indignity of being on the dole, and I get very annoyed when I hear statements from the now discredited Chancellor of the Exchequer to the effect that unemployment is "a price worth paying". The Government just do not know how unemployed people feel. They do not know what misery they are causing.

Since 1979, the last pit in my constituency has closed. The last coking works have closed at Monkton and Hebburn. The last steelworks has closed in Jarrow. The last shipyard and ship repair yard has closed, and on the site of the shipyard where my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) and I were chairman and secretary of the shop stewards committee there is now a housing estate. The biggest dry dock on the east coast of England—Palmers dock in Hebburn—lies dormant.

Many of the miners in my constituency who have finished work at Boldon colliery and Monkton coking works have transferred to Westoe and Wearmouth, where the pits are now threatened with closure.

Mr. John Cummings (Easington)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, for all the assurances given by the President of the Board of Trade to the House and for all the evidence given to the Select Committee by the chairman of British Coal, British Coal is today dismantling the winding apparatus at the colliery where the coal-raising shaft for Vane Tempest is situated? By subterfuge and deceit, it is working towards the inevitable closure of Vane Tempest and the sacking of 900 workers, many of whom no doubt come from my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Dixon

I fully endorse the comments of my hon. Friend, and I wish to refer to that later in my speech. Incidentally, Madam Speaker, although I forgot, I had every intention at the beginning of my speech, since this is the first opportunity I have had since you were elected Speaker of the House, of congratulating you. You know how pleased I was when you were given that position, but this is the first time that I have spoken in the House since then.

I would also like to talk about shipyard workers. Many of them who worked in Jarrow and Hebburn were transferred to Swan Hunter. What has happened now? Swan Hunter is going to shed 1,400 jobs. During the Falklands dispute, workers in the shipyards on the River Tyne toiled around the clock to get the task force finished. But as soon as the Falklands dispute was finished, they were finished too.

It is a repeat of what happened in 1936 after the Jarrow march. My father worked in Palmers yard at Jarrow. He was paid off, sacked in 1934 when the yard was closed and did not get another job until the second world war, when he was taken back into the shipyard. Then men were fined if they did not work overtime. That is the sort of situation that the workers on the Tyne feel prevails today.

If the Government do not assist the shipyards, there will be no shipbuilding industry in this country. I hope that the Minister will take note of the representations being made by my hon. Friends the Members for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), who are to meet him next week. I hope that the Government will place that order for the helicopter landing ship as early as possible and perhaps save some of those shipyard workers' jobs.

It is rather a coincidence—the Minister kindly reminded me of this before the debate—that six years ago I had an Adjournment debate on this very night, when it was the 50th anniversary of the Jarrow march. I referred then to the shipyard workers and suggested that orders for the type 23 and the second AOR should be placed at Swan's as early as possible.

For the first time in living memory, no ships are being built on the south side of the River Tyne. We are the only maritime nation in the world that has no maritime policy, and the way things are going, we will be the only island nation in the world that has no shipbuilding industry.

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

I represent an adjoining constituency which is very similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon). We now have no shipbuilding industry whatever in Sunderland, North. The remaining colliery, which my hon. Friend referred to earlier, is now the largest employer in the constituency, and it is under threat. The situation in the north-east, as I am sure the whole House is aware, is the worst in mainland Britain. If Wearmouth colliery closes, the largest employer in Sunderland, North will be the police station. That is the way things are.

I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that what we are looking for is not various development agencies or fine words from Ministers. We would like the President of the Board of Trade to tell us in the north-east that he will bring forward policies which will take us back to the prosperity that we had in 1979, when the present Government inherited a good area in the north-east, which they have completely destroyed.

I find it appalling that all we keep being told is that we are going to be given small amounts of money through various development agencies which are doing nothing whatever to improve the situation in the north-east in the context of a failed national policy.

Mr. Dixon

I fully endorse the comments of my hon. Friend. Indeed, I worked at Pickersgills, Bartons and Thompsons, and the other yards that are no longer there. There is no shipbuilding at all in the Sunderland area. Not only are no ships being built on the south bank of the River Tyne, but if Westoe, Wearmouth, Easington and Vane Tempest collieries were to be closed, for the first time in history there will be no coal mined in county Durham. That is the situation today.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

My hon. Friend will recall that people from Jarrow and throughout the Durham coalfield travelled south to Mansfield and the area that I represent. As a result of the Government's latest announcement, thousands of them face redundancy and losing their homes once again. Will my hon. Friend address that point and the fact that those people will have to move again to find work, when there are more than 3 million unemployed people in Britain?

Mr. Dixon

I will address that point if there are no more interventions. I agree with my hon. Friend. The experience in Ellen Wilkinson's famous book, "The town that was murdered" can be repeated throughout the country.

Almost 5,000 men and women are out of work in Jarrow at the moment. That is 22 per cent., but percentages do not count. Someone who is out of work is 100 per cent. unemployed. Percentages make no difference to people who are on the dole. South Tyneside district comprises my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). More than 10,200 men and women are out of work in that area, and to that we can add another 3,750 who have been removed from the official unemployment count by the Government's massaging of the unemployment figures. The unemployment figure in south Tyneside is more than 25 per cent.

Westoe colliery, which is threatened with closure in South Shields, is the fourth largest employer on south Tyneside. If it closes, 1,200 more men will be thrown on to the unemployment register. If we add that figure to jobs in related industries, we are talking about more than 2,000 more people being made unemployed. Of those who are out of work, almost one third have been out of work for more than 12 months. That is the size of the problem in our area.

On Saturday 24 October, I attended a conference called "Working together against unemployment in Jarrow", organised by Roy Merrin and the Churches of Jarrow. Each of the major denominations in the town was well represented, along with Dr. David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham, the Rev. John Nicholson, the Baptist Union's area superintendent, and Bishop Ambrose Griffiths of the Hexham and Newcastle diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

During that conference, four unemployed people gave personal testimony to show how unemployment was affecting them. They all spoke of the growing sense of isolation, loss of self-confidence and inability to make choices in many aspects of their daily lives. Two of them told of how they had become so depressed at being without paid employment that they required hospital treatment. Two also spoke of their feelings of guilt and frustration at having to sponge off members of their family for basic necessities of life.

Another contribution was made by a woman whose shipyard worker husband experienced regular bouts of unemployment. Even in the shipyards that are working at the moment, men are often made redundant for periods. She told how the uncertainty of her situation had created budgetary problems which caused tensions in the family.

The contributions of those five people had a moving effect on the conference. I only wish that a Minister had been present to hear them speak. Those people know what it is like to be out of work. If a Minister had been present, we might not hear nonsensical statements about unemployment being a price worth paying. Similarly, we would not hear Lord Tebbit talking about people getting on their bikes. The Government should be aware that the young and active get on their bikes to look for work. They do not take with them the parks, libraries, community centres and old people's homes. They are left behind, and there is an imbalance in the population.

Half the population of the borough of South Tyneside is wholly or mainly dependent on welfare benefits. Forty-one thousand poll tax payers qualify for rebates. There is serious disability in 15,000 households where attendance allowances or serious disability allowances are received. There are thousands on the disabled registers at jobcentres. There are 5,000 people on the long-term sick register. There are 11,000 widows, and 22,000 people are claiming income benefit. Approximately 2,000 families receive family income supplement. One third of the children on the school rolls receive free meals. Those are the people the Government hit when they talk about public expenditure cuts. Those people have nothing at the moment, and they must rely on state benefits. It is about time the Government realised that.

I do not want to be too critical. The Minister has drawn the short straw in having to reply to a debate on unemployment. I honestly believe that the best long-term policy would have been for a few more Conservative Members to vote with us on the confidence motion last night, followed by a general election in a month, and a Government who will deal with unemployment. However, that did not happen. Many Conservative Members chickened out and we are left with the present Government. The Liberal Democrat Benches are as full tonight as they usually are for such debates.

I shall give the Minister some short-term measures to provide immediate help for my constituents. I have discussed this matter with the leader of South Tyneside council, Councillor Albert Elliott, and the deputy leader, Councillor Stephen Hepburn. In South Shields, there is a business enterprise zone, and it has to be replaced. Tedco presently operates a 140-unit business enterprise centre in South Shields. More than 50 firms currently occupy 122 units on the site and employ about 200 people. The freehold of the premises was sold by Plessey to Interconnection Systems Ltd. in 1991. ISL is the most successful manufacturer of printed circuit boards in the United Kingdom. That shows how shipyard workers can be retrained for that industry.

To meet ISL's expansion plans, it requires the rest of the site which at present is occupied by Tedco. To facilitate that extension and the possible creation of 300 jobs, Tedco has applied for Department of Trade and Industry assistance to build a new business enterprise centre on a 4.5 acre site at the Viking industrial park in Jarrow. The new 5,000 sq ft centre will include 111 managed workshop units and space for Tedco's support and training activities, and will create another 150 jobs on top of the 200 that would be transferred from South Shields.

The Government could give resources to a business development programme which would identify job opportunities and retention within the existing business community. The Government could introduce enterprise status for the Boldon business park, which is where Boldon colliery used to be, a highly successful park which is capable of development, and also for the Monk ton site of the now derelict cokeworks which requires reclamation. That could be made into an enterprise zone to attract jobs and workshops. The Government could give resources to the Viking industrial park on the site of the old Jarrow steelworks along the riverside.

The Government could give assistance to the community-based training enterprise network, which would deal with long-term unemployment. That would follow the example of the Low Simonside initiative, but it would be a mobile service. It would be aimed at providing advice and assistance for the long-term unemployed such as mature adults who have not worked since the shipyards and steelworks closed during the early 1980s. It would assist women who gave up employment after marriage and might wish to rejoin the work force. It would provide assistance to youngsters who have never experienced a working environment. Those groups require assistance.

The final and simplest way in which the Government can assist in the short term relates to housing. Hundreds of construction workers in south Tyneside do not have jobs. The council has 9,741 applicants on the housing waiting list and 4,600 on the housing transfer list. It has £22 million in the bank from the sale of council houses. House building is the most labour-intensive industry. We have the need—thousands of people waiting for houses and thousands of people wanting to be transferred to other houses, £22 million in the bank, and hundreds of people unemployed. The simple solution is to allow the council to spend the money, let construction workers go back to work, and let people go into the houses that they require. It does not take a mathematical genius to work that out. There are people in the Cabinet who can split an atom but cannot boil a kettle.

When I was chairman of South Tyneside housing committee, we were building 800 houses a year. This year, the council is building none. Council house building has been brought to a halt. The only houses that are being built are a couple of bungalows, and they are being built by apprentices. When I was chairman of the housing committee in 1979, the housing investment programme allocation was £30 million in 1992 values. This year it is £5 million, which is one sixth of what was allocated for building and modernising council houses in 1979.

I shall conclude now, because I want to give the Minister the opportunity to answer the points that I and my hon. Friends made. My hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), for Easington (Mr. Cummings), for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) have been present for the debate, and it is good to see them here. I hope that the Minister will be as constructive as I have been in the points that I have made in this Adjournment debate.

10.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on securing this debate. He rightly pointed out that six years ago to the very night, 5 November 1986, he opened an Adjournment debate on the same subject and made the same points that he made tonight. I should like to remind him of a few points that he made in that debate. He looked forward to the possibility of a general election. Things do not change too much. On that occasion he said: The first opportunity to go to the polls after the Jarrow crusade of 1936 was in 1945, when a Labour Government were swept in with an overwhelming majority. It is to be hoped that after the 1986 march, when we go to the polls next year or the year after, the people will do the same as in 1945." —[Official Report, 5 November 1986; Vol. 103, c. 1061.] We have had two general elections since then. Tonight the hon. Gentleman looked forward to another general election. If there is another general election in the next few years the result will be the same as that of the previous two general elections. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will yet again receive the overwhelming endorsement of the British people.

Mr. Dixon

Not in Jarrow.

Mr McLoughlin

Perhaps not in Jarrow. I accept that that might be hoping for a little too much, but I assure the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends that we would put up a spirited fight.

I may not have time to respond to all the points that hon. Members made. The hon. Member for Jarrow obviously commanded the support of his colleagues in his speech. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman in due course about any points that I do not have a chance to cover tonight. As he rightly pointed out, there will be a meeting next week between my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and representatives from the local community. Some of the points raised tonight will be addressed at that meeting.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the town of Jarrow has been associated with high levels of unemployment. The Government accept that unemployment in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and in the south Tyneside travel-to-work area is higher than any of us would wish. I am especially conscious that for too many years south Tyneside has been in the unenviable position of having the highest or near-highest unemployment rate in Great Britain.

However, without wishing to minimise the problem, I note that, despite the increases in unemployment that have occurred generally since the early 1990s, there are 3,000 fewer unemployed people in Jarrow constituency than there were six years ago to the night, when the hon. Gentleman last raised the issue on the Adjournment. It is also noteworthy that the northern region as a whole has shown remarkable resilience in the current recession, with unemployment having risen by about 33 per cent. compared with 78 per cent. in the United Kingdom nationally.

Rises in unemployment are of course regrettable, but long-term job security depends on success in controlling inflation. Had interest rates not risen when they did, and had the Government allowed inflation to rip, that would have been far more damaging to jobs in the long run. Our success in controlling inflation and interest rates—both now at their lowest since 1988—is a prelude to a resumption of soundly based, non-inflationary growth and a revival of employment prospects.

We can all fully understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the possible closure of Westoe pit and other collieries. I am sure that, like the other 20 pits subject to the full Government review, its future will be examined meticulously against the background of energy policy generally.

The hon. Member has referred to an action plan in response to the closure of Westoe colliery, which I understand has been drawn up by the South Tyneside Regeneration Group. I congratulate the group on reacting so quickly to the possible closures, which I stress again are subject to the review announced by the Government.

The plan contains some interesting proposals, including, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, some relating to training and involving Tyneside training and enterprise council, and I understand that Tyneside TEC is closely associated with the regeneration group. As the hon. Member may be aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has asked all the TECs covering areas that might experience pit closures, including Tyneside TEC, to draw up contingency plans. Those plans are to be based on a package of special measures and extra resources, which I shall outline later.

I am sure that the training proposals in the regeneration group's plan will be taken on board by the TEC in its contingency plan for the area, and will in due course be considered sympathetically by my Department, when all the contingency plans in other areas involved are considered.

The regeneration group's plan also contains some proposals outside the responsibility of my Department, including a possible business centre, an enterprise zone, and recommendations for clearing derelict land. All those seem to be very practical suggestions, and I know that such initiatives have played a valuable part in regenerating other areas of industrial decline. I am sure that the Departments of Trade and Industry and of the Environment will give the regeneration group's proposals careful consideration in the context of the measures announced by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

It would not be proper for me to speculate on the outcome of the energies review. However, in case at the end of the day Westoe colliery is scheduled for closure, the hon. Member will be interested to hear about the contingency measures that have been put in place by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

In the case of closure, all unemployed people in targeted areas, to be defined by the TECs, will be eligible for a full assessment of the options open to them and of the help they need; those assessments will be of up to five days per individual. Every unemployed person in the targeted areas will also be given immediate priority access to a range of help, including employment training; support in setting up their own business; temporary work; participation in voluntary activities; job clubs; travel-to-interview grants and, where appropriate, removal costs. For young people in the affected areas there will be a guarantee of the continuation of apprenticeships and of youth training programmes.

My right hon. Friend recently met the chairmen of the TECs covering the coal closure areas and, as I mentioned earlier, has asked them to prepare contingency plans for each of their areas, incorporating the employment and training measures I have just outlined. The TECs concerned, including Tyneside TEC, are drawing up such plans, in collaboration with British Coal Enterprise, the Employment Service, the local authorities and other local agencies and voluntary groups. Up to £75 million in this financial year and the next will be made available to the TECs for the implementation of these plans, should they be needed.

I thought it proper to outline in some detail the steps taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, but I must also mention, if only briefly, the important measures to help regenerate the coal closure areas announced by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. Those include enhanced assisted-area status for some areas, possible enterprise zones, and provision of premises and infrastructure. Some of those measures were outlined and requested by the hon. Gentleman. There is obviously a determination to consider those proposals.

I recognise that any closure would not have an impact simply on those losing their jobs, or even just on their families, but would affect the whole community. That is why both my right hon. Friends have laid great stress on the importance of all the agencies in the local areas concerned being actively involved and working together.

Despite the high level of unemployment in the area, and the possibility of the closure of Westoe, it would be wrong to assume that it is all doom and gloom in the south Tyneside area—far from it. As I am sure the hon. Member is well aware, there are many successful companies in the area, making a wide variety of products.

Inward investment has also been attracted from the far east. A substantial amount has ended up in the south Tyneside area.

Recent good news includes the winning of contracts by NEI for the construction of a network of 13 electricity substations in Malaysia, and for the complete design-and-build responsibility for a major sub-station in Cardiff. Over the past year this company has won orders in excess of £65 million.

Last month Press Offshore purchased the Mercantile docks in the hon. Member's constituency. The company intends to use the site to build units for the offshore industry and 100 local jobs should be created at about the turn of the year.

I should also like to highlight the work of the Tyne and Wear development corporation in bringing new investment to the area; and since its designation in 1987 it has invested some £31 million in south Tyneside. Two of the corporation's major projects are the Viking industrial park in Jarrow, which has long-term potential for 1,500 jobs.

The matters that I have outlined show movement in the right direction. I will not have time to cover the other points.

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.