HC Deb 13 June 1995 vol 261 cc580-1
2. Mr. John Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment when he last met other EU Ministers to discuss unemployment statistics. [26469]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Phillip Oppenheim)

Employment matters feature regularly in discussions with ministerial counterparts. I am pleased to say that the rate of unemployment in the UK is well below the Community average, and particularly below the rates in countries with a minimum wage.

Mr. Evans

In view of that interesting answer, will the Minister acknowledge that no other EU country measures its unemployment in the same way as Great Britain? Does he agree that until such time as we have statistical uniformity throughout the EU, anyone who seeks to compare Britain's unemployment with that of any other EU country is either ill-informed or deceitful?

Mr. Oppenheim

As I know that the hon. Gentleman is not a suspicious man by nature, I shall help him out on this one. All major industrial countries, including Britain, publish two sets of unemployment figures: one based on the benefit system, which, in Britain, is the claimant count; and one using an international standard, which in Britain is called the labour force survey—which the TUC has called fully reliable, and which even Labour supports. This latter international standard figure is used in international comparisons of unemployment rates.

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong to claim that we are not comparing like with like, and I hope that he will withdraw that allegation.

Mrs. Angela Knight

Will my hon. Friend confirm, whatever method is used to calculate unemployment statistics, that it is overwhelmingly obvious that Britain has more people in work than almost any other European country—and, what is more, has lower youth unemployment as well? Does he therefore find it surprising, as I do, that the Labour party has voted against the policies that have reduced unemployment while adopting proposals that have been manifestly shown to increase it?

Mr. Oppenheim

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Britain has one of the highest proportions in Europe of the working age population in work. But Labour's policies, so far as it has any on this issue, are totally contradictory. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) said this morning that she wants both full employment and a minimum wage, yet the Labour leader and deputy leader both admit that a minimum wage would cost jobs. No wonder the Opposition arc not telling us at what level they would set the minimum wage. They are hoping that the low paid will not find out the true cost in terms of lost jobs until after the election.

Mr. Barron

The Minister cannot deny that most of the 30 changes in the monthly claimant count over the past 10 years have been designed to reduce that count—clearly, too, the jobseeker's allowance is designed to do the same again in due course. When he discusses employment policies with other European Ministers, will the hon. Gentleman explain to them why the Government, by driving wages down in this country, are creating poverty pay? Millions of people are still unemployed here as a result. While Britain becomes increasingly a low-wage, low-skill, low-tech economy, other countries have invested in training and infrastructure, as well as putting a floor under wages. Is not that why they will be far better off than us?

Mr. Oppenheim

There are so many fallacies in that statement that it is difficult to know where to begin. Let me, first, gently remind the hon. Gentleman that changes to the unemployment count did not begin in 1979. One of the largest ever changes was made in 1976, when the Labour Government took 100,000 people off at a stroke.

If the hon. Gentleman does not like the claimant count, let him stick with the labour force survey, which shows unemployment totals almost exactly the same as the claimant count. His claim that we believe in poverty pay is belied by the facts. We all want people to be better paid—

Mr. Barron

It is your policy.

Mr. Oppenheim

If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish—we all want people to be better paid, especially the low paid, but it is fundamentally dishonest of Labour to pretend that there is some magic wand: a no-cost way of raising people's pay without costing jobs. In Britain, pay stagnated in the late 1970s. Because our economy is so much more successful now, pay at all levels has increased, especially for the low paid. The hon. Gentleman is wrong on all counts.