HC Deb 07 November 1995 vol 265 cc719-22
6. Mrs. Bridget Prentice

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many people who are currently unemployed have been unemployed since April 1992. [40044]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

The latest available figures show that the number of people unemployed for three years and over is falling. It stands at 337,622.

Mr. David Shaw

This one is GMB sponsored.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have heard enough of the hon. Gentleman. I shall deal with him on the next occasion. I want no parrot-fashion talk here. He will resume his seat; otherwise, I shall use the Standing Order against him.

Mrs. Prentice

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Does the Secretary of State feel no shame that more than 330,000 people have been and remain unemployed during the lifetime of this Government? Is she aware that another 8.5 million people have become unemployed twice in that time? Is not it time that the Secretary of State began to do something about long-term unemployment and insecurity at work, instead of continuing with the self-congratulatory tone that is a shameful characteristic of Conservative government?

Mrs. Shephard

I am rather surprised that the hon. Lady does not express her delight about the fact that unemployment in her constituency has come down by 8 per cent. in the past year—what a pity. Clearly, I accept that unemployment, and especially long-term unemployment, is an extremely demoralising experience. Thankfully, the unemployed are not a static mass. Most people leave unemployment very quickly—half of them do so within three months, two thirds within six months and 80 per cent. within a year. However, it is clearly important to continue to push the trend downwards. We are committed to reducing long-term unemployment. We have a wide range of programmes to help the long-term unemployed and many have successful outcomes.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the participation rate in the United Kingdom is very much higher than in almost any other European country? Will she also confirm that unemployment is very much lower in this country than in Spain, which follows the policies proposed the Opposition?

Mrs. Shephard

Yes, I can confirm that in the United Kingdom the proportion of people of working age in employment is, at 68 per cent., very much higher than the EC average of 60 per cent. That is partly because of the pursuit by some of our European partners of mistaken policies embraced by the Labour party, such as a national minimum wage, which causes unemployment. Any fool knows that, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) once memorably said.

Mr. Meacher

Was it not the Prime Minister who, in a speech on 7 April 1992 entitled "Ten Tory Truths for a Glorious Future", urged people to vote Conservative on Thursday and the recovery will continue on Friday? How does the right hon. Lady explain that, despite all the programmes to which she has just referred, more than a third of a million people have been continuously unemployed every day since the election? That is an increase of 128,000 since April 1992. Is not that yet another Tory broken promise? Far from producing a recovery, the Prime Minister has brought about the most massive increase in job insecurity since the war.

Mrs. Shephard

I welcome the hon. Member to the Dispatch Box. I am not quite sure in what role he appears—it does not seem evident to his hon. Friends—but his smiling demeanour is always a pleasure. I am surprised that, on his first appearance in his new role, he did not join me in welcoming the news that unemployment has fallen for 24 consecutive months and is now at its lowest point for four and a half years. I am sure that he will put that right next time.

7. Mr. Bellingham

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what comparisons she has made between the United Kingdom's record on reducing unemployment and that of other major EU countries. [40135]

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

The United Kingdom is the only major European Union country in which unemployment is lower than it was three years ago.

Mr. Bellingham

Will my hon. Friend confirm that in the country as a whole, and, indeed, in my constituency, unemployment has fallen dramatically over the past two years? Does not that compare favourably with France and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) pointed out, Spain, where unemployment runs at 22 per cent., but where youth unemployment, largely because of the minimum wage, stands at almost 40 per cent? When unemployment was going up, the Labour party complained and whined, but will my hon. Friend explain why, now that it is coming down, the Labour party is still complaining, whining, whingeing, and running Britain down?

Mr. Forth

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. He is at least more gracious than Labour Members to welcome the fall in unemployment in his constituency, which, as he points out, has been substantial not only over the past year but over the past several years. That is in contrast to Labour Members who—again my hon. Friend is right—persistently ignore the fall in unemployment, because, I suspect, they are embarrassed by it politically. The real truth is that our record of performance on unemployment—long-term unemployment, youth unemployment or unemployment among men or women—is better than that in most other European Union countries. That speaks volumes for our labour market policies and the strength of our economy.

Mr. Grocott

Instead of comparing unemployment rates in Britain and other countries of Europe, would not it be much more illuminating to compare unemployment rates under this Tory Government with those under Labour Governments of the 1960s and 1970s? Does the Minister recall, as I do, the job opportunities for school leavers in the 1960s and 1970s and the abundance of apprenticeships? In order to be precise about the extent of Tory failure, will he answer the following question? How many more years would it be necessary for present policies to continue for unemployment to fall to its level under Labour?

Mr. Forth

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question because in 1979—I pick the date more or less at random—UK unemployment was just below the average in the then European Community. Unemployment in this country today is substantially lower than the European Union average. I accept that the figure is higher now for the rest of Europe and for this country than it was in 1979. That says a lot about the difficulties of the global trading economy, but this country has sustained its record of keeping our unemployment rate below the European rate and has performed better on unemployment than our European partners.

Mr. Tredinnick

Will my hon. Friend confirm that unemployment in Leicestershire has been falling in the past two years? Is it not a fact that, not only in Spain but in Belgium, Italy, Germany and Portugal, unemployment is increasing? What impact would a minimum wage have in this country?

Mr. Forth

I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents not only appreciate the fact that unemployment is falling but understand that our social chapter opt-out has given us protection against the high-cost regime which prevails in so much of the continental mainland and which, sadly, makes so many of our competitors and partners less competitive than we are. That is understood much more by my hon. Friend's constituents than it ever seems to be by the Opposition.

Mr. Janner

The Government do recognise that the current unemployment figures are open to question, to put it mildly, and have asked someone called David Steel to report to them by the end of January on the way in which unemployment figures are produced and on whether the method can be improved. As the Government have seen fit to attempt to abolish the Select Committee on Employment at the end of February or on 1 March, may we at least have a guarantee that the report will be out and available to the House, as promised, by the end of January?

Mr. Forth

I am surprised, given the hon. and learned Gentleman's position on the Select Committee on Employment, that he is attempting to peddle the sad old story about the inaccuracy of the unemployment figures. He should know as well as I do—he obviously does not—that all the different measures of unemployment, including those internationally accepted by the International Labour Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, well demonstrate that the level of unemployment is what it is, that it is on a downward trend and that it compares favourably with the level in any of the countries that are our partners and competitors. Until the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts that fact, we shall not get much further.

Mr. Day

Will my hon. Friend take note that, whenever the unemployment figures come down, the Labour party questions the method by which they are calculated? Has he noticed that, when unemployment rises, Labour Members say that the figures are accurate? They cannot have it both ways. Can they not accept that this Government's policies are working?

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; what he describes appears to be the case. Opposition Members must sort out in their own minds what they accept in terms of a measurement of unemployment—the internationally accepted figures to which I referred a moment ago or something else. They would be much better advised to welcome the success we have enjoyed in recent years in bringing unemployment down, although, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we are by no means satisfied by the level. We have many innovative programmes in place to try to help people, especially those who suffer from long-term unemployment. These are working and will continue to work.