HC Deb 11 December 1996 vol 287 cc275-7
14. Mr. Gapes

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what account she takes of the relationship between the levels of (a) unemployment and (b) employment in formulating her Department's policy decisions. [7064]

Mr. Forth

The Department's latest assessment shows that our policies are working; employment is rising and unemployment is falling.

Mr. Gapes

If unemployment is falling in the way in which the Minister claims, why are there 800,000 fewer people in employment than when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) became Prime Minister? Is not the truth that hundreds of thousands of workers are disappearing from the job statistics and that, despite the Government's claims, many people face greater job insecurity as a result of the Government's policies?

Mr. Forth

No. For political purposes, those such as the hon. Gentleman would like people to think that they face greater job insecurity. It is irresponsible of Labour Members to continue trying to plant that idea in people's minds. There is nothing to support that in the relevant statistics on the average length of job tenure or any other issue. The hon. Gentleman seems to imply that the labour force survey figures, endorsed by the International Labour Organisation, no less, are wrong. He cannot mean that, because I am sure that Labour Members all think that ILO-endorsed figures must be the bee's knees. Since they show that unemployment has been falling and employment is rising, I hope that the hon. Gentleman goes off and does more homework.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Irrespective of the relationship between unemployment and employment, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be damaging to unemployment and to employment prospects if this country were to adopt the social chapter or the minimum wage?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House—I do not think we have had the reminder today—that, were this country ever to contemplate signing up to the social chapter or a statutory minimum wage, we would be likely to suffer what our continental partners who signed up to these measures have suffered. They have high and rising unemployment, as opposed to our recent experience which, I am happy to say, is of lower unemployment than most of our direct competitors and partners, and falling unemployment. Any rational man must surely conclude that there is an obvious causal connection between the social chapter and a minimum wage on the one hand and high and rising unemployment on the other.

Mr. Blunkett

I was going to wish Ministers a happy Christmas, but I suspect that the Minister of State would merely shout, "Humbug," in his usual fashion. Why did unemployment triple under this Government without a minimum wage and without the social chapter? On job tenure, why did 52 per cent. of all those who gained a job in the past year return to the unemployment register within a year? Why has the proportion of inactive males increased by 27.3 per cent. in the past five years? Why has there been a drop in the number of males with full-time jobs in the past 12 months? Is this not a Goebbels approach to statistical analysis that tries to pretend that the more inactive people there are in the labour force, and the fewer full-time jobs there are, the more beneficial it is to the nation as a whole? Is that not the real humbug of Christmas in 1996?

Mr. Forth

That proves that the hon. Gentleman's researchers have had to become more ingenious in finding some sort of figure to support his gloomy view of what is going on in this country today. The reason why unemployment rose throughout the advanced and developed countries in the 1980s was partly intensive global competition and—in this country—partly the fact that we inherited a position of grotesque structural overmanning in our industries that had to be dealt with. The Government elected in 1979 dealt with those problems, and that has put us in a competitive position that is the envy of our continental partners and competitors. That is the reality, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider it over his, I hope, very happy Christmas.

Sir Donald Thompson

How is it that the Opposition believe the figures when they get worse, but disbelieve them when they get better? Do their prejudices extend to our service industries, about which they are constantly sniping? [Interruption.] Snipe, snipe, snipe. That sector is where new jobs will come from.

Mr. Forth

Yes, I agree, and it is perhaps time that we did some snipe-shooting. My hon. Friend made an important point. The service sector is a vital part of our economy—one that is growing successfully in leisure, tourism and financial services—and it improves our international competitiveness by leaps and bounds. It is putting us in a strong position to export and to attract inward investment. All these factors put together give rise to our optimism and positivism, and lead me to wonder where Opposition Members get their negativism and the gloom and doom that they peddle every time we have Education and Employment questions.

Mr. Beggs

Will the Minister seek co-operation from other Departments and officials throughout the United Kingdom in dealing with planning applications so that the Government's policy of keeping jobs in rural areas can be achieved? Will he request that sympathetic consideration be given to those who want to start new play groups in rural areas?

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. I can assure him that we work constantly with our colleagues in the Department of the Environment and in the territorial offices to ensure that all our policies help the rural areas in every possible way and do not hinder them. It is easyrightly—to become absorbed by the problems of inner cities and we must never forget that the problems of dispersed and remote rural areas are just as serious and deserve every bit of policy attention. We will continue to give that attention.