HC Deb 21 February 1996 vol 272 cc354-6
7. Mr. Llew Smith

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment if she will make a statement on her priorities in respect of her employment policies. [14682]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

My priorities are to continue with the policies which have reduced unemployment by three quarters of a million since December 1992 to one of the lowest rates of any major European country.

Mr. Smith

Would the Secretary of State care to comment on statistics that I have received from the Library which show that, since the Government came to power in May 1979, 500 million working days have been lost in Wales through unemployment? The figure for the United Kingdom is 9,400 million days. Will the Minister comment on the effect that that has had on the economy and on those individuals and families whose lives have been destroyed by unemployment?

Mrs. Shephard

Certainly. It is clear that unemployment is very distressing for individuals and families. That is why I hoped that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members on both sides of the House would be as enthusiastic as the Government about our record in pushing down and beating unemployment, which is better than that of many of our major European partners.

Sir Ralph Howell

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the success of the workstart scheme, which she initiated as Secretary of State for Employment? Why have the Government never claimed the credit for the money saved under that scheme, as I believe that we have saved at least £40 per week for every person who participated in the workstart pilot scheme?

Mrs. Shephard

As usual, my hon. Friend makes a valuable contribution. Workstart was a very useful pilot scheme. It worked well, and the fact that it also saved money should be built into our appraisal of it. I hope that my hon. Friend will be just as enthusiastic about the project work pilots due to begin in Medway and the Hull area after Easter.

Ms Eagle

Will the Secretary of State comment on the findings of the Select Committee report on training and enterprise councils which was published today? It points to evidence that some providers are spending 40p on administration out of every £1 meant to be used for training because the systems are so complex and bureaucratic. How do the Government intend to simplify those systems so as to ensure that the money allocated by Parliament for training is used for that purpose?

Mrs. Shephard

I was under the impression that, in answer to Question 1, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), had explained in some detail what the Government are planning to do. We are concerned to reduce bureaucracy in TECs and are working with them in order to do so. I have not yet had a chance to study the Select Committee report on TECs because it has only just been published, but I welcome its strong support for the concept of TECs.

Mr. Yeo

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that unemployment is now falling steadily in Britain, whereas it is rising in much of Europe, notably in Germany? Will she also confirm that one of the main reasons for those contrasting performances is that we have an opt-out of the highly burdensome social chapter whereas other countries do not? Does she think that there is any risk of Britain ever adopting those burdensome provisions?

Mrs. Shephard

Certainly not while the Conservative party is in control of the Government. We are absolutely convinced that the combination of the pursuit of sound economic policies, low inflation and not adopting the national minimum wage or the social chapter has resulted in unemployment in Britain now being lower than in many European countries.

Mr. Meacher

How can the Secretary of State boast about her employment policies when Britain now ranks 20th out of 24 OECD countries in terms of job creation since 1979, when civilian employment has fallen since 1979, whereas in Germany, the Netherlands and Australia it has risen by more than 30 per cent., and when unemployment here is still twice as high as it was in 1979 and the only jobs being created are overwhelmingly insecure, short term and part time? When will the Secretary of State admit that the fall in unemployment in the past three years has nothing whatsoever to do with the Government's deregulated labour market and everything to do with the fact that the Government were forced, kicking and screaming, out of the exchange rate mechanism in 1992?

Mrs. Shephard

Opposition Members like to make much of what they call an insecure jobs market dominated by temporary and part-time work. Such a description of our jobs market is nonsense. Socialist Spain, which embraces the social chapter and the national minimum wage—policies that the hon. Gentleman would be keen to adopt—has nearly six times as many people in temporary work as Britain. Opposition Members must learn to strike a balance between employees' rights and the risk of deterring job creation. The hon. Gentleman's recent press release came second as silliest of the year. It not only sought to compare like with unlike, but contained two spelling mistakes and a curious new definition of the OECD. Perhaps that is to be expected from Opposition Front Benchers.