HC Deb 28 November 1996 vol 286 cc456-8
11. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the number of people currently in work. [4866]

Mr. Oppenheim

Total employment has risen by more than 200,000 people during the past year, more than ¾million since the end of 1992, and more than 1.3 million since the end of 1979. We now have a higher proportion of our working age population in work, and a lower unemployment rate, than any other major EU country.

Mr. Greenway

Is it not a matter for congratulation that unemployment is continuing to fall so dramatically? Is that not due, at least in part, to falling taxation levels? When we speak of falling taxation levels, should not we reflect on the reduction of the top tax rate, in 1979, of 83 or even 98 per cent. and the standard rate of 33 per cent.? Those were the taxation levels under the Labour party, and they would be again if Labour ever had the chance. It is a high taxation party—and always will be.

Mr. Oppenheim

My hon. Friend is right. It is worth reminding Labour Members that, when they were in power, borrowing was twice the level it has been under this Government, and that, since we came to power, we have moved from the bottom to the top of the league in manufacturing productivity growth. That is why we have moved from almost the bottom of the European employment league to almost the top. That is good for Britain, good for exports and good for the prosperity of British people.

Mr. Foulkes

Is the Minister aware that—like the rest of us—the local Labour party in New Cumnock did not believe the unemployment figures? Therefore, some of its members knocked on every door in the town of New Cumnock, and got the real figures. More than twice as many people are unemployed as appear on the register. On the register are only those who receive benefits, and they are far fewer than the real number. The figures are bogus, and the Minister knows it.

Mr. Oppenheim

I suspected that an Opposition Member would fall into that trap, so I was very careful not to quote the claimant count but labour force survey figures. The Trades Union Congress has called those figures "wholly reliable", and the Labour party stated that it would like to base unemployment on them. They are International Labour Organisation figures, and they are totally comparable with figures quoted overseas. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the claimant count.

Mr. Budgen

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the most important factors that decide the employment level at any one time are completely outside the control of any Government? Will he also confirm that the recent rise in sterling, which had an effect on manufacturing industry, was outside the control of the Government, and unexpected by them? Is not that a very good indication of how the pound can never be constrained, either within an exchange rate mechanism or a single currency?

Mr. Oppenheim

I do not agree completely with my hon. Friend. Jobs arid the levels of manufacturing, productivity and exports can be affected by Government supply-side policies, by fiscal policies and by other policies. That is why Conservative Members should take some credit for the success of the British economy in the past 17 years. We have closed no less than three quarters of the competitiveness gap with Germany which had opened up in previous decades.

Mr. Beggs

May I congratulate the Minister or his statement and on the policies that the Government have been pursuing, which have achieved such a drop in unemployment? May I also pay tribute to the Industrial Development Board and to Baroness Denton for their efforts and success in attracting new investment to Northern Ireland? Does the Minister agree that small companies across the United Kingdom can contribute to a further fall in unemployment by concentrating more on marketing and exporting the products that they manufacture? Will he invite the Secretary of State for Social Security to consider further the plight of those on jobseeker's allowance who may have difficulty finding employment, and who are at personal loss because they do not receive travel allowance?

Mr. Oppenheim

I agree with virtually everything that the hon. Gentleman said. One advantage of the jobseeker's allowance is that it helps to identify people who have difficulty getting employment because of illiteracy and other factors. I endorse what he said about the IDB, but however much help the IDB gave to attract inward investment—it has been very successful—it would be wasted were it not for the fact that the productivity of the British work force has increased dramatically, and faster than that of our major competitors in recent years. That is a major reason why so many companies that could go anywhere in the world are attracted to Northern Ireland and Britain.