HC Deb 10 June 1999 vol 332 cc768-71
4. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)

What steps he is taking to help the longer-term unemployed. [85396]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

With the excellent policies of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Employment Service and the new deal are already delivering to young and older unemployed people. We now have the best record in terms of the number and percentage of people in employment in our history. We have the lowest youth unemployment for 25 years. There has been a 40 per cent. drop in long-term young unemployment. We have seen 266,000 young people go into the gateway, with 95,000 getting jobs, of which 70,000 have been sustained. The £3.6 billion that we are putting in is the wisest and most effective investment ever on unemployment.

Mr. Stewart

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he share my concern about ageism in the workplace? I recently met a 50-year-old insurance manager who had been unemployed for two years and felt that he would never work again because of such ageism. Will the Government's new code of practice outlaw age discrimination in the workplace?

Mr. Blunkett

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities will launch the code in a few days. He will spell out our measures for working with industry and commerce to build on some of the excellent examples of which my hon. Friend will know in Scotland. There, the older workers unemployed subsidy for start-up pension funds, the older is bolder programme of workshops to raise employers' awareness of older workers and the 50-plus initiative—pilots for which will be rolled out in the autumn as in the rest of the United Kingdom—will all take head on the problem of ensuring that older people are not neglected. As some of us get older, we feel this more strongly day by day.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The right hon. Gentleman's response to the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) notwithstanding, will he abandon his self-satisfaction and acknowledge that the Government are guilty of the most monstrous age discrimination imaginable? They are spending just short of £2.6 billion to assist the 118,000 young people who qualify under the new deal, but less than £500 million on the 194,500 older unemployed people. When will he put his own house in order and explain exactly what he has against older people who suffer the misfortune of unemployment?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman has not counted all the existing and newly developed measures outside the new deal that the Employment Service is adequately and effectively implementing for older workers. He ignores the fact that, under the new deal 25-plus, 10,600 older men and women have entered work. The 28 major programmes that have been put in place on the British mainland are already showing just how effective they can be. The performance and innovation unit has been commissioned to identify ways of increasing the effectiveness of our policies and opportunities for older people. I would welcome all parties in the House making a positive contribution to improving the well-being and opportunities of older workers rather than griping about the success of the Government.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

May I say to my right hon. Friend that you are only as old as you feel? He seems to be carrying the burdens of office very well.

In 1980, my constituency suffered the largest post-war redundancy in western Europe when 8,000 steelworkers, together with many thousands of others in associated work lost their jobs overnight. Some of those steelworkers still have no work largely because there are fewer and fewer unskilled jobs. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House and my constituents of any progress that he is making in assisting older redundant steelworkers to find new work?

Mr. Blunkett

I thank my hon. Friend for his flattery about my ageing process—some days are better than others, Madam Speaker.

I agree with my hon. Friend—how could I not, coming from a steel area myself?—about the challenge of ensuring that the reskilling programme is available. We place great emphasis on that investment in training for older workers. The 50-plus initiative, which was announced in the March Budget, will be of particular help to older workers who have spent their life in heavy industry; their futures will be enhanced by those measures, as they will by the reports and recommendations of the skills task force, which we established when we took office. I hope to announce new measures shortly that will enhance still further the available training opportunities.

Measures will also be proposed in a White Paper, which we hope to publish in a few weeks, on a coherent programme, policy and funding for all post-16 education and training.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I pay tribute to the measures taken by the Government to date to tackle the scourge of unemployment. We have had good success in Northern Ireland, and I welcome the continuing fall in its unemployment rate. When considering further measures to assist the longer-term unemployed, will the Secretary of State consider the unintended consequences for experienced teachers of local management of schools funding? Those teachers now have great difficulty finding long-term secure contracts and they may risk joining the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

Mr. Blunkett

We are mindful of the need to retain the services of long-serving and experienced teachers and measures that have been set in place in broader policies are aimed at doing precisely that. I am happy to talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the matter. We have introduced greater flexibility for local authorities and schools so that they can vary the formulas for LMS and fair funding to take account of salary levels and the need to retain teachers who are more expensive because of their long service and grading. That will avoid precisely the danger that the hon. Gentleman describes. It is why additional money is being provided for posts for teachers with advanced skills. It is why the Government's Green Paper on reforming the promotion prospects and rewards for teachers will specifically earmark money to fund those initiatives so that money does not have to be found from existing resources.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

The Secretary of State has referred to the new deal as a great help to the long-term unemployed. Can he explain why his Cabinet colleagues evidently do not agree? The numbers of young new deal trainees taken on by Government Departments make fascinating reading. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for International Development have taken on none. The Lord Chancellor's Department has taken on none. The Northern Ireland Office has taken on none. Even the Home Office, with its 50,818 employees, has taken on just one. Why should the long-term unemployed take the new deal seriously if the Government, when acting as employer, regard it as completely irrelevant?

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful for the reminder to all Departments—we have issued exactly such a reminder ourselves—of the importance of their role in such schemes. [Laughter.] Well, we are almost at the end of term when we usually get reports that say, "Doing extraordinarily well, but some classmates could do better." That assessment would probably be appropriate. We are, however, making fantastic progress. We are about to reach the 50,000 mark in terms of the number of employers who have signed up. Not only are a range of Departments taking on new dealers, but their agencies and the bodies that they fund are doing so as well. It ill becomes anyone to chide the Lord Chancellor for whom he takes on, given the difficulty that he has experienced in appointing a special adviser.