§ The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell)
Long-term unemployment is now at its lowest level for 25 years. As my hon. Friend will know, it has fallen by 70 per cent. in her constituency since May 1997. Government action is part of that success, but I hope that the House will pay tribute to the thousands and thousands of unemployed people throughout the country who have seized the opportunities provided by the new deal and other 1063 welfare-to-work programmes to move off benefit and into work. That is good for them, good for their families and good for the economy of this country.
§ Ms Blears
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Salford now has its lowest unemployment rate for 18 years. It is below 4 per cent., which is in stark contrast to the misery of mass unemployment in the Tory years. We still have more 750 people who are long-term unemployed, but we are having some success. This week, a young man was placed in employment who had not worked since 1992. He has received extra support through the new deal and a jobseeker's grant. For the first time, he has the chance of a decent future. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, under Labour, there will be more such measures of support to ensure that everyone has the chance to get a job, to get into work and to have a decent income for their families, in contrast to what happened under the Tories, when people were consigned to years of hopelessness and misery?
§ Ms Jowell
I can confirm that more help will be available to enable us to get rid of long-term unemployment and to see it as a thing of the past. Under the Labour Government it is win, win: a win for unemployed people who are equipped with the skills that they need to get a job and a win for employers seeking to fill their vacancies. Under the Opposition, who have pledged to scrap the Government's welfare-to-work programmes, it is lose, lose: unemployed people will lose and employers will lose because they will not be able to recruit the employees whom they seek.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
The right hon. Lady is being modest on behalf of the Government. Surely what the Government have done for the long-term unemployment statistics is simply to reclassify people. If one adds up the current long-term unemployed, the number of people currently in the new deal who are not listed as such and the number of people on follow-through, one realises that just a few thousand people have left long-term unemployment. Will the Minister now undo the spin of putting these people through the revolving door and tell the House the real facts about the real people who are still being disadvantaged by the swindle of the new deal?
§ Ms Jowell
The previous Government removed people from the unemployment register when they went on to training programmes. That is precisely the same as removing people from the claimant count when they go on to the training element of the new deal. There is complete consistency. What is different is that the new deal has virtually eradicated long-term youth unemployment—help that the Opposition would remove.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
Measures to tackle long-term unemployment have created many more opportunities for women. My right hon. Friend will be aware of yesterday's announcement that 12.5 million women are working in the United Kingdom labour market. She will also be aware that a significant number of those women receive less pay than men who do the same job, despite the anti-discrimination and equal pay legislation of the 1970s. Moreover, the equal value arguments can tie a case down 1064 in the courts for years. The British Coal canteen workers' case has been running for 16 years and is not yet resolved. Will my right hon. Friend see what legislation is required to ease the path to equal pay for women?
§ Ms Jowell
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Yes, it is good news that figures published today show that more women are in work in the United Kingdom than ever before, but there is still a pay gap. To compare full-time women's earnings with full-time men's earnings, for every £1 that a man earns, a woman earns 81p. That is unacceptable in a modern labour market and the Government will shortly introduce proposals to tackle that pay gap.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of tackling unemployment is to foster good work experience in schools and good business links with schools? Does she, therefore, share the concern of the National Education Business Partnership Network, which faces the prospect of its funding being slashed by up to 60 per cent., and which has described its response to that as varying from acute disappointment to utter dismay? Will she today guarantee that funding for those vital services from 1 April will at least be maintained, if not increased?
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
I welcome the Government's recent commitment to full employment in every region, especially as it includes the employment of lone parents, disabled people and men over 55. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that will have an enormous impact on abolishing poverty in the northern region and will give a great boost to our prosperity?
§ Ms Jowell
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Our objective is full employment in every region. To achieve that, we must end long-term unemployment. That is why our welfare-to-work programmes are driving down unemployment, but the Opposition are pledged to scrap those programmes. We are working with unemployed people.