HC Deb 20 May 2002 vol 386 cc9-11
5. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

If he will make a statement on trends in the labour market since 11 September. [55491]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown)

There are problems in the world economy, but the UK is withstanding them better than other major countries. Compared with last September, there are more than 70,000 more people in employment and unemployment is broadly unchanged. Our labour market is in a strong position: the number of people in employment is at a record level—up by more than 1.5 million since 1997. The number of job vacancies is high—more than 10,000 are being notified to jobcentres every working day; and recent unemployment levels are the lowest since 1975.

Mr. Rammell

I welcome that response, which clearly indicates that, contrary to some predictions, we have not gone into an employment downturn since 11 September. Indeed, in my Harlow constituency, the claimant count this month shows that unemployment figures continue to fall. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that certain sectors of the economy, especially telecommunications, face continuing problems because of the worldwide situation? Does he agree that where redundancies occur, it is the responsibility of both national and local government to work with employers and trade unions to help people to retrain and up-skill to take advantage of the job opportunities that are available?

Mr. Brown

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. On job losses in the telecommunications industry, specifically in his constituency, I can confirm that Harlow jobcentre is in touch with local employers and that we shall do whatever we can to stand the corner of his constituents. Nevertheless, as he says, it is a fact that unemployment has fallen—it has halved in Harlow's travel-to-work area since 1997.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Minister said that notwithstanding problems in the world economy, the United Kingdom's employment trends are better than those in many other countries. Is it not interesting that since 11 September last year—and, indeed, for some months before that—those trends have been particularly favourable compared with those in the eurozone? Will the Minister do the sensible and honourable thing on behalf of the hard-working British public in recommending to the Treasury, both to the First Lord and to the Chancellor, that we keep the pound?

Mr. Brown

I always try to do the sensible thing on behalf of the hard-working British public. I think that our colleagues in the European Union have much to learn from the way in which we manage the labour market.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will recognise that in constituencies such as mine, it is high-paid and high-skill jobs in the aerospace industry that have been lost or put at risk the most by what happened on 11 September. Will he reiterate that the Government remain committed, for the benefit of constituencies such as Burnley and, indeed, of the whole country's economy, to maintaining high-skill jobs at the sharp end and to doing everything possible for investment to secure those jobs in the future?

Mr. Brown

I understand what my hon. Friend says. It is true that in constituencies such as Burnley the labour market is undergoing a period of adjustment. To address some of those local issues, we have introduced a number of special programmes designed to bear down on unemployment, especially long-term unemployment. My hon. Friend is right that there has been movement in the labour market away from employment in manufacturing towards employment in the service sector, but it would not be true to say that there are not secure, well-paid careers in the service sector—there are.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Minister agree that in this longest, deepest recession, which has been compounded by 11 September, two sectors—the airline industry and farming—have been particularly badly hit? Will he give some assurance to constituents of mine who came to see me having, in the case of the husband, just been made redundant from farming? Will people get a fairer hearing and more assistance from the jobcentre and Employment Service staff than was the case in that instance?

Mr. Brown

I do not agree with the hon. Lady that we are in a long and deep recession. Indeed, there have never been so many people in employment. However, I am happy to consider cases of individual constituents who, according to the hon. Lady, have been displaced from employment in agriculture. It is fair to point out that agriculture employs fewer than 1 per cent. of the total work force, but if the hon. Lady has a constituent who is looking for work and needs help, and she writes to me about the case, I shall see what I can do.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

The electronics sector has also suffered since 11 September. After many years of decline, unemployment in my constituency has risen sharply since 11 September. A characteristic of the sector is the number of people employed on short-term and casual contracts. Too often, Government employment initiatives are not sufficiently flexible to deal with people who experience periods of unemployment. Will my right hon. Friend consider the operation of Jobcentre Plus and the new deal to ascertain whether people on short-term contracts can be caught more quickly and helped back into work so that they can benefit from the booming economy elsewhere?

Mr. Brown

Employment on short-term contracts is relatively low nationally, but if it is a peculiar feature of the labour market in my hon. Friend's constituency, I shall, of course, consider the problems that he mentioned. However, I must emphasise that the trend that he cites goes against the national trend. Perhaps he wishes to draw some local circumstance to my attention. I assure him that the staff who work for Jobcentre Plus—as it will become—are there to help his constituents. If he wants to draw a specific problem to my attention, I shall examine it.