HL Deb 23 June 1980 vol 410 cc1359-62

2.17 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the first Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they can offer any cause for hoping that the level of unemployment will be reduced and not simply checked.


My Lords, the level of unemployment will depend in the main upon the interaction between the following issues: the success of the Government in bringing down inflation and thereby encouraging investment in industry, particularly industry with opportunities for applying the new technology; the speed at which wage settlements adjust to the Government's monetary targets; the stability of international trading patterns; the adaptability of the Western democracies to dear energy and the stability of energy supply. In the United Kingdom the processes of domestic counter-inflation policy are likely to be painful and unemployment will rise to high historical levels before starting to come down. In international terms we are better placed, although as a trading nation we cannot insultate ourselves from world events.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his Answer, may I ask whether he does not agree that for the health of soul and mind it is not right that there should be unemployment? Would he agree that it is not right to be satisfied just to check unemployment, and would he give an assurance that no stone will be left unturned and that every effort will be put into finding a way of creating work, so that unemployment is not just checked but it is slowly brought down?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, the Government cannot themselves create employment, but they can create the sound economic growth which will bring about more real jobs. I quite agree with what my noble friend says about the human context, but the only way in which growth can come is by a reduction in the level of inflation, and that will be very painful, not least to employment levels.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that in the steel industry—and I am thinking in terms of Consett, which I know so well, in my native Durham—unemployment is being created? It is the Government's responsibility to try to avoid that, but they are not doing it. Their policies are wrong—considerably wrong.

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, one of the saddest and most debilitating myths in this country is that somewhere there is a little pot of policy which can prevent people from living within their means. But there are no easy answers: until British manufacturing output is greater and more productive, unemployment will continue to rise.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, would the noble Earl not agree that he could add to his list of the ways in which unemployment could be reduced, the speeding up of the rate of conversion of the unskilled to the skilled, and encouraging skilled men to work wherever possible with men who have been trained in skill centres for skilled work?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I am in absolute agreement with the noble Baroness. The MSC is reviewing as a matter of great urgency all its training provisions, and I hope to have something to say to the House about that in the autumn. One of the difficulties, as the noble Baroness is well aware, is that so much training in this country is related to the apprentice system within industry, and as industry in special pockets of difficulty declines, so does the level of training. We are trying to work out ways to fill that gap.


My Lords, would it not be true to say that the Conservative Party has always been more tolerant of higher levels of unemployment? Is not higher and higher unemployment and the throwing of thousands of men out of work really the most unacceptable face of Toryism?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, the highest historical levels of unemployment yet reached in this country were in 1946 and 1976.


My Lords, does the noble Earl not realise that the creation of unemployment creates an atmosphere of bitterness, and that bitterness will make a reversal of the policy impossible because as soon as they try to reverse the policy—after inflation has been conquered, which doubt—the bitterness will result in excessive wage claims?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord is one of those persons who has constantly and misleadingly told people that these are issues of policy—they are not: they are issues of production.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that in many factories, senior engineers are in fact taking under their wings young chaps who are coming into the business and they are helping to train them?

The Earl of GOWRIE

Yes, my Lords, I can confirm that; and it enables me to say that part of our difficulties result from the painful transition from old industry to new industry. In fact, as an employment Minister, the new industry is constantly berating me for not finding the skilled personnel that this industry needs. It is the process of historical change that is causing a great deal of our difficulty.