HL Deb 24 April 1986 vol 473 cc1275-9

3.14 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what conclusions they draw from the latest figures issued on unemployment.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, the latest figures, which were released yesterday, show a fall in the number of people without jobs and seeking work of about 100,000 between 1984 and 1985. These estimates of unemployment from the Labour Force Survey compare with an increase of about 160,000 in unemployment according to the monthly claimant count over the same period.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. How does he relate his Answer today to the headlines in the press a couple of weeks ago—from parts of the press that are normally very favourable to the Government—that said "Rise in unemployment—the biggest for four and a half years"? Does this not indicate that, though the Government and the noble Lord as Secretary of State may alter the criteria for calculating the number of unemployed, the real situation is one of continuing deterioration in a very dangerous fashion? When will the Government and the Secretary of State realise this, stop indulging in self-congratulation and do something about it?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the very first thing I would say is that neither I nor the Government have in any way altered the basis of calculating the figures. What has happened, and happened this time for the first month, is that there was a delay of two weeks in order that there could be a more correct check of the monthly claimant count. That is what happened recently. I resent the charges made in another place that anyone has fiddled the figures. Accuracy, surely, is something everyone in your Lordships' House would wish to see.

Secondly, there are many ways of counting unemployment. The figure that the noble Lord was referring to was the claimant count; that is the figure announced by the holder of my office each month. There is another way, which is used by many other countries and which we have in the Labour Force Survey. The figure which was published yesterday—that is why I was replying to the Question which asked about the latest figures on unemployment—showed something very surprising. In a period in which the claimant count went up by 160,000, according to the Labour Force Survey the number of people without jobs and seeking work fell by 100,000. The reason is simple. The Labour Force Survey defines as unemployed all those without work and looking for a job. The claimant count is only those receiving benefits.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, has my noble friend noticed some quite accurate figures produced recently? Has he noted that in the financial year just ended English Estates achieved in the North-East of England, which certainly has its unemployment problems, a 20 per cent. increase in lettings of factories and workshops, which represents just over 500 new places of employment and 4,500 new jobs? Has he further noted that on Monday of this week the twelfth Japanese factory attracted to the North-East of England by government policies and encouragement was opened? The same policies are revitalising the town of Consett, until recently wholly dependent on steel production.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, no one would endeavour to diminish the very real problems of the North-East of England in looking for new jobs to replace all the jobs lost in the declining industries. But, on the other hand, we do not often enough give credit to the efforts that are being made in the North-East to find new employment, to the enterprise being shown and to the success that these endeavours are producing.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is almost impossible to draw sensible conclusions from any one set of figures, and therefore questions of this kind must be of very limited usefulness?

Lord Young of Graffham

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, while no one would wish to accuse the noble Lord of deliberately misleading the House by giving incorrect statistics, he will know well that you can do a great deal with statistics. Would it not have been fairer to give the real figures? The underlying fact is that the seasonally adjusted figures of unemployment show an increase. Would it not therefore have been simpler and more honest if he had simply told the House that on present economic policies unemployment will continue to rise?

Lord Young of Graffham

No, my Lords. The last thing that I would wish to do is to mislead your Lordships' House. What the noble Lord is asking me to do—and I shall gladly do it—is to say that, seasonally adjusted, the claimant count shows an increase and has shown an increase each month. But I was pointing out the difference between the claimant count, which is a total of all those receiving benefit, and the Labour Force Survey, which is an estimate of all the people without jobs and seeking work. The Labour Force Survey definition is the definition which is adopted by the United States of America in looking at unemployment. There are those around who say that that provides a better measure of unemployment.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

It is a guess, my Lords.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, will the Secretary of State tell the House how many times since this Government took office in 1979 they have altered the criteria for calculating unemployment? Why has that been done? Is it not a fact that despite all the figures that are given, there is still a dangerous and underlying increase in the number of adult unemployed?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I shall be glad to answer the noble Lord's question if he will put it down on another occasion. It is a very different question but one that I shall be quite happy to answer. Secondly, I am not sure that there is an underlying increase in unemployment. I gladly admit that there is an underlying increase in the claimant count. I look at the other evidence before me and it shows a different picture. Just as unemployment cannot be solved by any one, simple solution, nor can we explain away unemployment by one set of figures.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that since 1979 the number of changes in the criteria has amounted to six? If those changes had not been made, then the figures would now show 3,800,000 unemployed. That is the stark fact of the matter. I do not want to be unkind to the noble Lord, but when he was appointed we had great hopes of him. In fact, we expected him to do something real and constructive to bring down the level of unemployment. He has failed to do that and we are disappointed in him.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am very grateful that the noble Lord does not wish to be unkind to me, but let me tell him to have faith. He will see that the policies that this Government have been following, and in particular the policies of the past few months, will do more than anything else towards dealing with the terrible problem of unemployment.

We must be very careful about not jumping to conclusions around the country on one set of figures alone. Of course the claimant count is a convenient measure. I will not for one moment attempt to decry that the claimant count is a measure that all accept and adopt in looking at the level of unemployment. However, if one looks at the labour force survey—and no one in your Lordships' House would decry the definition of unemployment as meaning those who are without jobs and looking for work—one finds a very different position. I will have a copy of that survey placed in the Library.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that we have the highest percentage of employed people per head of population in this country than in any other part of Europe? Also, will he give some estimate of the effect of the black economy on unemployment figures in the more prosperous southern and eastern parts of the United Kingdom?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am happy to say that 1 million new jobs have come into being since March 1983. I am happy to say also that we are experiencing faster employment growth in this country than in any other country in the European Community. Indeed, I remind the House that France, with a diminishing working population, is still showing a fall in employment. We have a fast-growing working population. Also, we give 65 per cent. of all adults of working age a job. The figures for France and Germany are 60 per cent. and 59 per cent. respectively. However, I must fail to give your Lordships any information about the black economy.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that one simply cannot tell a man who has a family and who has been unemployed for a year or two how much worse matters would have been were he a Frenchman, a German, or an Italian? Is one to tell such a man that 1 million jobs have been created when 4 million people as well as him have not had one of them? All the juggling with figures really makes people who are out of work angry. It increases their despair.

Is the Minister further aware that a number of American economists have been writing in financial newspapers in this country with an indication that the largest contribution to the creation of jobs in their country and to the diminution of unemployment there was state enterprise along similar lines to that created by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the last period of massive unemployment in the 1930s? The Government have done many things, but why do they not have the courage at least to try that approach in attempting to solve the plight of 4 million of our countrymen and women who are unemployed and who face a more miserable situation month after month?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the one thing that will not help anyone who is unemployed in this country is the preaching of despair at him day after day after day. If there is one thing that I resent, it is those people who go round saying that there is no hope, no opportunity, and no chance. There is. We will work our way out of the problem. There is no simple solution but hard work. I doubt very much whether anyone in authority in the United States would advocate Franklin D. Roosevelt's line of state works to get unemployment down in any other country.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, will the noble Lord explain to the House how he accounts for the totally different picture produced by the two sets of figures that he has explained?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, part of the answer is that the account figures show that about 40 per cent. of those claiming benefit were not looking for work during the week of the survey. I do not know the explanation for that; but the definition of unemployment in the labour force survey is simply those out of a job and looking for work. The claimant count is simply a measure of those claiming benefit. Neither of them are perfect and neither are absolutely accurate.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the noble Lord not accept that, stripped of all the presentational procedures that he outlined in his statistical information, the crucial point is the one that the Minister mentioned a few questions ago; the seasonally-adjusted figure still shows an increase. That indicates that unemployment is still on the way up. The trend is upwards; how does the Minister justify that?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, if it will give comfort to the noble Lord for me to admit that the claimant count, seasonally adjusted, is increasing then I gladly do so because that is true. I was asked in the Question what the latest figures on unemployment show. Not wishing to mislead your Lordships' House, I have therefore referred to the labour force survey.