HL Deb 07 March 1987 vol 487 cc121-5

2.47 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 when they expect to reach the targets for reducing unemployment which they set themselves at the last general election.

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

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government did not set themselves specific targets for reducing unemployment. Since the last election we have seen continuous economic growth and the creation of more than 1 million jobs, and unemployment is now falling.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does the Secretary of State recall that during the last general election campaign the Chancellor of the Exchequer made the specific statement that if a Conservative Government were re-elected there would be a reduction in unemployment? Is it not a fact that, had the criteria for assessing the figures not been altered on innumerable occasions since the last general election, there would be an increase in the figures? Is that not an outstanding example of the Government indulging in something which they often accuse local authorities of doing these days—creative accountancy to produce the figures that they want, which are not the real figures?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the noble Lord Lord Dean of Beswick, does not serve the House well by repeating the story that the figures have been changed on innumerable occasions. It is some years since the figures were changed. They were changed for good reason, and since then unemployment is down. It will continue to go down. If I may echo the words of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if the country elects a Conservative Government unemployment will continue to go down into the indefinite future.

Lord Kinnaird

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the present circumstances it would save the country a great deal of money if we did not bother with an election and just carried on as we are?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I suspect that this is not the correct House in which to make such a suggestion.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we appreciate that the noble Lord must make the best case that he can, but, despite the economic growth to which he referred, does he agree that unemployment is deplorably high in many areas of this country and that a reduction of a few thousand per annum does not help those areas? For example, in my area, unemployment is about 25 per cent. of the insured population. The same is true in many other areas. What are the Government going to do about that great crisis?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I should like to assure the noble Lord that I did not by any means make the best case that can be made for the tremendous decline in unemployment that we have seen over the past eight months. We should not underestimate the change that has taken place in this country. For the past eight months we have seen unemployment fall by an average of 25, 000 a month. I suspect that it will continue to do that. However, no one in your Lordships' House or in the country should delude himself. As unemployment comes down stagnant pools of high unemployment will be left. Promises made by political parties will not deal with that problem. It is a serious problem and one to which I hope we shall begin to find some answers.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that all of us on this side of the House appreciate and welcome any decrease, however small—25, 000 or whatever it may be. But he has not answered my question. What are the Government doing about the problem in extensive areas of this country—Wales, Scotland, the North-East and North-West—where unemployment is unacceptably, nay, deplorably high? How is the economic growth evincing itself there?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, in a very simple way. Unemployment has fallen fastest in the North-East and Wales and is now falling in all regions of the country. The Government do not have control of all aspects of the destiny of employment or unemployment in this country. However, we are seeing the economy growing faster and better here than in any other country. We are seeing unemployment dropping faster in this country than in any other country. Unemployment is falling at a rate which noble Lords may consider to be unsatisfactory, but a reduction of 180, 000 in the past eight months must leave all of us feeling satisfaction that the direction has changed. What we can do is work to see it accelerate faster. I assure the noble Lord that when we see unemployment substantially below the present figure we shall still have, unfortunately, some areas in the country where it is too high. In that respect we must work a great deal harder.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that one of the most important measures for reducing unemployment among youngsters is that they should be trained? Is he aware that many of the schemes cannot find enough people who want to be trained or are prepared to stick to the courses for more than a few days?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, we are now in a period in which we offer a nationwide guarantee to all school-leavers under the age of 18 that they have a place awaiting them on the youth training scheme. I hope that they will accept the offer of a place. We shall need to look carefully at the position if young people persistently refuse to accept such places.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are skillcentres in the South-East which have been unable to provide courses due to lack of instructors? In one area with which I am familiar a young man tried last October to train in painting and decorating. The skillcentre accepted him but he has not yet been offered a place because there is no instructor. That is becoming a common situation in the South-West and South-East.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am aware that there is a considerable skill shortage in the construction industry. That is apparent particularly in the South-East, but there are signs of it all over the country. We are urgently looking at ways to improve the standards of skill training within the construction industry. I believe that the job training scheme is one method which will prove a good way of helping to remedy the situation.

Lord Oram

My Lords, does not the Minister recall that in October last year, in a lengthy Written Answer to a Question that I tabled, he listed in great detail the very many changes that have taken place in the calculation and definition of unemployment figures, thus producing figures lower than those produced by previous calculations? How does that square with his claim, in answer to the Question on the Order Paper, that there have been no such changes?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I suggest that the noble Lord reads the Answer in Hansard. He will see that during my time as Secretary of State for Employment the only change has been to delay the count by two weeks, thus reducing an overrecording of 65, 000 a month to an overrecording of 15, 000 a month. The majority of the other changes—there were three substantial changes—took place following the change in 1981 and 1982 when we went from a period of voluntary registration to one of benefit count. The only other indices of unemployment are through the Labour Force Survey, which is a method used by many other countries and which shows that unemployment is under 3 million.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that the Government can do nothing about persistent pools of unemployment? Is not that contradicted by the experience of the Highlands and Islands Development Board and other government-sponsored bodies?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the Government can do a great deal but what they must never do is make promises which they cannot keep and deliver. I believe we are entering a period in which a great many promises may be made, but I hope that all Members of your Lordships' House appreciate that the only promises this Government will make are those which we can and will deliver.

The problems of unemployment, and the stagnant pools to which I referred, are in the South as well as in the North. They are often in the inner cities, in the suburbs and on large council estates. They are proving difficult to cure but I suggest that they are problems to which all sides must turn their attention.

Lord Parry

My Lords, since training schemes for young people are so important and basic to the questions being discussed, since it is understood by the Secretary of State as much as by anyone else—perhaps more—that there are unsatisfactory aspects of the schemes that are causing blockages and the inability of young people to move into positions of real training, and since also a great many young people will never get a job despite the fact that they are on these training programmes, is it not time for him to introduce a debate in this House on that aspect of unemployment?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the noble Lord will do well to look at the facts. Nearly two-thirds of young people who left the one-year YTS went into employment. Far too much is made of statements that young people are not going into jobs. There are some areas in the country—but very few—where the employment situation is difficult for young people. However, in that part of the country where I live 98 per cent., or 95 per cent., of young people leaving school go into jobs. I hope that under the two-year YTS the percentage of young people going into employment will increase substantially. I am the first to admit that not every YTS in the country is perfect, but we have had compulsory education for 110 years and not everyone in your Lordships' House thinks that the education system is perfect either.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is not the Minister aware that even with his own figures, which he is claiming are a success, over the past 12 months there has been an average loss of 7, 000 jobs a month in the manufacturing sectors of our industries? That loss is continuing, with no sign of abatement. Is not that a dangerous trend? Can he indicate when we can expect those losses to stop? If they do not stop the future of this country as an industrial nation will be absolutely devastated.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord was going to congratulate the Government on actually reducing the rate of job losses in the manufacturing industries. In the 10 years after 1966 manufacturing jobs were lost at the rate of 10, 000 a month. They have been lost on a fairly consistent basis throughout every industrialised country in the world. They are now being lost in Japan at a fairly fast rate and are even beginning to be lost in Korea. That is a sign of the world changing, with more third world countries going through an industrial revolution. We must ensure that we have a profitable manufacturing sector and also pay regard to the fact that the majority of jobs in the future will come through the service sector.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, the noble Lord is accustomed to making favourable comparisons on an international scale. Can he answer—and answer directly—the question that I have asked him on previous occasions? Which developed country in Europe among our competitors has a percentage of unemployment which is higher than that in this country?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the noble Lord is keen to make international comparisons of an unfavourable nature. If he would care to put a Question down I should be happy to answer it in considerable detail. However, I recall that certainly the Benelux countries, which are the only other countries in the Community that have similar social security systems, have unemployment rates considerably above ours. France and Italy have unemployment rates of the same order of magnitude as ours. If the noble Lord would care to put down a Question I should be more than delighted to answer it in full detail.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that unemployment has fallen marginally in the last few months—and we welcome that—not because of the Government's policy in their first seven years of office but because they have changed their policy in the last six or nine months? If by any chance they are re-elected, which policy will they follow? Will they follow the policy of the last six months or the one of the previous seven years?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, if, unfortunately, unemployment had gone up by 180, 000 in the last eight months, I wonder whether the noble Lord would have said that it had risen marginally. Nevertheless, I am not aware that the Government have changed their policy over the last few months. We are now seeing the fruits of eight years of consistent monetary control and growth. I suspect that we have before us another eight years in which we shall reap the fruits.