HL Deb 13 February 1992 vol 535 cc838-40

3.25 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the total number of unemployed at the latest available date.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, in January 1992, seasonally adjusted unemployment in the United Kingdom was 2,604,100.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the noble Viscount confirm that the figure has risen by 122,000 in one month? Is he not a little ashamed to have to announce such figures to the House? Will he also confirm that these are the worst unemployment figures for four years? They are twice as high as was expected and it is the 22nd consecutive increase in unemployment figures. Under those circumstances, is it not a cruel deception by the Prime Minister to pretend that the recession is over and that recovery is on hand? Will he urge the Government now to take proper and emergency action to reduce unemployment, including an immediate and substantial drop in interest rates?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the figures that I announced just now indicate an increase in one month of 53,000 because we are dealing with the seasonally adjusted figure. The noble Lord makes a play on the headline figure alone. Of course, this latest increase in the number of unemployed is clearly disappointing. I fully recognise the difficulties and anxieties that unemployment brings to individuals and their families. However, it is worth noting that there are 600,000 more jobs now than when unemployment was last at this level in October 1987. The United Kingdom has a higher proportion of people in work than in any other EC country, except Denmark.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend draw the attention of the noble Lord opposite to the Statement on Tuesday by the Secretary of State for Employment headed "People, Jobs and Opportunity" and suggest that although, unfortunately, that Statement was not repeated in this House it contains the answer to almost everything he said?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I was holding myself ready to make such a Statement and I was disappointed not to be able to do so. I believe that it is the Government's intention that they should pay attention to the individual choice of people. I believe that we have worked hard to make the labour market flexible and that a number of jobs will be created once the economy moves.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, while accepting some of the points made by the Minister, would it not help if we injected a little honesty into the debate—if that is what it can be called? Given the length of the recession, and given that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have both said that no further action is necessary in order to have an upturn in the economy, does the Minister agree that it would be helpful to that debate if we start by accepting that, whatever happens now, unemployment will rise to almost 3 million in this year? If he accepts that, can we perhaps have some kind of serious debate?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I always want to engage in serious debate. I am glad that the noble Lord has a grasp of reality. It is a fact that the economic crisis in eastern Europe and what was the USSR has cut world trade by 2 per cent. The world trade growth in 1991 was the lowest since 1982. However, Britain is very well placed to take advantage of the upturn. Inflation in this country is below the EC average and is on a firm downward trend.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the north east of England the increase in unemployment in January was no higher in percentage terms than in the country as a whole? Does he appreciate that that is very different from what it used to be in times of national and international depression when, proverbially, if the country caught a cold the north east certainly had influenza? Will he, with me, take the present situation as an indication of the success of government regional policies in the past few years?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend puts into very eloquent words what I have tried to say on a number of occasions from this Dispatch Box.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, I can guess what the noble Viscount's reply will be but I shall nevertheless ask the question. Faced with this appalling increase in the number of unemployed, does he agree that one positive way of facilitating the creation of more jobs would be to follow the advice of the CBI and increase the level of investment allowances available to industry?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, any form of tax change would have to be for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the most important thing that we can do to assist the unemployed is to give them every opportunity to find another job. I believe that the policy being followed by the employment service and others in assisting people with their training, with employment action and with preparation for seeking jobs is the best we can do.

Lord Desai

My Lords, can the noble Viscount tell the House how rapidly, given the successful policies of his Government, he expects unemployment to fall below 2 million?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords. The Government never anticipate the number of unemployed.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the parties opposite tend to look on this country as an economic island and seem to be totally oblivious of what is happening in the countries of our EC partners where unemployment is rising? Indeed, in some of those countries unemployment is considerably higher than it is in this country. Unemployment is not just a problem of this country but a problem of the EC and other parts of the developed world.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend is quite correct. Rising unemployment is not unique to the United Kingdom. In recent months it has risen in most EC countries and is higher today than it was a year ago in every EFTA country and in every G7 country.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, how does the noble Viscount square the Government's belief—which he has just expressed—that training will help with the fact that the Government have cut back the money allocated to the TECs which in fact means that they will do less training?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I said that training was one of the opportunities that the Government were making available to the unemployed. It is certainly not the only opportunity. In the individual case it is not always the best opportunity. We have a range of opportunities to enable people to find jobs again.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of the job losses are taking place in the defence industries? British Aerospace, for example, has just announced 2,350 job losses and 10,000 production jobs have been lost in recent times. Is it not absurd in the present situation to believe that this can simply be left to market forces? Should not the Government be looking at a diversification programme in order to ensure that these skills are not lost?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, there are clear signs that our policies are working and unmistakable evidence that the battle against inflation is being won. What we do not want is Labour's policies. Higher taxes would destroy confidence and reduce incentives; and the minimum wage would destroy jobs, increase inflation and put up unit costs.