HL Deb 17 February 1992 vol 535 cc987-90

2.51 p.m.

Lord McCarthy asked Her Majesty's Government:

In what respects government policies have affected the United Kingdom's level of unemployment and rate of increase in unemployment compared to those of other OECD countries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government cannot determine the level of unemployment in the way that the noble Lord's Question implies. What the Government must do is ensure a sound and stable economic framework within which the battle against inflation can be won. If they fail to do so, the economy will suffer more unemployment in the long run. If one looks at our record on training and our record on inflation, one sees that the Government's policies have done a great deal to improve this country's long-term job prospects.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that Answer. However, I must correct him; I never said that the Government were responsible for the level of unemployment. My question—and I ask it again—is whether the Government deny that we have, as the Employment Gazette for this month tells us, the fastest rate of increase in unemployment of all countries in the OECD, the highest level of unemployment of all but three countries in the OECD, the lowest level of public investment in the OECD and a lower level of private investment than 1979? Are those factors not connected? Further, are not various aspects of the Government's policies resulting in our very bad record on unemployment?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, perhaps I may also quote from the latest OECD report on the United Kingdom which says: The United Kingdom economy created almost 3 million jobs between early 1984 and mid-1990, by far the best job creation record of the larger EC countries".

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not time that we recognised the fact that oral Questions, which in this House are limited to four, are really designed for the purpose of eliciting information, and that, therefore, this exchange is an abuse of the process of the House?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble and learned friend makes a good point. But of course it is my duty to answer the Questions on the Order Paper.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Black Thursday's reminder—namely, 2,600,000 unemployed—proved the point that under this Government we are suffering the worst recession on record, the longest recession on record, the deepest recession on record and a worse recession than any other OECD country? With the reduction in manufacturing employment in the past 12 months at 334,000 and constant rises in unemployment, can the noble Viscount tell the House what future there is for the people of this country under the present Government?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, rising unemployment is not unique to the United Kingdom. I dare say that noble Lords have heard me say that before from this Dispatch Box. Indeed, it has risen in most European EC countries and is higher today than it was a year ago in every EFTA and G7 country. It is most important that any decisions on wage increases must be taken with a realistic view to not decreasing the number of jobs.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, while comparisons with other countries can be made, does my noble friend agree that so far as concerns our own country, government policies to encourage new employment have been very successful in areas which have known the enormous problem of declining major industry? A good example of such an area is Sunderland in the North East of England. Does my noble friend also appreciate that the granting of city status by Her Majesty to Sunderland last week was of enormous encouragement to the region and that it is seen as a tribute to the people of the region, who are, with the considerable aid of government grants, adjusting themselves to modern industrial requirements?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend has made a very good point. I am sure that the granting of city status to Sunderland is welcomed on all sides of the House. I believe that it demonstrates that the workforce in Sunderland is especially productive. That has made certain that investment from overseas has located itself in the region.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that many of the anxieties expressed by his noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham—which he expresses every time a Question inconvenient to his philosophy arises—could be avoided if Ministers actually answered the Questions put to them?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, that is a job that I undertake very willingly.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, does the noble Viscount recall that in answer to the Question I tabled last week he said that training and enterprise councils were well on the way to providing 30,000 places on the employment action scheme by March? That surprised me. I thought that fewer than 10,000 people were then on the scheme and the month of March begins next week. Can he tell the House precisely how many people are actually on the scheme now?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, at the end of January I gather that the number of people receiving allowances was 8,500. But that is very likely to understate the situation because of the problem of gathering information. However, we shall be building up to the 30,000 places, as I said, by March 1992.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I should like to be quite clear about what the Minister is saying. I take it that he is not saying that asking Questions of this kind about the effect of government policy is an abuse of the procedures of the House. I hope that he is not saying that. If he is not saying that, is he saying that there is no point in our asking such Questions because the Government take the view that nothing they have done has had the slightest effect on unemployment, that nothing they intend to do will have any effect on unemployment and that unemployment has nothing to do with the Government?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords. I have tried to demonstrate that the policies of Her Majesty's Government have had a great deal to do with employment.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, on the assumption that the Government surely do not accept in any respects that their policies have adversely affected unemployment—and I am looking at the Question on the Order Paper—is my noble friend aware of any alternative policies put forward by either party on the Benches opposite which would have had a more beneficial effect?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I should be most interested to hear about those policies. For example, one of the proposed policies is a minimum wage. In its latest report on France, the OECD said: France's unemployment record compares unfavourably with that elsewhere. The problem is substantially more severe for youths, older workers and the unskilled. The national minimum wage seems in part to be responsible for this outcome".

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, does the Minister know that the level of unemployment in France is significantly below the level in this country?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, it may be below the level, but it is at a record high.

Lord Blease

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it might be more helpful, and indeed more constructive to those who are making policy and trying to help the unemployed, if the Government published the real figures of non-employment in the United Kingdom? Is it not a fact that, in addition to the figures for the classified unemployed, we have about 1 million workers in this country in dead-end training schemes and other forms of economic inactivity? Those workers are not classified as being unemployed. If productive employment was available, they would be in work.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I do not agree at all with the premise of the noble Lord. He does those who are on training schemes a disservice. Many are placed with employers, and do productive work.