HL Deb 16 January 1992 vol 534 cc352-4

3.30 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the total number of people unemployed at the latest convenient date.

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

My Lords, in December 1991 seasonally-adjusted unemployment in the United Kingdom was 2,546,000.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is not that figure disgraceful by any standard? Is the Minister aware that long after this Government have ceased to exist they will be remembered in particular as being the Government of high unemployment? In view of yet another substantial increase in unemployment announced today, will the Minister confirm that during the past 12 months there has been an increase in unemployment of 800,000 and that according to an OECD figure 10.2 per cent. of the workforce in this country is unemployed? That is well above the average for the European Community of 8.9 per cent. As the Minister frequently tells the House that this country is doing so much better than the rest of the EC, would he care to comment on those figures?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the rate of the increase in unemployment eased considerably during 1991. In the last three months of that year the increase was only one-third of that recorded in the first three months. However, more importantly the December rise in the stock of unfilled vacancies at jobcentres was the biggest since records began in January 1980. The number of new vacancies notified to jobcentres during December was the highest monthly total for seven months.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while in a period of high unemployment there may be a case for increasing government borrowing on a temporary basis, as has been done, there is no case for increasing personal direct taxation? Has my noble friend noticed that there appear to be some slight indications that the British people might be a trifle reluctant to endorse a proposal to increase the maximum rate of personal effective tax from 40 per cent. to 59 per cent.?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, it comes as no surprise to me because, as we all remember, a Labour Government are a government of high taxation. That is no help in these circumstances, and neither is the suggestion of a national minimum wage. The only two countries in Europe which have a national minimum wage such as that proposed by the Labour Party are France and Spain. France has just published its highest recorded figures for unemployment. Spain has an unemployment record of 16.3 per cent., which is the highest of the European Community.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the Secretary of State for Employment said when releasing last month's unemployment figures: There are many encouraging signs that the recession is coming to an end"? How does the Minister square that remark with the monthly figures announced today showing that another 80,000 are on the dole, that during the past 12 months 800,000 have been placed on the dole and that employment in manufacturing industry has fallen by 354,000 compared with 94,000 last year? Was that not double talk by the Secretary of State? Is there not still an industry and job crisis?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord considers that this country can operate in a vacuum, in isolation from the rest of Europe and from the rest of the world. As I have said previously, rising unemployment is not unique to the United Kingdom. In recent months it has risen in all European countries except the Netherlands. Today unemployment is higher than it was a year ago in every EFTA country and in every G7 country apart from Japan. Indeed, the latest United States jobless figures are the highest for five years. The noble Lord says, "Excuses, excuses". I have already indicated that the rate of increase has fallen considerably and that the number of vacancies is higher than it was seven months ago. I believe that indicates that the economy is beginning to surge again.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the repeated treatment of this serious problem in purely party political terms is beginning to pall upon the public?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I agree with my noble and learned friend. I believe also that the Government have a wide range of assistance to help those people who unfortunately have lost their jobs.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, may I raise with the Minister a special problem based on the unemployment figures that have just been issued? They show 13.9 per cent. unemployment for Northern Ireland, the highest in the United Kingdom. I believe that is a general figure because in some troubled areas it is as high as 50 per cent. Is that not a large contributory factor to the problems that we now face and is there not a case for giving the matter special attention?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, yes, the problem with Northern Ireland has been with us for some time. I am sure that the noble Baroness realises that the rate of unemployment has risen by only 0.8 per cent. in a year and that we have been faced consistently with the higher unemployment figure in Northern Ireland. However, it contributes to our average percentage figure.

Earl Russell

My Lords, it is common ground that unemployment has a considerable cost to public funds. Will the Minister accept the estimate of the unemployment unit of a net cost to public funds, including lost revenue, of £14 billion per annum? If not, is he in a position to supply a better figure?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am not familiar with the figures that the noble Earl has given. However, it is important to ensure that the people who become unemployed have the best possible opportunity to seek work again. That is what the employment service and the TECs are endeavouring to do.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the Minister accept that this is the 21st consecutive month in which unemployment figures have increased? He glossed over that worrying fact. Will he also accept that the construction workers whom we discussed in our debate yesterday are not bored by the fact that we often mention the plight of that important industry, the construction industry? If the Minister reads yesterday's debate he will learn that adequate money and labour are available to start building again. The workers are certainly not bored by the prospect of work but they are bored by the prospect of continued unemployment. Will the Minister say how soon the Government will release some of the money in order that at least the construction workers can get back to work?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, in a time of recession which is obviously upon us just as important is the fact that there are almost 2.5 million more jobs than in 1983. The Government have taken firm action to defeat inflation and the number of stoppages is at its lowest level for 60 years.

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