HL Deb 24 October 1995 vol 566 cc962-5

2.48 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have to reduce the number of long-term unemployed.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, tackling long-term unemployment is a key priority for this Government. That is why this year, through Jobcentres and TECs, we are offering longer term unemployed people around 1.5 million opportunities to help them back to work.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, if that is the best that the Government can come up with after 16 years in power, heaven help the long-term unemployed. Does the Minister accept that there are now over 1 million long-term unemployed, and that a quarter of them have been unemployed now for four years? Is the Minister aware that the scale of long-term unemployment is one of the most reliable criteria for assessing the success or otherwise of an economy? How can the Government tell us about the so-called success story when so many thousands of families are being devastated by long-term unemployment?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord thinks that the Government are not doing very much. I can list a whole host of initiatives that the Government and the Employment Service have introduced to bring down unemployment. I can assure the noble Lord that long-term unemployment, which is an important figure, is falling and falling, more importantly, as a percentage of the total. It is well below the average of our European colleagues. It is now below 1 million. It is about 862,000. It is down by 218,000 since the peak. It has been down 142,000 in the past year. It is down by 24,000 in the past quarter. It is down in all regions for all ages and for men and women.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the success of the economic policy of this Government has resulted in a drop in unemployment of nearly 700,000 since its peak in December 1992? Does he further agree that if the minimum wage or the social chapter were introduced unemployment in this country would be increased? Finally, does he agree that it is rather hypocritical of noble Lords opposite to criticise this Government when their policies would increase unemployment?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the dangers of a minimum wage, which we would refuse to contemplate. Similarly, he is right to draw attention to the dangers of the social chapter, which would do much to increase unemployment as would the minimum wage. Our refusal to sign up to either of those, our reforms of the labour market in the early 1980s, which were strongly opposed by the party opposite, and the fact that we keep our non-wage labour costs much lower than most of our European competitors have done much to bring down unemployment by 700,000 since its peak.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, will the Minister explain why yesterday at the United Nations the Prime Minister attempted to have the International Labour Organisation disbanded, bearing in mind that what little protection some low paid workers have in this country rests with that organisation? Is the Minister aware that if the International Labour Organisation is disbanded the one line of protection for some people in the poorest countries which are governed by dictators will be removed? Is that what the Government intend? If it is, why do they not say so?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the best protection for the unemployed is to find them jobs and one will not find them jobs by imposing increased burdens of the kind that the noble Lord and the International Labour Organisation would like on employers.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Is it not a fact that unemployment today is about twice what it was in 1979 when the Labour Government left office?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the important thing about unemployment is that it is coming down and has been coming down steadily for 24 months. It has come down much earlier in the recovery from the last recession than any of the pundits in the party opposite ever thought. It came down because of the reforms that we made to the labour market in the early 1980s and for the various other reasons which I expounded earlier. Not least of those is our refusal to touch the minimum wage which the party opposite so much desires.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, would the Minister consider extra teaching not only to students but to adults too of a foreign language to widen the chances of people seeking jobs?

Lord Henley

My Lords, any training, skill and qualification always increases the employability of any individual in the labour market. That is one of the principal reasons why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister brought together the Department for Education and the Department of Employment, which was strongly opposed by the party opposite.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware that according to his own figures the number of people in training-for-work schemes is 30 per cent. lower than it was this time last year and that the number of starts on training-for-work in Great Britain is also 24 per cent. lower than for the same period last year? Has the Minister any idea why that should be? Further, would he mind telling his noble friend who asked a question in connection with the social chapter that the minimum wage has nothing whatever to do with the social chapter and that it is not part of it?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not believe that anyone said that the minimum wage had anything to do with the social chapter. The fact is that the party opposite has signed up to both of them. As regards the number of people in training-for-work, I do not believe that that is important. What is important is the quality of the training that we can deliver and the fact that unemployment has been coming down steadily for 24 months—that is long-term unemployment and the whole figure for unemployment—as a result of the policies that we have been pursuing.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, that is from the peak of 3 million unemployed. Will the Minister explain to the House why, after the Government's 16 years in office, we have over 2,200,000 persons on the dole?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord corrected himself and reminded the House that unemployment has come down from 3 million to roughly 2¼ million. The fact is that unemployment has gone up throughout the developed world, in particular in the European Community which has the most appalling record on the creation of jobs. We, though, have seen it come down far earlier and far more strongly than most of our competitors. At the same time, we have seen employment grow far more strongly and we now have virtually the largest percentage of those of working age in employment in Europe.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister not slightly worried that in this best of all possible worlds that he has been expounding an article in last week's Financial Times showed that our capital investment, for which the fall in unemployment is absolutely necessary, is the lowest in Europe?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord is taking the Question slightly beyond what is on the Order Paper. We are dealing with unemployment and with the growth of employment. I have made clear to the House that although unemployment is very high it has fallen far faster and far sooner than anyone predicted and it fell because of the reforms that this Government made to the labour market and the other policies that we have espoused.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the economies that are most successful in the general field of employment are also the least regulated?

Lord Henley

My Lords, that too is a point that I have been trying to get over. It is why I stressed the importance of keeping our non-wage labour costs down and why they are far lower than those of most of our European colleagues and pretty low in world terms.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is it not significant that none of the Minister's noble friends has referred to long-term unemployment, which is the whole purpose of my Question? Is it not also significant that 216,000 people under the age of 25 have never had a job? The longer one stays out of a job the harder it is to get a job.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I will remind the noble Lord of some figures that I gave earlier. Long-term unemployment is a much lower percentage in this country than elsewhere and it is falling as a percentage of overall unemployment. The noble Lord mentioned the unemployment rate for the under-25s. Perhaps he will look at the over-regulated economies across the Channel and see how high their youth unemployment is.