HL Deb 17 January 1996 vol 568 cc592-6

2.48 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect unemployment to fall to 1 million people.

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

My Lords, the Government do not make forecasts of unemployment. Falling unemployment depends on sustainable economic growth. The prospects for that are better than they have been for many years.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, to clarify the situation, is the Minister aware that we on these Benches welcome every reduction in unemployment? However, we do not welcome the continuing complacency which the Government show on a matter which devastates so many lives. Should we not compare the present total of 2.3 million unemployed with the 1.3 million unemployed when the Government came to power? Will the Minister confirm two important statistics; first, that the average monthly fall in unemployment over the past six months is 15,000–0.5 per cent.—which is hardly an impressive figure, and, secondly, that there are almost four times as many unemployed as there are vacancies?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord welcomes the 28th successive fall in the unemployment statistics. I rather resent the fact that we are accused of complacency when the noble Lord himself, who claims that he welcomes the figure, stopped tabling his regular questions on the unemployment figures just at the moment when they started to fall some 28 months ago. They have been falling steadily since then. I also reject and regret the accusations of complacency from a party opposite which does its damnedest, by advocating that we sign up to the social chapter and bring in the minimum wage, to put up unemployment.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that it is illogical for noble Lords in the Labour Party to criticise the fall in unemployment that has now been going on for nearly two years under the economic programme of this Government? Will he also agree that, again, it is illogical for criticism to be levelled at this Government when the avowed policy of the Labour Party is not only to introduce a minimum wage, which would increase unemployment, but also to sign up to the social chapter, which would be disastrous for the economy?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. As I made clear in my previous answer, unemployment has now been falling for 28 months consecutively. It is now well below the level in all the major countries in Europe. Further, the percentage of long-term unemployed has been falling and is now lower than the European average. Our rate of youth unemployment is lower than the average in Europe. I could continue.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the Minister has said that it is the Government's responsibility to create the right economic climate as regards employment. Is he aware that under the premiership of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, unemployment in this country rose to an all-time high? Am I to take it that the Government have now officially dished her policies?

Lord Henley

My Lords, unemployment did rise to an all-time high. It came down quite dramatically in the early 1980s. It then went up again, but did not reach the same peak. That was the first time in any cycle that it peaked at a lower level than the previous peak. We are now seeing a very welcome change in the circumstances. The economic policies that the Government have been pursuing are very much responsible for that decline. As I said to the noble Lord's noble friend, those policies have now given us 28 consecutive months of falling unemployment.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm what I understood him to say in his main Answer; namely, that the level of unemployment depends on sustainable economic growth or otherwise? Does he therefore agree that it is wholly out of place to turn the issue into a party political controversy?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not the one who wants to create party political controversy. I do want to make clear that Her Majesty's Government are committed, as my noble and learned friend said, to sustainable economic growth. It is sustainable economic growth that will create the jobs. Also, I can assure noble Lords opposite that Britain now has the second highest employment rate of any European country as well as a falling unemployment rate. We will continue to pursue the policies that produce those figures.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, in order to pursue the non-party approach of the noble Lord opposite, may I ask whether the Government still adhere to the "one nation" policy of the coalition government during the war when they set out as an objective a rate of unemployment of 3 per cent?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we have no specific rate of unemployment that we seek. We want to see unemployment as low as possible. That will be achieved, as the noble Lord well knows, by pursuing appropriate and right economic policies.

Lord Alport

My Lords, does my noble friend have any statistics in regard to unemployment among the managerial and executive class?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot at this Dispatch Box give a breakdown of the figures for which my noble friend asks. I can certainly give him a great many statistics on levels of unemployment and employment in this country. I was trying to assure the House that the figures are not nearly as bad as the party opposite seem to imply. In fact, they are far better than those of most of our colleagues in the European Community.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, unemployment is a tragedy for anyone. I should like to direct one particular question to the Minister about the figures. Does he agree that the rate of unemployment among black workers in some areas of this country is double that of white workers and that the gap is larger today than it was a decade ago? Does the Minister accept that ethnic minority workers in Britain are more likely to be among the long-term unemployed than are their white citizen counterparts? Does the Minister further accept that this does nothing for social cohesion? It is not one nation politics and whatever measures the Government have taken are clearly failing.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to variations in levels of unemployment in different groups and in different areas. I cannot confirm or deny the figures that she quotes about different rates of unemployment among certain ethnic minorities. I can tell her that within the regional variations in this country, the gap between the best and the worst region is now only 7.2 per cent. That compares very well indeed with the percentages of our European colleagues. In Italy, for example, the gap between the best region and the worst is something of the order of 17 per cent. Even in Germany, there is a gap of some 14 per cent. The more we can narrow the gap the more we can look to the social cohesion that the noble Baroness seeks.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is it not the case that the falling figure to which the Minister attaches great importance, as do we all, does not include people actively seeking work who are not entitled to claim benefit? I could he wrong. Will the Minister confirm that that is the position? How can the Government properly judge the economic health of society if they do not know that particular figure?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, we have two measures for counting unemployment. The first is the count itself, which appears once a month. It is an accurate count of exactly what it claims to measure; namely, those out of work and in receipt of benefit. There is also the Labour Force Survey, a survey of a certain number of people which takes place once every three months and provides a figure that is broadly the same. Both figures show a very consistent decline in unemployment, a decline which, as I made clear, has now continued for some 28 months consecutively.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, the Minister's figures are incomplete. He did not mention the third survey from the Central Statistical Office of the Workforce in Employment. What does the Minister have to say in regard to the discrepancy between the figures produced by the Labour Force Survey and the Workforce in Employment survey? To be fair to the Minister, the Labour Force Survey shows that there are more people in employment, but the Workforce in Employment survey shows fewer people in employment. Indeed, the Minister's department has now set up an inquiry to see how the discrepancy arose.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I think the noble Lord will find that all the surveys show very broadly the same trends. Obviously, from one month to another figures may diverge to some extent. I recommend that the noble Lord examines the figures in the long term; he will then notice exactly the same trends applying to both surveys.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is it not significant that the Minister does not deal with the main point that I raised? I repeat that we welcome the fall that has been going on for some time now. But the level is going down very slowly indeed. That is why I used the figure of 1 million in my Question. It will be many, many years—if ever—before the figure falls to 1 million, which after all is pretty high. Will the Minister deal specifically with the two questions that I asked?

Lord Henley

My Lords, in the noble Lord's first supplementary, he posed quite a large number of questions. In line with the guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders, I believe I answered the noble Lord's first two points. I am so advised. I can confirm that unemployment is coming down by some 10,000 to 15,000 a month. That is a good, steady figure. If we could see an employment figure that was higher, that would be wonderful. But we are not going to try to create a figure by artificial means. We will continue to pursue the policy of creating jobs by means of pursuing appropriate economic policies.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that the level of unemployment among the unskilled, which is where unemployment primarily exists, is due to the failure not only of this Government but also of previous governments of another complexion to provide adequate training?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we do provide adequate training. The Employment Service provides something of the order of 1½ million opportunities of one sort or another and will be doing so in the coming year. Obviously, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to the need for training. The more qualifications and the more training any individual can take up, the greater are his or her chances of finding a job.