HL Deb 16 December 1997 vol 584 cc497-500

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What change they expect to make in the collection and presentation of statistics on unemployment to reflect more accurately the numbers of those unemployed and actively seeking work.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, in the summer the Office for National Statistics launched a wide-ranging public consultation about the future of labour market statistics. The results of the consultation were published in the October edition of the Office for National Statistics publication Labour Market Trends.

The director of the ONS is responsible for deciding the form, coverage and timing of release of ONS statistics. I expect him to make an announcement about ONS proposals for labour market statistics in the new year.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for that Answer. I recall that he and other colleagues, when they were in opposition, said quite rightly that the employment figures given in this country could not be wholly relied upon. Given that his right honourable friend the Prime Minister made a promise at the Luxembourg employment summit that the United Kingdom would be advancing internationally comparable bases of employment in future, and acknowledging that actual internationally comparable statistics are probably 0.5 million higher than the official figures given by the so-called claimant benefit base, will the noble Lord say when we can rely upon new figures for unemployment which actually reflect the real position? Can he give the assurance that decisions on welfare-to-work will not be made on the basis of statistics that are not correct?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, without anticipating in too great detail the announcement which the director of ONS will make, I can certainly confirm that it is the intention of ONS and therefore of the Government to include International Labour Organisation comparable statistics in the monthly first release figures.

However, as the noble Baroness knows, those are based on the labour force survey which is a survey rather than a census. Therefore, it is difficult to get them truly up to date, given any specific sample size and it is virtually impossible to get them for smaller regions or smaller local areas. Therefore, for that purpose it will be necessary to continue to show alongside the labour force survey figures the figures of claimant unemployment which will be called "claimant unemployment", in order not to confuse anyone. They are based on a census and therefore are available for each region. each local authority area and employment district.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister confirm for me from what he has just said that all the previous statistics will be published in their previous form alongside the new ones? He said that some would be so published, but how will it be possible to compare like with like if the whole format is changed? Is the change of format simply to confuse us and try to prevent us from comparing the figures?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on the contrary. I can certainly confirm what the noble Baroness said, that all the existing figures will continue to be published. There is no difficulty about that and no intent to cause confusion. Indeed, we hope that the monthly publication will contain a moving quarterly total from the Labour Force Survey, the most recent monthly figures of claimant count, including separate figures for those on the jobseeker's allowance, which is quite important, and also figures from employer surveys on those matters which can only come from them—for example, working hours. So I think the noble Baroness will find that the new first release which will start in April next year will be far more helpful than anything we have had in the past.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is my noble friend prepared to consider seeking the views of the trade union organisations and the employers' organisations on what he said on this important subject?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, very wide consultation took place on the publication of figures in Labour Market Trends in May this year. It was open to trade unions and employers' organisations to comment on those figures. My understanding is that they did so. The results of the consultation were published in Labour Market Trends in October 1997. Perhaps I may add to my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, that the analysis of the relationship between claimant count and ILO count is made in a very interesting article in the November issue.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether, when the new arrangements are made, there will be a clear figure for the number of people who are between jobs? The present method of counting has excluded that figure. If we have new figures, it will be important that we know the number of people who are merely looking for a job and will soon have one. At one time that figure was as high as 700,000.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not think it is possible, in either a survey or a census, to predict whether anyone answering the questions will get a job in the next few weeks or months. However, the analysis of the Labour Force Survey includes details of the length of time people are unemployed. I believe that that gives the answer that the noble Baroness seeks. It is available from the Labour Force Survey. Whether or not it is included in the first release, there is no difficulty for the noble Baroness in obtaining it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, perhaps I may welcome the Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard to the "three-out-of-four club" since he has answered three out of the four questions today. I wonder whether on this Question he can do better than his noble friend Lady Blackstone yesterday in failing to answer the question put to her by my noble friend Lady Blatch. What is the current level of youth unemployment on whatever statistics the noble Lord wishes to use? What was the level of youth unemployment two years ago?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I should have thought that the noble Lord could do better than that. I should have thought it was inappropriate in this House for him to abuse my noble friend for something that happened yesterday or indeed to ask me a question which bears no relationship whatever to the original serious Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his full replies which reflect his commitment to employment statistics which can be relied on. When he comes further to consider the issue of unemployment statistics, will he consider further definition within them? Is the Minister aware, for example, of the extent to which invalidity benefit was used as an alternative to unemployment benefit in an effort by the previous government to reduce unemployment statistics? Can he assure us that that kind of redefinition of unemployment will be examined closely and carefully when the new basis of unemployment statistics is brought forward in the spring?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I can certainly give the noble Baroness that assurance. One of the reasons we did not immediately leap into action when we had the results of the consultation in October this year was that Ministers were concerned to ensure that all such matters, not just invalidity benefit but the potential effect of welfare-to-work, the new deal and all government programmes, should be openly reflected in the statistics which we produce. Our last concern and our last wish is to cover up any of those matters, as perhaps the noble Baroness was suggesting they were covered up previously.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, will my noble friend learn from the exchanges this afternoon the importance of having statistics which not only bear international comparison but also effectively bear comparison over time in order that we may see over a decade of Labour government, which seeks to create employment, the difference from the past 18 years?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is exactly why both before and after the election we have been keen to ensure that the International Labour Organisation definition as obtained from the Labour Force Survey is available, is used and is given greater prominence. I pay tribute to the previous Government for the fact that in 1992 they increased the sample size of the labour force survey from 60,000 a year to 60,000 a quarter, in order to improve the accuracy of the survey.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords. despite the ferocity of the noble Lord's reply to my noble friend on the Front Bench, perhaps I may be allowed, quietly and with the utmost docility, to congratulate him on the skill he has shown this afternoon as the Government's goalkeeper.

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