HL Deb 31 March 1998 vol 588 cc152-4

3.11 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have to improve the accuracy of the unemployment figures.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, from April a single news release each month from the Office for National Statistics will present a coherent picture of the labour market. First, information from the Labour Force Survey, now to be released monthly, based on an average of the latest three months' data, will include unemployment estimates according to internationally agreed definitions set out by the International Labour Organisation. It will also include data on employment and other measures of economic activity. The Labour Force Survey is of course a sample survey and is subject to sampling variability and measurement and estimation issues. Secondly, ONS will continue to publish the claimant count series, which is a comprehensive count of claimants of unemployment-related benefits.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the new system that he has just announced, which I understand will come into operation tomorrow, has been very widely welcomed? In particular, can my noble friend confirm that the new system will place greater emphasis on the International Labour Organisation's measure of unemployment which is fundamentally more important than the claimant count? Does my noble friend agree that it is difficult to obtain figures for those who are said to be economically inactive? Is this aspect being looked at?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's comments about the internationally accepted figures. It is important that we have a proper basis for making comparisons with other figures. But I believe the implication of his further question is also valuable. With the publication of the Labour Force Survey figures, we shall increase our emphasis on employment and not just unemployment. It is important to recognise the approximately 2 million people who want to work but who are not looking for or are unable to take up jobs. That is the thrust of our policies under the New Deal and welfare-to-work.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, has the Minister had an opportunity to look at the useful analysis of unemployment by constituency which came out about a week ago? If so, is he aware that that shows that there are now no fewer than 350 constituencies with unemployment at less than 5 per cent., 158 with full employment (in the Beveridge sense of 3 per cent.), and only 56 with unemployment in double digits? Is the noble Lord prepared to give credit where credit is due for the healthy state of the economy which these figures indicate?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to claimant count unemployment. We must apply to what the noble Lord has said all of the precautions of claimant count unemployment which have already been expressed. We cannot produce from a sample survey ILO-defined employment figures for individual constituencies. It is true that claimant unemployment figures have been going down for a number of years, and credit must be due to anyone who has been responsible for that—if governments are ever entirely responsible for these matters.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, perhaps we could return to the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington. My noble friend Lord McIntosh referred to the 2.2 million people who want to work but who are not actively seeking work. It is known, is it not, that the great majority are women, and in particular single parents? Will the Government use the Labour Force Survey to discover why these people say that they want to work but cannot work? Is it because there are no child-care facilities, because they cannot get decent jobs, or because they get the sack whenever they have to leave to look after their children? What are the reasons? Surely, the Labour Force Survey can be used to find out why those who want work cannot get work.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend asks some very proper questions. He is right to say that the Government should investigate the matter. Whether that can be done in the context of the Labour Force Survey, which already contains 100 questions, I am not certain. The Government's recognition of the problems that my noble friend has identified is evidenced by the fact that under the New Deal and welfare-to-work they propose to spend !3.5 billion over the next four years on exactly that problem.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, when the Government move to the new internationally recognised system and away from the claimant count, will they consider the number of people at any time who are between jobs? If not, whatever may be the international system, it will not tell us what we need to know.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is not a new system; it has been in use for many years in many countries. The ILO definition of unemployment includes availability to start work in the next two weeks and whether the individual has been actively looking for work in the past four weeks or has found a job and is waiting to start. If the noble Baroness asks for figures relating to those who are between jobs, she rather assumes that the interviewer and interviewee will know whether or not the individual will find another job in the next few weeks. That is impossible.

I have not sat down. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for having spoken a second or two longer and deprived him of the opportunity to rise to speak in all four of the Questions this afternoon.