HL Deb 08 July 2002 vol 637 cc431-4
Baroness Byford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether progress in reducing youth unemployment, especially in the countryside, is satisfactory.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, we are making good progress in reducing unemployment among young people. Since 1997 youth unemployment has fallen by more than 40 per cent, in rural areas by nearly 50 per cent, and is around its lowest level since the mid-1970s. Long-term youth unemployment has been virtually eradicated.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Two weeks ago at Prime Minister's Questions, the Prime Minister said that there were only some 4.500 young people on the dole. I understand that the correct figure is 244,000, of whom 44,000 have been unemployed for more than six months. Can the Minister explain how the Government separate those who are unemployed in rural areas and those who are unemployed in urban areas? What analysis is used?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that at any one point in time the snapshot, churning figure of labour mobility for young people is 233,000. But for six months those young people are on JSA and within that six months 80 per cent of them will go back into work. After six months, the New Deal kicks in. Therefore, when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that there were 4,900 young people on the dole, he was referring to a period 12 months on when people have either gone back into work or come through the New Deal. So the noble Baroness's statistics are right in that respect.

As to rural areas, long-term rural unemployment for young people has been virtually eliminated. Perhaps I may give the figures for the noble Baroness's own county. Whereas in 1997 there were about 600 young people who had been unemployed for more than six months, the figure is now one-third of that. Our figure of 4,900 compares favourably with the figure of the mid-1980s, which was 350,000.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the contributory factors in rural poverty is that rural wages tend to be very much lower than urban wages. Can anything be done to rectify the imbalance? Would tax credits help? What is the Government's policy?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, one of the problems is that while total household incomes in rural areas are higher than the national average, individual rural wages are somewhat lower than urban wages. My noble friend is right. That is why I am so pleased that working families tax credit is being claimed in rural communities. For example, for a farmer and his partner with two children on an average farmer's income of £7,000 to £7,500, tax credits will bring that income up to £12,000. Approximately 17,500 farmers and farm labourers are currently claiming working families tax credit.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, the Minister will know that the highest levels of unemployment for young people have traditionally been among those with few or no qualifications. How successful have been initiatives such as the educational maintenance allowance in rural areas in keeping young people at school and helping them gain higher qualifications?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The New Deal research, the Rowntree report and the recent ERSC research, which was published a few weeks ago, show that the employment option of the New Deal is working very successfully for young people. As a result, there are fewer young people unemployed in rural areas than in urban areas. The problem lies in getting people into the education and full-time training option. It is difficult. Working with the Department for Education and Skills, we are introducing Internet access, home learning, learning and skills council developments and so on. However, there is a problem. Whereas it is relatively easy to get local employers to work with and take a socially responsible attitude towards young people in their area, educational facilities of the kind needed often may be some distance away and transport can be the core of the problem.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, a recent article in The Times entitled Blair backs plan for countryside's lost generation", went on to refer to, the blueprint to champion rural youth". When are we likely to see this plan? How many people is it envisaged will be involved? How will it be funded?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am not familiar with the details of the blueprint for youth referred to by the noble Lord. I do not know whether it is an initiative of the Home Office or the Department for Education and Skills. I shall write to the noble Lord.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the problem of transport. Is she aware of how serious is the difficulty for young people in isolated rural areas of travelling to whatever work may be available? Is she conscious that there are schemes to provide mobility or to help with it, such as that of the Prince's Trust, by the provision of mopeds or motor-bikes or even some help with the licensing and insuring of an old car? Is there any scheme to coordinate those efforts across the country so that help with mobility is available to young people in isolated areas everywhere?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that is an extremely pertinent point. As my noble friend Lord Whitty told the House a couple of weeks ago, rural bus services are improving and nearly half of all rural households now have a bus service of at least one per hour regularity. However, that still leaves many people without access to reliable bus services. However, not only are the New Deal schemes helping young people with bicycles, insuring cars and so on, but approximately 65 "action for jobs" teams are operating in the most remote and inaccessible rural areas and providing mopeds, scooters, and so on. These seem to be having a real impact on youth unemployment in those areas.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that one of the problems in the countryside is the lack of affordable housing for young people? What became of socially rented accommodation?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is right. One of the problems in the countryside is that younger, poorer people are leaving but younger, richer people are moving in. One of the reasons why such people are leaving is, I suspect, the lack of access to affordable housing. Statistics indicate that in the 180 or so rural districts there are now some 677,000 social houses for rent.

The indication is that, as of December 2001, 1.5 million local authority council houses have been sold.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister to answer the point in my supplementary question; namely, how the analysis is done. She did not state how many young people in rural areas find employment in those areas, rather than having to move to towns to find work. Will she clarify the point?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I can tell the noble Baroness how the statistics are arrived at. Basically, the districts are broken down into five categories: remote rural, accessible rural, the former coalfields, urban and metropolitan. The first three are regarded as rural, the last two as urban/metropolitan. There are about 181 districts in the first three categories and about 173 in the last two. The statistics are arrived at on that basis. We have tried to cut it the other way, by looking at populated settlement sizes of 10,000, and that does not work. Therefore, we have adopted those definitions. We cannot break down the statistics beyond that. Clearly, some young people are able to find work in their village or the immediate area, others in market towns, and others in larger towns. It is the case—I am sure this is what really matters—that more young people between 18 and 25 are in work in the country as a whole. Secondly, compared to the 350,000 young people who were long-term unemployed in 1985, there are now under 5,000. I am sure that the noble Baroness will rejoice at those statistics.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, since 1997 the Government have taken billions of pounds in stamp duty from housing. How much of that money has been spent on alleviating the problems of rural housing?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that question is rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper. I repeat: this Government are seeking to rebuild affordable housing stock by making available some 3,000 extra houses a year in settlements of under 3,000, and a further 6,000 for larger rural settlements. The combination of the pressure on second homes and the sale of council housing stock has resulted in young people being unable to find the affordable housing they might have found even 10 years ago.

Back to