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Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the unemployment situation.

As I informed the House on 13th January, the dispute which has prevented the compilation of unemployment figures for December and for the scheduled date this month has been settled. Figures for future months should become available at the usual times. I promised to consider whether it would be possible to make an approximate estimate of the current level of unemployment, and I now have this estimate.

Last Monday, 20th January, the level of unemployment in Great Britain is estimated to have been about 742,000, an increase of about 121,000 since the count last November. Of course, I do not minimise the seriousness of these figures, but part of this increase is what would normally be expected at this time of the year owing to seasonal factors. The increase since November in the seasonally adjusted level, excluding school leavers and adult students, was approximately 67,000.

Further details of the estimates, including regional figures, are being issued by my Department, and I have arranged for a copy of the Press release to be placed in the Library.

I agree that these figures are very serious. How do the increases compare with figures for recent years? Would the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Chancellor that the real threat during the coming months comes from inflationary wage settlements and that they will have the greatest effect on the unemployment figures? Do not these figures, together with the record increases in the cost of living and the numbers of days lost through strikes, indicate the total discredit of all that the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends said only three months ago during the election campaign?

There is, of course, no basis at all for what the right hon. Gentleman has said on the general political questions. I do not think, and I do not imagine that the rest of the House would accept, that the best way to debate those questions is in answer to the particular question on the compilation of the figures, particularly when we shall in a few minutes be discussing some of those subjects in the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). They are obviously subjects for general debate, and we are glad to have such a debate, but the figures that I have provided are in response to what the House rightly said, that it wanted figures as soon as we had some available. It is not easy to compare them with other figures over previous months, because these are for a different period than the normal figures, but the next count will be taking place at the normal time and then the normal comparisons will be made.

Cannot these figures often be deceptive? For example, does the Department understand the difficulty of the blockages and shortages of certain kinds of skilled labour, even in areas where there seems on the surface to be rising unemployment—for example, in the oil-related industries—and that this makes the manpower training policies of the Department absolutely crucial in the short term? Second, could the Department have some discussions with the oil companies, not least Burmah—or is it Chevron now, in the Ninian field?—to see how short-term training could be properly conducted to ease unemployment in areas where oil-related processing industries are on the upturn?

I should be glad to answer my hon. Friend's particular question about the oil industry if he would put it down. It is true, as he says, that there is a general shortage of skilled labour in many parts of the country, despite these rising figures. However, I do not believe that on that account anyone should minimise the seriousness of these figures. I certainly do not seek to do so. They indicate a serious rise in unemployment, and, naturally, the Government are very concerned about them. The interpretation of the figures should not be used to suggest that these are not people who want to get jobs if only the jobs were available.

In his statement the Minister referred to part of this increase being expected. Will he put a figure to that part? In other words, how much of the 121,000 increase is due to seasonal conditions and how much is due to the general economic position of the country? Secondly, will the Minister say, if he can, what the Government are doing about the causes of these figures and, what is even more important in this particular situation, what the Minister and the Ministry are doing about the effect of those causes?

As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), I do not think that the best way to discuss the whole situation and the remedies which the Government are seeking to deal with it is in an answer which is concerned primarily with the compilation of the figures themselves. But the actions which the Government are taking to deal with the situation range over the whole degree of Government policy. They figure in Budget debates, and the measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in both his mini-Budget and the other Budget. They were directed to trying to guard against rising unemployment. Indeed, they have had some effect in that sense, as our figures of unemployment are not as bad as those of some other countries. I do not say that this is any great boon, but it is something of which we should take account. The Government are seeking measures which will assist, including measures on snending more money on training and speeding it up. That is one—but only one—of the ways in which we can assist the situation.

The Secretary of State has come to the House and produced figures which all hon. Members will accept are serious, but then when he is asked what he is going to do about them he says that this is not the right time to discuss the matter. What is the right hon. Gentleman going to do about these figures in view of all he has said in recent months about unemployment?

The right hon. Gentleman is abusing the situation entirely. What I did—partly in response to him and, even more so, partly in response to my desire to inform the House as soon as we had the figures available—was to give the estimates that were available. They are not the official regular figures. What I am saying now—I should have thought that it was common sense as well as common practice in the House—is that the way to discuss the general question of unemployment and policies to deal with it, or the effect of the social contract or of wages on these matters, is in general debate—particularly as we are to have a general debate to be initiated immediately on the subject. We also have other occasions on which these matters are debated. The idea that the best way to deal with the discussion about unemployment is on the particular question of the compilation of the figures does not strike me as the best way for Parliament to do its business.

Is the Minister aware that short-time working is also a very serious problem in the West Midlands, as well as unemployment? When he gives us the regional figures, will he also give an estimate of the amount of short-time working that is taking place, in addition to unemployment?

Estimates about short-time working are not included in the figures that I have said that we are today publishing and putting in the Library. As I have indicated previously, these are not the regular figures compiled each month by the Department of Employment. They are estimates made in the intereval. I have given them to the House because of the hold-up in the regular figures as a result of the dispute which prevented us from publishing them earlier.

As for the remark of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft about the Government's policies, he should bear in mind the situation all over the world. He ought to understand that this is a matter much better dealt with in general debate than by individual questions and answers.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when there is increasing unemployment on the mainland it has an accelerating effect in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that his right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland has indicated this week that he is seriously concerned about unemployment prospects in the Province? This is because mainland-based companies frequently trim their peripheral activities when we are in this difficult situation. Will the Minister assure the House that he will work closely with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland office to alleviate this problem as much as possible?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly shall. We are very much concerned with the increasing unemployment in Northern Ireland, and in some other regions of the country, too—indeed, in the country as a whole. I am certainly not seeking to minimise the significance of these figures.

May I express my concern about these increased figures, but may I also thank the Secretary of State for taking the trouble to bring them to the House, as requested by the Opposition? Has my right hon. Friend any idea how the regions are affected, as distinct from London and the South-East? May I urge upon him the necessity—of which I am sure he is aware—of bringing in remedial measures as a matter of urgency, and, in particular, increased investment from the National Enterprise Board? Will he assure the House that he does not regard wage curbs and confrontation with the trade unions as a method of solving this problem?

I assure my hon. Friend that I certainly do not regard the matters concerned in the warning he gave us at the end of his remarks as possible ways of dealing wih this problem. On his other question about the National Enterprise Board, perhaps if I answered that I might stray into doing what I refused to do with the right hon. Member for Lowestoft—to engage in a general debate. But certainly it is the Government's policy to get the NEB established as swiftly as possible. We believe that it could play a very important part in dealing with this problem.

But the Government have not waited to deal with these matters until this present moment. One of the first measures which the Government took to deal with unemployment in the regions, about which my hon. Friend asked—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend put a particular question about the regions, and it relates to the figures. In Scotland, for example, the seasonally adjusted figure has risen since the last count by 7,000, in Wales it has risen by 4,000, and in the North-West by 9,000. But the biggest proportional increase has been in the South-East, although in the regions there have been these increases. As I have indicated, the Government did not wait for the figures in order to try to help to deal with some of the problems in the regions. That was one of the reasons why the Government doubled the regional employment premium and refused to continue with the action of the previous Government to abolish REP.

Is the Secretary of State still considering the contingency plans which the Manpower Services Commission put before him at the end of last year? When does he hope to come forward with his views on those plans, particularly the commission's proposals for selective job creation?

We are still having discussions with the Manpower Services Commission about the job creation proposals. That can be one element in assisting the situation, but only one. There will have to be other measures to deal with it.

What further measures does the right hon. Gentleman have in mind to encourage firms to notify vacancies, particularly small firms?

I do not want to be tempted to do what I tried to guard against—the discussion of all the policy issues. However, certainly the Government are very eager that firms should give us all the information they can about possible redundancies. The Employment Protection Bill, which will be coming before the House in a month or two, will make statutory provision for this on a much more extended scale than that which we have at present. In the meantime, firms can assist by giving full information to the Department, and many firms up and down the country do this.

The figures quoted by the right hon. Gentleman in reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) indicate that the situation in Wales is deteriorating less rapidly than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, is the right hon. Gentleman aware, nevertheless, of the repeated and snowballing redundancies being announced in my part of North Wales at any rate?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not minimising the significance of the increase in the figures in any part of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) asked a specific question about the figures in the regions, which I gave. I also made a comparison with the fact that there had been a bigger increase in the South-East on this occasion. I am not seeking to draw any great policy deductions from them. I agree that the situation in Wales, Scotland and the other regions is even more serious because they start from a very difficult point in the range of unemployment.

Will the right hon. Gentleman, since he has agreed that there is a rise in the South-East, try to persuade his right hon. Friend to withdraw Statutory Instrument No. 2028/74, which is designed to stop small and medium firms expanding their businesses in London and providing more jobs, which will make the situation much more difficult?

Discussions have been held about this matter, but if I knew more about that statutory instrument I would be in a much better position to reply. I shall hold further discussions as a result of the hon. Member's question.

Since the serious figures produced by the Secretary of State understate the position by not including the numbers on short-time working, will the right hon. Gentleman give an estimate of the current number of employees who are on short time?

No, I will not give any estimate of that kind. I said that these are interim figures which are an estimate of what we believe to be the position. The figures are not in exactly the same form as when the regular figures are presented to the House. The regular figures are based on a more detailed examination than has been possible in this case. However, since the figures had been delayed by the dispute we felt that we should present them as soon as we received them, and that is what we have done.