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Unemployed Persons

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 23 January 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Employment what is the latest rate of unemployment.


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what are the latest figures for unemployment; and if he will make a statement.

At 11 January, the unemployment rate in Great Britain was 6 per cent. and 1,391,220 people were registered as unemployed. On a seasonally adjusted basis, this results in an increase of 17,600. This is disappointing, but does not invalidate the picture that has emerged over the last 16 months of a general downward trend. However, we must not relax our efforts to reduce inflation still further and improve our industrial performance. In the meantime, the special manpower measures continue to make a substantial contribution to alleviating the worse effects of the recession.

In view of such depressing statistics, which make these the second worst January figures since the war, and particularly in view of the further rise in the number of unemployed school leavers, is it not time that the Government started to implement the policies of the Labour Party and the TUC by introducing the 35-hour week, by lowering the retirement age, and by increasing public expenditure in order to provide better social services and also more jobs?

The figures that I have quoted represent a drop of 81,000 on the seasonally adjusted figures of last January and 94,000 on the crude total figure. They should be seen in that perspective. The numbers of unemployed school leavers—there is a slightly different pattern in Scotland due to the different school leaving age—have been declining rapidly, due to the success of the youth opportunities programme, of which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has just spoken. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend about the desirability of operating joint policies with the TUC and this is a matter of continuing discussion.

Whatever the Secretary of State's intentions, his reply must seem extremely complacent to the 190,000 people out of work in Scotland, which seems, as usual, to have been hardest hit by the latest troubles? If the present measures that he has introduced are not satisfactory, will he come back to the House with fresh measures to deal with the situation?

I certainly did not intend to indicate any sign of complacency about unemployment anywhere in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland where we have been giving special attention to the effectiveness of measures run by my Department. Up to now, these have had a considerable impact. I have checked and find that nearly 136,000 people have been assisted by measures, including 56,000 helped by the temporary employment subsidy. I will certainly continue to consider how these measures can be expanded, developed or refined to be more effective.

What advice is the Secretary of State giving to his parliamentary colleagues about the likely consequences for the unemployment figures of the complete collapse of the Government's pay policy? Does he still maintain, in the light of the figures he has given, that he has a unique and special relationship with the trade union movement?

The advice that I give to colleagues about the collapse of pay policy, if that is the way that the hon. Gentleman wishes to describe it, is that this must have serious implications for problems in a number of areas. But these are matters to be taken very much into account when claims are being presented and when we are seeking to settle disputes. It should have been taken into account by this House when it voted on the issue of the Government's use of powers to deal with the pay policy situation.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the lack of purchasing power of a large number of low-paid people is, in many ways, directly responsible for their inability to buy the goods that are being produced and will therefore create a great deal more unemployment? Does he also accept that we had many thousands of people lobbying hon. Members yesterday and complaining bitterly that, although they had supported us through thick and thin, they were taking home less than £40 a week and that they can no longer face that? Further unemployment will be on the agenda unless something is done quickly about that state of affairs.

I accept that the purchasing power of a large number of very low-paid people is an important factor in the level of demand in our economy, but if we have a rapidly rising inflation rate it will reduce the effective purchasing power of those people. We need to be able to increase the supply of goods and services in order effectively to use increased demand to reduce unemployment, otherwise such an increase may result only in more imports being sucked in.

Why has the Secretary of State avoided giving the House the true increase in unemployment, which, according to his Department, is 90,968? Does he not agree that, in view of our present strike-bound circumstances, that augurs badly for next month?

I resent the suggestion that I have not given the House the true figures. I gave the figures that I was requested to give, together with the seasonally adjusted change—the figure normally taken by the House as the best indication of the way in which unemployment is moving.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the Governor of the Bank of England and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that their speeches yesterday implying cuts in public expenditure are completely unacceptable to the Labour movement, particularly as what they implied would be bound to increase unemployment and thereby add to the Treasury's expenditure? Will he explain that, on the contrary, we think that a 2 per cent. increase is not enough and that more public expenditure should be used to help in housing, health, pensions and the social services?

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that I am more likely to be guided by what he says than by the remarks of the two gentlemen to whom he referred. In discussions of the effects of public expenditure, I shall certainly express to any colleague the view that any reduction in public spending is likely to be detrimental to the employment figures.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if every demand made upon us yesterday by the local authority workers is to be met, there will have to be a massive increase in the rate support grant for rural counties because otherwise unemployment will continue to rise in those areas?

If some of the demands being advanced were met, it would mean a massive increase in the wages bill for a number of public service employees, including those in local authorities. That is one of the reasons why I and other Ministers are seeking to reach an agreement about solving some of the problems of lower-paid public servants without bringing about the undesirable effects to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Will my right hon. Friend institute an inquiry into the relationship between unemployment and illness, so that his Department is not stimulated to take that action following a forthcoming Granada Television programme?

I see it as part of the role of my Department, working with the Health and Safety Executive, to watch carefully the relationship between unemployment and illness and to take steps to institute good health and safety practices to avoid loss of employment in that way.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I had intended to ask why he could not be more communicative and give up his Trappist vows? However, having heard his answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) about the Financial Secretary and the Governor of the Bank of England, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to maintain the silence that he has managed to maintain in the past few weeks while unemployment has gone from bad to worse?

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, as an ex-Minister, should not expect me to be influenced and guided by hon. Members in the first instance.