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Labour Statistics

Volume 124: debated on Thursday 10 December 1987

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2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the current level of unemployment in Northern Ireland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Peter Viggers)

At 8 October 1987, the latest date for which unemployment figures are available, there were 124,701 unemployed claimants in Northern Ireland, representing 18·2 per cent. of the working population. Compared with the same period last year, that is a decrease in unemployment of almost 6,000.

Is it not a scandalous reflection of the failure of the Government's economic policies for the United Kingdom as a whole, and Northern Ireland in particular, that nearly 20 per cent. of adults in Northern Ireland are unemployed? Does that not contribute to the maintenance of the secretarian divide, because there are two and a half times more male adult unemployed Catholics than there are Protestants? When does the Minister expect the Government's economic policies to start working to produce some jobs in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

As regards unemployment generally, Northern Ireland is now benefiting from the general upturn in the economy of the United Kingdom. If I may amplify my earlier figures, unemployment is now down by 900 a month over a three-month average. We regard that as satisfactory, and the signs are that it will continue. Of course, it is still too high, and we are doing everything that we can to reduce it.

As for the level of sectarian distinction between the Catholic and Protestant communities, we accept that having two and a half times as many Catholics as Protestants unemployed is unacceptable, and we propose to introduce legislation as soon as possible on that point.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the largest numbers of employed people in Northern Ireland are in agriculture? Does he also agree that if the so-called remedies from Europe are applied to Northern Ireland agriculture they will have a very adverse effect on Northern Ireland's family farms? Will he declare the devastated areas of Northern Ireland disaster areas in order to give short-term employment?

The Government have been active in remedying the damage by flooding and in assisting those people who suffered damage. On the general issues, it is not possible for Northern Ireland to stand aside from the main trend within Europe. It is necessary for this to be handled on a European Community basis rather than on a Northern Ireland basis.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that in Northern Ireland a Catholic is two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than a Protestant. If we are to solve this problem, we must tell the truth about it. The unemployment problem in Northern Ireland as it stands today cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the Government. As the New Ireland Forum said in its document "The cost of violence", the paramilitary campaign of violence by the Provisional IRA over the past 20 years has directly cost 39,000 jobs in manufacturing industry between 1970 and 1980, and there are only 90,000 people employed in Northern Ireland in manufacturing industry. That campaign has caused £11 billion worth of damage to the economy of Ireland, north and south. If that money were floating around in the economy, fewer people would be unemployed. If we are to tackle the problem of discrimination, we must do it on all fronts, not just on some. We need fair employment laws, but we also need inward investment in the areas of high unemployment in Northern Ireland.

I strongly support the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's points. If we were merely to remove unemployment from one area and allocate it to another, we would not be doing a good service to Northern Ireland. We need further investment in Northern Ireland, leading to further jobs. I endorse and support the hon. Gentleman's activity in promoting investment in his part of Northern Ireland and in the rest of the Province.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Anglo-Irish Agreement provides the best opportunity to solve many of these problems? Does he further agree that the steps that will be taken to introduce that legislation—which will be agreed between the Government and the Government of the Irish Republic — will provide an equitable basis on which to improve the ratio in favour of fairer employment opportunities for Catholics?

It is this Government's duty to bring forward the legislation, and we hope that it will have broad support within Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that one of the causes of unemployment in Northern Ireland is the IRA's vicious campaign of threats and murder against business men and workers? Will he explain to the House what steps are being taken to improve that unacceptable situation?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other ministerial colleagues are working hard to improve the political and security climate. My narrow area of responsibility is the economy. If we can improve the quality of investment and the level of employment in Northern Ireland, that will make a contribution to Northern Ireland generally.

Given that nine further states in the United States are proposing to introduce legislation on the MacBride principles and bearing in mind the question mark that that puts over further investment in Northern Ireland, is it not in the interests of the Government to publish early their White Paper showing how far they embrace the recommendations of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights? Is it not also important for the Government to state precisely their attitude towards the goal of reducing the ratio of unemployment of Catholic and Protestant males from 21/2:1 to 11/2:1 over five years? If the Government are unable to accept that goal, will they say why not? If the Government say that they seek to improve the situation in other areas rather than in some, can the Minister tell us the areas in which he hopes to have that improvement and the number of jobs that will be involved?

We are giving the most urgent and careful consideration to the proposals of the Standing Advisory Commission and we intend to bring forward proposals for legislation very soon. If we were to react too quickly, the hon. Gentleman would be the first to say that we had not given careful consideration to the commission's proposals. I hope that when, in due course—it will be soon—the proposals are put before the House, they will have the support of the hon. Gentleman.