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Mining Communities

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned— [Mr. Derek Twigg.]

9.30 am

Thank you for calling me, Mrs. Roe. I am not sure whether to call you that or Madam Deputy Speaker.

Thank you, Mrs. Roe.

It is good to have the opportunity to raise one of the most important economic issues facing my constituency, and it is a great delight to be able to say that unemployment in Rhondda is only 4.2 per cent. When I ask friends about it, they guess that the figure is 30, 40 or even 50 per cent.

Rhondda's unemployment figure is marginally ahead of the Welsh average, and I am delighted to say that, for the first time in living memory, that is lower than the national average. Many loyal Welshmen will be gratified that the policies of the Welsh Assembly and of Westminster seem to be working in that they have produced something of an economic boom, especially in the M4 corridor and south Wales.

The truth, however, is that the figure of 4.2 per cent. in Rhondda masks an enormous amount of hidden unemployment. Earlier this year the Work and Pensions Committee produced a rather splendid interim report entitled "Employment for All". Table 3 of the report shows that more than 10 of the top 20 districts for male sickness in August 2001 are former mining constituencies. Top of the list was Merthyr Tydfil, with 26.9 per cent. of 16 to 64-year-old men claiming some form of sickness benefit. In Rhondda Cynon Taff, the figure is 18.2 per cent.

It is worth noting that Merthyr Tydfil is a small local authority—the figures for the constituency are not available, which is a problem—and Rhondda Cynon Taff covers some of the wealthiest wards in Wales, as well as many of the poorest. I suspect that if figures were available for Rhondda, Merthyr's 26.9 per cent. would be far exceeded. In other words, more than one in four working age men in Rhondda is on some form of sickness benefit.

I have noted that unemployment is worst in mining areas, but it is a national problem—2.7 million people in the United Kingdom are claiming incapacity benefit. Indeed, that is a phenomenon not only in the UK but throughout Europe. In many parts of the industrialised west, unemployment figures are going down, as, with only a few exceptions, they have done in Europe over the past few years. None the less, that masks a true unemployment figure that is much higher.

Mining areas have faced special problems, most notably the sudden implosion of the local economy when the mines closed, as they did throughout Rhondda. Moreover, whenever a mine closed, the local community lost its work focus. Whether at Pentre, Maerdy or Blaenclydach, when the local economy collapsed, the businesses that depended on the mines lost their chance of survival.

Because of the implosion of local economies over the past 30 years, people's understanding of work has had to change dramatically. In Rhondda, most people's expectation was that work would be manual—it would not involve personal computers or answering the telephone. If anyone was going to answer the telephone, it would be the secretary, and that would be a woman's job. Otherwise, most work was for men, and most was for life. People would stay in one job until they could no longer work, and many would stay in it even if they developed medical problems; they would simply be moved from the coalface to another part of the mine. In essence, the mine provided its own system for rehabilitating people with health problems, although they would still work. The most extraordinary thing about the mining world was that work was on the doorstep, or certainly within a mile of it. The many terraced houses that line the streets of my constituency were built to provide housing close to work. The corollary, of course, was that work was close to home.

None of those things now applies. For the most part, the work available to people in Rhondda is not manual, and it requires keyboard skills or the ability to answer a telephone. Furthermore, it is for men and women; indeed, an increasing number of the new jobs arriving in south Wales are specifically for women. Finally, work is not on the doorstep. We have specific geographical problems. Many communities were built specifically because there was coal there, not because people would otherwise have chosen to live there to gain access to work in the wider economy. That creates special problems. Someone in an area with excellent transport links may think that a journey to work of 2 or 3 miles is nothing. However, it is almost impossible for people to see themselves getting to work if that means taking one bus down one valley and another bus up another valley, particularly if the connections are poor. That problem is multiplied thousands of times over in my constituency.

Someone living in Blaen-cwm who has to get to Newport by 7.30 or 8 o'clock in the morning does not stand an earthly chance. Even someone who has to go from Maerdy to Treorchy will have difficulties because the buses do not start early enough in the morning. Someone whose shift pattern goes into the weekend may find it impossible to get down into Cardiff, even on some of the major routes. Therefore, when someone says that the people of Rhondda are work-shy and not interested in work at all, I want to say, "No, it is about something far more complex." We must make it physically possible for people to get to work. Those on very low incomes will not be able to afford a car, so we need to improve public transport and transport links to ensure that people can get to work.

In tight valleys, such as Rhondda Fach and Rhondda Fawr, there is little flat land on which to create large new businesses. There will never again be a business in Rhondda that employs 65,000 men, so we must find ways of regenerating our local economy and of providing jobs close to home. We also have poor infrastructure. People in Rhondda Fach have been crying out for a relief road for years, and there is now the prospect of work starting on it in a year's time. I hope that the Welsh Assembly will find in itself the largesse to create not only the first half of the Rhondda Fach relief road but the whole road, up to Maerdy, so that people feel that they are not as isolated as they might have been.

We also have a terrible problem with health inequality. The gap between the healthiest and those with the worst health in Wales mirrors that between the wealthiest and those with the least disposable income. Some of the most startling facts and statistics from my constituency relate to poor health; for example, the statistics for coronary heart disease and diabetes. Even if we take just one figure—the number of people who are blind or sight-impaired—it is clear that our health problems will not be fixed in the twinkling of an eye. Many of them are residual problems that relate to people having worked in the pits. Many others, however, are new problems that we create and recreate every day and every month because of the poor nutrition of people in Rhondda.

There is a poor match between people's skills and the needs of employers in Rhondda and many other mining constituencies. I cannot count the number of times that local employers have told me that they would love to employ more people and would be delighted if they could find anyone to answer the phone without sounding grumpy and surly. Head teachers tell me that one of their most difficult tasks is to give young people the confidence to get out there and say, "I am as good as anyone else in this country. I am worth that job, I can get it, and I shall go for it." I sometimes feel that the spirit of "We cannot do it, someone else will do it better" is imbibed too deeply in Rhondda. We need to improve aspiration and ambition.

The world, however, is not all bleak. Much has improved since the mines closed under the Tories in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Rhondda is now a stunningly beautiful place, and many people choose to live there because of that. Many south Wales valleys share that beauty—they are green again.

We have had some great entrepreneurial successes. I particularly delight in telling the story of a young man, Jamie Rowland, who runs the Bicycle Doctor in Porth. He set up the company himself with a grant of, I believe, only £300 and a £500 loan—both from the Prince's Trust—and now employs other people. He is extremely successful and is looking for larger premises. He is not only running a bicycle shop, but setting up bicycling courses for young people at the weekends and giving young people a sense of hope and engagement in their local community. Such successes often build on the great entrepreneurial sense that mining constituencies have always had, which was invested in setting up miners' libraries and mining unions and in building a sense of community. We need to use that entrepreneurialism in our drive for economic success.

Other businesses have done well. Beatus Cartons, which is also based in Porth, has done extraordinarily well and is seeking to make new investments and create more jobs. However, it sometimes has difficulty managing the system of regional selective assistance, which often seems to benefit only those companies that are not doing well and may close, rather than building on the success of those that have proved their mettle.

Over the past few years the Government's ideas have made a significant difference to many of these issues in Rhondda and in mining constituencies throughout the country. I am especially delighted that every ward in Rhondda is covered by an enterprise area, which means that stamp duty exemption and community investment tax relief will apply throughout the area.

There is still more for us to do to try to build a local economy that can match the success of the best of other constituencies throughout the country. In Rhondda, so far as I can tell, there are only some 1,500 local businesses, while the average for a constituency in the country is more than 4,000. Somehow or other, we need to build on the base of small companies that employ two, three or perhaps 10 or 15 people if we are to have a chance of getting more and more people into local jobs.

I mentioned the success of regional selective assistance, and I am particularly delighted that the Welsh Assembly is now operating in a much faster, simpler and more streamlined way. I hope that the process of getting money to ensure that jobs are created and protected will be far simpler and more transparent, and that it will not be seen as four members of some old school tie club down in Cardiff deciding, "Oh yes, he is one of ours. We will give him a little more money." The communities first programme is also a success. Money directed to the 100 poorest wards in Wales is making a difference, with local communities attempting to seize hold of their future, instead of creating a series of white elephants. Regeneration money is going towards the creation of long-term, viable job opportunities.

Objective 1 is making a difference, albeit very slowly. If one asked people in Rhondda whether they felt positive about Europe and what it has achieved for them, many of them would point to the blue and yellow signs on the roads which show that much of the money to build the road came from European structural funds. They might also point to the many courses that are teaching the skills that they need to enter the changed work environment. Taking such a course can mean that a computer is no longer a terrifying thing that only the child up in his bedroom knows how to use, but something that a 55 or 60-year-old knows how to use, perhaps as part of a job at B&Q, where one has to use a computer to work at a till. One course of which I am particularly supportive provides training for young mothers-to-be—particularly single mothers-to-be—in the skills that they will need to look after a child, and to enable them to get into work several months later.

There is still much to do. Above all, we need to create a more personal and effective benefits and employment service. I am wholly supportive of the Government's Jobcentre Plus plan, which brings together the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service. For far too long after the mines closed, miners were dumped into the benefits system and forgotten about for the rest of their lives. That situation has been inherited by their children and grandchildren. It is only by bringing together the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service that we have a chance of changing that culture. I say to the Minister that, particularly in mining constituencies, we need more financial and personnel resources for the access-to-work programmes in all their varieties. Rhondda and many other valleys communities have a growing drugs problem. The access-to-work programme, which is working to get people with a drug dependency problem into employment, needs more resources and more support.

I worry about the Department's plans for Rhondda Fach. Many people who live there refer to it as the forgotten valley or the hidden valley. Very often it seems to lose out on the resources that everywhere else gets. There are worrying signs that the Department for Work and Pensions is slowly retreating from provision in Ferndale, and I say to the Minister that that would be a retrograde step. Two of the most deprived wards in Wales are Maerdy and Tylorstown, both of which are served by Ferndale. If we are to crack the issues in Rhondda Fach, and get more people off benefits and into work, we have to ensure that there is substantial and increased provision for Ferndale.

We also need to do a better job of integrating Jobcentre Plus with the work of the NHS. It is health problems as much as anything which plague our attempts to get more people off benefits and into work. The interface is the GP, who both signs people off and works on behalf of the NHS. If we could find a way for the NHS to create a positive health plan for people on incapacity benefit, we might stand a chance of cracking the problem.

We also need to do more to help people to get to areas where jobs are available. The rail franchise needs looking at; more of the journeys that people need to make from the valleys to Cardiff must be subsidised. This has nothing to do with work, but I am struck by the fact that the Millennium centre in Cardiff will soon open. I wholly support that great new arts centre, but I am worried that the last train back to Rhondda leaves at 10.20, and I suspect that the Millennium centre will end up as a matinee centre for the people of Rhondda. We must ensure that the provision of decent, clean, effective, efficient and well co-ordinated public transport is at the heart of our economic and benefits policies. We must make it financially possible for people to go to work.

Many of the things that we have done to make work pay, such as introducing the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit, have completely transformed the possibilities for many people in mining constituencies. However, there is still some way to go. When people on incapacity benefit are thinking about whether to go into work, they do not think about whether there is a disincentive to do so. They do not add things up and say, "Oh, if I go to work I'll have an extra £42.67 or £37.83." What goes through their mind is the security guaranteed by being on benefits, as opposed to the worrying insecurity of going into a job that may not be there in a year, or, in many cases, may not provide them with a secure amount of income.

That is why I welcome the idea of the return-to-work credit, and I hope that the Minister can say how fast that will be rolled out. The Select Committee feels that a pilot period is not needed. Could the Minister respond to that?

I accept that there are cultural issues that we will have to transform. It is all too easy for the Government and other politicians to wag a finger and move on. The truth is that the concept of work in former mining constituencies has to change completely. It was once about men doing manual work that was on the doorstep, but that is; no longer the case. We must get schools more involved in local businesses; local businesses more involved in the work of the health service; and the health service more engaged in the work of the Welsh Development Agency.

All those organisations must work together to transform our culture if we are to stand a chance of being able to carry out what I believe is the next part of the Labour mission in former mining constituencies. The first part was to get unemployment down. Some politicians believed that unemployment was a price worth paying; I have never believed that. Sadly, our mining constituencies paid a heavier price than most. The most important thing now is for Labour to tackle the hidden unemployment problem. If we can do that, we can stand up with pride.

Order. I remind hon. Members that the winding-up speeches should begin at 10.30, and three Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I hope that they bear that in mind when determining the length of their speeches.

9.53 am

I am pleased to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) on securing it. The debate is timely, coming shortly after the publication of the "Ambitions for the Future" policy agenda for the south Wales valleys by the independent Bevan Foundation. It touched on this and many other issues to do with deprivation and the challenges ahead. It focused on what many valleys and MPs for former coal areas would like to see, which is a much better and more prosperous future and an end to people accepting second best. In entrepreneurialism, the standard of living and the quality of life, we want the communities that we represent to be every bit as good as those along the M4 corridor and throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

Before I move to the main thrust of my speech—I will be mindful of your comments on the time, Mrs. Roe—I should like to echo one comment made by my hon. Friend in respect of transport. Throughout the south Wales valleys, access to jobs is a major factor in deterring people from securing long-term employment. To get to a place of work is a major challenge as people are unable to get from one valley to another. It is difficult even getting down one valley to the hub of transport, and then there are problems reconnecting to get to another town and from there to the place of work. I have raised the matter before with Ministers, and I have stressed the importance of involving the private sector as well as the public sector in initiatives to tackle the problem.

I want to focus on the theme of intensive intervention, because that is very much what is needed. The Government have done sterling work to tackle long-term unemployment with initiatives for the under-25s and over-50s, but we should look beyond the new deal and consider the core: of people who, often through no choice of their own, are committed in their own lifetime and that of their children and grandchildren to living on incapacity or sickness benefits. It is a culture that predisposes a hard core to settle into that frame of mind.

We must tackle the problem by intensive intervention through the targeting of resources on a macro scale with Department for Work and Pensions policies and on a micro scale in local authorities, the Assembly and local voluntary agencies. Much good work is being done by agencies nationally and locally, and the challenge is how to co-ordinate policies effectively to ensure that those agencies work together and that there is no duplication or waste of effort.

This is a timely debate as it recognises the special characteristics of former coal mining communities. Many communities throughout the land face special challenges, but former mining communities face geographical, social, economic and cultural challenges because of the change in their industrial structure. The people in those communities went through at least a generation of being told, in effect, "There is no future. Go and sign on. Go on to incapacity benefit and the dole and get out of the system." We have to persuade a small but important number of people that we shall get involved in the local economy of such areas.

I shall tackle these matters in two parts, considering first local issues and then DWP initiatives. Undoubtedly, the Government have transformed the fortunes of my constituency, which has done better than others compared with the national picture. More than 1 million more people are employed than in 1997; the employment rate of lone parents is 50 per cent. for the first time in 20 years, and the employment rate of people over 50, which had fallen for most of the previous 20 years, has risen faster in the past four years. In those categories and in every other indicator, Ogmore is out-performing the rest of the UK. But—it is the but that I started with—there are still more than 1 million people on unemployment benefit. Worse still, 4 million people are on other work and age benefits, and 2.9 million people are on sickness and disability benefits, more than 750,000 of whom, including 900,000 lone parents, say that they want to work. Those problems and challenges are concentrated in former coal mining and valleys communities.

I mentioned the good news that Ogmore is outperforming the rest of the UK in job creation, but its economic activity rates are among the lowest in the UK, which is true of many of the south Wales valleys. In the more remote upper valleys, a third generation of people are on benefits. We have six communities first areas, which is good because of the money that the programme draws into those communities, but bad because it recognises that those are some of the most deprived in Wales. We also have all the factors to which my hon. Friend referred: the lack of an entrepreneurial culture, poor access to jobs, which are to be found mainly near the M4, away from those small communities, poor housing, and long-term under-investment in education and skills, although that is slowly being addressed.

Although we are performing well overall with regard to unemployment rates, there is 12.7 per cent. unemployment in Caerau and 9.5 per cent. in Nantyffyllon, which are communities first areas, and those figures compare unfavourably with the borough as a whole. Some 58 per cent. of those people have been unemployed for 12 months or more. The true level of unemployment is distorted by the high rates of limiting long-term sickness among the working population— about 30 per cent. of people are economically inactive for that reason, I could illustrate the point further using the figures for lone parents who are dependent on state benefits, or by demonstrating how the problem gets worse further up the valleys, but I think that I have made the matter sufficiently clear.

The local authority has made great progress in dealing with the problem. Many economic partnership initiatives have been introduced to try to tackle the intermediate labour market. It is important to try to lever people back into work in a persuasive way, with full support, and great inroads have been made in that. However, I will quote the words of a community development worker in Caerau, one of the communities first areas:
"Without families getting support to satisfy their basic needs it is difficult for them to even contemplate work or training schemes to prepare for work. For valley families to engage with any staff it has to be through work that has immediate … benefits for them."
She adds that that would include work, for example,
"to improve housing … support the raising of their families … parenting support and access to services such as adolescent mental health services. Parents do not have easy access to support services for their children, the waiting list to see child and family counsellors"—
in Caerau—
"is usually in excess of 6 months, and many people have to wait over a year. We expect parents to be the main educators of our children but what do we do to support this?"
We often see that, despite the best intentions of national policies and area-wide strategies, what happens on the ground varies tremendously from area to area.

I mentioned co-ordination. The number of agencies targeting their work on Caerau is mind-blowing. They include the youth offending team, the action team for jobs, Developing Alternative Solutions to Housing, the probation service, the youth service, Groundwork, On Track, local schools, 25 community groups, sports groups, 10 faith organisations, the Welsh Development Agency, the economic development unit and many other Bridgend county borough council departments, Valleys to Coast, the early years partnership, sure start, the children and youth partnership, Youth Focus, detached youth work, Positive Transition, the Noddfa Chapel Community Project Ltd. and the intensive support service. The problem is not entirely one of resources being invested, but one of co-ordinating those resources. I stress to Ministers, both in the Assembly and in this Chamber, that I would welcome a review of how effective the co-ordination of all those agencies is in tackling entrenched, long-term unemployment and economic inactivity.

I started my remarks by mentioning intensive intervention; I would also like an evaluation of the progress made to date, to see how the policies are working in coalfield areas and former mining areas. How well, for example, is Jobcentre Plus working? It has been such a success in my area that my colleagues ask me why it has not yet been introduced in their areas. However, I draw the Minister's attention to the artificial and apparently arbitrary geographical cut-offs in that scheme. For example, a village such as Pontycymmer is well served by Jobcentre Plus, but Blaengarw, which is one mile up the road in a ribbon development in the same valley, and is even higher on the deprivation index, does not fall within its remit. Why do such things happen?

I am also concerned about how the priority of the roll-out is determined. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) asked me to query why Ogmore is doing so well in terms of Jobcentre Plus and Merthyr has nothing. I have done my job in raising the matter; perhaps the Minister will now take it up. Merthyr suffers far more deprivation than does Ogmore.

I warmly applaud the step-up programme. It will tackle many of the things that concern me, such as basic skills, confidence and ambition—or the lack of them— and drug and alcohol dependency. It will also help people to accept the discipline of work, which is a major change for those who have been out of work for a long time or never expected to get work. It will help people who have been on the new deal and have come off it. The advisory discretion fund will be an extra financial prop to help people into jobs by giving them financial assistance for the first few months. I should like employers to be encouraged to contribute towards the step-up scheme, perhaps by giving money towards initial training, access to transportation and so on. Why should that always be done by the public sector? Can employers not participate as well?

I shall speed through my final points. I mentioned the private sector in relation to step-up. I should like it to be involved in more initiatives and more research into problems with transportation, research, training, recruitment and promotion. Why, when we have major new investment in an area, can we not encourage employers not merely to target geographic areas but to focus on the economically inactive within those areas? That is not impossible.

I should like to claim one of the six pilot areas for welfare to work and incapacity benefit which have been promised for the autumn. If my constituency cannot have a pilot scheme, there should be one in a former coal mining area. The proposals to increase the personal support that will take people off incapacity and sickness benefits and into work are exciting. Let us see the schemes introduced in some of our communities and then rolled out rapidly.

How can we better combine the work-focused approach, in which we have excelled, with health-focused support? That is what the incapacity benefit pilots will try to do. How do we do that in areas in which the primary care sector is already stretched, or where— particularly in remote communities—there are shortages of such things as GPs? The measures, which tie together medical and personal work-focused schemes, are great on paper, but how are they to work where there are deficiencies in primary care on the ground? I strongly applaud the new return-to-work credit, and I should like it to be rolled out in my constituency and those of my hon. Friends as soon as possible.

I conclude by stressing the need in my communities for a strongly interventionist role. I applaud what the Government have done so far, but I urge the Minister not to be shy in coming forward with new initiatives that are better co-ordinated with the work that is going on. We also need to help those with whom we have not yet had success—those who need more assistance for longer. They are economically inactive, and they are not contributing to the local economy or to that of Wales or the United Kingdom

10.8 am

I feel a little like an intruder on Welsh colleagues, particularly as I still have two pits working. However, I look at the list of the collieries that were closed overnight—Steetley, Bevercotes, Shireoaks, Whitwell, Warsop Main and Manton. Entire communities were torn apart, having been reliant on one employer. One day, all the men and many of the women had jobs in the colliery; the next day they had none. The effect on the young people is even more important. For generations, for better or for worse, whether they liked it or not, all the young men knew that the Monday after they left school there would be a job for them in the pit. They would earn good money in a stable social environment within a community that looked after itself. The Tory Government in the 1980s tore that away. Even worse, having failed to learn the lessons of deprivation that came from those policies, in the early 1990s that Government offered people incapacity benefit as a way of keeping them out of employment, massaging the unemployment figures and creating a benefit culture. In this country, benefit culture came precisely and specifically from that massaging of unemployment figures. We now see the consequences of that. There are families in which the father or the grandfather has not worked for 10 to 15 years; yet he is the role model to the son at home. As the son goes into secondary school at the age of 11 and 12, what are his prospects and what is his ambition and aspiration? That is part of the legacy of the brutal butchering of the industry.

However, the communities are resilient. I looked at my diary before coming here, and noticed that in an eight-day period I shall be attending several events. I shall be judging the floats and welcoming the parade to the Warsop carnival, at which there will be 30,000 people. The day before that I shall open the Shireoaks carnival, which was recreated in the last three years and is now a major annual event. The Manton gala has been resurrected by the community and will be held on 12 July for the first time in a generation. Again, that will be a major event for the community, which is repairing and rebuilding itself. However, there remain underlying problems, which I shall itemise as frankly as I can.

The first problem is the industrial structure. In my constituency, one finds large amounts of land—as much as anyone could use for industry. Having been reliant on a single, large employer, we remain reliant on large employers. There are new companies that are major employers, such as Hazelwoods, which has supplied 1,800 jobs, and Wilkinson, which increased employment by 1,700 jobs. However, we remain vulnerable to the decision of any employer to relocate. When Ericsson relocated to Mexico and Poland in the run-up to my election, 1,200 jobs went overnight. Within a year—six months before and six months after my election—4,500 jobs went in Bassetlaw. However, in this debate it is important to bear in mind one thing when it comes to job creation, and that is the importance of a stable economy. According to the figures for the last year, which constituency has had the greatest fall in unemployment—5 per cent. more than anywhere in Britain? The answer is my constituency. The employment level is high because the economy is strong. Only the long-term unemployed are still out of a job.

However, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) made about the older generation of people who have retired and taken incapacity benefit and the problems that that creates should not be overlooked. That generation has been lost. This country should never again see things like that. However, the job creation situation is in fact rosier than I am making out. Not only have more jobs been created in my constituency than anywhere else but in the last few weeks a decision has been made on the splitting up of the Manton colliery site. Some seven major new employers may go there, which will create at least 1,000 jobs. We are developing the area around the airport—6,000 jobs are to be created directly by the end of next year and far more will come from that, because the right economic decisions are being made.

However, there is still a lack of innovation and creativity among the population. People do not translate their skills into the world of work as they do elsewhere. That problem is part of the benefit dependency culture and if the prosperity of the area is to be increased, that has to be cracked. We do not want large numbers of lower paid jobs. We do not want to be merely the distribution centre of Britain. We want skilled jobs. We want small businesses. We want people with a range of ideas and, crucially, we want those who are developing skills to perceive that they can grow their own businesses. We want them to invest their time and money in our area and not feel that they have to migrate to cities. If those who have risen through the intellectual ranks through training and education are to become wealth creators we want them to do so in our communities.

So what do we want? First, we want the Government to put the infrastructure in place. I am pleased to say that Bassetlaw is receiving £125 million for new secondary schools, which will have a fundamental impact in the long term. However, I want the Government to ensure that the design of those new schools is not purely left to the local education authority. We have left things to the local education authority before. The term "pit fodder" comes to mind. Kids' aspirations have been held down by the education system. This is a fantastic one-off opportunity and I want the top experts in building design to create community schools rather than just the usual 9 am to 3 pm, term-time only schools which do not involve parents or the rest of the community. They should be learning centres for everyone. I hope that the Minister will take that back to his colleagues.

Secondly, we are tiptoeing around our reforms of planning law. Let us go further. There is a large area of industrial land in my constituency sandwiched between Harworth colliery and the A1. I do not give a damn about the normal planning constraints and neither does anyone else in my constituency. People can build what they want there, as long as it creates jobs. I do not want to go through the rigmarole of long-winded planning. The Government should set local authorities such as mine a turn-round time for planning applications for new business. The so-called job creators of the public sector should not be job hinderers through the slow turn-round of planning applications. If people have good ideas, let them put them into practice to create jobs.

Thirdly, there is the Small Business Service. Only 6 per cent. of the small business work in Nottinghamshire is carried out in my constituency; 35 per cent. of the work is done in Nottingham. Why? It is because when Government targets are set and boxes have to be ticked, any box can be ticked in Nottingham. It is a booming city on the back of the strong economy. We need that kind of micro-intervention in mining communities. Sky TV claims that it has no subscribers in Harworth and Bircotes, yet when there is a major football match on Sky every single household seems to be able to watch it. They can also watch a few other channels that I would never dream of thinking about. They do that through the ingenuity of young people who have managed to master the technology. We need to transfer the creativity of the informal sector into the formal sector. We have to make those people understand that they could make significantly more money working within the tax paying system. As they understand business plans and mark-ups, they could employ other people and become thriving entrepreneurs. If the Small Business Service has any role in this country, it is in such communities. That is not happening at the moment.

We need broadband. We should be at the front of the queue to encourage the new high-technology businesses that enable people to work from home. We are not prepared to be at the back of the queue. I will be one of the first MPs on broadband. I shall link up all my offices. I should like Parliament to pay for the connection between all the offices and my home. That would help us reach the broadband targets. If I can have three connections in three separate locations, I am happy to have more if it will help reach those targets. Everyone should have access to broadband. We should stop shilly-shallying around and make broadband accessible to everyone. Let the Government make the companies accountable for ensuring that we can have it now, not in two, three or five years' time.

The Learning And Skills Council appears to have more money than any other public body. It should be held to account for how it spends that money. People talk about skills and training. I have worked in skills and training across the country for many years and I know that a training programme is often regarded as a panacea for all the ills of an area. What we want is the conversion of people's aptitudes and abilities into vocational and entrepreneurial skills, not just another course at a college. The Learning and Skills Council needs to be held more to account for how it delivers on its targets. We do not want to have 1,000 hairdressers trained a year in my community because there is no demand for that. We want people from my community to become world leaders in that profession.

The Government have not yet cracked the problem of the long-term unemployed. People may remain unemployed in my community for longer than the national average, and half of them have a drug dependency. I propose to the Minister that we take my community as an example and consider precisely what is required to help the long-term unemployed who are dependent on drugs to re-enter the labour market. We cannot simply turn on a switch, throw money at people and make that happen. We cannot get such people into jobs because employers will not take them, no matter how much medical assistance and training we provide.

New and specific interventions are needed. I would like pilot projects to be conducted throughout the country, and I propose my community for one so that we can crack the problem. The Rhondda would like one, as would Barnsley and Ogmore. Let us have pilots, but let them be real and come with investment so that we can crack the problem of long-term unemployment among the drug-dependent.

10.20 am

Economic inactivity is the single largest social and economic issue facing Wales today. On the list of areas in the United Kingdom in which large numbers of people are claiming incapacity benefit, five out of the eight areas with the highest number of claimants are in south Wales: Blaenau Gwent, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Neath and Port Talbot, Caerphilly and, top of the list, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. If we break down the figures in those local authority areas, we find a concentration in a relatively small area at the heads of the south Wales valleys.

In some wards, as many as one in four people of working age are claiming incapacity benefit. That situation has no parallel in any other part of the United Kingdom, being, unfortunately, unique to the heads of the south Wales valleys. As hon. Members have said, there is an indication of an inter-generational dependency, which is becoming ingrained. That is particularly worrying, as the role models for young people are often the fathers and mothers who have been unemployed and claiming benefits for long periods. Young people see that as the natural thing to do, and they follow that model.

Why does south Wales have that problem? I should make it clear that the large numbers of people claiming incapacity benefit are not scroungers. If we want to talk about fat cats, I suggest that we consider company directors who have been paying themselves huge bonuses for their company's failure—those are the real scroungers in our society. Nor do many of those claiming incapacity benefit lack enterprise or entrepreneurship. Many of these communities have been among the most enterprising and entrepreneurial societies in Britain. The idea of a national health service was born in such communities, which also produced some of the greatest leaders of the Labour movement: Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Horner, A. J. Cook and many others.

The fact that so many people in those communities are on incapacity benefit is a tragic legacy of the coal industry, which led not only to social fragmentation and the breakdown of communities, but to appalling health problems in large sections of the population. Many people suffer from cardiac conditions, muscular-skeletal problems and, unfortunately, mental illness.

As my colleagues have pointed out, we have seen dramatic falls in unemployment over the past few years, especially in south Wales, but economic inactivity is still a huge problem leading not only to social fragmentation but to a low wealth-creating base. That is one reason why the south Wales valleys has objective 1 status. Economic inactivity is also bad for the individuals concerned. We should not kid ourselves that people on incapacity benefit are wealthy; they are not. They would all be far better off if they were in sustainable long-term employment.

What should be done? It is not enough simply to provide jobs or traditional training opportunities because, for one reason or another, people do not avail themselves of them. In this post-devolution era in south Wales, we must ensure the greatest possible coordination between the policies of the Government and of the National Assembly for Wales. This is a complex issue, and we need to ensure that the policies complement each other and dovetail effectively.

I shall speak first about the Government's policies and then about those of the Welsh Assembly. The Government must continue to put great emphasis on making work pay. That is the only effective way to encourage people off benefit and into work. I recognise the great advances that have been made: the increase in the minimum wage, which is most useful in that respect; the introduction of a working tax credit, which is another positive feature; and recent changes in housing benefit. Those changes are all extremely helpful in getting people off welfare and into employment.

The new deal has been successful throughout the country, and it is now being extended. We have new deals for disabled people and for the 50-plus. Employment zones, which were innovative and successful, have been reintroduced. In Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent, the public-private partnership of working links is engaging in innovative ways to encourage the long-term unemployed and the economically inactive into work. As the recent report from the Bevan Foundation outlined, that is proving successful. We also have a Green Paper from the Department for Work and Pensions.

Although I welcome the many job incentives outlined by my hon. Friend, all the incentives in the world are no use if there are no jobs—one is no use without the other. In Blaenau Gwent, we have lost three major companies: Faurecia, Bosal and Corus. The jobs that have replaced them in the community are almost invariably part-time, low-paid, non-union and soul-destroying. The real problem is that there are no worthwhile jobs; it is not that there is a dependency culture or that children are following their parents.

Of course, there is much in what my hon. Friend says. To ensure that work is seen to be attractive, we must ensure that there are quality jobs paying reasonable wages, and, as far as possible, that those jobs are located in the community. However, I think that my hon. Friend would agree that the days when we could attract footloose capital into the valleys are behind us. We have to ensure the development of small and medium-sized enterprises. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) said, that requires adequate transport, so that people can seek work not only within their communities but outside. That, too, is important.

I cannot see why there should be a problem in attracting capital into the valleys. My hon. Friend rightly said that that is the role not only of the Government but of the National Assembly for Wales. Indeed, the Assembly's ability to attract capital to Cardiff bay is something to behold. About £3 billion of public and private investment has gone to Cardiff bay over the past decade. If the Assembly has the money, there is no reason why it should not go to Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr or Maesteg. There is a shortage not of money but of will. We demand that the sort of money that went to Cardiff bay go to some of the poorest communities in Wales.

If only the world were that simple. Unfortunately, it is not, and we cannot turn the clock back to the regional policies of the 1960s. We must recognise that the economies of south Wales hang together. What has happened along the M4 corridor and in Cardiff bay has been successful, but we must ensure that there is a knock-on effect in the valleys. I do not want us to criticise or seek to undermine the great success that has been achieved in Cardiff, but let us ensure that that success extends to other parts of south Wales.

Let me return to what I was saying about the Green Paper, because that is central to the agenda. I recognise the arguments advanced in that paper and I believe that the pilot areas—I understand that there will be one in Bridgend in south Wales and one in Cynon Taff—will be successful. There will be work-focused interviews for claimants, individual support and extra financial incentives to help people to look for work. A special fund will be established to facilitate that process. All that points to the way forward.

My other point about the central Government agenda concerns the need to develop what is known in the jargon as intermediate labour markets. The Rowntree Trust, for example, has shown that tremendous benefit can be obtained from having temporary waged jobs leading to permanent employment. We can usefully address that nationally and at a Welsh Assembly level.

That takes me on to the Welsh Assembly's agenda. During the recent Assembly elections, one commitment from the Labour party was to introduce free prescriptions for everyone, the main rationale being that it would remove a disincentive for people to take on work when they have been claiming benefit. That is an important argument and it will be a step forward, but the Assembly must do much more. It has a role in developing intermediate labour markets, and the objective 1 programme should reflect that agenda far more. The Assembly is responsible for health, and much more could be done to ensure that doctors advise people effectively and that we have healthy living and eating programmes. Much could be done on disability, and I recommend that people read the agenda set out by the national charity, Scope. Education and training also have a vital role to play.

The Welsh Assembly's policies and those pursued at Westminster must be co-ordinated. We need an umbrella organisation to ensure that there is the maximum possible impact in our valley communities. If we do that, we will not only have low unemployment, but get rid of the scourge of economic inactivity once and for all.

10.32 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) on securing this debate on an issue that is very important to the 5 million people who live in the former coalfield communities. In considering economic inactivity, we cannot ignore a range of interrelated issues: housing, environmental degradation, education, the communications infrastructure and social issues. Taking those as read for the purposes of this debate. I shall concentrate on economic inactivity.

In 1981, there were 211 collieries in the UK, employing just under 300,000 people; in 2003, there are fewer than 20, employing about 5,000. However, those coalfield areas are home to 5 million people—8 per cent. of the total UK population. Chesterfield, which is in the north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire coalfield area, has an official unemployment rate of about 3.5 per cent. That is high compared with a national average of 2.2 per cent., but low compared with the levels of 10 or 20 years ago.

In terms of economic inactivity, we need to consider a wider range of factors, including hidden unemployment. Research at Sheffield Hallam university that was undertaken in 2002 and published recently estimates that the hidden or real unemployment level in Chesterfield is 14.2 per cent. not the headline figure of 3.5 per cent. That research estimates that, in other parts of the north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire coalfield, hidden unemployment ranges from 10.6 to 15.7 percent.

We also need to consider the number of people in employment as a proportion of the population of working age. In Chesterfield, the figure is 70 per cent. compared with a national average of 75 per cent. In parts of the south-east midlands—in the east midlands regional development area, which covers Chesterfield— it can be as high as 87 per cent. There are huge regional and national variations.

The male employment rate in Chesterfield is 69 per cent.—the second lowest in the east midlands. In south Northamptonshire, which forms the affluent southern end of the east midlands, the figure is 94 per cent. Between 1991 and 2001, 20,000 jobs were lost in the north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire coalfield area, compared with a gain of 49,000 jobs in Northamptonshire, in the southern sub-region of the east midlands. In 1981, there were 51,000 jobs in Chesterfield; in 2000, there were 47,000. In 1981, manufacturing and mining provided 20,000 jobs, or 40 per cent. of employment, in Chesterfield; in 2000, the figure was down to 8,500 jobs, or just 8 per cent. of the total. Of the 47,000 jobs in Chesterfield today, 29 per cent. are part-time, predominantly for women, and low paid. That puts Chesterfield in the worst 10 per cent. of districts nationally, with the worst figures in Derbyshire.

Of course, Chesterfield's situation is replicated in coalfield areas across the UK. Single traditional industries dominated elsewhere before they were closed down virtually overnight in the 1980s and early 1990s. One example is my home city of Sheffield, which saw the rapid demise of the steel industry.

Remedying all of that requires public intervention in all the areas that I outlined—education, communications, housing, the environment, the social fabric and, of course, jobs. The Government deserve credit for their efforts in those areas, which is not to say that they cannot do more and do it better. Intervention can work, but it cannot take place at the macroeconomic level or be left to chance in the free market—it must be tailored to local needs. The regional development agencies are too large for the purpose.

As has been said, economies such as that of Chesterfield, in the north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire coalfield, have little in common with the economies of other parts of the east midlands, such as Northamptonshire or, for that matter, the nearby Derbyshire dales and the Peak district. In 2000, in the sub-region that covers the coalfield, the figure for new business registrations per 10,000 adult inhabitants was 29, compared with 36 regionally and 39 nationally. Traditional manufacturing is very vulnerable to globalisation pressures and to the effects of Britain remaining outside the euro. Yet the sector still provides 22 per cent. of employment in the north Derbyshire coalfield area, compared with 21 per cent. in the east midlands and 14 per cent. nationally.

Manufacturing in more diversified areas than traditional heavy industry is improving in the north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire coalfield area. Stock increased by 4 per cent. between 1996 and 2001, compared with a national decline of 8 per cent. In Chesterfield, there are two new technology innovation centres, which are full to capacity. However, their cost has fallen disproportionately on a small local borough council, which has had to divert large amounts of scarce financial resources towards match funding for such projects, even though economic development is not one of its statutory duties.

Expansion of the key employment sectors that drive growth nationally is relatively weak in my area. Growth in producer services—the higher value service-based sectors—is 9.7 per cent. in the Chesterfield coalfield area, compared with 14 per cent. in the east midlands and 20 per cent. nationally.

In summary, there are not enough jobs in coalfield areas, and hidden unemployment dramatically masks the real figures. The current structure and characteristics of coalfield economies must change if they are to deliver the employment opportunities of the future. That will require significant intervention. For example, the infrastructure of the coalfields was traditionally said to be underground, but it must now be put in place above ground. That includes not only roads to new industrial parks but, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, giving priority to making broadband available in coalfield areas, rather than relegating such areas to the end of the queue.

Remote and unaccountable bodies such as the regional development agencies and the Learning and Skills Council must be more accountable to and work with local communities. The Learning and Skills Council is the biggest quango in Britain, spending £9.5 million of public money each year. As a member of the Education and Skills Select Committee, its accountability seems to me to be confined to one appearance per year in front of that Committee. The bewildering alphabet soup of bodies providing funding must be streamlined into a one-stop regeneration grant system. Quality support in the provision of jobs and training is welcome, but I ask the Minister how the closure of outlying job centres in Derbyshire, for example—requiring jobseekers to use a poor and expensive bus service to travel to a centre such as Chesterfield—helps to provide quality support in the communities where it is most needed.

Finally, I ask the million dollar question. Where does the money for such intervention and regeneration come from? In calling for more money, I remind the Minister of the £5 billion that the Treasury is clawing back from miners' pension fund surpluses. Will he press the Treasury to make more of this money available to the mining communities to which it belongs?

10.40 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) on securing the debate. I wish to declare my interests, which are noted in the Register of Members' Interests. I will be brief because people are here to hear the Minister, not Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons. I am sure that the Minister would like at least 15 minutes to wind up the debate.

The hon. Member for Rhondda gave a fascinating and colourful verbal tour of the Rhondda valleys. Madam Deputy Speaker—I will call you that, Mrs. Roe, because you look like a Deputy Speaker—the alarming figures on hidden unemployment and the levels of sickness benefit were very striking. That was one of the most important points to emerge from the debate, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it. The interface between Jobcentre Plus and the NHS is surely the way of solving the problem. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) pointed out some practical problems, not least the extent to which primary care trusts and local GP practices are already very stretched.

One of the most important areas on which many hon. Members agree is the role of small businesses. Unless there is more small business activity and a growth in entrepreneurial spirit in former mining areas, there is not going to be a secure and bright future. The hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out that the number of small businesses in his constituency is only a quarter of the national average. I am sure that if similar studies were done in other areas, the results would be similar. A number of Members, including the hon. Members for Rhondda and for Ogmore, pointed out cultural problems. I have made various visits to those areas, and I completed a university project on a mining community. In my experience, there is a huge pool of drive, initiative and determination in those areas. That can be harnessed in a way that will create many new businesses. The hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out a couple of examples in his constituency.

Success will depend not only on the undoubted inherent determination and drive in those communities but on harnessing that determination and pointing it in the right direction. Some of the points that have been mentioned are very important. Transport infrastructure is vital because often if one does not have a car, one cannot get to a job, but without a job, one cannot afford a car. It is vital that more emphasis is placed on rural transport infrastructure, particularly on buses.

By far the most effective Government scheme for helping small businesses is the small firms loan guarantee scheme. Much of the Small Business Service budget goes into that scheme. It has been extended in the recent Budget, and, as an Opposition, we give credit for that. However, there should be a further extension to the scheme. It is the one scheme that is available to help the smallest of businesses, medium-sized businesses, people who employ only one person, and the self-employed. It is an easy scheme to access; it is very straightforward, and offers extremely good value for money. I urge the Minister to speak to his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry to see whether the scheme can be extended still further. I also hope that he will speak to his colleagues in the Treasury to make sure that the tax status of the self-employed is improved. The tax status of limited companies is significantly more advantageous than that of the self-employed, and the self-employed are missing out as a result.

The Opposition are consulting business groups in various parts of the country, and time and again we are told about the unnecessary obstacles of the planning regime. That point was well made by a number of hon. Members, including by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Broadband, too, is important.

When the Government come to analyse and assess the way forward, they must remember that mining communities are not urban communities; they are predominantly rural communities, but with a swathe of additional problems. We must avoid the law of unintended consequences.

We have heard much about what the Government can do, but we should also bear in mind what they should not do. For instance, the Government should not be driving rural post offices out of business through the automated credit transfer process. They should not bear down on rural community pharmacies by adopting the Office of Fair Trading report.

The Government should consider their wider policy for rural areas because, unless it encompasses the mining communities, they will miss an important policy potential. A lot of effort is being put into rural areas elsewhere in the country by the Countryside Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but there must be proper co-ordination between the agencies and DEFRA and other Departments. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

10.46 am

I thank you, Mrs. Roe, for chairing this important debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) has done Parliament a service by bringing the matter to the attention of the House. He put the case accurately and eloquently, but honestly—and we need some honesty when debating such a complex subject.

It was 61 years ago that William Beveridge presented his famous wartime report on social insurance. In that report, the great Liberal—there were such in those days—outlined the five giant evils that stood in the way of post-war reconstruction: idleness, want, disease, squalor and ignorance. In what was not a bad soundbite for the 1940s he said that the largest and the fiercest of those five giants was idleness, by which he meant unemployment. However, it was left to the post-war Labour Government of Clement Attlee, which included such important figures as Welshmen Jim Griffiths and Aneurin Bevan, to tackle the giant evil of unemployment, which they did with much success.

In 1997, a new Labour Government found that idleness was still a major problem, and one of our great achievements has been to mount a serious attack on that giant. Employment has risen by nearly 1.5 million since the spring of 1997. Long-term unemployment is down, notwithstanding what has been said. It has fallen by 77 percent, since 1997, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) was right to say that it remains a serious problem. Almost 75 per cent. of those of working age are in work.

I am not sure whether I heard him properly, but the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) seemed to suggest that part-time employment was somehow second class. It is not. About 25 per cent, of jobs are part-time, and such employment is a major way of promoting work that is more family friendly and of great value to young parents. We need to establish the idea that part-time work is first class.

We have made a major impact on unemployment, as has been acknowledged. The new deals have helped more than 750,000 people to move into work. I come here not to recall our record in tackling unemployment, although we are proud of it, but to acknowledge that there are absolutely no grounds for complacency. Sadly, as we have heard today, Beveridge's giant evil of idleness still stalks the land and menaces the valleys. Idleness— what economists now quaintly call economic inactivity—affects many people. It is a more complex and cleverer beast than the one that stalked the land in the 20s, 30s and 40s. We need to understand the different causes of economic inactivity and why so many people are on incapacity benefit. We also need to strike the right balance between macro and micro policies. Given the problem's complexity, and the way in which different groups, individuals and communities are affected, we need to take a multi-faceted approach, although I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who talked about the need for effective local co-ordination between the multiplicity of agencies.

Some 2.3 million people in Britain draw incapacity benefit. Although the benefits have changed slightly, that is three or three and a half times as many as in 1980. The question in the air during the debate was why so many more people now claim such benefits. It stretches credulity to suggest that people in Britain have become three or four times more incapacitated than they were just over 20 years ago. The situation is more complex than that. My figures suggest that, in Rhondda alone, 6,700 people draw incapacity benefit. Of course, there is also a regional and national dimension. Across Britain, 4.3 per cent. of people of working age draw incapacity benefit. In London, the figure is 2.5 per cent. in southeast England, it is 2.3 percent.; in the north-east, it is 7.3 per cent.; and in Wales, it is 7.9 per cent.

Of course, we must recognise that many people on incapacity benefit will probably never be able to work because of the nature of their physical or mental incapacity. Nevertheless, many people who draw benefit could work; many want to work; and many who are depressed could be encouraged to work. That is the crucial point. Let us be honest, however, and admit that for many people, incapacity benefit has become something of a pre-retirement pension. Given that retirement will last 20 or 30 years in future, it is depressing to think that some people may add 10 or 15 years to theirs. It cannot be right that some people proudly marched out of the pits the day before they closed and immediately signed on for incapacity benefit—often with the encouragement of the then Administration.

What the Government are doing has been acknowledged. People who move on to incapacity benefit should be regarded not as being at the end of their working lives but as having working futures. It is clear from the evidence that most people who start claiming incapacity benefit expect to get back into work. Returning to work is a real possibility for most of them—if the right help is offered early enough. However, my experience as a constituency MP is that, understandably, people get depressed after a year or two on benefit. They get sucked into what one colleague described as a dependency culture.

Our Green Paper "Pathways to work: Helping people into employment", published last November, sets out our strategy for enabling people with health problems and disabilities to move into work and to become and remain independent. It outlines our plans to introduce a new approach to helping people on incapacity benefit to move into work. People will be given early, frequent support by skilled personal advisers, direct access to a range of comprehensive specialist programmes that mitigate the impact of their health on their return to work, and clear financial incentives to work.

This is not about forcing sick people into jobs. As I acknowledged, those with the most severe conditions may never be able to work, and we will ensure that incapacity benefit continues to provide vital support for them. However, we must make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to gain independence by moving into work. We are carrying out pilot studies of the proposal, one of which is in Bridgend, and it is a key to the future.

This has been a good debate; constituency experiences mentioned by hon. Members show that there is no single solution to the problem of modern-day idleness or economic inactivity. As I said, the matter is multi-faceted, so we need a comprehensive strategy. Given the Welsh flavour of the debate, I must say that many aspects of the regeneration of former mining areas lie with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive. However, many of the problems faced are shared, and solutions are needed throughout Great Britain, as shown by the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw and the hon. Member for Chesterfield. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) also gave us his analysis of the situation.

As the original taskforce report said, the coalfields
"have a unique combination of concentrated joblessness, physical isolation, poor infrastructure and severe health problems."
Hon. Members testified to that assessment in the debate. Pit towns and villages need solutions that meet their specific requirements. Many communities existed for coal and were not developed to have easy access to places further afield, which limited the opportunity for alternative employment. In many instances they have also been bequeathed a lethal cocktail of contaminants in the land and a terrible legacy of personal illness.

The comprehensive strategy is therefore about economic regeneration, and employment and social security policies, hence my presence in the debate. Hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, have spoken about the importance of employment policies. There will be a roll-out of Jobcentre Plus over a four-year period, and to avoid jealousy I can tell hon. Members that whichever constituency gets it first has nothing to do with the personal qualities of the Member of Parliament; otherwise—I say this bitterly as an Employment Minister—my constituency in Croydon might have had it sooner.

Employment policies and making work pay are crucial. We have made huge progress in enabling advisers, MPs and job centres to tell people that it now pays to take what can be the difficult step back into work, especially if they have been out of work in idleness for many years. There are few exceptions to that rule because of the minimum wage and the tax credit regime. However, some people still do not understand that and we all have a role to play in telling them the news.

As a former Minister for Lifelong Learning with responsibility for England I listened carefully to the remarks about making work skilled, especially those from my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw about the Learning and Skills Council. The learning and skills councils in England listen to local voices, look at the demand in the economy for skills and training and ensure that training providers and colleges respond to those needs rather than running a plethora of the same courses year after year. I will not repeat my hon. Friend's example in case I get into trouble for doing so, but I am happy to talk to him and to pass his concerns to the Department for Education and Skills. Making work skilled in Wales, Scotland and England is the key to many of these matters.

Is the Minister aware that last year the Coalfields Regeneration Trust conducted a survey of what children at schools in coalfield communities thought was the ideal job? By far the most popular choice was going into the armed forces. Do we not need to do a lot to change that culture?

The armed forces is a very fine career, but we need to raise people's aspirations, to recognise the talents and skills of children and young people and those in their 40s and 50s, and to talk about the options that are available to them.

I acknowledge in the dying seconds of the debate that it is also important to consider drug and alcohol abuse. We have specific proposals to tackle those new evils, which terrify and terrorise many of our communities. Transport is vital—the infrastructure has to be in place to get those who want to work to employers with vacancies for people with skills.