There are more people in work than ever before. The United Kingdom has the highest employment rates and the best combination of employment and unemployment in the G7, according to the assessment of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The Minister will be aware of a report in The Business in August which showed that 5.29 million people were receiving out-of-work benefits. The real unemployment rate stands at 16 per cent. Does the Minister not recognise that, despite the Government’s promise in 1997 to tackle the spiral of escalating welfare costs, we have had nine and a half wasted years from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
The hon. Gentleman would do better to reflect on the fact that in his constituency, long-term employment is down by two thirds.
It is one thing for the Conservatives, while in government, to have fiddled the figures when unemployment hit 3 million twice and incapacity benefit trebled, but it is quite another for them to fix and fiddle the figures while in opposition. What the Conservatives have sought to do today, in the Chamber and elsewhere, is say that everyone—every single person—on incapacity benefit is unemployed, regardless of disability or mental capacity. To lump all those folk together, regardless of their complicated needs and the support that they require, is nothing short of a disgrace, and the Conservatives should be embarrassed by themselves.
I welcome the stunningly successful figures that the Minister has given us, but may I voice my concern about the continued decline in jobs in the textile industry, particularly in the Leicester and east midlands area? While employment is falling everywhere else, in those sectors it continues to rise. What steps can the Minister and his Department take—along with the Department of Trade and Industry—to reverse that decline?
My right hon. Friend is right to observe that, despite the remarkable progress that has been made, there are continuing pockets of difficulty. He will know of the work being done by Sandy Leitch on the skills strategy. He will also know that in a global economy we cannot compete with China, India and others on the basis of low cost, but must compete on the basis of high skills. I will of course happily meet my right hon. Friend to discuss any specific further action that he thinks we could take in Leicester, or in Leicestershire generally.
Despite the Minister’s worrying complacency, is not unemployment currently at a six-year high? In Shropshire, we have seen it rise by 36 per cent. over the past year. What would the Minister say to the 600 people who have lost their jobs at Celestica in the past week, and to the 600 defence workers who have been transferred to Bristol against their will? What message has he for my constituents?
Since Labour came to power, unemployment has fallen in every nation and region of the UK. In terms of specifics, we are happy for Jobcentre Plus and other Government agencies to provide the sort of support that has been so effective in other examples of constituency redundancies. The hon. Gentleman would strengthen his case if he were accurate in his assessment. The truth is that, according to the OECD, there are now more people at work in this country than ever before. That contrasts enormously with the period when unemployment hit 3 million—not once, but twice under the Conservatives.
I join my hon. Friend in reminding Conservative Members of what it was like in my constituency under the Conservative Government when unemployment stood in excess of 20 per cent. High unemployment was not an accident of their policies, but the central plank of them. I worked in primary care psychiatry at that time and I saw doctors prescribing anti-depressants and Valium, but if they could have prescribed a job, people would not have been seen anywhere near the health centre. I am proud to be here today to say that unemployment at 2.5 per cent.—
My hon. Friend is right that there were indeed periods in that dark time when 1 million people went on to incapacity benefit in an individual year. He is also right to make the connection between unemployment, poverty and generational poverty. One in three kids were growing up in poverty; one in five kids were born into a house with no one in work. Yes, we still have further to go, but there has been a remarkable change and improvement as the cycle of disadvantage, previously passed from generation to generation, has been broken.