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Volume 461: debated on Monday 4 June 2007

6. What assessment he has made of trends in unemployment levels in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (140295)

In the early 1990s, unemployment rose by more than 500,000 in one year alone, and it was consistently above 10 per cent.

Since 1997, unemployment has fallen substantially, the number of people in employment is up by more than 2.5 million, including by 93,000 in the last year alone, and the inactivity rate is now close to its lowest level for 15 years.

My constituents recognise that the long-term trend this past decade has been one of falling employment and record numbers of people in work, but those who work hard, play by the rules and pay their way believe that there are still too many people claiming benefits who could be working. What more can the Government do to tighten eligibility so that those people get off benefits and get a job?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What he has said will be echoed in constituencies all over the country. The benefit system has to be fair and reasonable—fair to those on benefits, but also fair to those who pay for benefits through their own hard work. There is a case for looking again at some of the rules, particularly those on jobseeker’s allowance, and we are doing that. We hope to bring forward proposals shortly.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we are at our best when at our boldest? I urge him to be bold and say that we will aim for nil unemployment in some areas of the country, such as my constituency, where the number of jobs about to be created in the Southern general hospital and its associated development is far greater than the number of unemployed people in that area. A drive towards nil employment would be bold but it would clearly discriminate in favour of those who are in greatest need. Will he order his civil servants to work accordingly?

It will not surprise my hon. Friend that I agree that we are at our best when at our boldest. I have visited his constituency with him and seen some of the developments that he mentioned. The really gratifying thing about the changes that have taken place in unemployment is that the biggest falls in the past 10 years have been in constituencies such as those of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) and for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin). That is right and proper. The Labour Government are here to help those in the greatest need; that has been and will continue to be our priority.

On the question posed by the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), has the Secretary of State considered the welfare arrangements in Wisconsin that created a life-term period for access to welfare, which had an extraordinary impact on the number of people claiming benefits?

Jobseeker’s allowance is already a time-limited benefit, and we have no plans to change any other arrangements.

Mr. Speaker, you will know about the recent announcement in Wallasey about job losses at my local Burton’s Foods’ biscuit factory. Initially, I thought that 660 jobs were to be lost, but that number has gone up to 821. Will my right hon. Friend meet a delegation and tell us what to expect if the closures go ahead, so that we can try to recover the low rates of unemployment to which my constituents have become accustomed in the past 10 years?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend’s constituents. I understand that she already has a meeting arranged with the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform. Jobcentre Plus will be there to help her constituents in any way possible. We have an effective and efficient system of providing such help that has, sadly, been tested on several occasions. I am also happy to discuss with her what arrangements we can put in place to help her constituents.

We recently had the honour, in my constituency, of welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform to meet 31 constituents—mainly single parents. In my right hon. Friend’s review of support for getting single parents into work, is he giving particular consideration to the difficulties of parents of larger families with more than two children, and to the support given to parents through Jobcentre Plus?

Yes, we are considering all aspects of the problem. There is no doubt that many single parents in London face serious problems with getting back into work, such as problems with transport and child care. We are working closely with the Mayor of London to address those challenges. My hon. Friend will know that we are also working with five boroughs in the east end of London to develop a more integrated, efficient and, I hope, more effective and individually tailored service to help people such as the ladies whom she mentioned get back into work. We have a responsibility always to continue to consider what more we can do to help, and we are certainly prepared to do that.