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Claimant Count

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2009

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the projected claimant count in Scotland in 2009-10. (253063)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about how to support those people who lose their jobs in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Is the Secretary of State concerned that a further £1 billion of cuts in the coming two years will mean a huge number of job losses in Scotland?

I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that, as part of the pre-Budget report, an extra £2 billion is going into the pockets and purses of Scots to support them through these difficult times. Scotland being in the United Kingdom makes Scotland more prosperous in good times and help us to insure against the most difficult times when we face crisis, such as the world faces now. Most Scots appreciate that we are stronger together and would be much weaker apart.

From his discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the support that is now embedded to help the long-term unemployed into work. When he meets the First Minister, will he raise my concern that nothing has been done in Scotland to match the skills and training element of that support, which is available elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

My right hon. Friend is right. We need to make sure that today’s newly unemployed do not become the long-term unemployed of tomorrow. We will discuss those issues with the First Minister and others when we meet in Glasgow next month. We are putting in place welfare reform proposals and increasing the investment in Jobcentre Plus because we will not walk away from our responsibility to the newly unemployed in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The Secretary of State is right to say that preparations need to be made to deal with the inevitable rise in unemployment as a result of the economic crisis. Will he also recognise that the best thing to do is to minimise the number of job losses? To that end, what are the Government doing to try to ensure maximum investment in the North sea during the current credit crisis? The traditional lending markets are drying up.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of North sea oil and gas. I met representatives of the industry last week and, along with the Secretaries of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and for Energy and Climate Change, I will do so again in the next couple of weeks. It is crucial that we continue investment in the North sea, to access oilfields and gasfields that we have not got to in past decades; I am thinking in particular of the enormous untapped resource west of Shetland. We need to do all that we can to support the industry to exploit that.

As people begin to get worried about the rising claimant count, does my right hon. Friend accept that there are concerns in the oil and gas industry and energy companies such as INEOS, which he visited recently with me? However, those concerns are covered in Scotland by the national agreement for the engineering construction industry, or NAECI—made by the companies and Unite—under which the companies draw from within a 40-mile zone in Scotland. The concern in Scotland is that if workers were denied the right to work outwith Scotland, many with high skills would be unemployed. We need more high skills in Scotland to allow people to get the jobs available in the oil and energy industry.

My hon. Friend is right. I recently met representatives of INEOS and at the weekend I met shop stewards from Longannet and Grangemouth—both places out on strike. It was a helpful and constructive conversation. It is clear that the workers are concerned because of the economic climate and are worried that European law is preventing them from having a level playing field when it comes to employment opportunities. It is essential that those workers are able to compete on a level playing field, that European law is applied equally and that British workers are able to compete for jobs in Britain. We make it absolutely clear, along with the companies, that that is exactly the situation that should and must apply in the UK—and, in most cases, we believe that it does.

Will the Secretary of State admit that on the basis of the warnings from the International Monetary Fund and the Fraser of Allander Institute, his Labour Government have led Scotland not just into recession but to the brink of becoming the worst hit part of the worst hit country in the developed world? Does he agree that at such a time, Scotland does not need a do nothing Secretary of State? It needs him to bring the UK and Scottish Governments together to combat this recession. Can he tell Parliament how many times the Prime Minister has met the First Minister to discuss the recession? How many times has he himself done so?

I do not keep the Prime Minister’s diary, but I have announced that the First Minister, the CBI, the STUC and I will be coming together. We will look at what happened during previous recessions in the United Kingdom. We will look at the position of the Government in power at those times, who said that unemployment was a price worth paying. We will do the opposite. Unemployment is never a price worth paying, and we will do everything that we can to prevent the long-term generational unemployment that typified the Tory approach to previous recessions. [Interruption.]

Order. I say to hon. Members that it is far too noisy in the Chamber. That is unfair to those who are here for Scottish questions.

I think we can take it that the answer to the question about the number of meetings between the Prime Minister and the First Minister to discuss the recession is none. The people of Scotland will find it deeply disappointing that there has been so little, and such acrimonious, dialogue between their Prime Minister, Secretary of State and First Minister in the face of such a serious crisis. I say to the Secretary of State that under a Conservative Government things would be very different, because Scotland’s interests would be put first. Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us: is it that the Prime Minister has been so busy saving the world that he has not had time to save Scotland, or that he simply puts partisan political interests ahead of Scottish business interests?

There we have it. The Conservatives’ approach would be entirely different. We know that from their history: long-term generational unemployment; incapacity benefit numbers trebling; a poll tax in Scotland first; no investment whatever in public services; and child poverty higher in the United Kingdom than in any industrialised nation in the world. Yes, there are enormous differences between the two parties. We believe in investing in these economically difficult times; the Conservatives are out of touch with the mainstream across the world, including new President Obama. On that basis, they are economically illiterate and politically isolated.