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Volume 589: debated on Monday 8 December 2014

The UK’s unemployment rate of 6% is now the fifth lowest in the European Union. In France, Italy, Spain and across the euro area all unemployment rates remain in double figures. In the past year alone, the UK has seen a larger fall in its overall unemployment rate and its youth unemployment rate than Germany, France, Italy and all the major G7 countries.

Youth unemployment in my constituency of South Basildon and East Thurrock is down by 42%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this jobs revolution would not have happened if we had pursued the policies across the channel, which were supported by the Leader of the Opposition?

It is well worth reminding ourselves that when the present French President was elected, the Leader of the Opposition extolled his virtues and his plan for France. Right now, France’s unemployment rate is more than 75% higher than the UK’s and it has been rising faster, and its youth unemployment rate is 50% higher than the UK’s. If that is the prospect for the UK, I am sure I know what the result will be at the next election.

The fall in youth unemployment is very welcome, but it remains the case that our youth unemployment levels are much higher than many European countries, such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Why will the Government not sign the European Union’s youth jobs guarantee?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said earlier. The reality for us is that our youth unemployment is falling faster than anywhere else. Only a few countries in Europe actually have lower youth unemployment. I am determined to drive it down to the levels that other countries have. Our rate of youth unemployment is a success, and I honestly do not think that bogus schemes—they cost a lot of money, but do not get anybody into work—will do anything but instil a certain amount of apathy among young people.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Government’s success on youth unemployment shows that our long-term economic plan is working?

It is true. Here is the long-term economic plan—a record employment level of 30.8 million, up 1.75 million since 2010; over three quarters of the rise in employment since 2010 in full-time work, and two thirds of the rise in employment in managerial, professional jobs; and the number of British people in work up by over 1 million in the past four years, two thirds of the total rise in employment.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in Bolsover and the village of Shirebrook, Mike Ashley has a different rule? Most of his employees at SportsDirect are on zero-hours contracts. It is time those contracts were abolished. That is what we will do if we get into power in May. Is he aware that the way in which employment agencies bring people over to work at SportsDirect resulted in one employee having a baby in the SportsDirect toilet on new year’s day? That proves that all the talk about the wonderful employment figures is totally wrong, because she should have been on maternity benefits and probably should not have been working on new year’s day. That is what is inflating the bogus employment figures. It is time he sorted it out.

The reality is different from what the hon. Gentleman describes. The personal circumstances of individuals may be appalling and that needs to be dealt with, but people on zero-hours contracts represent 2% of the work force. We are moving to get rid of the one excess that makes them a problem, which is when people are blocked from taking any other work. That will not be allowed, but it was allowed under his party’s Government. The last point I would make about zero-hours contracts is that nearly 70% of those who have them prefer them, because they give them flexibility. That comes from independent polling. Zero-hours contracts were never attacked by his party’s Government and I do not think that it is his party’s policy to get rid of them. We think that they add something to the economy.