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Volume 709: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the latest quarterly figure for total unemployment in the United Kingdom; and what is the latest monthly total number of claimants of unemployment benefit.

My Lords, those figures in fact conceal considerable increases of 177,000 in the quarterly figure from the previous quarter and 73,700 in claimant numbers at the end of March as opposed to February. Does the Minister believe that we can expect similar increases over the months to come—say, the next 18 months—as many people expect in spite of whatever the Government may do, or does he believe that the recession will be short-lived and that the green shoots are already sprouting or are about to sprout?

My Lords, I say at the start that I do not think that the Answer was meant to conceal any figures. It was meant to be a direct response to the Question. The data are in the public domain and are published by the Office for National Statistics. We know that these are tough times and that these figures are challenging. We are very clear about that. I think that today my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that, although his projection is that the economy will begin to turn up at the end of the year, unemployment is unlikely to come down within that timeframe but will increase for some while. We cannot stop people falling out of work; what we can do and are doing as a Government is to support people back into work as quickly as possible to ensure that we do not replicate the mistakes of the past where we had cycles of worklessness and the deprivation that that entailed.

My Lords, of course unemployment is very bad for the people who are experiencing it and we want to eradicate it, but can the Minister tell the House how many people are in the employment market today compared with 1997?

My Lords, indeed I can, as it happens. My noble friend makes a very important point about what has happened in the labour market. At the beginning of 2008, the claimant count was at its lowest level for 30 years and employment was at an historic high. Currently, 29.267 million people are in employment. In 1997, the figure was some 3 million lower and, going back to the recessions of the early 1990s, it was 4 million lower.

My Lords, we may not be able to see green shoots but we can certainly see a green plant on the Labour Back Benches. Did the Minister notice in the figures today the very chilling increase in the redundancies total? The number has more than doubled over the past year, with an increase of 40 per cent in the past quarter alone. In construction, there has been a fourfold rise in the figures. They are a very chilling forward indicator of unemployment. Can he draw these figures to the attention of any of his ministerial colleagues who might be in danger of suffering another embarrassing attack of green shoot-itis?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that in the figures that were recently announced there was an increase in the number of redundancies. Again, I am sure that he heard the Budget speech earlier. With the extra support announced in the Budget today, the Chancellor is building on the support given to business in the Pre-Budget Report and what has flowed from that, and there are also the issues that my noble friend Lord Myners has just talked about. However, I remind the noble Lord that, despite the challenges of redundancy levels and the total claimant count, something like 10,000 jobs are still coming into Jobcentre Plus offices each working day and many more are arising. Although there were around 363,000 new claims for JSA, in the past month 275,000 people flowed off JSA, so it is a dynamic situation.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that at a time of increasing and perhaps inevitably rising unemployment the key is to ensure that the right training schemes are available, particularly for the emerging new economy, and that the statements made today and at other times are very important in that respect? Perhaps we should also remind ourselves that one of the successes which is not referred to very often is that, both now and over the past few years, the unemployment rate in this country has been significantly lower than the rates for all our major European competitors? That shows the success of the economy as well. But training is the key.

My Lords, my noble friend is right about the data on our comparative position. I think that we have the second highest employment rate in the G7 and the second lowest unemployment rate. He is also absolutely right about the importance of training and support. It is why today’s Budget allocated an additional £1.7 billion to Jobcentre Plus, so that it can continue its strong programmes of support, plus a £1.2 billion package of support for young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who have been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for 12 months or more.

My Lords, in view of the fact that this morning the Chancellor forecast that the economy would, incredibly, grow by 3.5 per cent in 2011—in other words, at a faster rate of growth than at any time during the Brown boom years, before the Brown bust—when does the Minister expect unemployment to fall?

We do not, my Lords, and neither have previous Governments. However, we are in the business of ensuring that there is the infrastructure and capacity in the system to support people as they fall out of work, to prevent them falling out of work where we can by supporting the business community, and to help them get back into work as quickly as possible when they do fall out.

My Lords, in concluding this short exchange of views, perhaps my noble friend will bring some noble Lords opposite back to reality by reminding them where the unemployment crisis began. It began with the irresponsibility of the banks, the financial sector and the big six audit companies which took £600 million in fees for auditing the banks but between them could find nothing out of order to report. That is the cause of the current unemployment.

My Lords, my noble friend makes some interesting observations, particularly on auditing firms. He is quite right that the UK economy is suffering from what economies across the globe are suffering from. We know that that was generated in particular by a banking crisis and irresponsible actions. That is why my noble friend Lord Myners has said today and previously that it was very important for the banking system to be stabilised at a macro level so that the economy could expand as a result.