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Volume 750: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the outlook for both the number of people in employment and the claimant count in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest central economic forecast.

My Lords, in its latest forecast, the Office for Budget Responsibility has revised employment upwards in every year. It now forecasts that the number of people in employment will reach 30.2 million next year—a record—and 31.2 million by the end of the forecast period in 2018. Furthermore, it expects the claimant count to fall from 1.43 million this year to 1.27 million next year, and to 1.1 million in 2018.

My Lords, that is excellent and encouraging news. However, I remind my noble friend that youth unemployment is still worryingly high, although I believe that even that is falling. Can I encourage him, on behalf of the Government, to endorse the work of the non-profit-making organisations that do such effective work in getting young people into work, particularly Tomorrow’s People and the Prince’s Trust—both of which have been endorsed by an unlikely source, a journalist at the Guardian newspaper?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend that the good news on employment leaves us no room for complacency. Of all the segments of unemployment, youth unemployment remains just a little under 1 million, even though it has been coming down in the past quarter. Remember that about one-third of young people who are classified as unemployed are in full-time education. However, I absolutely endorse the point that my noble friend makes that the work done by the voluntary sector—supporting not just the unemployed youth back into jobs but, frankly, anyone for whom it is difficult to get back into the workforce, such as prisoners needing rehabilitation—is enormously valued and will get this Government’s support.

What amount of money has been put in to ensure that apprenticeships provide a way for the employment figures to reduce and for meaningful employment to be the way forward? The current Government’s commitment to apprenticeships is good but the continuation of payment is a real issue for us. Can he assure the House that that will continue?

My Lords, I will apply that question to youth unemployment. In particular, we have tried to get young people into apprenticeships. The youth contract did that by providing additional support for up to 500,000 young people. Jobcentre Plus will provide support for 16 and 17 year-olds who want to find an apprenticeship or traineeship scheme. That is being phased in from this April. We are doing good work on apprenticeships. I spent yesterday in Liverpool talking about how we can use the HS2 project as a way of defining future work opportunities and to line up training and apprenticeship schemes in anticipation of the work that will flow. I absolutely accept the noble Baroness’s points.

Will the Minister give full support to my noble friend Lord Baker’s university technical colleges, which are succeeding in getting young people adequately skilled to get into apprenticeships? In Westminster, something like two-thirds of young people so far have not been skilled enough to qualify for apprenticeships, so it is crucial to get them to that stage.

I absolutely endorse the work of the technical colleges and my noble friend Lord Baker. If we are looking at how to continue to improve the employment situation, on the one hand the recovery of the economy is providing the demand to support it; on the other hand, there are longer-term, structural things that we need to do, which are essentially about investing in people so that the skills they have match the jobs that will be created in the competitive economy that we are developing.

My Lords, although the OBR’s estimate for future employment is clearly very welcome, it slightly exaggerates the picture. I ask the Minister to check why the Government no longer produce employment statistics on a full-time-equivalent basis, which would show some improvement but by no means so much. In that context, can he explain how we rate the employment take of the many young people who are on zero-hours or near-zero-hours contracts? The figures are seriously distorted, particularly at that end of the market.

Employment statistics are not as simple as the headline numbers. I absolutely accept that point. There has clearly been a discussion about how much of the increase in employment is taken up by temporary jobs and how much is taken up by part-time jobs. The simple fact is that the majority is taken up by an improvement in the full-time picture. In the past year, the proportion of full-time jobs making up the increase has substantially increased, and that tells us that the quality of the recovery in the past 12 months is stronger.

My Lords, will the Government consider doing more to encourage schools to develop in pupils the soft skills or interpersonal skills that are so important in many walks of employment, including the retail and leisure industries?

The noble Lord makes an excellent point. A lot of the schemes that we have put in place are focused on helping people to develop basic skills in maths and literacy, which have often been found lacking. However, on a practical level, I could not agree more that in many cases the softer skills make a huge difference, as do the skills involved in what it takes to go to work every day—how to get into a routine and how to behave in the workplace.

My Lords, will the Minister, who has obviously punctiliously studied the ratio between those who are and those who are not in full-time employment, please write to me with the details and the numbers involved, and place a copy of his letter in the Library?

I shall be happy to do that. I could go through the list of numbers now but I know that it is probably something that the noble Baroness will want to look at rather than have me just spout, so I will make sure that we provide that detail.