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Unemployment Figures

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made as to whether unemployment figures provide an accurate picture of the situation in the labour market.

My Lords, no specific assessment has been made. DWP monitors a range of labour market statistics to understand the labour market situation, including the overall employment rate and economic inactivity rate as well as unemployment. The unemployment rate is accurate and independently produced by the Office for National Statistics. We welcome the fact that unemployment is at its lowest level in 50 years, but we are also expanding the help and opportunities for the growing number of economically inactive people.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but the statistics do not properly identify the approximately 9 million inactive people—yes, 9 million—who are ready and willing to work but are unable to do so because of caring responsibilities, mental or physical illness, because they have been let down by back-to-work programmes and failed by the Government or because of changes in the world of work. Since the pandemic, the number has grown by 640,000, whereas in other similar economies the number is declining. What are the Government doing to properly identify and address this inactivity? With low unemployment and many job vacancies, they should be doing this as part of the growth agenda.

I completely agree with the noble Lord on the points he raises and the fact that there are 9 million economically inactive people. We have a breakdown of the groups that they fall in. We know that 1.7 million are looking after family at home, and 2.5 million are people with sickness issues. That is why we are increasing our efforts to increase the support we give. The noble Lord points out that these people have very complex issues; there may be more than one or two reasons for them not working. I am very pleased that we were able to look at the noble Lord’s son’s report on this and, in fact, give it to the Secretary of State, because she is very keen to read and understand it.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s apprenticeship schemes and the support that the Government gave to businesses. Apprenticeships are of course an important route into employment, particularly for some of our young. However, as my noble friend will know, the numbers of apprenticeships have fallen quite significantly. What are the Government doing to support young people, and to identify the barriers that businesses are experiencing, to ensure that these schemes can continue?

I believe that there are a number of activities that the Department for Education is working on to ensure that employers take full use of apprenticeships, and that the National Careers Service and Jobcentre Plus are also encouraging young people to take up apprenticeships. They have a big impact on their lives and are in fact some of the best ways to enter the world of work.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on a particular sector which is very adversely affected in terms of economic inactivity: that is, older women, particularly ethnic minority women, who suffer from digital exclusion? Is she able to say what conversations her department is having with employers to facilitate training to bring back into the workplace older women who now, due to the Covid changeovers in working practices, have become excluded due to technology?

I sometimes worry about using the term “older workers”, but rising economic inactivity in the over-50s is contributing to shortages in the labour market. We are working with employers: one example in terms of technology and skills is the STEM returners work task force that we have introduced. In that way, we are trying to upskill people who have left the workforce and get their skills back on STEM so they can go into high-paid work.

My Lords, with job vacancies at record levels—for care workers it is 52%, the highest level since records began—what are the Government doing to invest in the supply of much-needed care workers? Is it not time that the Government addressed the pay of care workers, currently less than that of supermarket workers, rather than trying to find solutions by recruiting workers from the poorest countries in the world, where they are desperately needed at home?

We are cognisant of the vacancies in the care industry. We are promoting work, in partnership with the Department of Health, but we want employers to pay the right rate for the job. The Government cannot subsidise employers, so that is what we will encourage them to do.

My Lords, this is obviously a hugely important issue and the statistics are very difficult to make sense of, so it is a remarkably good Question. Does the Minister realise that the importation of workers on a scale that is likely to have any significant effect on the economy would be huge in terms of immigration? Will she therefore make sure that the Government fulfil their promises to the electorate on the sheer scale of overall immigration?

I am not wishing to duck the issue, but the answer to that question should really come from the Home Office. I will take it back and ask the Home Office to respond to the noble Lord.

My Lords, the number of inactive people in this country of working age is increasing inexorably. In the last three months alone, it has increased by 80,000 people, and of the 640,000 who have become inactive since the onset of the pandemic, 55% say that they are long-term sick. Instead of tinkering about at the edges of this problem, as Kwasi Kwarteng was intending to do with benefits, all of the informed experts who write extensively on this are saying that we need significant investment in health, social care and childcare to release the potential of these people who are being wasted. Is the noble Baroness’s department encouraging the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he makes the economic Statement that we are all waiting for, to announce the sort of investment that will release that capacity? We will otherwise not get anything like the growth we need.

I take the point that the noble Lord makes. Those people who are long-term sick may have mental health issues that are complex, and the mental health support service is an essential element to it. As regards influencing the Chancellor, I am not aware that my Secretary of State has spoken to him, but I will ask her and respond to the noble Lord.

Is my noble friend not worried about the operation of universal credit, which of course is paid as an in-work benefit? People can work for as little as two days and still qualify for universal credit. Should this not be looked at quite closely?

I say to my noble friend that we are increasing the AET hours from nine to 12, and then from 12 hours to 15. We are trying to get to a minimum of people working part-time, but it must take into account the barriers that they face. There is no point in trying to push people into work if it creates more havoc in their life without the proper support to get into work and stay there.

Does the noble Baroness recognisethat there is a clear link between the lengthening waiting time for operations and those who are outside the labour force? Is that not one of the problems that the Government need to address—to speed up operations—if they want to get people in middle age back into the labour force?

I believe that the Secretary of State for Health, Thérèse Coffey, is focusing on this. I am sorry; I am really not trying to duck the issue, but the fact of the matter is that it is one for the Department of Health to look at. Clearly, we need more people to clear the backlog.

I am grateful to my noble friend and will try again. The Minister is here to answer for the whole Government, but if she does not want to answer for anything but her own department, can I tell her that one-fifth of adults between 50 and 65 who have left work are currently on NHS waiting lists? Does she accept that the very least her department could do is ensure that it can assure those people that, as well as that problem, it is not about to cut the value of their benefits as well?

We will have to wait and see what is in the Secretary of State’s review of uprating. We have honoured the pledge we made on the triple lock and I am afraid that until we get to 25 November I will not be able to answer that question in all truth.