It is good to be back, Mr Speaker. I trust that you had at least some rest during the recess. Let me also extend my welcome to the new Members who have just taken their seats.
The regional employment rate gap is 7.7 percentage points, which is 1.2 percentage points less than the gap in 2010 and a low figure by historical standards.
As the Marmot review shows, there is a strong correlation between indices of deprivation and addiction. This issue affects all regions, but especially the poorer regions. What policies are in place across the regions to address the issue of addiction and to help more people remain in and enter employment, particularly in the north-west?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of universal support and the WorkWell pilots. In exactly the areas to which he has referred, they are bringing together healthcare and help with seeking work, which my party believes to be one of the best ways to remedy the issues he has mentioned, including mental health issues.
It is 87 years since the Jarrow march against unemployment, and my constituents are still being let down. We have a higher percentage of people claiming unemployment benefits than the national average, and the reality is shown to be worse when hidden unemployment is factored in. According to the Centre for Cities, nine in 10 of the places with the highest hidden unemployment rates are in the north. Instead of continuing their false rhetoric on levelling up, when will the Government stop neglecting and start investing in our northern communities?
I have no problem at all with defending the Government’s record on employment. There are now nearly 4 million more people in employment than there were in 2010, including about 2 million more women, and unemployment across the country, including in the north, is at a near-historic low.
In his blog today on ConservativeHome, Lord Ashcroft says:
“On the cost of living, two thirds of voters...thought the Government could do more to help but was choosing not to.”
Given the regional disparity in earnings, does the Secretary of State accept that the roll-out of fair pay agreements providing sectoral minimum terms, as outlined in Labour’s “A New Deal for Working People”, would not only boost the economy but address the blight of in-work poverty and insecure work that is having an impact on so many households in my constituency and throughout the country?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of support during the cost of living squeeze that we are experiencing. My Department has been responsible for distributing millions of payments to the most vulnerable people, including £900 in total to 8 million low-income households, £150 to 6 million disabled people and the £300 payment to pensioners. On the question of work, we put up the national living wage by over 9% to £10.42 this April.
In parts of my constituency, the healthy life expectancy is now just 53 to 54—a true regional inequality if ever there was one. That means that people—even those in the Minister’s age group—are dropping out of work far too early, which is not good for them or the economy. What steps is the Department taking as a consequence of the health and disability White Paper to address this serious inequality?
I have already mentioned the measures that we brought forward at the last Budget, including universal support and WorkWell. The Government are of course constantly looking at how we can go further in that respect. On the over-50s specifically, the midlife MOT that we are running, the returnerships and the changes to the pension tax arrangements are all helping to bear down on economic inactivity in that group.
The good news from Kettering is that, at 3.6%, the overall unemployment rate is below the national average of 3.7%. The bad news from Kettering is that there are 420 18 to 24-year-olds without work and the youth unemployment rate is 6.2%, versus the national average of 4.7%. What is the Secretary of State doing to address youth unemployment?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that since 2010, youth unemployment has fallen by over 40%, which is the mirror image of what happened under the last Labour Government when it rose by over 40%. On his specific question, I point him towards the youth offer, which we have recently announced we will be expanding to even more young people.
I thought the Secretary of State understood that, while unemployment is at a historic low, economic activity is the big challenge before us, particularly when it comes to regional economic inactivity and the huge, near 10-point gap across the regions. The east midlands, London, the north-east, the north-west and the west midlands all have higher inactivity rates than the south-east. The Tories have had 13 years to close that gap, so can I ask the Secretary of State: is his plan really to make levelling up a reality by leaving it to Labour?
Given that there has never been a Labour Government who have left office with unemployment anything other than higher than they found it in the first place, I do not think I would leave employment to Labour. On the hon. Lady’s point, economic inactivity is important and it is a major focus for my Department. It has of course reduced substantially since its peak during the pandemic, having fallen by around 350,000.