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I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and although there are two more contributions to come, I believe that his must be the best speech of the day. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hung on to every word. He really put the case for the
Column 316Opposition, as to our feelings about the Gracious Speech. I enjoyed every moment of my hon. Friend's contribution and had to tell him so immediately afterwards. I look forward to hearing more speeches of that kind from my hon. Friend.
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) : It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), one I have not had before. The hon. Gentleman chided the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for speaking for 22 minutes, but then went on to address the House for longer than that--although I did enjoy listening to him.
Mr. Haynes : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) has only just flipping well walked in. He accused me of speaking for too long. I do not know how long my speech was, but I have been seated here all day and he has not.
Mr. Harris : I was pulling the hon. Gentleman's leg. I have only a few minutes, and so I shall confine myself to making brief points. The most tantilising sentence in the Gracious Speech is right at the end :
"Other measures will be laid before you."
I suppose that all right hon. and hon. Members have candidates for "other measures". I would like to see among any miscellaneous legislation a measure to right a wrong perpetrated by this House over the registration of common land.
I cite a case in my constituency, which I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members can do. I refer to a house and a garden that was designated, wrongly and inaccurately, as common land, and there is no means of redress under current law. I hope that a simple Bill can be introduced with all- party agreement giving justice to all who are suffering in that way.
I should also like a measure to the introduced meeting the widespread problem of people moving around the country in convoys--hippies--and causing a lot of trouble to those on whose land they squat and park their vehicles. It is true that, under the Public Order Act 1986, it is possible for the police to take action with reasonable safeguards, if more than 12 vehicles are parked in such a way. That number is far too high. I could cite examples from my own constituency, where a number of hippies and people following such a life style have camped on private land, causing its owners no end of trouble. The problem should be re-examined.
I draw attention also to the way in which social security payments are made to such people in contravention, I believe, of the clear rules concerning availability for work--the test that a person who receives social security payments must be available for and ready to take up employment. I do not understand how people who move around the country, perhaps following pop festivals during the summer, can meet that test. Again, I can cite examples of constituents who entered training schemes at their own expense having been denied benefit, or whose benefit was stopped because they failed the test of availability for work. However, hippies who go round the country from pop festival to pop festival are paid. What is more, and probably quite rightly, the Department has a team of officers who go around and pay them. I understand the reasons for that. It cuts down on fraud, but
Column 317it is expensive. When pop festivals are held in my constituency during the summer, three officers travel to Penzance. Their expenses, on top of their salaries, amount to £362, simply to pay the hippies who participate in pop festivals. That is wrong.
I do not want to penalise those who follow that life style, but the rules that apply to everyone else--rules about the standard of vehicles, or the payment of benefit, or law and order and noise levels--should also apply to these people. I ask Her Majesty's Government to look at that point. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is here. I hope he will look into that issue because it is causing widespread concern throught southern England.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : The Secretary of State for Social Security began the debate by unwrapping a package of significant new measures for elderly and disabled pensioners, which all hon. Members welcome. We realise that it was generated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's briefing gaffe, but, whatever its genesis or provenance, we still welcome it. However, the Secretary of State ought to put his package into perspective. It is important that he is offering an additional £200 million to pensioners, but he should recognise that, because of the break of the link with earnings, this Government are robbing pensioners this year and every year of over £5,000 million.
It is important that some of the most needy pensioners will receive an additional £2 a week, but it is also important that the Secretary of State should recognise that, because of the state earnings-related pension scheme, the average pensioner today receives an additional £25 a week on top of the basic pension. The Secretary of State was so anxious to lambast the record of the last Labour Government that it is ironic that he failed to see, apparently, that the reason why pensioners are now considerably better off is solely because of the state earnings-related pension scheme and the minimum private pension guarantee that it involves. That was a Labour Government measure. The Secretary of State failed to acknowledge that his predecessor tried to abolish that measure. Furthermore, this Secretary of State intends to wind it down.
This Government are responsible only for the basic pension. Under a Labour Government, it increased during a five-year period by 20 per cent. During the last nine years, under a Tory Government, it has increased by only slightly over 2 per cent. The increase is welcome, but the Government's record must be put into perspective. As is always the case, these debates are wide-ranging and it would be wrong if I were to take up too much time by referring to previous speeches. However, I wish to refer to some of the speeches that were made by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friends made important points which I hope will be taken on board.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) referred to the inadequate help that is given, even with the latest measures, to the disabled--in particular to help them back to work, which is what they want most of all. He drew attention to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys' figures that are now
Column 318accepted as showing that the number of disabled people is about twice as great as the Government previously recognised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) made a telling speech pointing out the personal and individual effects of the benefit cuts --which we talk about so glibly in the House but which impact so harshly on individuals in particular--and quoted from a benefits survey in her constituency.
I also noted the strictures on training of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) and the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) which I hope the Secretary of State will take on board. He suggested that allowances for employment training could be doubled for as little as £180 million. That would make a considerable difference to attitudes to the scheme. He also brought up the question of a jobs guarantee, which has also been mooted recently.
I shall not try to encompass all that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). I should like, however, to take up a point that he made about the nurses' regradings, which was very much along the lines of my own thinking. The Government need to answer this question, but they have not yet done so : how can working to grade be considered industrial action? If working to grade disrupts activity on the ward, that simply demonstrates how wrong the grading originally was. If working to grade is industrial action according to section 1 of the Employment Act 1988, that surely demonstrates precisely how draconian the legislation is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) dealt with social security issues, and I shall now deal with employment issues--and in particular with the employment Bill, portrayed in the Queen's Speech as a further step in the deregulation of the labour market. In my view, it is much more accurately seen as a concentration of power in the hands of the employer, and a further de-protection--if I may use an ugly word for an ugly process--of employment conditions for most, or at least many of the most vulnerable sections of the labour market. We must wait to see the details of the Bill, but it is already clear that employers will find it considerably easier to sack people, while workers will find it considerably harder to fight for what remains of their rights at work.
The Government claim that they wish to increase employment opportunities for women and young people, and they therefore propose to end restrictions on the type of work that women can
undertake--particularly in such industries as pottery, lead manufacture and mining. There is no doubt that a handful of women will as a result gain jobs hitherto denied them. I am sure that we shall be treated to an endless series of pictures of coal-black women in pit helmets standing outside colliery gates, no doubt with British Coal shares in their hands. Nevertheless, we must ask what are the realities behind such photo opportunities. How can the Government seriously lay claim to extending equal opportunities for women when they have systematically chipped away at all the protections against exploitation that have been built up for them over the past century? Perhaps I take a rather different view from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) about allowing women to go down the mines. Allowing them to go down the mines is one thing, but the same Government rescinded the fair wages resolution that provided a
Column 319minimum floor for women's pay, cut back the scope of the wages councils that protected women, exposed them to longer working hours in manufacturing and greatly extended the qualifying conditions for employment rights. All those measures hit women, particularly part-time workers, most of whom are women.
The Secretary of State said last Friday--I am sure that he is glad to know that we are avid readers of what he says--at the Cambridge university Conservative association, breathing the rhetoric of gender fairness :
"The Government is fully committed to the principle of equal opportunities and the elimination of all forms of unfair discrimination."
What world is the Secretary of State living in? According to the recent European Commission report, "Child Care and Equality of Opportunity", Britain, after nearly a decade of Tory government, is the only EEC state that provides no full statutory maternity leave and no parental leave at all. Indeed, the Government have repeatedly blocked EEC directives to that end. For working mothers, Britain has publicly funded services for fewer than 2 per cent. of children under three and for fewer than 1 per cent. of children at primary school. What sort of assistance is that for mothers who want to go back to work? Services are 20 times that level in Denmark.
The United Kingdom is the only EEC state in which employment protection has been reduced in respect of maternity. If the Secretary of State is really anxious about equal opportunities for women at work, it is bizarre that he should start and finish by sending women down the mines and into heavy industry.
Mr. Meacher : The hon. Gentleman says that this is silly, but the silly person is the Secretary of State. These are his proposals. If the hon. Gentleman can suggest any other proposals which the Secretary of State has made to justify his claim about equal opportunities, I shall gladly give way to him.
Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman is getting a little confused. At one stage he said that he supported the idea and now he has come out against it. That is not an unfamiliar position for him to take, but may we have a clear statement on whether he is, in principle, in favour or not in favour?
Mr. Meacher : I am certainly not against it, but it is absurd that the only thing that the Government can claim in respect of improving opportunities for women is the fact that they are enabling women to go down the mines and to work in heavy industry.
It seems eccentric, to say the least, that the Secretary of State should spend a great deal of time and money emphasising this point to employers who need to retain women workers--he said it again a few weeks ago--when the Government have removed the right to return to work after pregnancy for women who work in small companies and when they have chosen to tax workplace creches on the same basis as company cars, as if they were a perk. What sense does that make? Another major feature of the proposed Bill is the removal of what the Government like to call unnecessary and outdated restrictions on the hours of work of young people. I submit that the truth is the opposite. Such restrictions are as vital today--probably more so--to protect young workers in today's laissez-faire economic
Column 320climate as they were in the Victorian laissez-faire economic climate. Every further year of this Administration makes those restrictions more important.
Young people, by virtue of their inexperience and their under- representation in trade unions, are especially vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, by whom they are regarded as an opportunity to acquire cheap labour for the most difficult and dangerous jobs. If any hon. Member has any doubt about that, I remind the House that the accident rate for young workers on the youth training scheme and in employment has more than doubled during the past four years to a level which well exceeds the adult accident rate in some of Britain's most dangerous industries such as shipbuilding. Against such a background, to reduce even further protective legislation for young workers is doctrinaire and irresponsible. The Government's other justification for the measure is that young people's job opportunities are being curtailed by the present legislation. There was a time when the Government would provide evidence before they made allegations such as that, but, with a third election victory and a majority of 100, they do not bother any more. There is no evidence in the consultative document to support that and the Secretary of State has produced nothing to back it up. The research referred to by the Low Pay Unit points to the opposite conclusion, which is that the removal of the wages councils in 1986, which protected people under the age of 21, has worsened the pay and conditions of young people. However, there is no evidence of any improvement in job opportunities for them. The only opportunities that will be opened for young workers by the removal of the protective legislation are greater opportunities for them to be exploited.
No employment Bill under this Government would be complete without some further assault on individual employment rights. The Secretary of State has not let us down on this occasion. The Bill is an invitation to employers to hire and fire at will. In one swoop, most of the remaining protections for workers, particularly in small firms, will be swept away. We are being taken back to the forelock-tugging era when keeping a job depended on the boss's whim. The Government's approach to an individual's employment rights has all the sensitivity of a salami slicer. When they first took office, the Government raised the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims to one year. Then they raised it to two years for employees in firms with fewer than 20 staff. In 1985 they raised it to two years for all employees. They are now saying that no worker without at least two years' continuous employment with one employer can even ask for a statement of the reasons for dismissal.
The same process of erosion is now being applied to whether one can obtain a written statement from one's employer about grievance and disciplinary procedures. The answer, wrapped up in the convoluted qualifications of the Government's constantly changing regulations, is that if one works for a small firm--half Britain's work force now does so--one is not entitled to an explanation.
I do not know why the Government do not come clean and admit that they believe that employers should have the power to hire and fire whomever they like whenever they like, with hardly anything to stop them.
The same pattern of making it harder for a worker to obtain redress is now being applied to industrial tribunals, where the deterrents are almost punitive. It seems from the
Column 321Queen's Speech that large deposits may have to be paid before a claim can proceed and that the chairman of the industrial tribunal alone can decide whether a deposit is necessary. That deposit is now to be £150, which is six times the previous level of £25. That previous level was rejected because it would not bite on applicants with a weak case. However, who now decides whether the case is weak? The answer is none other than the chairman, who is an appointee of the Secretary of State, who acts alone and without a trade union representative.
All that illustrates two principles which are becoming increasingly characteristic of the Government's approach. First, they are complicating the rules to make it as difficult as possible for people to obtain their basic rights. That applies to social security as much as to employment rights. They hope that claimants will become lost in a maze of complexity. The second principle is their use of administrative mechanisms to secure a politically loaded result. It is not only the proposed Bill that shows up those two devices so clearly but, even more so, the code of practice on industrial action ballots which the Government promulgated two weeks ago. It is a highly complicated and lengthy draft of over 100 paragraphs. Unions will have to follow more than 20 stages set out in the code before industrial action can be endorsed. Failure to observe any of the stages could result in employers taking test cases to challenge the conduct of the ballot.
When the Government do not want rights to be exercised they expose people to a highly complicated obstacle course involving a legal minefield. They are trying to pile up insurmountable hurdles to block choice by artificial rules. The code suggests that industrial action should not be taken unless there is a substantial majority or a turnout in secret balloting of at least 70 per cent.
The Government forced trade unions to hold secret ballots, but the trade unions have been winning far too high a proportion of them. The most telling fact in the recent ACAS annual report was that 90 per cent. of the industrial action ballots that unions have been forced to hold resulted in favour of the trade unions, which is why the Government want to move the goal posts.
That is exactly what they did regarding the closed shop ballot under the Trade Union Act 1984. Trade unions were obliged to meet what the Government thought were safely impossible thresholds of obtaining a yes vote--80 per cent. of those eligible to vote or 85 per cent. of those voting. Almost every vote surmounted that artificially high threshold. What did the Prime Minister do? In these matters, the Secretary of State is an agent or a sort of papal nuncio. The Prime Minister decided to cancel the vote and abolish the closed shop altogether. We might call it the David Owen of industrial ballots--"If you cannot win the game, pick up the ball and walk off the field." If the Government want people to exercise their rights, they bend the rules shamelessly in the other direction. When the Prime Minister wants council tenants to agree to sell their council housing estates to private landlords, she counts those who abstain as being in favour. We thus had
Column 322the infamous Torbay result a week ago in which three out of five tenants voted, but only about 15 per cent. were in favour of a sale. As the 42 per cent. who did not vote were counted as being in favour, a proposal that had the support of precisely one in seven was passed. There is a case to be made for this indiarubber democracy. It works in many ways and we will be looking for the Prime Minister's support at the next election when all those who abstain will be counted as being in favour of a change of Government.
There is a further item in the Gracious Speech to improve training arrangements. It must be correct because a Government that abolished the grant levy system for training of those in work, cut three quarters of the industrial training boards, axed one third of the skill centres and reduced the number of engineering apprenticeships to an all-time low can only improve.
The one thing that the Government will not do is the one thing that cries out to be done--improve the manifest failings and deficiencies of the employment training scheme. The Government still have taken no action. Given that the number of participants is being doubled while the budget is not being increased by a single penny, the scheme is still grossly underfunded, which means that the training provided must be of poor quality. Participants are still locked in benefit-level poverty. Because top-up is prevented, because it is a social security scheme, ET reduces incentives and introduces social security means testing into the world of training and employment. Worst of all is the fact that the creeping compulsion surrounding the restart interviews is now reinforced by the switch in the social security Bill from the availability for work test for the unemployed to the criterion of actively seeking work. It is clear that the Government are making ET compulsory, not by formally designating the scheme but by forcing unemployed people on to ET projects, however unsuitable they are and however bad or inappropriate the training may be, on pain of being completely deprived of benefit.
It is not difficult to see why the Government are resorting to compulsion. ET is faring badly because it is a deeply flawed scheme. Two weeks ago, Newcastle city council, which is probably the biggest sole council managing agency, had 43 out of 8,100 places filled. In mid-November, Birmingham city council had 283 out of 3,000 places taken.
The failure of ET to get anywhere near its targets is not the least bit surprising, in view of the dubious activities of the training agencies. At Vernon Training Ltd., one of the agents, a YTS trainee who doubles as a handyman, was used to supervise ET trainees. At Cobalt UK Ltd., security guards are supplied on ET. No training is involved, but the work is for up to 60 hours a week. Sight and Sound, another training agent, sent a joiner to Capricorn Kitchens to work as a joiner--no training, because the person already had the skills needed ; it was simply cheap labour. At Barnsley, we found a driver sent from restart to work on the scheme as a driver--again, simply cheap labour. YTS trainees at Merseyside youth training were left unsupervised for days at a time while supervisors were used as placement finders. At Chesterfield, a man sent to a building firm was told to buy his own tools. That is not exactly a high quality training scheme. Also, at Chesterfield, a man sent by Age Concern to work in an old
Column 323people's home found that there were no facilities for training him. No attempt was made to train him in any aspect of dealing with the old.
The reference in the Gracious Speech to improving training arrangements is not about providing high quality training, which the unemployed desperately need. It is about providing cheap labour and getting people off the dole registers at any price. The new draft code on ballots is not about improving industrial relations but is about trying to hobble the unions with the maximum legal technicalities. Removing restrictions on employment for women and young people is not about extending work opportunities but is about reducing the resistance of those people to exploitation by some unscrupulous employers. Eroding individual employment rights is not about deregulation of the labour market but is about consolidating the power of the employer to hire and fire at will with minimum worker redress.
The two outstanding issues at work that cry out for
attention--democracy in the workplace and stronger health and safety provisions--are not even given a mention. The proposed social security Bill is not a Bill to make the future safe for employees but is a Bill to make the workplace and work force safer for employers, and that is why we reject it.
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : The most extraordinary omission from the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was that at no stage did he mention the progress made in reducing unemployment. That is a most revealing omission from a speech which rambled over a whole range of other areas.
First, I should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) on his speech. We were together in opposition and I remember his speeches on social security and pensions at that time. I look forward to more of the same in the coming months. I thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) for his kind words about my hon. Friend the Under -Secretary of State and his conduct of the Employment Bill. My hon. Friend looks forward to doing the same again this Session.
Other impressive speeches came from my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard). My hon. Friends the Members for Kensington (Mr. Fishburn), for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) and for Kingswood (Mr. Haywood), as well as the hon. Members for Newham, North- East (Mr. Leighton) and for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther), raised one of the major themes of this debate--employment and training. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) said, there is no question but that the employment position in this country has substantially improved. Unemployment has come down and the number of new jobs created has increased substantially. In particular, the position of the long-term unemployed-- people who have been out of work for more than a year--has improved.
The House will want to know about new figures that I have published today. These show that in the quarter to October long-term unemployment has fallen by about 60,000. Over the past 12 months, long-term unemployment has fallen by 280,000, and the total of long-term
Column 324unemployed has been reduced to 886,000. That means that in the past two years long-term unemployment has fallen by nearly 450,000. Those figures contain substantial hope for the long-term unemployed. Long-term unemployment is now falling faster than unemployment generally. Young people have benefited in particular. The number of long- term unemployed people aged 18 to 24 is about half what it was in October 1986.
There are other encouraging signs. For instance, I can tell the hon. Member for Newham, North-East that the number of people unemployed for five years or more is also falling. The figures show that the long-term unemployed are sharing in the steady fall in unemployment. That is encouraging, but it is clear that there is potential for both long-term unemployment and unemployment generally to fall still further. One of the most significant features of the present situation is the continuing high level of vacancies in the economy. For example, there are 250,000 unfilled vacancies in jobcentres, but that figure is only part of the picture. Earlier this year, we commissioned independent research which confirmed that for every jobcentre vacancy there are another two in the economy generally. In other words, we estimate that there are now more than 700,000 unfilled vacancies throughout the country. The distribution of those vacancies obviously varies, but the general position remains that there is a high level of vacancies now available.
We have carried out a special survey in London. It shows that in London there are about 150,000 vacancies, although there are still 265,000 people registered as unemployed. Obviously some of those jobs require skills-- require training--but the significant feature is that about 50,000 of the jobs are ready to go into without special training and generally the wages being offered are up to what the unemployed people expect.
The reasons for this improvement are clear. By a whole range of indicators, the British economy is doing dramatically better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It is not just that we have had a period of sustained growth. It is also that productivity of our industry is up, the increase in unit labour costs in manufacturing has been much slower than for years past, and industrial relations have dramatically improved. We have tackled a number of the most important barriers to jobs--barriers that stood in the way of employment growth.
On the question of industrial relations, we have moved from a position where 13 million working days were lost each year during the 1970s to one where the number of strikes is lower that at any time since 1940. One of the major reasons for that improvement has been the four Acts of Parliament passed by this Government to reform industrial relations.
Of course, not all the improvement can be put down to the reform of the law alone, but equally, without those changes in the law, we would have made substantially less progress. This Government have, step by step, reformed the law on industrial relations, which the public wanted reformed but which the last Labour Government and the one before that were afraid to touch.
The issue of inflation has been raised during the debate. Only yesterday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would take all the measures necessary to reduce inflation. We must put the matter in context. Even the current inflation figure of just over 6 per cent. would have been regarded as an overwhelming
Column 325success by the last Labour Government. If they had achieved that during their term of office, they would have set it first among their achievements.
In fact, what happened? Between 1974 and 1979, inflation averaged more than 15 per cent. For 13 months in 1975 and 1976, inflation never fell below 20 per cent. At its peak, Labour's inflation rate reached the banana republic level of almost 27 per cent. That was the record of the Government of which the hon. Member for Oldham, West was a member and which the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) so loyally supported. It is one further reason why we are not prepared to take lectures on social justice from the Labour party. There was no social justice in old people being brought to their knees by the financial incompetence of the last Labour Government. There was no social justice in a Government who were the prisoners of the worst prejudices of the most outdated trade unions in the Western world. There was no social justice in the inflation that Labour inflicted on this country. There was no social justice in the Government of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, who cancelled the Christmas bonus twice and fiddled the uprating system and saved more than £1 billion at the expense of social security recipients throughout the country.
This Government have understood a connection that the Labour Government never recognised--that the basis of any social policy worthy of that name must be a sound economic policy. This Government have pursued economic policies that have produced steady growth and a balanced budget, which have made possible substantial increases in spending on social programmes such as health and social security. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security could make his important announcement this afternoon. The package of measures that he announced-- [Interruption.] It is interesting that Opposition Members shout and laugh, but the package of measures that my right hon. Friend announced will bring additional help to more than 2.5 million of our least well-off pensioners. The Government are proud to be doing that.
We shall direct almost £200 million to those who genuinely need help. The new measures will tackle something that most people want tackled. They will help those who most need help. It must be right to give help to those who do not have the benefit of an occupational pension or the state earnings-related pension. They have been cruelly affected by the disastrous inflationary policies of the last Labour Government. They had to live through that.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West talked about the state earnings-related pension scheme and missed out entirely the improvements made by occupational pension schemes. He does not recognise that there has been a massive increase in occupational pension cover--literally
Column 326in the past few months. Some 500,000 personal pensions have been sold, and money purchase schemes have also expanded greatly. That will bring substantial benefit to pensioners of the future. I shall now deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Livingston. I realise that he is unable to be in the Chamber now. We have reaffirmed our manifesto commitment to child benefit. It will continue in the same form and structure as now and it will be paid directly to the mother. We have always made that clear. I remind the hon. Member for Oldham, West, before he challenges me about uprating, that in 1975, when he was in the Department of Health and Social Security, his Secretary of State, Mrs. Barbara Castle, made it clear that she was opposed to the automatic indexation of child benefit. The hon. Gentleman knows that that was her position and the position of a range of Labour Ministers--doubtless including the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Livingston asked about the youth training scheme. There are now 120,000 youth training scheme places available in Britain, of which 13,000 are available in Scotland. However, I am prepared to consider the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raised. I must make it clear that 16 to 18-year-olds have been given a choice. They can remain in education or take a job and they have the guarantee of the youth training scheme. At present, 120,000 YTS places are available throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Livingston then referred to the new Employment Bill. I must make it clear that we shall continue to pursue policies to remove barriers to the operation of the labour market and to the creation of jobs. As was announced in the Gracious Speech, I shall introduce a Bill shortly to amend the law on employment. One of the prime purposes of the Bill will be to remove outdated statutory restrictions on women's employment and to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to override potentially discriminatory requirements in earlier legislation.
I emphasise again that the Government are firmly committed to the promotion of equal opportunities. Without the contribution of women, now and in the future, many industries and services would clearly be in serious difficulty. There is a higher proportion of women active in the labour force in this country than in any other country in the European Community except Denmark. Women have filled a high proportion of the new jobs created over the past five years. Many have taken advantage of the more flexible working pattern. The hon. Member for Ashfield expressed concern about women working in mines. At present, the law operates quite irrationally and inconsistently to prevent women from taking certain jobs. For example, women who are surveyors, engineers or geologists cannot work in the mining industry if they have to go below ground regularly or for significant periods. That is the background. Those jobs are simply closed to women at present. There is no health or safety reason for that, and it contradicts the principle of equal opportunities. There is no question of forcing anyone to work underground. That is a matter of individual choice. Under existing law, that choice is simply not available to women. It is not a matter for cheap jokes. It is simply an anti-discriminatory measure. When the hon. Member for Ashfield has had the opportunity of considering the proposals, I feel sure that he will support them.
Mr. Fowler : The Bill will also remove many existing restrictions on young people's employment, particularly their hours of work. At present the employment of young people is governed by a mass of complex legislation, involving seven main statutes and a large number of statutory instruments, mostly dating back to the 19th century. The legislation is inconsistent because it applies only to factories, mines, quarries and shops, not to other sectors of employment. To achieve our social justice involves not just spending money or getting the best value for that money, but recognising the different challenges and doing something about them. Every opinion poll tells us that the challenge that the British public regard as most serious is that of unemployment. It was for that reason that the Government introduced the proposals for the employment training programme for longer-term unemployed people who, by any definition, are a group who need and deserve help.
Our objective is to train unemployed people so that they have the skills often necessary to fill jobs. What was the reaction of the TUC and the Labour party? Both voted to boycott it. I am glad that the TUC may be having second thoughts, but what about the Labour party? Faced with the challenge of unemployment and the opportunity of doing something about it, the Labour party voted to hinder, not help, employment training. With the exception of the Leader of the Opposition at Bournemouth, scarcely a Labour Front-Bench spokesman has been prepared even to support in principle a programme for training the long-term unemployed. We are not prepared to take lectures from the Labour party on the social challenges facing us. The hon. Member for Oldham, West has shown a complete failure of leadership. He did not say yes or no, but tried to catch the way the tide was flowing. We would have had much more respect for him had he made his position clear and supported trade union leaders who were trying to fight for co-operation with employment training.
Column 328The Labour party has turned its back on the unemployed and the long-term unemployed. That is not the only issue. When the prospect of new jobs in Dundee came up, the Labour Front Bench retreated into collective silence. They knew that what the Transport and General Workers Union was doing was wrong and that jobs would be lost in Dundee, but they feared to offend a trade union leader who wielded over 1 million block votes. No one can possibly benefit from that policy.
Far from the scheme and programme getting off to a bad start, almost 90,000 are already in training under the programme. That is in the first 10 weeks and despite the opposition of the Labour party and the TUC. We now have about 170 training agents and 1,100 training managers who decided to take part in employment training. The six organisations which have withdrawn from it are all Labour-controlled local authorities, and they must be set aside from the 50 local authorities which are continuing to operate as training managers and the 170 local authorities which continue to operate as training agents.
During the election campaign, we were attacked on the basis that once the election was over unemployment would increase ; but since the election, unemployment has decreased by 700,000. Since the election, long-term unemployment has decreased by 300,000. Since the election, the rate of unemployment has fallen faster in Britain than in any other major industrialised country. Since the election, unemployment has decreased not just in London and the south-east, but throughout the country. Under this Government, as many new jobs have been created during the past five years as in the other European Community countries combined. That is the true story of the fall of unemployment, and that is the record of this Conservative Government.
It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Mr. Conal Gregory (York) : The British Rail pension fund is the fifth largest pension fund in the United Kingdom, valued at about £5, 598 million. For a long time I have taken an interest in transport policies, and I am vice-chairman of the Conservative parliamentary transport committee. I am proud to represent many constituents who work in or have retired from the railway industry. I am delighted to initiate the debate and thank in advance my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport, who will respond to the debate.
I single out for praise Mr. Ernest Booth, one of my constituents, who is the president of the British Transport Superannuitants Federation. I have enjoyed working with him and his colleagues on this important issue, as I shall no doubt continue to do. I raise the subject after lengthy correspondence with the Department of Transport and with the chairman of the British Railways Board, Sir Robert Reid.
There are two major concerns : first, the apparent lack of accountability of the fund's management team, and pensioner representation ; and, secondly, the proper allocation of surplus funds, especially taking into account those who have contributed for many years.
The constitution of the funds does not provide for representation of the policy-making committees of any retired staff, despite repeated requests. That is almost unbelievable. There are three key contributors to the funds : the British Railways Board, the active staff who are subscribing and the retired staff who have contributed during their working lives and whose subscriptions form a significant proportion of the funds. When the constitutions were drawn up, the number of retired staff was minimal, but now that group outnumbers the employees. There are about £165,000 railway pensioners, a sizeable proportion of whom belong to the British Transport Superannuitants Federation, which has been seeking official representation since 1977. There are more pensioners than the 144,000 employees in the fund. Even on the management committees, there is no pensioner representation. It is a carve-up between the board and the unions, although the National Union of Railwaymen, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association have not contributed a penny to the funds.
Below the management committee, the funds have established a non-statutory joint working party to discuss the surplus and to formulate recommendations. Again, there is no pensioner representation. The working party consists of representatives of the board and the trade unions and ignores key groups, especially pensioners. Of course, its constitution could easily be amended. Pensioner representation on the joint working party was discussed about three years ago. The board's chairman has advised me that the board expressed support for a widening of representation on pension matters, but that that was blocked by the unions.
Although we do not have the pleasure of seeing their
representatives in the House tonight--they have already left for their beds and cocoa--railway pensioners must rely, justifiably, on me to make their case. They have