Home Page

Column 269

House of Commons

Tuesday 14 March 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

New Writ

Motion made and Question proposed ,

That Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant for the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the county constituency of Vale of Glamorgan in the room of Sir Herbert Raymond Gower, deceased.-- [Mr. Sillars.]

Hon. Members : Object.

Mr. Speaker : Objection taken. The debate will stand over until after Question Time.


King's Cross Railways Bill

Order for Second Reading read .

To be read a Second time on Thursday 16 March .

Oral Answers to Questions


Labour Statistics

1. Mr. Jack : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the number of people currently in employment in the north of England.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : In the three regions, north, north-west, and Yorkshire and Humberside, the work force in employment in September 1988 was 6,099,000. This has increased by 268,000 or 4.6 per cent. in the last two years alone.

Mr. Jack : My right hon. Friend's excellent reply helps to confirm why unemployment in my constituency of Fylde has fallen in the past year by 30.3 per cent., but does he agree that the figures also confirm the excellent findings of the recent labour force survey, which show that the Opposition's attempts to rubbish our approach to employment creation are bogus and bankrupt?

Mr. Fowler : I agree with my hon. Friend on both points. Unemployment in the whole of the region, including the north, the north- west, and Yorkshire and Humberside, has come down by 140,000 in the year to January--a reduction of almost 18 per cent. As my hon. Friend reminds us, at the last Employment Question Time the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asserted that the labour force survey

"reveals that unemployment today in Britain is still over 2.6 million"-- [ Official Report , 14 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c. 140.]

Column 270

The hon. Gentleman now knows what he said. To use his own characteristic words, that is utterly bogus. We wait for his withdrawal.

Mr. Allen McKay : When the Minister talks about Yorkshire and Humberside and the labour force survey, will he admit that the survey does not tell the whole story, as pockets of unemployment remain? Will the Minister take account of the fact that in my constituency of Barnsley, West and Penistone male unemployment is still more than 16 per cent? What does he intend to do about that?

Mr. Fowler : There are parts of the country, including Yorkshire and west Humberside, where we wish the employment position to improve substantially. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also recognise, however, that unemployment has come down by virtually a million since the last election and that there are more than a million new jobs in the economy. That all-time record is certainly better than the position in 1979.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Does my right hon. Friend accept that employment would be even higher if the Government encouraged a positive "Buy British" campaign when British goods are best? Does he further agree that employment would be higher than it is today if there was free and genuinely fair competition, not least for the magnificent British textile and clothing industry, which is one of the largest employers in the country?

Mr. Fowler : I think that the Government would want free and fair competition. The Government support the organisation that is encouraging British goods and their marketing. As my hon. Friend knows, Sir Basil Feldman is chairman of that organisation, to which my Department subscribes.


2. Mr. Tony Lloyd : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the progress of the restart scheme.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Cope) : Since July 1986, about 5.4 million interviews have been carried out under the restart programme, of which just under 90 per cent. have resulted in an offer of positive help being made.

Mr. Lloyd : Will the Minister confirm that there has been some concern in mining communities about the use of the restart scheme for people in their late 50s and 60s who have retired from mining but who nevertheless have to suffer the indignity of that procedure? Can he confirm that that position is to be resolved and that he will now instruct local offices to cease harassing such people so that they no longer have to undergo the indignity of such irrelevant interviews?

Mr. Cope : I do not accept that there is harassment, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is confirming in a written answer today that he is considering modifying the redundant mineworkers pension scheme, which has given rise to the problem to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention, so as to remove the link with unemployment benefit and availability for work. Obviously, we shall take account of what my right hon. Friend does.

Column 271

Mr. Marlow : How many bluffs have been called, how many people have been rumbled, and how many have magically disappeared from the unemployment register when they have been called to a restart interview? What further action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that paid voluntary unemployment does not continue in those parts of the country where there is a labour shortage?

Mr. Cope : I should be inclined to say that the aim of the restart interview is to contact the longer-term unemployed and to provide them with advice and information, but it sometimes has the effect that my hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Eadie : Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) about the plight of redundant mineworkers? Does he recall that when the miners' parliamentary group met him he gave a pledge that he would do his best to resolve the anomaly? In the light of that, should there not be some announcement about the matter so that the harassment of miners can cease pending resolution of the problem?

Mr. Cope : I remember the meeting when the hon. Gentleman brought his colleagues to see me. I will reflect on that, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), in which he should find some comfort.

Labour Statistics

3. Mr. Speed : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment by how much unemployment has fallen over the past year in the south-east ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fowler : In the 12 months to January 1989, the level of unemployment, seasonally adjusted, in the south-east including London fell by 157,400 or 27.9 per cent. Unemployment in the south-east is now at its lowest level for eight years.

Mr. Speed : I welcome those figures, and my right hon. Friend confirms that the labour force survey showed that employment in the region rose by 800,000 up to June last year, more than offsetting the fall of 400,000 or 500,000 in the claimant count. Is not the real problem now to find the skills for the 150,000 vacancies in the south-east?

Mr. Fowler : Yes, Sir. The labour force survey shows a real growth in employment. In the past 12 months, there has been an increase of more than 600,000 in the number of employees. As my hon. Friend says, we now need to improve the nation's skills base. That is why we have introduced the employment training programme and are in the process of setting up the new training and enterprise councils.

Ms. Short rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. Is it about the south-east?

Ms. Short : Yes, Mr. Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that in the south-east and elsewhere the labour force survey and other evidence show that the new jobs being created in Britain are overwhelmingly low paid and part time, which is a real worry for the future of our economy? There is no future for

Column 272

Britain in low pay, low investment, low training and a slow economy, but those jobs mean that that is the road that we are on.

Mr. Fowler : Uncharacteristically, the hon. Lady has apparently not read the labour force survey. One point that emerges clearly from the survey is that the overwhelming number of jobs that have been created in the past 12 months are not part-time, but full-time. The fact that 86 per cent. of those jobs were full-time entirely demolishes the hon. Lady's case.

4. Mr. Yeo : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what is the rate of fall in unemployment in the United Kingdom and in other developed countries ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fowler : Over the past year, the rate of unemployment has fallen faster in the United Kingdom than in any other major industrialised country. The rate of unemployment in the United Kingdom is below the average for the European Community and now stands below that of France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland.

Mr. Yeo : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government's step by step approach to the reform of industrial relations has made a significant contribution towards reducing unemployment? In the light of that, will he undertake to introduce further measures of industrial relations reform, including the abolition of what remains of the closed shop, so as to achieve a further reduction in unemployment?

Mr. Fowler : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that bad industrial relations, particularly in the middle and late 1970s exported many British jobs overseas. The closed shop puts unacceptable limits on people's freedom to choose for themselves whether or not to belong to a trade union. I made the position clear in the White Paper that I published before Christmas, and I repeat that we shall not hesitate to take any further legislative measures that may be necessary.

Mr. Wigley : Does the Secretary of State accept that whereas the rate of decrease may be acceptable in south-east England, where the rate of unemployment is 2 or 3 per cent. in many of the home counties, in Wales and elsewhere in these islands, where unemployment is running at between 15 and 20 per cent., it is totally unacceptable? When will he take an initiative to do something about that?

Mr. Fowler : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, after the west midlands, Wales is one part of the country where the rate of unemployment has come down most steeply. We shall do all that we can to improve on that. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman will concede what has been done already.

Mr. Holt : Unemployment in my constituency has fallen from its peak by 40 per cent. and stands today at lower than the national average. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Teesside chamber of commerce has just put out a press release which says that the

"Teesside economy continues to boom"

and shows that more than 28 per cent. of the firms on Teesside expect to be employing more labour in the next three months?

Column 273

Mr. Fowler : I am sure that what my hon. Friend says is right. The Prime Minister and I were in the north-east on Friday, as my hon. Friend knows, and there was no doubting the new confidence that exists there. It is important for the House to appreciate that in the past two years this country has shown the fastest employment growth since 1945.

Mr. Meacher : Is the Secretary of State really crowing at the fact that unemployment is still twice as high as it was in 1979? How does he explain the fact that 40 per cent. of the money that the EEC is paying to member states this year to arrest industrial decline and job losses is coming to Britain--twice as much as to any other EEC state? Will he admit that he has been telling only half the story about the labour force survey in that employment has been growing in the last year at only half the rate at which it grew the year before and that 110,000 more people were knocked off benefit than went into jobs?

Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman is becoming more and more muddled. The labour force survey reveals that for months past the hon. Gentleman has been fiddling the figures upwards. The House expects him to do the honourable thing and give up his job.

5. Mr. Butler : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the number of people currently in employment in the north-west of England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee) : In September 1988, in the north-west region, the civilian worforce in employment was 2,661,000--an increase of 80,000 or 3 per cent. in the past two years.

Mr. Butler : Does my hon. Friend agree that employment seems to have risen in those areas of the north-west where the work force is co-operative and skilled, in contrast with other areas of the north-west where the unions are bloody-minded and Luddite?

Mr. Lee : I think that my hon. Friend is getting at the situation on Merseyside. I have no wish to denigrate the work force on Merseyside, but in many cases they are being let down by some very extreme shop stewards.

Mr. James Lamond : Why does not the Minister, who knows something about the north-west, tell the Secretary of State that he is talking nonsense when he says that jobs are being exported because of trade union activity? The textile workers are struggling to obtain a £100 basic wage for a 39-hour week, while closures in the north-west are taking thousands of jobs, including 250 in Oldham just a fortnight ago.

Mr. Lee : It is true that there have been some textile losses recently, but in the past three or four years the textile industry has improved dramatically. Indeed, it was a shade churlish of the hon. Gentleman not to acknowledge that in the past two years unemployment has fallen by 31 per cent. in his own constituency.

Mr. Sumberg : Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is a north- south divide, it is to the advantage of the north-west? Opposition Members who spend their time doing the region down should open their eyes and ears and acknowledge the fact that Lancashire's best friend is the Government.

Column 274

Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Opposition do the north-west a disservice by failing to acknowledge the buoyancy, optimism and pride that most people in the region now have.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : While the Opposition welcome every job that is created, we deplore the fact that there are still record unemployment rates. If the Minister is so confident about the north-west in particular and the north of England in general, will he say why--according to the labour force survey--the rate of increase in jobs in the south-east over the past five years has been more than 10 per cent. while in the north-west it has been less than 1 per cent.? That illustrates the north-south divide.

Mr. Lee : Why will the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that in his own constituency unemployment has fallen by 30 per cent. in the past two years?

Skill Training

6. Mr. Wilshire : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what steps he is taking to increase the range of skills available and the number of people seeking work in the south-east.

Mr. Fowler : I am taking a number of steps to increase the range of skills available in the south-east and other regions. They include the setting up of training and enterprise councils to help employers to define and meet local skill needs. We are also helping young people and the unemployed to learn new skills through YTS and employment training.

Mr. Wilshire : As the labour force survey shows that there are now more than a million more people in work than when Labour was booted out of office, does my right hon. Friend accept that such an increase creates new problems of skill shortages and unfilled vacancies in areas such as Spelthorne? Does he believe that the new training and enterprise councils will enable local employers to focus training on local skill shortages and unfilled vacancies?

Mr. Fowler : Yes, Sir, I agree entirely. The purpose of, and the concept behind, such councils is that they should be employer-led local bodies which assess the training and labour needs in their own particular areas. This is something that many employers have urged for a long time. I am glad to say that although we introduced the prospectus only on Friday there has already been a tremendous amount of interest--including interest from 20 or 30 areas where plans for training and enterprise councils are well in hand.

Mr. Beggs : Will the Secretary of State use every opportunity available to him to inform industrialists here that in Northern Ireland, where there is high unemployment, there are already highly skilled and well -educated people--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The question is about the south-east of England, not the south-east of Ulster.

Mr. Beggs : I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for making that point. I wanted to draw attention to the absence of skilled people in the south-east and to the fact that we in Northern Ireland could assist the Minister to relocate or even set up small subsidiaries to provide employment and meet the needs that exist in the south-east.

Column 275

Mr. Fowler : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. If I meet employers in the south-east who complain of skill shortages and are looking for somewhere to set up or perhaps expand their businesses, I shall certainly say that for all the reasons set out by the hon. Gentleman Northern Ireland seems to be an extremely good place to do so.

Mr. Rathbone : On that same point, does my right hon. Friend liaise with his right hon. Friends to ensure that jobs are created outside the south-east, thus relieving the congestion and strain on housing there in the way that everyone in the south-east wishes?

Mr. Fowler : Yes, Sir. As my hon. Friend says, it is not just a matter of private industry--it is a matter of the public sector, too. A major part of my Department, the Training Agency, is in Sheffield. It was announced only last week that a further part of the Ministry of Defence was to move to the north-east. That seems an altogether sensible move of the kind that ought to be encouraged.

Wages Inspectorate

7. Mrs. Golding : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many workplaces were visited and how many of them were found to be illegally underpaying for the latest available year by the wages inspectorate divisions covering the west midlands.

Mr. Cope : The inspectorate targets its visits towards establishments most likely to be in breach. In 1988 in midlands division, which covers both east and west midlands, 2,609 establishments were visited and 747 were found to be paying below the statutory minimum in some respect.

Mrs. Golding : According to the Government's statistics, there was only one prosecution in the midlands in 1988. Given that during the 10 years of this Government more than 89,000 establishments have been found to be paying illegally low wages, why have there been only 51 prosecutions? Why are the Government so little interested in the low paid?

Mr. Cope : The hon. Lady's figure for prosecutions is right. In fact, the ratio of prosecutions to underpaying employers is higher now than under the Labour Government. Prosecutions are not the only way in which to achieve the desired aim.

Mr. Marlow : Why do we need these secret policemen? What do they do for the buoyancy and competitiveness of our economy?

Mr. Cope : Frequent studies have shown in the past that wages councils tend to decrease employment. That is why we are considering whether to continue with them.

Mr. Meacher : If the Government believe in law and order, why have fewer than one in 1,000 establishments paying illegally low wages been prosecuted? Is it not ludicrous that, with half the number of wages inspectors, the right hon. Gentleman's Department is sending out postal questionnaires asking employers whether they are committing the criminal offence of paying illegally low wages? Will the Minister confirm that the next step will be to invite employers to write in and announce to the Department that they are committing this criminal offence?

Column 276

Mr. Cope : As it happens, the questionnaire method about which the hon. Gentleman complains was introduced by the Labour Government of which he was a member. We have continued to use it and we have increased the prosecution ratio. There are many more ways than one of securing the objects that we both have in mind. We have reduced the number of inspectors because we have simplified the system.

National Dock Labour Scheme

9. Mr. Amos : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what was the cost to registered port employers of the 1988 levy to finance the cost of the National Dock Labour Board.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : The 1988 levy to finance the National Dock LabouBoard cost registered port employers £4,690,607.

Mr. Amos : In view of the very high cost to the nation of the national dock labour scheme, and as it is archaic, anti-democratic and anti -competitive, will my hon. Friend consider abolishing it as soon as possible?

Mr. Nicholls : Matters covered by the levy include issues relating, for instance, to training, welfare and medical services, which must be provided for. The Government's position on the scheme remains unchanged. There are no plans to change or abolish it.

Mr. Ernie Ross : Will the Minister confirm that before the introduction of the national dock labour scheme the men in the docks were treated like cattle, and that only since the introduction of the scheme have the ports enjoyed peace and working conditions fit for human beings?

Mr. Nicholls : If one goes far enough back in history, one can always find something to justify one's views, but the position remains as I have set it out.

Mr. Janman : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Port of London Authority is interested in developing land immediately adjacent to the port of Tilbury but that it is experiencing extreme difficulty in finding people to take up this opportunity because of the existence of the dock labour scheme? Does my hon. Friend agree that the dock labour scheme costs not only money but jobs?

Mr. Nicholls : I hear what my hon. Friend says. Obviously, he makes his analysis in his own way, but I do not think that I can fruitfully comment on that analysis at the Dispatch Box.

Employee Participation

10. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what plans he has to encourage employers to increase employee participation through schemes such as employee share ownership plans.

Mr. Cope : We encourage employers to develop their employee involvement arrangements by whatever means are best suited to their particular needs and circumstances.

Mr. Taylor : Does my hon. Friend agree that the validity of the slogan "Owners try harder" is shown by the success of employee share ownership arrangements in the

Column 277

United States, which now cover 10 million workers? Does he accept that they have broken down the "us versus them" attitudes in the States and have spread capital? Will he do some research to see how those schemes and those benefits could be applied in this country? By the way, does he have any recent information as to the Treasury view on this matter?

Mr. Cope : I do not think that I should make any comment on Treasury views at this time of the year. I am well aware of the American experience in the field of employee share option schemes, not least as a result of reading my hon. Friend's articles on the subject. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is also looking at this matter in connection with the Companies Bill.

Mr. Dykes : Is it not important to try to get the Treasury view? There is still time before the Budget statement this afternoon. One of the important things to do in the future is to get Treasury approval for an increased maximum number of shares held under employee share option schemes.

Mr. Cope : Treasury views are always important.

National Dock Labour Scheme

11. Mr. John Townend : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on his proposals for the future of the national dock labour scheme.

Mr. Nicholls : The Government's position on the scheme remains unchanged, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed in the House on 19 January 1989 at columns 481-82 of the Official Report.

Mr Townend : My right hon. Friend will not be surprised that I am very disappointed with his reply. Does he agree that the national dock labour scheme is one of the few remaining relics of the corporate state established by the post-war Labour Government, which has been demolished by this Government? Does he accept that northern ports, like Hull and Liverpool, are able to prosper and compete, that, with the opening of the Channel tunnel, it is essential that they be able to operate in a free market without restrictive practices, and that that will not be possible unless he abolishes the scheme?

Mr. Nicholls : Again I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I am afraid that I cannot do anything about having disappointed him. I have announced what the Government position is, and I confirm that it has not changed.

Next Section

  Home Page