Home Page

Column 167

House of Commons

Tuesday 18 April 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Wages Councils

1. Mr. Marlow : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he has reached any conclusions on the future of wages councils following the public consultation ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Cope) : My hon. Friend will have seen from the answer that I gave on 21 March to a similar question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) that a decision on the future of the wages councils will be taken later this year.

Mr. Marlow : In view of the Government's massive majority last night, does my right hon. Friend feel that he will be able to secure a majority to get rid of this further legislative relic of the decaying vegetation of socialism? Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he has another secret and sudden Bill, dripping wet with printer's ink, to bring before an eager and expectant House?

Mr. Cope : The only assurance that I can give my hon. Friend and the House is that no final decision has yet been taken, but that it will be taken later in the year.

Mr. John Evans : Is it not a scandal that a number of employers pay their employees less than the wages councils' statutory minimum wage? If the Government abolish the wages council, what steps do they intend to take to protect people from such vicious exploitation?

Mr. Cope : Last year about 97 per cent. of the workers in wages councils industries were paid at least the minimum due. That is the result of recent inspections. However, we must also balance job prospects and numbers of jobs, as well as the considerations mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Budgen : Was not the original idea of the wages councils to protect the weakest employees who might not be able to negotiate adequately with their employers, and wast not the compromise by which young employees were taken out of the wages councils a ridiculous and illogical one? Should not the Government now move towards straightforward abolition?

Mr. Cope : It was a sensible thing to do at the time, but it is right to review the position now.

Column 168

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Recognising that there is once again a considerable head of steam among Conservative Members for the abolition of this so- called decaying vegetation of socialism, will the Minister explain why, in consultation exercises, virtually all those who responded from various industries were unhappy about the abolition of the wages councils?

Mr. Cope : On the contrary, in the six largest councils, which represent about 94 per cent. of all workers covered by wages councils, a majority of the employer bodies wanted abolition.

Mr. Gregory : Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the wages councils are anachronistic? Few Members represent people who work, for example, in the area covered by the ostrich feather and artificial fancy flower wages council?

Mr. Cope : Yes, there are a number of small wages councils in rather exotic industries.

Mines and Quarries Inspectors

2. Mr. Allen McKay : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many mines inspectors and quarries inspectors the Health and safety Executive had in place on 1 April.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : On 1 April 1989 the Health and Safety Executive employed 58 mines inspectors and 11 quarries inspectors.

Mr. McKay : In what disciplines are the mines inspectors placed and where are the specialist services based?

Mr. Nicholls : The inspectors are trained in specialties appropriate to their tasks. It may be of particular interest to the hon. Gentleman to know that in the past three years the ratio of mines inspectors to workers in British Coal mines has improved from one to 1,790 to one to 1,679. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a most welcome improvement.

Mr. Strang : Will the Minister acknowledge that accident rates are higher among the employees of the private contractors in British Coal collieries, and higher still among employees in the private licensed mines? The proposal to abolish the statutory health and safety responsibilities of the pit deputy is utterly unacceptable and we are not prepared to see a reduction in health and safety standards with the increase in accidents and deaths that it must entail, to prepare the way for privatisation of the industry.

Mr. Nicholls : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern on the latter point, but I know of no such proposal. I also agree that the accident rate in licensed mines, which is running at a higher rate than that in the industry generally, is a cause for concern. It is difficult to discern any particular reason for it, but certain things are clear--they tend to be smaller enterprises, in some cases technology and high technology may not be in use to the same extent, and the seams may be difficult to work. We share the hon. Gentleman's concern, and the inspectorate

Column 169

has had a number of constructive meetings with the Federation of Licensed Mines to see whether anything can be done.

Training and Enterprise Councils

3. Mr. David Nicholson : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many representations he has received from chambers of commerce on his proposals to introduce training and enterprise councils.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : Since the White Paper "Employment for the 1990s" was published on 5 December last year, almost 4,000 individuals and organisations have expressed an interest in training and enterprise councils. Of these, 87 approaches have been from chambers of commerce.

Mr. Nicholson : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that industry contributes some £15 billion per year in training employees and that the extra £3 billion from the Government, plus the direction of training being given to industry, will be a recipe for success? Does he agree, however, that the continuing support and working co-operation of local business as represented separately by bodies such as chambers of commerce, is also essential for success?

Mr. Fowler : I entirely agree with both the points that my hon. Friend, with his considerable experience of the chamber of commerce movement, has put to me. Employers are now investing more than £18 billion a year in training. That is a substantial increase, but I entirely agree that the success of training and enterprise councils will depend heavily on the support that they receive not just from employers but from everyone in the local community.

Mr. Wallace : I am sure that the Secretary of State is anxious that the business men who come forward should be of the highest calibre, but is he not concerned that many of them, as a result of their success, will not have the time to devote to training? What quality control procedure will there be to ensure the standard of training provision is of a uniformly high standard throughout the country, and not patchy, with variations from area to area?

Mr. Fowler : National standards of training will, of course, continue. That is crucially important. Training and enterprise councils, however, are concerned with the local delivery of training. I believe that our proposals will enable leaders of business locally to be used, as it were, as boards of directors while Training Agency staff can be seconded to the councils. In that way, we shall have the best of both worlds.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the tragedies of training has been that the trade unions have helped to destroy the apprenticeship system, because they wanted young people to be paid too much of the skilled wage at the beginning? Is there any more accord now? Do the trade unions intend to help the scheme on its way so that people will be trained and have real jobs when they have finished that training?

Mr. Fowler : I very much hope that that is the case. Training and enterprise councils have not been a matter of controversy between Government and trade unions or, indeed, with other organisations. One of the areas in which

Column 170

the councils should work quickly and well is my hon. Friend's own city of Birmingham, where employers and unions have a good working relationship, and I should like to see that continue.

Mr. Meacher : After the fiascos of the job training scheme, which achieved only a quarter of its targeted number of places, and employment training, which achieved only half the targeted number, why should the training and enterprise councils do any better when they have no extra funding, unbalanced and unrepresentative membership, and no public accountability for the public funds provided?

Mr. Fowler : The most indicative thing about the hon. Gentleman is that he seeks to attack every training initiative that has been made over the past two years. [ Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question."] I will give the hon. Gentleman the facts, so that he will know them in future. The fact is that some 180,000 people are now on employment training schemes. They have taken absolutely no notice of the hon. Gentleman's advice, and I advise the public to do the same.

Labour Statistics

4. Mr. Tredinnick : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what has been the fall in unemployment in the east midlands during the last 12 months for which figures are available ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee) : In the 12 months to March 1989 the level of unemployment, seasonally adjusted, in the east midlands fell by 34,500 or 22.6 per cent. on a consistent basis. Unemployment in the east midlands is now at its lowest level for more than eight years, as it is in the country as a whole.

Mr. Tredinnick : Has my hon. Friend noted the astonishing fall in unemployment in my constituency of Bosworth of 41 per cent. in the past 12 months? Does he agree that that success is partly due to the policies of Hinckley and Bosworth borough council, the

Conservative-controlled council with the lowest rates in the east midlands? Does he further agree that that trend is reflected throughout the east midlands?

Mr. Lee : I agree with all that my hon. Friend has said. The civilian work force in the east midlands is 1,844,000--the highest level ever.

Mr. Allen : Will the Minister tell us the real unemployment figure, without the 19 different fiddles that he has introduced? When does he estimate that the unemployment figures will get back to 1979 levels?

Mr. Lee : Unemployment in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in the two years to March 1989 has fallen by 29.1 per cent.

Mr. Boswell : Has my hon. Friend noticed that unemployment in the two years to March 1989 has fallen to a new low? Has he any explanation as to how that could have happened?

Mr. Lee : I can only assume that it is a combination of the Government's economic policy and the very sound judgment of my hon. Friend's constituents when they elected him as their Member of Parliament.

Column 171

Mr. Haynes : Is the Minister aware that there have been a number of pit closures in my constituency of Ashfield because of his Government's policy? Is he aware that at Stanton Hill in my constituency the pit is to close in August and there is no other industry? What is the Department of Employment doing to convince the chairman of British Coal to back off and instead of selling that land for housing development let us have some industrial units? Nottinghamshire county council is interested in doing just that. The Minister should pull his socks up and do something about it.

Mr. Lee : I wish that the hon. Gentleman, in his own inimitable style, would shout from the rooftops that in the two years to March 1989 unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 24.4 per cent.

5. Mr. Aspinwall : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the level of employment in the south-west of England.

Mr. Lee : In December 1988, the latest date for which figures are available, the civilian work force in employment in the south-west region was 1,965,000. That represents an increase of 213,000 or 12 per cent. since December 1983.

Mr. Aspinwall : Does my hon. Friend agree that the fall in unemployment of 213,000 reflects the strength of the small business sector in the community in the south-west? Is he aware that the Wansdyke enterprise agency in my constituency has made a considerable contribution to promoting small businesses? How does the Minister intend to support that and other enterprise agencies in the south-west?

Mr. Lee : On the first point, my hon. Friend is right. Self- employment in the south-west increased by 82 per cent. between December 1979 and December 1988. I know how supportive my hon. Friend has been of the Wansdyke enterprise agency and I understand that he is the honorary president of that organisation. The Government consider that the Wansdyke enterprise agency is doing a good job. We have put in substantial amounts of pump-priming money, but the future for financing the enterprise agency increasingly lies with the private sector and we hope that the enterprise agency will be successful in raising more support from that source.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Of the 213,000 people who found jobs in the south-west of England, where there are a lot of Labour voters, how many were in part-time jobs and for how many was the pay so low that they had to inquire about family credit?

Mr. Lee : It is impossible to answer that question.

Mr. Harris : I very much welcome the figures given by my hon. Friend, but does he agree that training plays an important part and that the need for training is great in the south-west, especially in Cornwall? In that context, although completely rejecting suggestions that the Government are somehow to blame for the rejection of Cornwall county council's applications for the European social fund, will my hon. Friend nevertheless redouble his Department's efforts to ensure that those applications are reconsidered by the Commission in Brussels?

Mr. Lee : We are, of course, supportive of training and we hope that there will be a satisfactory and keen response

Column 172

from the private sector in the south-west-- and especially in Cornwall--to the opportunity for the development of training and enterprise councils. I note what my hon. Friend says about European funding, but I have nothing to add to the reply that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave to my hon. Friend last Friday.

6. Mr. Bellingham : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the current level of employment in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Fowler : Between March 1983 and December 1988, the work force in employment in the United Kingdom increased be almost 3 million to more than 26.5 million--the highest level on record in this country.

Mr. Bellingham : Is my right hon. Friend aware that in west Norfolk unemployment has fallen by 18 per cent.--to 5.9 per cent.--as a result of the growth in enterprise and small businesses and that that will be enormously assisted by the recent announcement by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that the railway line to King's Lynn is to be electrified? Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the encouraging growth in self-employment locally has been reflected in the rest of the country?

Mr. Fowler : There has been a substantial increase in self- employment, which has undoubtedly been one of the most important elements in the growth of employment. Between 1983 and 1988, there was an increase of about 840,000 in the number of self-employed.

Ms. Short : Does the Secretary of State know that all over the developed world there has been an increase in the participation rate, with more and more women coming into the labour force? Our record is worse than that of any other country in terms of the growth of low-paid employment. Almost the majority of our work force is now low paid. Does the Secretary of State not understand that our high participation rate is a measure of underdevelopment? There are now more young people in higher education in South Korea than in Britain. The figures are nothing to boast about--they are a measure of our decline.

Mr. Fowler : I do not accept what the hon. Lady says. International comparisons in the growth of employment show that the increase in numbers in employment between 1983 and 1987 in the United Kingdom equals that of the rest of the European Community combined. That is the measure of our success.

Mr. Simon Coombs : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the proportion of the population of working age in employment in the United Kingdom is now 66 per cent.? How does that compare with other countries in the European Community?

Mr. Fowler : It is higher than in the European Community. The point that the hon. Lady made about women in employment was equally dud. The participation rate among women in this country is much higher than in almost every other European country.

Mr. Janner : Is the Secretary of State aware that the unemployment rate in parts of my constituency remains more than a third, especially on major estates such as Braunstone, Beaumont Leys, Mowmaker, Stocking Farm and New Parks? Is he aware that on 4 May my

Column 173

constituents there will show what they think of the Government at the county council election, when they will have the chance to express their views through their votes?

Mr. Fowler : Like the hon. and learned Gentleman, I look forward to that election. He omitted to mention that unemployment in his area has fallen by 34 per cent. in the past two years.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are bright prospects for increasing employment in our traditional port areas arising from the abolition of the national dock labour scheme and that a dock strike would damage those prospects?

Mr. Fowler : I agree with both those points and I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting in the points that he was prevented by the Opposition Front Bench from making last night.

Environmental Assessments

7. Mr. Vaz : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what training and information has been given to the agricultural inspectorate on environmental assessment associated with the Food and Environment Protection Act.

9. Mr. Hood : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what training and information has been given to the agricultural inspectorate on environmental assessment associated with the Food and Environment Protection Act.

Mr. Nicholls : Prior to undertaking their enforcement responsibilities under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, the Health and Safety Executive's agricultural inspectors are given a week's specific training on the requirements and implications of the Act. This is supplemented as required by further local and national training.

Mr. Vaz : What publications have been made available to the agricultural inspectorate to assist it with this important work?

Mr. Nicholls : The full resources of the service are available to inspectors to enable them to equip themselves for the task. It is important to note that if they require specialised or specialist help in their investigations there are a number of agencies they can contact to provide that specific help.

Mr. Hood : Is the Minister aware of the great public concern about the harmful effects of pesticide residues coming into our food chain? Knowing that, what are the Government doing to provide more resources to help the agriculture inspectors to carry out their extra responsibilities?

Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to voice that public concern. It was to address that concern that the Food and Environment Protection Act and the structures under it were introduced. The resources now applied generally to the Health and Safety Executive compare in real terms as favourably, if not more so, with those given by the Labour Government.

Mr. Paice : Is it not the case that without the development of a range of "responsible" pesticides in the

Column 174

past few years this country might have gone hungry? Instead of condemning all pesticides, should we not concentrate on adequate testing to find out which ones may be damaging, if at all, either to people or to the environment and concentrate on weeding them out instead of building up an anti-pesticide hype across the whole spectrum?

Mr. Nicholls : I am sure that my hon. Friend is entirely right. It is too easy to forget that the whole idea of a pesticide is to kill pests and that to that extent it must obviously be a dangerous and deleterious chemical. The effect of the advisory committee on pesticides is to ensure that only safe products are launched on the market and, perhaps more importantly, to ensure that the position can be reviewed as and when necessary in the light of increased knowledge.

Service Industries

8. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many people have been employed in service industries in the north-west region in each of the last three years, expressed as a proportion of the labour force ; and if he will give comparable figures for the south-east.

Mr. Lee : In each of the past three years, about two thirds of all employees in employment in the north-west were in service industries, compared with three quarters of all employees in employment in the south- east.

Mr. Evans : Does the Minister acknowledge that well-paid service jobs have mushroomed in the south-east to offset the decline in manufacturing, but that although manufacturing jobs have also collapsed in the north-west there has been no such growth in well-paid service jobs in that area? What plans does the Minister have to create a fairer distribution of those well-paid service jobs to areas such as the north- west?

Mr. Lee : The hon. Gentleman is not being his usual fair and generous self. There has been a rise in employment in service industries in the north-west of about 7 per cent. The hon. Gentleman must not confuse the prosperity of manufacturing industry with the numbers of people actually employed in manufacturing. I take the example of Pilkington, a company that he knows well in his constituency and which he frequently and rightly praises. Employment in that key manufacturing company has fallen from 18,000 in 1980 to about 6,000 now.

Mr. Rowe : Does my hon. Friend accept that as part of the tremendous success of the Government's economic and employment policies, the position in the south-east has changed dramatically? Does he also accept that many people in the south-east would not mind at all if some Government jobs were moved further north? Will he assure us that he and his colleagues in the Government will look again at the south-east, which has for too long been regarded as the place with the highest standard of living in the United Kingdom but which is under enormous pressures for a variety of reasons and requires a new look to be taken at it?

Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend is right. Curiously enough, yesterday, when I was in Oldham opening the fifth "Industrious Oldham Exhibition", I came across a

Column 175

manufacturer who some years ago had moved his manufacturing plant from Kent to Oldham. He had no regrets at all about the move. He is prospering in the constituency of the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Lamond).

Mr. James Lamond : The Minister was welcomed in Oldham, where he saw the Labour council's efforts to attract manufacturing jobs to the area. However, will he reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans)? It was difficult to follow the Minister, but perhaps he meant that the unfortunate result of investment in manufacturing industry--such as in Pilkingtons and in textiles--has frequently been that, despite the prosperity, the numbers of employed in those industries have fallen. If that is what the Minister is saying, does that not reinforce my hon. Friend's point that well-paid service jobs are needed in the north- west even more than they are in the south?

Mr. Lee : I am glad to see that Opposition Members advocate the creation and support of well-paid service industry jobs, because that was precisely the point that I was endeavouring to get across. Perhaps, I did not completely succeed. I repeat that we must separate the prosperity of manufacturing industry from the numbers directly employed in it, which was why I gave Pilkingtons as an example. A service industry in the north-west that I know very well is the tourism and hospitality industry, jobs in that sector have increased considerably. Nearly 150,000 people are employed in tourism and hospitality in the north-west.

Mr. Neil Hamilton : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is most unfortunate that Opposition Members constantly talk down the north-west? Parts of the north-west, such as Cheshire, are booming because of the vast increase in service jobs. Certainly in my constituency, banks, insurance companies and a vast number of other firms are bringing many service jobs into the area. It does us no good to have the north-west constantly unfavourably compared with the south-east. In fact, parts of the north- west, because of prosperity, are exhibiting the same kind of strains as the south-east.

Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend is right, but he should not, with respect, expect too much from the Opposition too quickly. We have at least now an acknowledgement that well-paid service jobs are important.


10. Mr. Favell : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will provide comparable figures on training in 1979 and estimated for 1988 ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fowler : In 1979-80 some 91,000 adults entered Government training programmes and 216,000 school-leavers entered YOP, of whom 31,000 were given off-the-job training. In 1987-88 about 887,000 adults and young people started on Government training programmes.

Mr. Favell : Will my right hon. Friend spell out the significance of those figures to the Opposition, who, like a pushmi-pullyu, one moment condemn every measure brought forward by the Government for training and the

Column 176

next bemoan the lack of Government interest in training? Will my right hon. Friend say something about his plans for the training of the self-employed?

Mr. Fowler : The business growth training programme is certainly being introduced for helping with the training of self-employed people. I believe that that will be an important innovation for them. On the question of training figures, perhaps the most important aspect is that more young people are now undergoing training than ever before in our history.

Mr. Eastham : Is the Minister not projecting a jaundiced picture when he talks about the number of people being trained under this Government? Is it not a fact that very often training is a convenient cover -up for the massive unemployment figures? Is it not also a fact that the apprentice training schemes, which we used to have in 1979, are now practically non-existent?

Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts. According to the labour force survey, something like 328,000 people are covered by apprenticeships. What is of even more importance is the quality of the scheme for young people and the latest figures show that 85 per cent. of those who have completed YTS go into jobs or into further education. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

Mr. Andrew MacKay : In spite of the impressive training figures, does my right hon. Friend agree that we still have serious skill shortages? With falling unemployment, does he agree that the best way to resolve that problem is to encourage people to stay at work longer and to cut out the tax breaks previously given to those who take early retirement?

Mr. Fowler : One future development will be that more people will stay on at work for longer, if that is their wish. The policies of companies should be engineered to enable that to happen and to put more value on the experience of older workers.

Mr. Fatchett : How does the Secretary of State reconcile his response, which was a typical exercise in self-congratulation, with the CBI's recent statement that there is an unprecedented shortage of skills in our economy and that, since the CBI has collected those figures, the situation has never been more grave? Is it not the case that the Government have always seen training as a means of massaging the unemployment figures rather than as a means of dealing with skill shortages and giving our people the skills that they deserve so that they can do proper jobs?

Mr. Fowler: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The CBI backs in full--I regret that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) does not--the training and enterprise councils, which are designed to create more and better training.

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman heard what I said about training for employment, because of those people on YTS, 85 per cent. are now going into jobs or into further education. I believe that employment training will have a similar success.

Column 177

Next Section

  Home Page