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House of Commons

Tuesday 5 December 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Scottish Episcopal Clergy Widows' and Orphans' Fund Order Confirmation Bill

Considered ; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


Training and Enterprise Councils

1. Mr. Michael Brown : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many training and enterprise councils have received development funding in the northern region ; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : I have approved applications for development funding for five training and enterprise councils in the Training Agency's northern region. This means that councils are now being established in all parts of the region-- Teesside, Tyneside, Wearside, county Durham and

Northumberland. In addition, four further councils are being established in Yorkshire and Humberside.

Mr. Brown : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that encouraging reply. Will he confirm that the number of training and enterprise councils in the United Kingdom is touching the 50 mark? He said that consideration was being given to setting up TECs in Yorkshire and Humberside. Will Brigg and Cleethorpes feature in the list?

Mr. Fowler : Yes. I understand that Brigg and Cleethorpes feature on the list. They will be covered by the bid for a Humberside TEC, which is expected to be made early in February. I am sure that we shall establish a TEC in my hon. Friend's constituency. On the general position, more than 40 applications have been processed and given development funding and more applications are coming in. I am confident that in the next months we shall cover the whole country with TECs.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is the Secretary of State aware that between 2,500 and 3,500 people are to lose their jobs on the Thorpe construction project in west Cumberland and other construction projects in the nuclear industry? Is he satisfied that the TEC will be able to train all those people so that we can retain them in west Cumberland to rebuild our industrial base for the future?

Mr. Fowler : I think that it will be a combination of both. The TEC will improve training in the region but in

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addition we shall need to use the experience and skill of the employment service. I shall look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised to see what further action we can suggest.

Mr. Jack : Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that west Lancashire is included in his plans for TECs? Will he tell the House what is happening in the north-west as a whole? Will he concentrate his efforts on areas such as Blackpool which are still unemployment black spots and need particular help?

Mr. Fowler : Yes. My latest information shows that in the north-west about eight TECs have been given development funding. Other applications are being considered and I have no doubt that we shall consider Blackpool and the surrounding area. Indeed, we shall consider all areas where unemployment is an issue.

Mr. Blair : Is the Secretary of State aware that only a third of British employees have occupational qualifications compared with two thirds in West Germany, and that Britain has only 30 per cent. of the number of qualified electricians and technicians in France? Two weeks ago a British Minister told the world :

"We are only just developing in the United Kingdom the recognition of the importance of encouraging a high level of skills." Does the Secretary of State agree that the training gap with our competitors is not merely serious but critical? What steps is he taking to ensure that TECs offer not only a Government programme for the long-term unemployed and young people but a strategy for adults already in work, who will form the bulk of the work force?

Mr. Speaker : Long questions take up a great deal of time.

Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman almost made an Adjournment speech and I shall try to set out what is happening. With training and enterprise councils we are seeking to narrow the training gap, which has not appeared suddenly in the past few years but has been a feature of this country literally since the war, if not before. The encouraging feature about training and enterprise councils is the way in which employers have responded to them. With the new programmes we shall be able to train some 450,000 unemployed people through employment training and 260,000 young people through YTS. Now that the hon. Gentleman has joined the Opposition Front Bench on employment, I hope that he will reverse the Labour party's position and support employment training for unemployed people.

Ms. Short : That was a long answer, too.

Mr. Speaker : I know, but long questions lead to long answers, so let us have less of them.

Unemployment Calculations

2. Mr. Holt : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will make a statement on the calculation of unemployment rates in local travel-to-work areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : Since October 1989, my Department has published unemployment rates for travel-to-work areas both as a percentage of the work

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force and as a percentage of the unemployed plus employees. The former provide comparability with the rates published at national and regional level and full details were given in the November edition of Employment Gazette.

Mr. Holt : Does my hon. Friend agree that these figures are a lot of mumbo-jumbo to most people and that travel-to-work areas should be dropped? Why not simply take constituencies, such as mine? One can find the answer for each ward. We have had a drop of 53.3 per cent. in unemployment since the peak in 1984. Does my hon. Friend agree that all that proves that while Communism is disappearing from eastern Europe, so Socialism is disappearing from north-east England?

Mr. Nicholls : I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the last person to accuse the Government of producing figures which are mumbo-jumbo. He is right that the figures show how successful the Government have been in reducing unemployment figures. My hon. Friend has personal experience of that in his constituency.

Mr. Battle : Does the Minister agree that because of the nature of the boundaries, travel-to-work areas disbar cities, such as Leeds which have pockets of high unemployment, from applying for European social fund moneys for inner-city projects? Is he prepared to relax the criteria for travel-to-work areas to ensure that, for example, women's training projects can be supported by the social fund?

Mr. Nicholls : I accept entirely that there is no ideal way of identifying a particular travel-to-work area, but there must be some basis on which that is done and the present system is probably the best device in the circumstances.

Training and Enterprise Councils

3. Mr. Gill : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what representations he has received regarding training and enterprise councils in Shropshire.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Tim Eggar) : Representations from a number of groups have been made to Training Agency officials regarding the formation of a training and enterprise council in Shropshire. Discussions are taking place locally to ensure that a training and enterprise council is formed as soon as possible.

Mr. Gill : What assurance can my hon. Friend give me that any training and enterprise council established in the county of Shropshire will not be dominated by the large concentration of industry in Telford, to the detriment of the surrounding rural areas?

Mr. Eggar : In forming TECs local business men will have to take account of all parts of their community, particularly the kind of area for which they are seeking to train and into which they seek to introduce and improve enterprise. The national training task force will ensure that those factors are borne in mind when it examines TECs' business plans.

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Labour Statistics

5. Mr. Raffan : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what are the latest unemployment figures for the constituency of Delyn ; and what were the figures two years ago.

Mr. Nicholls : In Delyn, unemployment is about half what it was two years ago. In October 1989 there were 1,892 unemployed claimants in the Delyn parliamentary constituency, compared with some 4,020 in October 1987. The figures are slightly affected by the change in benefit regulations for under 18-year-olds in September 1988.

Mr. Raffan : Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that unemployment in Delyn has been dramatically cut by half in the past two years shows the effectiveness of Government regional policy which gave my constituency the highest level of development area status--something that the Labour Government never did--and the Delyn enterprise zone, which the Labour party opposed?

Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is right. Once again, the figures highlight the experience of his constituents and show how successful the Government have been. Since the last election there has been a reduction in unemployment in Delyn of some 54 per cent. That is a remarkable achievement, and it is obviously one of which my hon. Friend thoroughly approves.

Mr. John P. Smith : Does the Minister recognise that the October unemployment figures show the smallest reduction in unemployment since January 1987, and an increase in unemployment in the west midlands and in East Anglia?

Mr. Speaker : Order. That question is not about Delyn.

Mr. Wigley : In view of the answer given by the Minister, can he confirm that he has detailed responsibility for unemployment in Britain, for example in places such as Delyn in Wales, which was transferred from the Welsh Office? In view of the success of the policy that he has announced in Delyn, can he arrange for a general review of general development boundaries to ensure that those places with substantially higher unemployment than Delyn will have the advantages to which he referred?

Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Gentleman, with his usual ingenuity, has taken a question about Delyn and asked me to answer it in other terms. The rate of unemployment in Delyn is not only below the average for the United Kingdom, but below the average for Wales. It might therefore be more appropriate if the hon. Gentleman stood up and said, "Thank you".

Training and Enterprise Councils

6. Mrs. Maureen Hicks : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what response he has received to his plans to create training and enterprise councils in the west midlands areas ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Fowler : Five training and enterprise councils are being established in the west midlands--at Birmingham, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley, and in Staffordshire. Work is also well advanced in a number of other areas, and there is no doubt that there has been an excellent employer response from the west midlands.

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Mrs. Hicks : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We are positively encouraged by the speedy response to the TECs in the heart of the manufacturing part of Britain. Will he give an assurance that when the Wolverhampton TEC is established there will be sufficient staff and adequate incentive funding fully to meet training needs and to give the response that we need in the area? Will he tell me, in general terms, whether he recognises the policy of resources for the enterprise element of the councils?

Mr. Fowler : Yes, I think that I can give my hon. Friend an assurance on both counts. Certainly, we recognise the importance of enterprise. We have considered the position in Wolverhampton and we are satisfied that staffing will be adequate at that TEC.

Mr. John Evans : Are any of the training and development councils running courses on democracy and the conduct of ballots? If so, will the Minister attend one and explain why trade unionists have to have postal ballots for the election of their leaders, but Tory Members have a workplace ballot for the election of their leader and

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Simon Coombs : Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what efforts his Department and the national training task force are making to ensure that best practice from those TECs already established, or in the process of being established, is being made available to those still in the process of formation in the west midlands and elsewhere?

Mr. Fowler : One of the aims of the national training task force, under the brilliant chairmanship of Brian Wolfson, will be to spread good practice around Britain. The west midlands will benefit from experiences in other parts of the country. One of the aims of the TEC movement will be to share best experience.

Mr. Fatchett : In relation to the west midlands TECs, is it not the case that, as with other TECs, the pressure will be on numbers and reducing costs? Against that background, what steps and assurances will the Secretary of State take and give to make sure that disabled workers, particularly the blind, receive training opportunities of the quality that they previously enjoyed? Is the Secretary of State aware that organisations for the blind are concerned that training courses will be lost as a result of the introduction of TECs?

Mr. Fowler : I hope that we can set their minds at rest, as there is absolutely no question of that. We want the provisions for disabled and blind people to continue. The purpose of the TECs is not to save money, or to be a cost-cutting exercise, but to provide good training and to ensure that the training is delivered locally. That is the point of the reforms that we are carrying out.

7. Mr. Trotter : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will discuss with the chairman of the training and enterprise councils the need for flexibility in their agreements so as to pay regard to local circumstances and facilitate local initiative.

Mr. Eggar : My right hon. Friend and I have had a number of meetings with TEC chairmen and other

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interested individuals. We are confident that TECs will be given the flexibility that they need to enable them to operate effectively in their local area.

Mr. Trotter : Is my hon. Friend aware that there is enthusiastic support for TECs on Tyneside and Wearside, where it is recognised that such institutions are vital to ensure an adequate and skilled work force for the region in the future? Can he assure us that there will continue to be adequate public funding for those bodies, that there will be sufficient flexibility in their operation to enable them to encourage local initiatives, and that they will not be subjected to undue central control, particularly financial control and regulation?

Mr. Eggar : I can certainly give my hon. Friend those assurances. Perhaps I can tell those in the community that he represents, through him, that we recognise the widespread support that his local TEC enjoys. We trust that that will continue.

Mr. Eastham : In response to four questions so far, Ministers have told the House how successful their employment policy is and how many training facilities there are. If that is so, can the Minister tell us how many years it will be before unemployment is brought down to what it was 10 years ago? There are now 1 million more unemployed people than there were in 1979. How many more years will it be before the Government can tell us of a success story in reducing unemployment?

Mr. Eggar : How many more years will it be before Opposition Members recognise that we now have more people in employment than ever before? Why does the Labour party spread bad news? What about the good news in Britain?

Mr. Colin Shepherd : Is my hon. Friend aware that the answer that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave in respect of the blind will be much appreciated at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, where a keen interest is taken in these matters? Is my hon. Friend further aware that in our part of the world we have a large number of comparatively small employers, all of whom are enthusiastic about TECs? Can he tell us what progress is being made with the TEC for Hereford and Worcester?

Mr. Eggar : I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend in regard to the blind and the disabled. It is important that local organisations for the disabled work closely with local TECs so that the needs are fully understood by both sides. Good progress is being made in Hereford and Worcester. I take my hon. Friend's point about the number of small employers.

Industrial Disputes

8. Mr. Wallace : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many working days have been lost through industrial disputes in the period January to September 1989 ; and what was the figure for the comparable periods in 1987 and 1988.

Mr. Fowler : It is provisionally estimated that 3,237,000 working days were lost through industrial disputes in the period January to September 1989. In the corresponding period in 1987, 3,284,000 days were lost, and in 1988 the figure was 3,427,000.

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The annual average of days lost through industrial disputes in the 1970s was almost 13 million.

Mr. Wallace : As recent figures are clearly much lower than those for the 1970s, and as the figures that the Secretary of State gave appear relatively stable for the past three years, why does the right hon. Gentleman see a need in this Session for further hostile measures designed to put even more restraint on people in employment in relation to the right to strike? Is it not time to seek more constructive ways to improve industrial relations through partnership in industry?

Mr. Fowler : I certainly agree about the importance of partnership in industry, but our proposals concern unofficial action, as a result of which we still lose a tremendous number of days each year. We are also putting an end to the pre-entry closed shop. I hope that the hon. Member will support us and that the Labour party will get its act together and support us, too.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Has my right hon. Friend noticed that whereas in 1979 private sector strikes accounted for three quarters of all strikes, today private sector strikes account for only 50 per cent. of all strikes, showing that the public sector is becoming more irresponsible as the private sector becomes more responsible? Has he also noticed that unofficial strikes are now a third of all strikes and is not that why we need the proposals contained in the Green Paper and a Bill as soon as possible?

Mr. Fowler : What my hon. Friend says about unofficial strikes is undoubtedly the case. We are losing far too many days through unofficial strike action. I believe that when the House sees the legislation that we propose it will have the support of the great majority of Members.

Ms. Short : Does the Secretary of State agree that the industrial dispute that concerns everybody in Britain is the ambulance workers' dispute? He will know that overwhelmingly the people of Britain think that the Government are wrong and that the dispute should be settled. Will he now use his office, in the spirit of the approaching period of Christmas, to agree to arbitration so that we can obtain a settlement and get the ambulances back on the road? That is what the people of Britain really want.

Mr. Fowler : I hear what the hon. Lady says, but the position on the ambulance dispute has been set out only today by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health in one of the national newspapers. Arbitration has never been inserted into the Whitley council procedure in the Health Service--

Mr. Cryer : As ordained by God and Mrs. Thatcher.

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Fowler : --and it would not be right to set such a precedent now.

Channel Tunnel (Tourism)

9. Mr. David Porter : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will hold discussions to ensure that, following the opening of the Channel tunnel, Suffolk and Norfolk are fully promoted as tourist centres.

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Mr. Nicholls : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 28 November that the Government funds that the regional tourist boards receive to promote and develop tourism in their regions, including East Anglia, will almost double from 1 April 1990.

Mr. Porter : Will my hon. Friend accept the congratulations of those involved in employment in the industry in East Anglia on his answer, but will he bear in mind that many people are worried that when the Channel tunnel has opened, Suffolk and Norfolk will be rather left behind? Isolation is all very well for tourism, but people need to be able to get to a place in order to enjoy it.

Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend makes a fair point. A number of challenges are open to the tourist industry in relation to the Channel tunnel and we should be mindful of them. The White Paper, "Roads for Prosperity", shows that there could be real advantages for communications between his area and the Channel tunnel. However, it is fair to remind us of that point and I accept it.

Mr. Michael Welsh : The Channel tunnel will play an important part in tourism and I hope that its opening will come quickly. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that it does, so that business people in the north, especially in Doncaster, can benefit from it?

Mr. Nicholls : I am sure that the people in the north will want the Channel tunnel as much as everyone else. I accept the implication of what the hon. Gentleman says--that the Channel tunnel has advantages for all areas of the country, not merely the south-east.

Mr. Patrick Thompson : My hon. Friend accepts the importance of good communications in ensuring that more tourists from the continent and elsewhere visit Norfolk and Suffolk, but does he also accept the need for a greater emphasis on rail links? Will he do all that he can to persuade his right hon. and hon. Friends that the terminal link should be at Stratford rather than King's Cross.

Hon. Members : No.

Mr. Nicholls : It seems that I have unwittingly entered into a source of private disagreement and grief. I would only say that in 1988 British residents spent about 40 million nights and £555 million in East Anglia, so whatever the state of the rail links it seems that East Anglia is not doing too badly.

Health and Safety

10. Ms. Armstrong : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how he plans to extend health and safety protection at work.

Mr. Nicholls : Increased resourcing for the Health and Safety Commission is enabling new risks from changing modern technology to be tackled on a number of fronts. Excellent progress has been made with our programme to modernise health and safety law, and to extend it as necessary. The Health and Safety Executive's programmes for advice, inspection and published guidance are being expanded to stimulate industry to improve safety performance.

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Ms. Armstrong : How will cuts in the staffing of the Health and Safety Executive enable us to make sure that the regulations about which the Minister has talked, and which I very much support, are put into effect?

Mr. Nicholls : I shall say something to the hon. Lady that I have to say all too often to Labour Members. There is no question of resources to the HSE being cut. Those resources are at least as good as what was spent under the last Labour Administration. For three years running, its public expenditure survey bid for resources has been met in full. That analysis is the correct one. The analysis that the hon. Lady advances is not.

Mr. Robert B. Jones : Can my hon. Friend confirm that one of the problems with health and safety lies in the construction industry and the failure of many workers to wear hard hats on site? How can he justify exempting Sikhs from having to wear hard hats?

Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend makes at least one valuable point by reminding us that the prime responsibility for health and safety on constructions sites, and in the workplace generally, has to lie with those who are there. It is not up to the inspectorate to act as the police men of safety on sites. However, my hon. Friend will be the first to admit that the question whether Sikhs should wear helmets on sites is a difficult one and not one on which it was easy to reach a quick and simplistic conclusion. We think we got it right. My hon. Friend thinks that we did not get it right, and on that we shall have to differ.

Mr. Cryer : As the Minister has plans to extend the health and safety at work provisions, can he tell us what has happened to the legislation on manual handling of loads, which has been in draft form since 1982, and would contribute greatly to preventing industrial injuries? If the Government can pour out a torrent of legislation against trade unions, why can they not produce legislation of this importance, to reduce injuries at work? As the Minister knows, days lost through that far and away exceed the number of days lost through strike action.

Mr. Nicholls : Presumably, the hon. Gentleman cannot be aware of the fact that the Health and Safety Commission is a tripartite body. Therefore, before any regulations or proposed legislation can be put to Ministers, they have to pass through a complicated process to ensure that all sides of industry have their say. There is no question of the Government having dragged their feet, but if the hon. Gentleman is interested in tripartite structures, he will have to accept that bringing proposals forward might not happen as speedily as he would want.

Mr. Hind : Is not Britain far ahead of our EEC partners in health and safety protection at work? Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to protecting the worker in the workplace, in terms both of employment and health and safety, we need no lessons from the Europeans and certainly no social charter?

Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are very much in advance in this, and the Europeans have nothing to teach us either in regard to legislation or in the vigour with which it is implemented.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : If the Minister is serious in saying that we need no lessons on health and safety, how is it that

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every year there are over 200,000 injuries at work and that every working day two people die? The Government's response has been to cut by over 100 the number of factory inspectors responsible for monitoring that situation. Is the Minister not guilty of the most disgraceful complacency when he tells my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that we have to wait for seven years for proposals to see the light of day? Are not the Government simply indifferent about what happens to working people at their place of work?

Mr. Nicholls : The fact that the hon. Gentleman is even capable of making such a remark shows how unwise it is to write a supplementary question before hearing the answer to the main question. I have already pointed out to the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) that the resources to the Health and Safety Commission have not been cut, are at least as good as under the last Labour Administration and, for the past three years, have been met in full. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that one can abolish accidents and fatalities at work simply by increasing the number of inspectors, he has an attitude to these matters that is so simplistic that, even coming from the Labour Benches, it is quite staggering.

Training and Enterprise Councils

11. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many training and enterprise councils have received funding in London ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Eggar : The response from employers in London has been encouraging. Development funding has been awarded to a TEC covering Kingston and Merton ; other applications are currently being developed.

Mr. Greenway : Is my hon. Friend aware that hundreds of new businesses have been established by the Ealing enterprise agency and that thousands of jobs have been created as a consequence since I founded that body some years ago? Is there a chance that we could now have funding for a TEC in Ealing so that the work of my Ealing enterprise agency, which only operates in the private sector, may be furthered?

Mr. Eggar : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative in the Ealing enterprise agency. I am sure that it has been a significant contributor to the local economy. We understand that representatives from Ealing are participating in the development of a bid for a west London TEC and we anticipate that the application may be submitted by the end of January.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Can the Minister tell us what efforts will be made to ensure that the interests of education, local government and employees are represented on TECs in London and elsewhere?

Mr. Eggar : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has recently appointed a chief education officer to join the national training task force. A number of chief local government officers and education officers are already represented on different TECs, and we are confident that the education interest will be adequately represented.

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