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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 January 1993

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Royal Assent

Madam Speaker : I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Acts :

1. Gas (Exempt Supplies) Act 1993

2. British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Act 1993.

Oral Answers to Questions


Wages Councils

1. Mr. Canavan : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what further representations she has received about her proposals to abolish wages councils ; and if she will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : My right hon. Friend has continued to receive representations for and against the proposals.

Mr. Canavan : Why do the Government persist in the absurd claim that the abolition of wages councils will create jobs? That claim is clearly refuted by the research done by the Department of Trade and Industry, the Institute of Personnel Management, the London school of economics and the Low Pay Unit.

Instead of abolishing wages councils, will the Minister take steps to give more protection to the 2.5 million people, mostly women, who are covered or supposed to be covered by wages council agreements? If the Government are serious about law and order, will they employ more inspectors to stop unscrupulous employers breaking the law by employing people at less than wages council agreements?

Mr. Forsyth : When the hon. Gentleman represented part of my constituency he supported a Labour Government in abolishing 11 wages councils, taking half a million people out of the so-called wages councils. I am sure that he did so because he recognised the arguments for employment. It is the height of hypocrisy for him to come to the House and complain about this Government following the very measures which they--

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman used a word which is unparliamentary.

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Mr. Forsyth : I am happy to withdraw the accusation of hypocrisy. I note that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) acepts that the Labour Government abolished 11 wages councils, just as this Conservative Government will do.

As to the hon. Gentleman's point about the effect on employment, only a socialist would believe that one would get more jobs by increasing the price of labour.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : My hon. Friend's history is disputable. One of the wages councils which was abolished was in the road transport industry, where collective negotiation was putting up pay. If my hon. Friend believes that putting pay up is the best action to take, is not the fastest way to do it to have higher rates for the minimum wage for wages councils? Does he prefer to consider the question whether abolition of the wages councils is a sensible idea in a year in which we are likely to abolish the out-of-date restrictions on Sunday trading, which will affect retail workers?

Mr. Forsyth : I favour deregulation of the labour market in relation to Sunday trading because I believe that it will create more jobs. I assume from my hon. Friend's question that he has the same view. I am therefore a little puzzled as to why he does not see a deregulatory measure--the abolition of wages councils--as being in the interests of the labour market as a whole. It was certainly a view which he accepted in answers that he gave when he was a Minister. Then he accepted the principle that there was a relationship between the creation of jobs and the fixing of wage levels by statutory bodies such as wages councils.

Mr. Dobson : Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State received a letter in November from Cyril Stein, the boss of Ladbrokes, who pays himself £584,000 a year? In the letter Mr. Stein welcomed the abolition of wages councils and said that the wages council award which gave his employees £2.92 an hour was causing difficulties for his company.

Mr. Forsyth : The wage of the chairman of Ladbrokes is a matter for the board of directors and the shareholders. [Interruption.] Hon. Members who are cheering might like to know that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment is one of those directors.

48-hour Week

2. Sir Teddy Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if she will refer to the European Court the decision of the Council of Ministers to consider the 48-hour week directive on the basis of the Single European Act ; and if she will make a statement.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : A challenge cannot be made unless the directive is adopted. We are continuing to argue strongly against its adoption. We have already made it clear that we will challenge the legal base of the directive should it be adopted in its present form.

Sir Teddy Taylor : Does the Minister agree that as the Government failed to challenge the directive on the first reading, which they could have done by not allowing a unanimous decision, they have shown that most of the phoney row between the two Front-Bench teams about the social chapter is basically artificial? Will he at least give me the simple assurance that there is no way in which the

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Government will allow the vital social chapter amendment to be considered halfway through the night by a bunch of sleepy-heads when the rest of the world is asleep?

Mr. Forsyth : The timing of consideration of business in the House is not a matter for me, I am pleased to say. My hon. Friend is wrong to imply that it would have been possible for the Government to challenge the legal base of the working time directive before it was agreed. A challenge can be made only after a directive is agreed and my right hon. Friend has had considerable success in ensuring that that has not happened. The Government remain opposed to the working time directive and we shall continue to oppose it. I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that if the directive is agreed in its present form, we shall challenge its legal base.

Mr. Grocott : Is not it a fact that after 14 years of having a Conservative Government in power, workers in Britain work for longer hours each week and have lower annual leave entitlements and fewer statutory bank holidays than almost any of our European competitors? Does not that represent a further savage indictment of the Government's economic incompetence?

Mr. Forsyth : What is a fact is that we have a far higher proportion of our population in work than almost any other European country. If we took the hon. Gentleman's advice employment opportunities in Britain would be reduced at a time of high unemployment. The Government, who are committed to reducing unemployment, would not be so foolish as to put socialism before the jobs of our fellow citizens.

Mr. Sykes : Does my hon. Friend agree that the social chapter and the 48-hour week would have a devastating impact on jobs and prospects at a time when Britain is about to emerge from the recession?

Mr. Forsyth : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I find it amazing that anyone could believe that it is a proper role for the Government to say how long people should work in the workplace. That is for agreement between employees and employers. Only very foolish politicians on the Opposition Benches would go along with the proposition that someone should be prevented from working overtime by decisions taken in the House, the European Commission or the Council of Ministers.

Labour Statistics

3. Mr. Winnick : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what are the latest official figures for the numbers unemployed and the percentage of unemployed ; and what the corresponding figures were for May 1979.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) : On a seasonally adjusted basis, claimant unemployment in the United Kingdom stood at 2,908,900 or 10.3 per cent. of the work force, in November 1992 ; compared with 1,087,000, or 4.1 per cent. of the work force, in May 1979.

Mr. Winnick : The increase since 1979 should shame every member of the Cabinet, not least the Secretary of State herself. Is not it clear that unemployment will substantially increase even further shortly--to well over the 3 million mark--even on the official figures? Do not the Government recognise that they are playing with fire by

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allowing such high unemployment, with all the resulting misery, poverty and devastation which it causes for our fellow citizens? If the Secretary of State had any pride, she would resign.

Mrs. Shephard : The hon. Gentleman knows very well that I share his concern about unemployed people. But I am not inclined to take any lessons from him or his hon. Friends on how to deal with unemployment, given the extraordinary proposals emanating from the Labour Front Bench in the so- called shadow budget for jobs. He and his colleagues should recall that the last shadow budget cost Labour the election. This one shows that they have learnt no lessons in economics. Their policy would damage investment and training and cut jobs, yet they call it a budget for jobs. It is ridiculous.

Sir Michael Neubert : Does my right hon. Friend, like me, find the suggestion that high unemployment is unique to this country a touch unconvincing? Can she say how many people are out of work in Europe today and how that compares with 14 years ago?

Mrs. Shephard : My hon. Friend is right--we share the difficult problems of unemployment and the recession that causes it with other member states in Europe and countries further afield in the industrialised world. Only the policies of this Government can possibly cope with unemployment. The ridiculous shadow budget for jobs shows the Opposition's cynisism, when they deliberately seek to tax out of existence industries that provide 350,000 jobs.

Ms. Quin : The House would welcome some information from the Secretary of State about how she proposes to prevent unemployment from rising to more than 3 million. Would she like to comment on the figures that she supplied to me yesterday in a written reply showing the extent of adult male unemployment, which has rocketed not only in the north, where it is 16.4 per cent., but in the south-east, where it is 13.2 per cent? Do not those figures show the savage decline in our manufacturing? What will the Government do to ensure that employment in manufacturing increases?

Mrs. Shephard : The first thing that we would not do would be to tax manufacturing out of existence, which is the intention of the Labour party. We need policies of low inflation, low interest rates, a competitive exchange rate, low wage claims and the largest-ever range of help and opportunities for unemployed people, which we have in place.

Mr. Evennett : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that measures in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's autumn statement will create new jobs in this country and that, with the low inflation announced last week, there is a tremendous opportunity for new job creation in the economy during the next few months?

Mrs. Shephard : That is precisely why the autumn statement was so widely welcomed by business interests. The increase in capital allowances, extra help to boost exports, the cut in car tax and help for the construction industry were all welcomed by business, which creates jobs. Those measures will help to combat the difficult problem that all of us face.

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Employment Training

4. Mr. Enright : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many of those leaving employment training in Yorkshire and Humberside achieved vocational qualifications in the last six months for which figures are available.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : In the six months to March 1992, 30 per cent. of all people leaving employment training in Yorkshire and Humberside gained a qualification or a credit towards one. That is significantly higher than during the same period a year ago.

Mr. Enright : Is the Minister aware that the President of the Board of Trade is hell-bent on throwing miners on the scrap heap ? Does he consider that that answer will be of any assistance to them ? Do not many people who go on such courses find them an insult to their intelligence and therefore leave early and do not get work at the end of the course ? Indeed, many people have to go back for two or even three courses. Will he examine the quality of training, which is very low ?

Mr. McLoughlin : As the hon. Gentleman will know, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will publish a White Paper on the energy question. On quality, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are concerned about getting quality from our employment training scheme, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced changes as a result of the very good settlement that she achieved in the autumn statement. It would be refreshing to hear the Labour party and Opposition Members talking about supporting training schemes, instead of opposing every scheme that the Government have introduced.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my hon. Friend accept that it would be wholly unacceptable to throw people out of work in the nuclear industry in Lancashire and Cumbria simply to provide jobs in Yorkshire ?

Mr. McLoughlin : My hon. Friend will draw equal comfort from the question that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) asked me at the previous employment questions. She rightly shows that that is one of the questions that my right hon. Friend must take into account when drawing up the White Paper.

Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that, when the coal board was flourishing, the Yorkshire and Humberside coalfields--indeed, every coalfield in Britain--used to run a training scheme ? They trained miners not only to dig coal, but to become electricians, fitters and carpenters : they trained them to do almost every job that had to be done down the pit. Literally scores of industries used those workers when they left the mines. Now there is no worthwhile training scheme ; all that the Government do is run slave labour schemes, taking 500, 000 young men and women off the unemployment register at the same time.

Mr. McLoughlin : I do remember that. I also remember that most parents would prefer anything to sending their children down the coal mines.

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Industrial Action

5. Mr. Duncan : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many working days were lost to industrial action in the last 12-month period for which figures are available.

Mr. McLoughlin : There were 504,000 working days lost to strikes in the 12 months to October 1992. That is the lowest 12-month total ever recorded.

Mr. Duncan : Given that foreign-owned firms have a high regard for our industrial relations record and given that pressure on employment prospects will continue until well after the end of the recession, does my hon. Friend agree that a healthy no-strike record is of the utmost importance to attracting inward investment and is equally important to reducing unemployment in general?

Mr. McLoughlin : I entirely agree. Because of our current low strike record--which is due to the industrial relations changes introduced by the Government--the United Kingdom is now receiving more inward investment than any other European country.

Mr. Burden : Will the Minister reflect on evidence provided by the Employment Gazette, which pointed out that the number of strikes was falling across Europe, even in countries with far more extensive rights to strike than Britain? Will he also reflect on the evidence given to him by, for instance, the chambers of commerce and the Institute of Personnel Management, which have drawn attention to the foolhardiness of the Government's further trade union reforms? Does he accept that those reforms have much more to do with having another bash at the unions and appeasing the Conservative right wing than with promoting industrial relations?

Mr. McLoughlin : The one thing that Conservative Members will not take is being lectured by the Opposition about industrial relations. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), in the past 12 months 504,000 working days were lost through industrial disputes. In January 1979, when another party was in government, 3 million days were lost--3 million days in that month alone. We will take no lectures from the Labour party about how to improve industrial relations and reduce strike action.

Union Members

6. Mr. Trend : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what assessment she has made of the effect of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill on the rights of individual union members.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : The Bill gives union members important new rights, including greater freedom to decide which union they join and the right to a full postal ballot before a strike. It also introduces important new rights for individual employees.

Mr. Trend : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the legislation is another positive step towards establishing individual rights for trade union members and that it is in the best traditions of the Conservative party since 1979? Will he also confirm that every extension of trade union democracy has been opposed by the TUC and the Labour party?

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Mr. Forsyth : I agree, with one qualification : Labour Members have opposed such legislation and then--before a general election--have turned round and said that they have experienced a sudden conversion on the road to Damascus. Where we have progressed forward step by step, the Opposition have progressed backwards step by step. Our action has benefited the economy as a whole and is undoubtedly the reason for the current high levels of inward investment in Britain.

Mr. Eastham : Why do not the Government act more evenhandedly when it comes to the rights of trade unionists? Is not it a fact that some employers will not recognise trade unions in their companies? What protection will the Government give to workers?

Mr. Forsyth : The hon. Gentleman is confused. He is confusing the interests of workers with those of trade unions--and that is why he and his hon. Friends sit on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Nicholls : Will my hon. Friend remind the House that the conversion to which he referred is not total? Does he recall that for the first time in its history there is now a proposition from the Labour party that it should be illegal to sack strikers? Is not it remarkable that Opposition Members take that position, which goes further than any Labour Government have in history?

Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend has great experience in these matters and I agree with him. The Labour party has always been the striker's friend and the Conservative party has always been the trade union member's friend. The Conservative party has given the trade unions back to their members and has enhanced the rights of those members in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party.

Part-time Workers

7. Mr. Mackinlay : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what measures she intends to take to provide employment protection for part -time workers employed by their existing employer for less than five years.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : The Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill gives part-time workers new rights, including maternity leave and protection against exclusion or expulsion from a trade union. It will also give employees the right to receive a written statement of terms and conditions of employment provided that they work eight or more hours a week.

Mr. Mackinlay : Does the Minister consider it fair and consistent with the rules of natural justice that part-time workers--millions of them women--should have no protection from unfair or arbitrary dismissal? Is not it a fact that many part-time workers are dismissed or have their contracts arbitrarily altered as though they were chattels rather than people?

Mr. Forsyth : What an astonishing question. The hon. Gentleman is criticising the provisions in respect of the rights of part-time workers which were introduced by the last Labour Government in 1975.

Mrs. Browning : Does my hon. Friend agree that the more strictly regulated economies such as France or Germany do not produce the part-time work opportunities that we have in Britain?

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Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour Members have not yet discovered that the more they add to the cost of employing people and the greater the burdens they put on employers in taking on labour, the more people will become unemployed and the fewer job opportunities there will be in the economy. We have the highest level of employment among part-time women workers, as well as among women in the economy as a whole, as a result of having a free labour market. If the Opposition had their way, there would be fewer opportunities for people to get jobs and I am sure that that is not what they want.

Mr. Dobson : Will the Minister confirm that it has been the case since records were kept that more British people, including women, are in employment than in any country in Europe except Denmark? At the same time, thousands of loyal, long-term staff, including those at Burtons and Forte, have been thrown out of full-time jobs which many of them have had for years and forced to go part time? Is not it utterly unfair that they should then be deprived of employment rights and entitlement to benefit just to suit the need and the greed of their employers?

Mr. Forsyth : Their employment rights reflect the position that was thought appropriate by the last Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that he cannot continue adding to the burden on employers and expect employment opportunities to be created in the economy. The reason why we have far more people in work--that has been the pattern for some time--is that, unlike many of our European partners, we have had a longer period of Governments committed to free enterprise and policies that create wealth and employment.

Mrs. Chaplin : Does my hon. Friend agree that many women wish to work part time because it fits in with their family commitments? Will he ensure that nothing is done to endanger part-time jobs in Britain?

Mr. Forsyth : I agree with my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right that many women work part time because they wish to do so. Only the Opposition, with their interest in the trade union movement, would wish to deny millions of people that opportunity.

Child Care

8. Mr. Chisholm : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what plans she has for the provision of after-school child care.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard : The Government are providing £45 million through training and enterprise councils and local enterprise companies over the next three financial years to help employers, schools, parents, local authorities, voluntary organisations and partnerships of all these to create some 50,000 additional out-of-school places for children.

Mr. Chisholm : Given that the United Kingdom is bottom of the European child care league, any initiative is welcome, but is the £15 million a year ring-fenced, and is this additional money, or does it come from an already inadequate Department of Employment budget? What proportion will go to Scotland, and why is the money available only for start-up costs when continuing funding is necessary for low-income parents?

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Mrs. Shephard : I refute the hon. Gentleman's basic premise. He should know that more than 90 per cent. of all three and four-year-olds already receive some kind of day care, and that the statutory school starting age is lower here than in the countries of many of our European counterparts.

This is new money. Scotland will receive 9 per cent. of it, based on the children of primary school age formula. The hon. Gentleman should be a little more welcoming, given the welcome that the project has had from kids club networks, play groups, the Working Mothers Association, the Day Care Trust and so on.

Mr. Rowe : Does my right hon. Friend welcome the recent circular from her colleague in the Department of Health making it easier for small providers of child care to avoid some of the bureaucratic burdens piled on them by people such as health and safety inspectors? Will she promise to work closely not only with the Department of Health but with the deregulation unit in the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that a proper path is trodden between protection of children and the capacity of respectable individuals and voluntary organisations to provide this necessary form of care?

Mrs. Shephard : Given the entirely welcome increase in the numbers of child minders and registered day nurseries, I agree with my hon. Friend. The extra guidance from the Department of Health to what are perhaps over- zealous local authorities which might have discouraged the setting up of yet more facilities for young children is entirely to be welcomed.

Training Levy

9. Mr. Mullin : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what plans she has for a compulsory training levy.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard : I have no such plans.

Mr. Mullin : May I put it to the Secretary of State that no amount of exhortation to the myopic and greedy people in charge of so much of British industry will persuade them to invest in long-term training? Our only hope of finding training for future generations of a sort that will enable us to hold our heads high in Europe will be to compel these employers to pay a training levy. Failing that, we are doomed.

Mrs. Shephard : I find the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm--and that of his party--for yet more burdens on employers disappointing but predictable. Opposition Members obviously have not noticed, because they are stuck in the past, that policies of compulsion were tried in the 1960s and 1970s, and they failed. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues try listening to employers instead of vilifying them as they tend to do. The commitment of employers to training remains undiminished by the difficulties of recession. This year they committed a record £20 billion to training--an excellent record representing a great commitment.

Mr. Quentin Davies : Is it not quite extraordinary at a time of cyclically high unemployment which is disturbing us all-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. Give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity.

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Mr. Davies : I am glad to see that I still have my fan club among the Opposition. Is it not extraordinary that some people can think of nothing better than dreaming up new ideas to add to the costs of taking on more employees, thereby destroying the prospects for new jobs?

Mrs. Shephard : It is enough to name a burden for business to be certain that Opposition Members will support it in principle. What are more damaging for business--after all, it creates jobs--are a minimum wage, a payroll tax, a training levy, and support for a social action programme. Labour supports all those ; all of them threaten jobs, as my hon. Friend is right to point out.

Training and Enterprise Councils

10. Mr. Hutton : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if she will make a statement about the level of funding for training and enterprise councils in 1993-94.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard : In 1993-94 we will make £2.2 billion available for TEC-delivered programmes.

Mr. Hutton : Is the Minister aware that many training and enterprise councils, including Cumbria's, are bracing themselves for substantial cuts in the volume of adult training resources being made available by the Government? Is she further aware that unemployment in south and west Cumbria is increasing dramatically and that unemployment has doubled in my constituency in the last two years? Will she give an assurance to my constituents that the Cumbria training and enterprise council will continue to have sufficient resources to provide its current quality training profile and so offer my constituents living under the shattering blow of unemployment the prospect of secure alternative jobs in new industries in the future?

Mrs. Shephard : The hon. Gentleman should know that the sum of £2.2 billion is broadly the same as last year, despite the fact that TECs have fewer young people with whom to deal on youth training because of the longer staying on at school rate. The recent deal in the autumn statement was greatly welcomed by the TECs. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that Cumbria TEC is an active member of the action team set up by the Government in response to redundances at Sellafield and VSEL. Any question of additional resources for the TEC, should there be further problems in Cumbria, would have to be considered in the light of what could be managed at the time.

Mr. Dickens : Why, during Question Time, are we always on the defensive? Why do we not tell people that Britain is the only country in Europe that guarantees a training place to every 16 and 17-year-old who is without a job or is not in further education? The reason is simply that we recognise that, with mechanisation and automation, skills must be changed and new skills learned. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the party-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. I look sympathetically on the hon. Member, but I do not allow him to make speeches at Question Time.

Mrs. Shephard : It is difficult to imagine anybody less defensive than my hon. Friend. He is right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that during the last 12

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months, about 225,000 young people entered youth training. Of those, about 10 per cent. have benefited from credit schemes and three quarters of them are satisfied with the outcome of YT. It is indeed a good record, and the Government are pledged to maintain it.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Will the Secretary of State explain to her hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) that the Conservatives are always on the defensive because they have an appalling record, in particular in the funding of TECs, where the budget has been cut in real terms? Is the right hon. Lady aware that many, including a large number of Conservative Members, are concerned about special needs training? She will be aware of the recent report from the Spastics Society showing that people with special needs are not being given the training they require. She will also be aware that Members in all parts of the House have written to her on that subject. Will she meet a delegation of hon. Members on an all-party basis so that the issue may be thrashed out?

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