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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 March 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


British Railways (No. 2) Order Confirmation Bill

British Railways (No. 3) Order Confirmation Bill

Considered ; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


Job Clubs --

1. Mr. Lewis : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the future of job clubs.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Forsyth) : May I begin by apologising to the hon. Gentleman and the House for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who is attending the job summit in Detroit. Next year, job clubs will be able to help 260,000 people, an increase of 20,000 on this year's record 240,000.

Mr. Lewis : Can the Minister be more accurate about the efficacy of job clubs ? Will he look at the north-west where there is less than a 50 per cent. placement record, which seems to be a bad investment considering the millions of pounds that are being put into what is really a cosmetic system ?

Mr. Forsyth : Job clubs are among the most effective measures provided by the Employment Service. They have helped over 580,000 people into work. The hon. Gentleman must be aware, for example, of people like the 50-year-old lady in his constituency who had been unemployed for 18 months and who found work as a result of being helped by a job club. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be more keen on the work carried out in his constituency than he is on that question.

Mr. Ashby : The trouble with job clubs is that they are geared to the lowest common denominator. Will my hon. Friend try to change the way in which job clubs work so that they can help those in the higher echelons who are seeking to get back to work and who are currently hindered by the benefit rules as well ? Could not the benefit rules also be altered so that they could assist people to get back to work ?

Mr. Forsyth : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Job clubs are not homogeneous--they cater for different groups.

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Some job clubs provide help for people who have literacy and numeracy difficulties ; some help executives who have been displaced ; and others specialise in ex-offenders. My hon. Friend asked about the benefit system. He needs to address that question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. I believe that job clubs are very effective. They are extremely popular with those who participate in them. The Employment Service is to be congratulated on its success, which has been emulated around the world.

Unemployment --

2. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what is the total number of people unemployed in the United Kingdom, including those who are unemployed who are not in receipt of unemployment benefit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : The claimant measure and the International Labour Organisation recommended measure both show falling unemployment in the United Kingdom at about 2.8 million.

Mr. Evans : The Minister has just answered a question that I did not ask. Is not that a classic example of what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster described to a Select Committee as telling terminological inexactitudes to the House ?

Is the Minister aware, from answers that have been given to me by her Department and the Department of Social Security, that the true number of people without a job in Great Britain exceeds 4 million ? Is not it time that the Government accepted and acknowledged that mass unemployment lies at the very heart of the country's economic, social and financial decline ?

Miss Widdecombe : If the hon. Gentleman has a figure of more than 4 million, perhaps he should tell that to the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, the shadow Chancellor because, at Harrogate on 16 November, the Leader of the Opposition referred to 3 million unemployed and, on 9 December, the shadow Chancellor referred to nearly 3 million unemployed.

Sir Thomas Arnold : Does my hon. Friend agree that falling unemployment will not be assisted by interference in the labour market from Brussels ?

Miss Widdecombe : The consistent policy of this country is to have as flexible a labour market as possible. We believe that that has promoted employment and the increase in the civilian work force in employment. It ill becomes the Opposition not to take notice of that. Their policies would cause tremendous job losses, yet they appear still to be proud of them. They do not acknowledge the success of a flexible labour market.

Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the Minister accept that a large number of the people who are not registered for unemployment benefit are young parents--particularly young mums--who cannot find nursery places for their children ? Will the Government follow the example of the French Government and set about providing nursery places throughout the country to facilitate work ?

Miss Widdecombe : We know that, according to the British social attitudes survey, of those mothers whose

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children are still of dependent age and who do not work, only some 6 per cent. cite child care costs as being the principal reason.

Mr. John Greenway : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the number of people who are employed in this country is much higher than it was when the Government came to office in 1979 ? Does she agree that the European Community and interference from the Commission are more likely to add to unemployment than any Government policy ?

Miss Widdecombe : I have pleasure in confirming that there has been a rise in the civilian work force in employment. It is also true that that rise has taken place in most Labour constituencies, but that Opposition Members still tend to bemoan the levels of unemployment without looking at the positive side. As I said in response to an earlier question, the Government intend to preserve the flexibility of the labour market and to ensure that the opportunities for employment continue to increase.

Mr. Prescott : Will the Minister address her mind to the evidence that is being given by the Secretary of State at the G7 meeting in Detroit today ? Will she confirm that the figures on unemployment in "The UK Approach", the document produced by the Government, are wrong ? Does she accept that her Department's statisticians now recognise that the unemployment rate is certainly half a million more than is recorded in the document ? That would take Britain from having below 10 per cent. unemployment to having over 10 per cent., and that is wrong.

The Minister has responsibility for training the unemployed. On the same page of the document is a statement about changing the training structure in this country, but there is no statement about how many apprenticeships have been created. Will she confirm that the number is 150,000 fewer than in 1979 and that the document is no more than a tissue of lies that is being given to the rest of the world ?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman has used decidedly unparliamentary language about the document.

Madam Speaker : Order. Had that been the case, I would have asked the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the remark.

Miss Widdecombe : It is beyond question that the figure of 2.8 million has not merely been produced by the Government's claimant count but is the International Labour Organisation's own definition. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the International Labour Organisation has conspired with the Conservative Government to produce a figure that would specifically benefit the British unemployment rate ? The figures that I have cited appear whichever measure is used.

On the subject of apprenticeships, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the multiplicity of training schemes, including apprenticeships. He will also be aware of our initiative on modern apprenticeships. Why has the hon. Gentleman never managed to welcome modern apprenticeships ?

Mr. Brazier : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the independently collected ILO figures show that unemployment in Britain is below the EC average ? Will she also

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confirm that the figures show that the level of employment within the available work force as a whole is now the second highest in the EC ?

Miss Widdecombe : I have pleasure in confirming that we have the second highest number of people in work in the EC and that we have lower than average youth unemployment. In many other trends, particularly part- time work, we are one of the EC leaders. Will the Opposition welcome that as well ?

EC Directives --

3. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on EC directives on employment-related issues which are being opposed by the United Kingdom.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : The Government will continue to resist any Commission proposals that reduce competitiveness and destroy jobs.

Mr. McFall : The British Government have opposed European directives on working time and the protection of young people at work. Britain is the only European country that has no legal pay protection. Is the Minister proud of an employment agenda consisting of long hours, low pay and inadequate protection for people as young as 14 or 15 ?

Mr. Forsyth : Is the hon. Gentleman proud to be a member of a party that would stop teenagers being able to

Mr. McFall : Answer the question.

Mr. Forsyth : I am answering the hon. Gentleman's question. He asked me about the young workers directive. The hon. Gentleman supports his socialist friends in the European Parliament in their attempt to stop teenagers having jobs as paper boys and Saturday jobs. That is a disgrace.

Sir Teddy Taylor : As the Government have made it clear that they are opposed to the 48-hour week directive, will the Minister let us know when he expects to hear from the European Court about whether we have to apply it or not ?

Mr. Forsyth : As my hon. Friend knows, we have made it clear that we are challenging the working time directive. It was introduced under article 118A, which is a health and safety measure. That is an abuse by the Commission of the powers under the treaty. We have made a vigorous case in defence of our right to set proper standards in Britain. We believe that standards for working time are best negotiated between employers and employees.

Mrs. Clwyd : The Minister boasts about creating jobs. Why is it that Italy can create six times as many jobs as the United Kingdom, Germany four times as many and France twice as many, yet those countries still give their workers proper employment and social protection rights ? Why is the Government's definition of competitiveness screwing down wages, sacking workers and giving them a worse deal than workers in any other country in Europe ?

Mr. Forsyth : In Britain, take-home pay is among the highest in the Community as a result of the policies that the Government have pursued. As for the point about other European countries, the hon. Lady must know that they

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have a smaller proportion of their working population in work than the United Kingdom. That is because of the success of our policies. While we are on that matter, will the hon. Lady tell the House at some stage how we are expected to pay the £20 billion bill that introducing a 35-hour working week would cost employers in Britain ? That is what she and her party have signed up to in the manifesto for the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

Sir Michael Neubert : Is my hon. Friend aware that the announcement by the Social Affairs Commissioner, Mr. Padraig Flynn, that it is his intention that 10 million legal immigrants to countries in the European Union should have the right to work in the United Kingdom has caused alarm and anxiety to the British public, not least to the 2.75 million people who are out of work now ? Will he make it his business to see off that provocative proposal ?

Mr. Forsyth : I am aware of several initiatives that the Commission has proposed which have caused anxiety to those of us--particularly in the Conservative party--who wish to ensure that our country remains competitive and that we offer good job prospects for the future.

Training and Enterprise Councils --

4. Mr. Gordon Prentice : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what steps he is taking to make the TECs more accountable to the communities they serve.

Miss Widdecombe : TECs already consult widely in planning and publish their plans and annual reports. Their performance is open to public scrutiny through the comparison tables published by the Department.

Mr. Prentice : If the TECs are to made more accountable, will the Minister join me in unreservedly condemning the decision of my local training and enterprise council, East Lancashire TEC, to refuse to appoint any elected member from the local district councils and instead to appoint the chief executive of Hyndburn ? He has many excellent qualities, but being elected is not one of them. Does the Minister take any responsibility for the mushrooming number of quangos and the anti-democratic culture that they spawn ?

Miss Widdecombe : I am rather surprised at that question because ELTEC has the leader of Lancashire county council on its board.

Mr. Paice : But is it not the case that more than 90 per cent. of our work force is in work and that, however important it may be to provide schemes for the unemployed, TECs should be accountable to the businesses that employ those 90 per cent. and on which we primarily rely for the well- being of this country ?

Miss Widdecombe : That is why it is important that TEC boards consist of leaders of the business community ; that they are involved in partnerships ; and that they are delivering training locally according to local business needs and local business perceptions.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : The Minister will have seen the highly critical report that was published by the London School of Economics on the performance, management style and use of resources of TECs in England and Wales. One aspect that worries many Opposition Members is the

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proposal in that report to halve the number of TECs and thus to make them much larger and less responsive to the needs of their communities. Do the Government intend to respond to that report ?

Miss Widdecombe : The report by the London School of Economics was based on much outdated material, and much of the material was gathered when TECs were at fairly early stages. Therefore, many of its criticisms were not well founded. We have no current intentions of changing the present TEC structures.

Sir Donald Thompson : Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the Calderdale and Kirklees TEC in my constituency ? Does she agree that, had Labour local politicians tried to help their communities for the past 15 years, rather than blindly opposing any Government policy, TECs would perhaps not have been necessary ?

Miss Widdecombe : The answer to that is yes on both counts.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : The House knows that many questions have been asked about the accountability of TECs as regards Astra Skills Training Ltd. Precisely why was the Department of Employment prepared to account, and to pay, redundancy payments on civil service terms, to TICC Ltd.'s former employees at the point of bankruptcy, but not to make the same offer to those people who had given many years of service to Astra and lost literally tens of thousands of pounds because of the actions of this Government ?

Miss Widdecombe : In the case of TICC, at the point of liquidation, the employees still enjoyed civil service redundancy rights because their terms had not changed. In the case of Astra, the employees themselves had twice agreed to a change of terms.

Foyer Initiative --

5. Mr. Hendry : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what initiatives his Department is taking to support the foyer initiative to co- ordinate accommodation, training and employment policies for young people.

Miss Widdecombe : The Department has contributed nearly half a million pounds to the foyer initiative through support for the employment and training elements of five pilot foyers, secondment of staff and funding for publicity material. In addition, the Department of the Environment, through the Housing Corporation, is providing several million pounds' worth of capital and revenue support.

Mr. Hendry : I thank my hon. Friend for that statement of the degree of Government support for the foyer initiative. Can she confirm that an analysis of the foyer programme shows that up to 60 per cent. of previously homeless unemployed youngsters have ended up in accommodation and in work or training ? Does not the foyer initiative show, at its most effective, the way in which Government Departments are working together and co- operating to tackle a range of problems that confront young people ?

Miss Widdecombe : I am delighted to confirm to my hon. Friend that so far foyers have been successful. According to the Young Men's Christian Association report, 567 young people have taken part ; a third have

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begun training ; more than half have begun job search ; and 180 have been placed in permanent jobs and 74 in temporary jobs.

Mr. Clapham : The skills levels among the British work force are about 40 per cent. of those of our major competitors. Obviously there has been a lack of investment since 1979. Why are the Department and the Government failing to pick up the aid package that is on offer from the EEC ?

Miss Widdecombe : I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that there has been no lack of investment. What is more, the investment is not only Government investment. About £20 billion comes from the private sector. If Opposition Members are seriously worried about skills shortages, do they welcome national vocational qualifications, general national vocational qualifications and modern

apprenticeships--all measures which the Government have taken to improve the skills level in this country ?

Works Councils Directive --

6. Mr. Jenkin : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what discussions he has had recently with the European Commission about the European works councils directive.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State restated the Government's firm opposition to the proposal when he met Commissioner Flynn on 28 February.

Mr. Jenkin : Will my hon. Friend confirm that under the Single European Act we had a veto over that directive and that under the Maastricht treaty we no longer have a veto, so the directive may proceed in the other 11 countries with damaging consequences for British jobs and British industry ? Does he agree that, given the fourth framework directive on social Europe and the continuing court judgments imposing social Europe on this country whether we like it or not, we need to address the issue of social Europe at the intergovernmental conference in 1996 to protect British industry and jobs ?

Mr. Forsyth : No, I do not agree with the first part of my hon. Friend's question. It is clear under the social protocol that agreements made by the Eleven will not apply to the United Kingdom. A text that appears to be rather ragged in that respect has been circulated for consultation, but the United Kingdom means to ensure that the terms of the protocol set out under the Maastricht treaty are observed. On the 1996 conference, I agree with my hon. Friend that the whole question of European competitiveness and the impact of some of the proposals that have been put forward as social measures will need to be addressed.

Mr. Grocott : May I give the Minister an opportunity to put to the test his eccentric theory that the lack of worker protection in Britain brings jobs to Britain ? Will he make a firm prediction that, because of the lack of worker protection in Britain, the takeover of Rover by BMW will mean fewer jobs in Germany and more in Britain ? If he believes that, he believes anything.

Mr. Forsyth : As the hon. Gentleman will know, Britain is getting the lion's share of inward investment from the United States and Japan into the Community because of the

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labour market policies that we have pursued and our general economic approach. He describes as eccentric the theory that excessive protection destroys jobs. He may like to read some of the speeches currently being made by Spain's socialist Prime Minister, who says that, in order to create more jobs, it will be necessary to remove some protection from the workers. So that eccentric theory is well understood by politicians across the political divide. Only the British Labour party is stuck in the time warp of the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr. Waterson : Does my hon. Friend agree that that is just the sort of petty bureaucratic regulation that is so favoured by Opposition Members and rightly opposed by British employers ? Is it not simply an attempt to introduce the social chapter by the back door ?

Mr. Forsyth : I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government favour worker involvement, participation and consultation. What we are against is their imposition by statute. If they are done voluntarily, they will work ; if they are imposed by statute, as proposed in the European works council directive, they will be inflexible, destroy competitiveness, make it less easy for business to respond to market needs, and therefore destroy jobs.

Mr. Barron : If the Minister really believes that, will he explain why Germany, which has had workers' councils and workers' directives for decades, has a £20 billion surplus in world trade while we have a £13 billion deficit ?

Mr. Forsyth : I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has noticed it, but in Germany unemployment is going up. It has broken the 4 million barrier and is at its highest level since the Weimar republic. In Britain, unemployment is falling. We are unique in that respect and the hon. Gentleman should recognise that our policies have created the opportunity for unemployment to fall so quickly during a recovery.

Child Care Grant --

7. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what progress has been made with making the out-of-school child care grant self- financing.

Miss Widdecombe : The out-of-school child care grant provides financial and other help for the start up of new after-school and holiday child care schemes. Training and enterprise councils may fund individual schemes for up to 12 months, after which they are expected to become self- financing. It is still too early in the cycle of the schemes to obtain reliable information about how far they are succeeding.

Mrs. Gorman : While I welcome whole-heartedly the Government's determination to ensure that children have somewhere to go after school instead of running round the streets and perhaps getting into mischief, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be easier for those schemes to continue if parents could treats the costs as tax deductible expenses and if those parents who have to work to support themselves and their families could be given assistance without losing wages or benefits ?

Miss Widdecombe : Our view is that it is not for the Government alone, either through tax relief or other measures, to fund such schemes, but that they must be

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funded by partnerships of employers, volunteers, the employees themselves, Government and other local interests.

Mrs. Helen Jackson : Does the Minister recognise that at a cost of £30 a week in school time and £60 a week in the holidays, such provision will not help families in areas of deprivation, particularly if the Government insist on the schemes being self-financing after one year ?

Miss Widdecombe : I believe that people in areas of deprivation will benefit substantially from the £28 disregard that we introduced into family credit. The hon. Lady says that the cost is a prohibitive factor. It is worth recording that on the basis of partnerships and other provisions that we have introduced since 1988, nursery places are up 150 per cent., places with registered child minders are up 40 per cent. and more than 90 per cent. of three and four-year-olds spend some time each week with their peers in some form of provision.

Maternity and Paternity Leave --

8. Mr. Hinchliffe : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will take steps to improve the employment rights to time off for maternity and paternity leave.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : All women will soon have a new right to 14 weeks maternity leave.

Mr. Hinchliffe : As someone who was refused paternity leave from this place, may I press the Minister to take the issue seriously and to pull his finger out ? When the Government profess to believe in the International Year of the Family, why are they so mean minded about parental leave ? Why are we light years behind most other European countries on this matter ?

Mr. Forsyth : I am not sure who refused the hon. Gentleman his paternity leave. If it was his Whips, I suggest that they adopt a rather more enlightened policy in line with the Labour party research document that was published in 1990.

Mrs. Gillan : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although our maternity provisions are excellent in the United Kingdom, it is still quite ridiculous that mothers who are cleared to adopt babies cannot get the same maternity provisions as natural birth mothers ? I am referring to my constituent Dr. Estelle McAndrew who is cleared to adopt a baby, but cannot get the same provision as she would if she were giving birth to a child.

Mr. Forsyth : My hon. Friend raised this matter in the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill Committee. As she will know, only a small proportion of adoptions--I believe under 9 per cent.--involve children under the age of one year. Without getting into the technicalities, there are clear differences between adopting a child and giving birth and the period immediately before and after that, which is why we thought it appropriate to make provisions for statutory leave.

Employment Statistics --

9. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what proposals he has to improve the accuracy of employment statistics.

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Miss Widdecombe : We have introduced a number of improvements over the past two years. Further improvements, based on completion of the inter- departmental business register are in hand.

Mr. Flynn : Has the Minister noticed that, in the meaningless propagandist fantasy of Government employment figures, the record number of part-time workers are counted as full-time workers, that the number of self -employed are estimated and out by at least 1 million and that more than 1 million people are counted twice ? Can the Minister answer a question without blaming the last or the next Labour Government and confess that the employment figures are a tissue of Waldegraves ?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman--as is consistent with Opposition Members--is extremely selective in the sources that he quotes and, as usual, misses completely the fact that in addition to the growth in employment figures we also published the labour force quarterly survey, which gives all the breakdowns that he has just mentioned. We published it, he can read it ; I suggest that the Labour party does so.

Mr. Gallie : Is my hon. Friend aware that many early retired people are forced to sign on to ensure the continuance of their national insurance contributions ? Does she believe that, in many instances, such people are not seeking work and are falsely inflating the unemployment figures ?

Miss Widdecombe : It is undeniable that we include figures in our claimant counts that the International Labour Organisation does not include in its count. It is also true therefore that of course the figures are inflated by the numbers that my hon. Friend suggests. Nevertheless, it is right that people should sign on for national insurance credits. It is also right that there should be more than one measure. As I have to say yet again, all the measures show the same figures and the same trends. That means that they are the best possible guide to what is happening in Britain.

Parental Leave --

10. Ms Corston : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what progress is being made on implementing parental leave.

Mr. Michael Forsyth : Arrangements for parental leave are a matter for voluntary agreement between employers and employees.

Ms Corston : Can the Minister explain why the British Government have consistently blocked the European Union parental leave directive ? Is not that a disgrace in view of the fact that Britain is the only country that does not provide some form of family leave and that the Equal Opportunities Commission calculated that the cost of 10 days' paternity leave would be the same as one quarter of a day's holiday for the entire work force ? Would not that be money well spent ?

Mr. Forsyth : I beg to differ with the hon. Lady. Britain is not the only country that has had trouble with the Belgian text of the directive on parental leave. The hon. Lady is also wrong to suggest that Britain is alone in not providing parental leave. There is only one-- [Interruption.] The hon. Lady keeps shouting "family leave", but her question is about parental leave. She will

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know that only Denmark offers paid parental leave to both parents. Other countries have different arrangements and most allow only one parent to have leave. Policies differ as to whether it should be paid. We believe that the issue is best taken forward voluntarily. Some employers, such as Abbey National, have very enlightened policies, in contrast to what we learn about the Chief Whip's Office. That is the way forward.

Mr. Rowe : Did my hon. Friend hear the other day the personnel director of Boots explaining that it was profitable to the company to provide such a facility because it was much better than having a disgruntled work force ? Is not it much better for firms to make their own calculation as to whether it is profitable for them to provide such a service rather than have it forced on them ?

Mr. Forsyth : I should explain, in case I find myself taking leave, that I was referring earlier to the Opposition Chief Whip's Office and not the Chief Whip's Office. I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. One of the advantages in going forward voluntarily is that flexible policies can be adopted. I mentioned Abbey National as an example of an employer who allows five-year career breaks, provides help with child care and allows flexible working hours. That is the way forward--not to try to write rigid regulations, particularly at a European level.

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