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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 April 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


National Vocational Qualifications --

1. Mr. Ainger : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what oversight his Department has of the validation policies of organisations that examine and award national vocational qualifications.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : The Department sets a framework for the National Council of Vocational Qualifications, which in turn oversees quality assurance arrangements for national vocational qualifications. I shall write to the hon. Member with fuller details of our procedures than can be given in a parliamentary reply.

Mr. Ainger : The Minister will be aware that a number of large companies, including Ford Motor Co. Ltd. in the UK, have expressed their concern about a fall in standards--in their opinion--of training and vocational qualifications. She will also be aware that the National Council of Vocational Qualifications is currently conducting an investigation into the fraudulent award of national vocational qualifications and general national vocational qualifications. Bearing in mind those serious matters, will the Minister conduct an independent inquiry into those issues, especially into the bonuses paid to colleges and training agencies on a pass basis rather than a quality of training basis ?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman raises a serious matter. Procedures are already in place that require our training and enterprise councils to set in being audit trails which should track and monitor carefully the quality of training that is provided. The hon. Gentleman slightly understates--indeed, he considerably understates--the amount of confidence that employers show in NVQs. Of all employers, 44 per cent. are already users and 96 per cent. say that they are either experiencing benefits or expect to experience benefits as a result of NVQs. I share the hon. Gentleman's wish to get NVQs right, but I believe that we have made great strides towards that goal and I should not like an odd case to detract from that.

Mr. Rowe : Does my hon. Friend accept that there is widespread interest in the whole system of NVQs across the world in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and many others ? Those countries feel great anxiety that if they go down the same road as Britain, which they are sorely

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tempted to do and which would provide a great export opportunity for this country's skills, there should be a guarantee of consistency of standards.

Miss Widdecombe : There is a general shared perception that we should ensure that standards are consistent, nationally recognised, continually updated and widely respected.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Doe the Minister agree that the whole credibility of NVQs is on the line when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has revealed in early-day motions 1016 and 1017, we know that there has been systematic abuse of the system of payment ? If the Minister were honest she would admit to the House that I have written asking her to look into the question of fraud in output funding and NVQs, but that she has done nothing. Does she accept that the basis of output funding and the lack of credible audit procedures allow that systematic fraud to take place ?

Miss Widdecombe : No, I do not accept that there is systematic or widespread fraud. When allegations of particular frauds are made, they are carefully investigated. I have written to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who has raised some serious issues in early-day motions, and I have asked him to supply me with the evidence behind those issues so that they may be properly investigated.

Part-time Workers --

2. Mr. Oppenheim : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the proportion of workers in part-time employment.

Miss Widdecombe : In December 1993, 28 per cent. of the work force in employment in Great Britain worked part time.

Mr. Oppenheim : Is my hon. Friend aware that in the 1970s the number of part-time workers as a proportion of the overall total increased by 6 per cent. compared with only 5 per cent. in the 1980s ? Is she also aware that since 1979 soaring manufacturing productivity has boosted average net weekly take-home pay by no less than £80 a week, compared with stagnant earnings and stagnant productivity between 1974 and 1979 ? Does that not graphically illustrate that it was the Labour Government who presided over the sweatshop economy and that the only Mickey Mouse jobs were those that they gave to their buddies in local government ?

Miss Widdecombe : It amply demonstrates to the House that it is the Conservative party which has presided over a rise in take-home pay for people on average earnings. What is important to those people is what is left in their pockets for them to exercise choice over. The Government have consistently stood by that, while the Labour party, which has called for expenditure on all and made promises on everything, has never delivered when in office.

Ms Eagle : When does the Department intend to respond to the Law Lords' judgment which established that the current discrimination against part-time workers in employment law must be ended ? When shall we get legislation to bring the discrimination to an end and put things right ?

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Miss Widdecombe : Distinctions between part-time and full-time workers and their rights were maintained by Labour Governments, so the Law Lords' ruling applies just as much to what Labour Governments did as to what we do. We shall respond at such time as our deliberations are complete.

Mr. Dunn : Is not part-time work one of the greatest single benefits to those women who wish to combine economic work with family responsibilities ?

Miss Widdecombe : It is indeed, and I am rather saddened that the Opposition always try to sell part-time work as some sort of second-rate option. We know from the labour force survey that it is the preferred option of those who work part time. Less than 14 per cent. of those who do so would work full time if they had the opportunity to do so. I should like to hear Opposition Members welcome that.

Mr. McAllion : Is the Minister aware that the proportion of part- time workers is likely to grow if we have any more announcements like the one made this morning by the London International Group about manufacturing job losses in Dundee, London and south Wales, with the switch of production to Malaysia where they will not buy British goods ? When will the Government recognise that the deregulated marketplace that they advocate is a one-way street to disinvestment and job losses in this country and to exploitation and slave labour in the third world ?

Miss Widdecombe : The one-way street that appears to be operating is the vastly increased inward investment to the United Kingdom as a result of the Government's policies.

Disabled People --

3. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what representations he has received about the employment of people with disabilities.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Hunt) : Many, especially from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Thurnham : Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the example set by his Department is followed by other Government Departments and by bodies throughout the public sector ? Will he put his personal imprint on the code of good practice ? Will he appoint an ombudsman to ensure that the civil service code is applied throughout the public sector ?

Mr. Hunt : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his praise for the code, which I warmly and strongly endorse. I share his wish to see the code extended. I should like to see many other bodies, especially public bodies, endorsing the aims of the code and introducing codes of their own. I shall, of course, consider carefully my hon. Friend's other points.

Mr. Wigley : Will the Secretary of State recall that it was 50 years ago when legislation was introduced providing that 3 per cent. of all employees should be disabled people ? Is he aware that only 0.7 per cent. of private sector employees are disabled and that the situation is not much better in the public sector, where only 0.8 per

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cent. of employees are disabled ? What will he do to try to overcome this and ensure that disabled people have their fair share of employment within these islands ?

Mr. Hunt : First, consideration in Committee of the Civil Rights (Disabled People) Bill, which was promoted by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), has just been completed and I am considering carefully the issues that were raised at that stage.

Secondly, if we consider the placings made by the specialist advisers of the Employment Service, who put people with disabilities into work, we find that last year the total was over 40,000. I have set the special advisers a target of 55,000 placings for this financial year. I hope that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) will accept that that is a laudable objective and I am confident that it will be met by the Employment Service.

Mr. Prescott : Does the Secretary of State accept that the code, which the House endorses, is creating unemployment at something like four times the average level of unemployment in the country at present ? Can he tell us whether Government Departments are observing the code ? If they are not observing it, does he not think that he should be setting an example and asking them to observe it ?

Mr. Hunt : I wish that the hon. Gentleman would check his facts. He is talking to the Secretary of State of a Government Department which observes and meets the quota requirement.

Mr. Elletson : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the problems faced by epileptics in employment ? Will he look into the case of my constituent, Helen Barr, who was recently sacked from her job as a hospital cleaner ostensibly on the ground that she had an epileptic fit even though she declared that she was an epileptic when she took on the job ? Does he agree that epilepsy is a disability just like any other, but is widely misunderstood by employers, and that epileptics face widespread discrimination and prejudice ?

Mr. Hunt : My hon. Friend has highlighted an important case and an important area. I accept that there is a need to guide employers about some disabilities in particular. My recollection is that the Employment Service produces a guide on epilepsy. If it does not, I will make sure that it does, and I shall send a copy to my hon. Friend.

Part-time Workers --

4. Mrs. Helen Jackson : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the implications of the recent House of Lords ruling on part-time workers for United Kingdom employment legislation.

Miss Widdecombe : The Government are carefully considering the judgment to ascertain its full implications, and will make an announcement as soon as possible.

Mrs. Jackson : Does the Minister recognise that that is the answer which she gave on 11 March and on 23 March in European Standing Committee B ? Is it good enough for the Minister to continue to say that the Government are taking legal advice and that when they have heard it they will make a statement ? Is it not time to tell the millions of part-time workers, who want to hear when they are to know

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whether they are to have their rights to sickness benefit, holidays and redundancy pay recognised by the Government ?

Miss Widdecombe : I am glad that the hon. Lady recognises the consistency of my answers. Let me make it clear to the House. We shall respond and make an announcement when--and only when--all our investigations, all our proper consultation, and all our deliberations are complete. The difference between the Government and Labour Members is that we take these things responsibly while they make cheap political points out of them.

Mr. Nicholls : Will my hon. Friend confirm my impression that if we accept the ruling in all its rigour, the effect would be to reduce employment opportunities for a great number of people who are on the margins of the job market ? That will increase unemployment, not decrease it, and is exactly the sort of thing that is on offer to us from Europe if that is how the country votes in the European elections.

Miss Widdecombe : I do not intend to speculate on the effects of the judgment until our deliberations are complete, but it has always been a priority of the Government to limit as far as possible the burdens on business. That is why we have one of the highest levels of employment in Europe, that is why we have falling unemployment, that is why we have good part-time opportunities, that is why we have inward investment, and that is why we are carrying on with the policy.

Ms Short : Will the Minister explain how she can possibly stand there and say that the Government are not obliged to give part-time women workers equal rights with full-time workers when a House of Lords judgment which interprets European law says that the Government are obliged to do so ? She is obliged to say that the Government accept the judgment and will implement it ; that is the rule of law. In the debate on sex discrimination, two Tory Members said that the finding of the House of Lords should not be obeyed. The thing that the Minister and no one in her party seems to understand-- [Interruption.] Does the Minister appreciate that women who want part-time work do not want second-rate work ? They do not want low pay and lack of access to training ; they want holiday entitlements and protection from unfair dismissal. Will the Minister accord to women the right to full-time rights for part-time workers ?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Lady is under a complete

misapprehension. Some 69 per cent. of all those who work already qualify for full protection rights. Of the remainder, only 3 per cent. fail to qualify solely on the grounds of the hours they work.

Employment Service, West Midlands --

5. Dame Jill Knight : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many people in the west midlands have been placed in work by the Employment Service in the past 12 months.

Mr. David Hunt : A total of 143,600.

Dame Jill Knight : May I express to my right hon. Friend my great pleasure at hearing that news ? Is it a reasonable supposition that the considerable number of

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extra jobs coming on stream from Jaguar, Land-Rover, Flight's Travel, Ansell's and others would not have come about had Britain been a signatory to the social chapter ?

Mr. Hunt : I agree with my hon. Friend.

At the Social Affairs Council today, my hon. Friend the Minister of State is fighting to ensure that extra burdens are not imposed on business. One of the reasons why there has been a record level of inward investment--my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) rightly paid tribute to the fact that Jaguar has decided site the manufacture of the new E-type in the region, and that Land-Rover and several others have made important

announcements--which is so important for jobs is,of course, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister refused to sign up to the social protocol.

Mr. Grocott : What conclusion does the Secretary of State draw from the simple statistical truth--which can be confirmed by the experience of anyone who has lived in the west midlands for the past 30 years--that employment prospects, particularly for school leavers, were infinitely better under the Labour Governments of the 1960s and 1970s than they have been under the Tory Governments of the 1980s and 1990s ?

Mr. Hunt : I do not accept that. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston highlighted the number of new job opportunities which will arise in the west midlands in the coming year, and it is a fact that unemployment in the west midlands has fallen by just under 30,000 in the past 12 months. Although I gave the figure 143,600 in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston, we are setting a target of 148,000 for the Employment Service to place in work during the next 12 months in the west midlands and I am confident that it will meet and beat that target.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that one quarter of Japanese investment in this country goes to the west midlands ? Is he also aware that the most recent west midlands business survey, by the university of Wolverhampton, showed that industrial confidence in the west midlands was at its best level ever ? That is one reason why unemployment in my constituency has dropped by 10 per cent. in the past year alone. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that such a surge in confidence would be endangered by precisely the kind of social engineering on industry in which the Labour party seems to specialise ?

Mr. Hunt : My hon. Friend is right, and there are interesting statistics in that area. Some 70 Japanese companies have sought to base themselves in the west midlands region. That is a fine tribute to the work force in the west midlands. Those companies see this country as a centre of free enterprise, free trade and free markets. That is why we shall continue to win a record level of inward investment, which currently exceeds the levels of inward investment into all the other countries of the European Union put together.

Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the Secretary of State agree that the level of male unemployment in the west midlands remains alarmingly high ? Is he conscious that industry there is being affected by the dumping of very cheap goods--for example, garden tools from the far east--which in the past have been made successfully in, and sold from, the west midlands ?

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Mr. Hunt : When one analyses present trends, one sees that although unemployment is unacceptably high in the west midlands and I constantly refer to that fact, it is on a firm downward trend throughout the country and in the west midlands. The downward trend in the country is now between 15,000 and 20,000, notwithstanding occasional monthly rises. I believe that that trend will continue, and that problems of the kind that the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned will be more than outweighed by the constant flow of additional inward investment which will provide increasing job opportunities.

Seamen --

6. Mr. Loyden : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what were the numbers of British seamen in employment in each year since 1978.

Mr. David Hunt : The statistics show that in 1993 there were 31,000 employees in the sea transport industry in the United Kingdom compared with 77,000 in 1978.

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will publish in the Official Report the figures for the intervening period.

Mr. Loyden : I am not surprised that the Secretary of State has failed to give the current figures for employment of seamen. Is it not a disgrace that a nation which built its wealth on maritime trade is sitting back and allowing its merchant fleet constantly to diminish and that our shipyards are empty ? Is it not an absolute disgrace that the Government are standing aside and doing nothing about those two job-creating industries ? Is it not about time the House started paying back its merchant seamen and shipbuilders by providing the sort of jobs that could be created on Merseyside, Tyneside, Clydeside and the rest ?

Mr. Hunt : First, I am giving in answer to the hon. Gentleman's question the only figures that I can give and the only figures that are available to me. Secondly, I am not, and neither are my Government, standing aside-- [Interruption.] My party or my Government--neither I nor my party nor the Government in which I am proud to serve as a member are standing aside. Today, my officials are meeting, the merchant navy training board to finalise the proposal for a prototype of the new modern apprenticeships and the frameworks to be introduced in the shipping industry later this year. I believe that the new modern apprenticeship scheme will give a real opportunity to the shipping industry, which I hope that it will accept.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : Is it not the case that the British Merchant Navy still wins on grounds of quality, if no longer on grounds of quantity, and is that not due to the high standards of training that we give to our young people for a career at sea--not least at the Denton sea school in my constituency ?

Mr. Hunt : My hon. Friend highlights the importance of training, to which I have just referred in stressing the importance of the new modern apprenticeship scheme for the shipping industry. I remind him and my right hon. and hon. Friends that the successful completion of the GATT Uruguay round and the consequent increase in world trade is very good news for the United Kingdom. It will be particularly good news for the shipping industry.

Mr. Bennett : What good is the apprenticeship scheme if people who are already qualified cannot get jobs ? What

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help can the Secretary of State offer to one of my constituents who has just been made redundant from a cross-channel ferry so that people from Poland can be employed in his place ?

Mr. Hunt : The importance of the new modern apprenticeship scheme is that it will give school leavers aged 16 and 17 next year the opportunity to increase their skills to national vocational qualification level 3, which is equivalent to A-level, and to focus those skills on the shipping industry.

As for the hon. Gentleman's constituent, training for work offers the opportunity to improve and increase training related to qualifications and outputs. If the hon. Gentleman will give me details of the particular constituency case to which he referred, I shall of course follow it up.

Following is the information : Employees in the Sea Transport Industry (Standard Industrial Classification 7400) : United Kingdom--1978, 77,000 ; 1979, 74,000 ; 1980, 70,000 ; 1981, 66,000 ; 1982, 58,000 ; 1983, 48,000 ; 1984, 40,000 ; 1985, 37,000 ; 1986, 34, 000 ; 1987, 34,000 ; 1988, 35,000 ; 1989, 35,000 ; 1990, 33,000 ; 1991, 32,000 ; 1992, 30,000 ; 1993, 31,000. Information relates to June of each year and is not seasonally adjusted.

Part-time Workers --

7. Mr. Heald : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what estimates his Department has made of the proportion of those working part time who want to work full time.

Miss Widdecombe : The labour force survey estimates for autumn 1993 show that under 14 per cent. of those working part time did so because they could not find a full-time job.

Mr. Heald : Does my hon. Friend agree that while few part-timers want to work full time, a substantial number of full-timers--about a third- -would like to work part time ? Does she agree that labour market flexibility is the key not only to lower unemployment but to increased competitiveness and meeting the wishes of working people ?

Miss Widdecombe : I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the great opportunities offered by part-time work. The fact that more part-time opportunities are on offer for those who choose and prefer them, enabling more women to combine economic work with family responsibilities if they want to, can only be welcomed.

Mr. Frank Field : Does the Minister accept that the national insurance system discriminates against employers who wish to create full- time jobs ? Is she aware of the hardship that that causes to many families and the effect on public finances ? As the economy slowly recovers, jobs are being taken by people who are not registered as unemployed and there is no saving in dole queue money. The wages paid to those employees are so low that they do not pay much tax. If the Government cannot wipe out discrimination for the right reasons, will they do so for other reasons ? There are good, sound economic reasons for putting the public finances into equilibrium again.

Miss Widdecombe : The best way to encourage employers to employ part -time or full-time workers--as best suits their business needs and the wishes of their

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employees--is to reduce burdens on business. That has been, and will continue to be, the thrust of the Government's employment policy.

Mr. Dickens : Is not it a fact that many people very much value the opportunity to work part time, whether in catering, nursing homes, rest homes, education, school dinners or whatever ? Is not it also serious when a judgment forces on the House of Commons and the establishment restrictions and obligations on employers ? Nothing will undermine people's right to work part time more than restrictions placed on employers.

Miss Widdecombe : The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is yes. It is right that people have those choices, which provide tremendous opportunities. The answer to the second part of his question, as I have said several times today, is that we are considering most carefully the implications of the Lords judgment and how to implement it. The burdens on business will obviously be one of our considerations.

Mrs. Clwyd : What about people who cannot work full time or part time because the Government deny them that opportunity ? Has not the Government's pit closure programme dumped thousands of former miners on the economic scrap heap, like the miners at Tower colliery, who this afternoon were forced to accept closure because yesterday the wages of every miner at the pit were cut ? British Coal and the Secretary of State have lied through their teeth.

Madam Speaker : Order. That statement is unacceptable in this House. I ask the hon. Lady to rephrase it.

Mrs. Clwyd : I will withdraw that statement. The Secretary of State and British Coal have told blatant untruths.

Madam Speaker : Order. The English language is very rich. I am sure that the hon. Lady can do even better and I ask her to try.

Mrs. Clwyd : British Coal and the Secretary of State have been peddling untruths.

Employment Service, South-East --

9. Mr. Booth : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many people in the south-eastern region have been placed into work by the Employment Service in the past 12 months.

Miss Widdecombe : A total of 406,900 seasonally adjusted placings to February 1994, which is an increase of 47,900 over the previous year.

Mr. Booth : Will my hon. Friend welcome the fact that in the south- east, which includes Finchley, there has been a reduction in unemployment of 5 per cent. in the past year, born of the sensible policies of the Conservative party ? Does not that contrast with the parts of the world where the most significant employment is that of the dead-beat policies that are still peddled by the Labour party ?

Miss Widdecombe : Yes, indeed. The increased number of placings, the falling unemployment and the increased number of members of the civilian work force in employment, add up to a huge endorsement of our policies. The only thing to be regretted is that whenever there is a

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good news such as that which my hon. Friend has just brought to the attention of the House, the Opposition simply sit there looking as glum as owls.

Mr. Gapes : Is the Minister aware that in the past year throughout the south-east of the country and in London thousands of people have lost their jobs and many people are suffering from mortgage pressure, from loss of earnings and from pressure on their lives as a result of the unemployment created by the Government ?

Miss Widdecombe : Why does not the hon. Gentleman welcome the fall in unemployment ? Why does not he welcome the fall in interest rates, which reduces that mortgage pressure ? Why does not he welcome the increase in numbers in employment ? Why is he so concerned to peddle misery and unhappiness to his constituents ? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. There was so much noise going on in the House that I did not hear what the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said. [Interruption.] Order. If there was less noise, I would have done so. I believe that she used a phrase which last week was unacceptable to me. If that is the case, it is still unacceptable to me now, and I ask the hon. Lady, before we proceed any further, to withdraw it. [Interruption.] Order. I will deal with this matter. I understand that the hon. Lady used

Several hon. Members : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : There is no point of order. I am on my feet. Am I to understand that the hon. Lady used the phrase, "peddling untruths" ?

Mrs. Clwyd : Yes.

Madam Speaker : In that case, it was unacceptable to me last week and-- [Interruption.] Order. It was rephrased last week. [Interruption.] Order. I am asking the hon. Lady to rephrase the comment she made. It is as simple as that.

Mrs. Clwyd : I understand that last week the Prime Minister--I was not in my place at the time--actually used the phrase, "peddled an untruth", and I understand that the Prime Minister was not asked to withdraw that particular phrase.

Madam Speaker : The Prime Minister rephrased that. [Interruption.] Order. He rephrased it and I am asking the hon. Lady to do precisely the same.

Mrs. Clwyd : I repeat, British Coal and the Secretary of State misled the House.

Madam Speaker : In that case I accept what the hon. Lady said, and we can now proceed.

Youth Unemployment, East Midlands --

10. Mr. Barnes : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what is the current level of youth unemployment in the east midlands ; and what it was in April 1979.

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