The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Portillo): The Government will continue to control inflation and Government spending and borrowing. Those policies have reduced unemployment by 558,000 since December 1992 to a level almost 2 percentage points below the European Community average.
Mr. Mullin: Has the Secretary of State noticed that, despite all the rhetoric, the level of public spending is the same as the level that his Government inherited from the Labour Government in 1979 and that his party is now the party of high taxation? Might not that be because it is extremely expensive to maintain the best part of 3 million people who are permanently out of work? Does he now regret advocating policies which have led to mass unemployment?
Mr. Portillo: I am an advocate of policies that will lead to mass employment. Keeping inflation low and keeping control of public spending and public borrowing are the way to ensure that employment is created in this country. The hon. Gentleman has created a reputation for himself as a seeker after truth and justice, but when he speaks in the House on unemployment he is a propagandist and seeks to distort. His party is in favour of higher taxation and higher spending and, therefore, it is in favour of higher unemployment.
Sir Ralph Howell: While welcoming the fact that unemployment is falling, is that not partly due to the trend for one regular full-time job to be turned into two part-time jobs? Should we not cease to deceive ourselves that unemployment is falling in the long term when in fact it is 65 per cent. higher than it was four years ago?
Mr. Portillo: My hon. Friend should look at the figures that we published last month, which showed an increase over the past year of 221,000 full-time jobs and only 83,000 part-time jobs. My hon. Friend is too careful a student of the figures to fall in with the propaganda put out by the Labour party, which despises part-time employment even though such employment is often the ladder to full-time employment and also the way in which many people wish to structure their working lives. Even
Column 124if my hon. Friend had fallen in with that propaganda, the most recent figures show that the number of full-time jobs is rising faster and that they are more numerous than part-time jobs.
Mr. Chidgey: Will the Minister confirm that unemployment among ethnic minority groups is running at more than three times the national average? What action is his Department taking to compile evidence of racial discrimination in employment and what measures is the Secretary of State planning to eradicate the imbalance in the unemployment figures?
Mr. Portillo: A series of questions answered recently by, I believe, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) drew attention to worrying levels of unemployment among ethnic minorities, which is indeed a problem. My Department tries to address its policies and to approach its client group so that opportunities for those facing discrimination of any sort--including, for example, older workers and those who have been long- term unemployed--are maximised. We shall continue to tailor our measures to provide the most effective help for all sorts of people and for those facing any prejudice, to improve the working of the labour market and to help those people to improve their employability.
Mr. Merchant: Does my right hon. Friend agree that a proper understanding of the employment situation requires examination of not only the very welcome fall in unemployment, but the increase in the number of people in jobs? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that an increase in that latter figure is correct?
Mr. Portillo: Yes. For some time the Opposition used to take heart-- I use that phrase because they like to look for bad news--from the fact that although the number of people employed was clearly rising, according to the labour force survey, which was the internationally agreed standard, at the same time there was a reduction for several quarters according to the other survey, the work force and employment survey. Now both measures have come into line and both surveys say that there has been an increase in the number of people in work, and also a substantial increase in the number of self-employed. Unemployment is falling, and employment and self- employment are rising, so there is no bad news left for the Opposition: the only conclusion to be drawn is that the economy is doing well under the policies pursued by the Government.
Ms Harman: Will the Secretary of State admit that there has indeed been bad news today for the 2,900 Rumbelows staff who have learnt that they are to lose their jobs? What has he to say to them? Will he recognise that there will be no feelgood factor so long as everyone at work in this country feels that his or her job is under threat? Does not the right hon. Gentleman's complacency, which he has demonstrated yet again today, simply remind everyone that the Government are out of touch and do not care?
Mr. Portillo: I have recently read some articles on the national minimum wage written by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) which made me believe that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) had been replaced on the Front Bench. I welcome her back to her place with great relief. However,
Column 125in all the time that she and I have had dealings I have not felt that statistics were her strong point. Today she has demonstrated again that she will grasp at any piece of bad news that she possibly can. Why did she not tell us that B and Q has today announced more than 2,300 more jobs? Why does she talk only about jobs that have been lost and not about jobs that have been created? It is because she is interested only in creating gloom and in scoring political points; she is not interested in the British economy or in the plight of the unemployed. Why does she not take the opportunity to correct the false impression that she gives and acknowledge that when jobs are lost in some companies they are created in others, and that 226, 000 extra jobs have been created over the past year? That is the fact of the matter, and that is what she should be talking about.
Mr. Nigel Evans: Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to read this year's Barclays Business News , which states that last year a net figure of more than 24,000 new small businesses were started? Does he agree with me that-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) would listen, he might hear something worth listening to. Does my right hon. Friend agree that with more than 2.6 million small businesses in this country we need to encourage those enterprises and that the last thing that we want to do is heap non-wage costs on them, as the Labour party would do? Would that not destroy jobs?
Mr. Portillo: My hon. Friend speaks good sense, but I am afraid that he is wasting his time speaking good sense to the Labour party, which is not interested in small businesses, in enterprise culture or in creating jobs in the real world. The Labour party is interested only in propaganda and point scoring. The proof of that, as my hon. Friend says, is the fact that Labour policies for the future are to sign up to the social chapter and destroy jobs in this country, to impose costs on employers and to disregard the warning given by Mercedes-Benz this week that it would have to move jobs out of Europe because of the social chapter. The Labour party wants to move us into the social chapter so that jobs will be destroyed in Britain, too. Several hon. Members rose --
Several hon. Members rose --
Madam Speaker: Order. I ask Back Benchers and Ministers to be brisk in their questions and their responses. Otherwise it is most unfair to Members whose questions are further down the Order Paper. I want to see better progress made in future.
Column 126Employers Forum on Disability about proposals in the Disability Discrimination Bill to exclude firms with fewer than 20 employees from its anti-discrimination provisions.
Mr. Corbett: Have not both the CBI and the Employers Forum on Disability said that it would be wrong to exempt firms with fewer than 20 employees from the measures proposed in the Disability Discrimination Bill? Those organisations include 96 out of every 100 companies and represent 37 out of every 100 people at work. Why is the Minister so far apart from employers, and even further apart from the 6.5 million people with disabilities and their carers?
Mr. Paice: We always listen to what the CBI says, although not to the exclusion of everybody else. The simple fact is that out of the 39 employer associations and organisations which responded, 36 did not oppose the exemption. That is a massive majority, and we should take note of it. It is interesting that of the employers themselves--as opposed to employer associations or organisations--again, the vast majority did not oppose the exemption, which was clearly spelt out in the consultative document.
Mr. Thurnham: Does my hon. Friend agree that at present employers with 20 or fewer employees are excluded from the legislation and that it is therefore perfectly sensible that that should continue? Does he further agree that we should build the new procedures on a sensible and practical basis rather than trying to sweep everything in together?
Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend is right. The present quota system excludes firms with fewer than 20 employees, which is why we used the same figure in the Bill now being discussed in Standing Committee. My hon. Friend also rightly emphasises that we must be concerned about the overall effects of the proposals on small businesses, which do not necessarily have the resources to be able to study, follow and implement all the minutiae of the legislation. That is why Governments of all persuasions have always given favourable encouragement to small businesses.
Rev. Martin Smyth: Does the Minister take some comfort from the fact that the CBI and the Employers Forum on Disability have taken a positive attitude to the proposed legislation which may encourage the Government to go further down the road?
Mr. Paice: We are encouraged by the fact that the vast majority of organisations which responded to the consultative document did so positively in regard to the general approach of our proposals. Obviously there was a vast range of different opinions on different aspects of a comprehensive piece of legislation, and those are currently being addressed in the Standing Committee.
Column 127unemployed men in the Liverpool travel-to- work area who have either (a) been unemployed for more than five years or (b) never been employed at all.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Phillip Oppenheim): In October 1994, there were 5,658 men in the Liverpool travel-to-work area who had been claimant unemployed for five years or more. Information is not available on the employment history of unemployed claimants.
Mrs. Kennedy: That is an example of how figures are used in an attempt to disguise the seriousness of the problem facing Liverpool. The 1991 census return showed that 44 per cent. of men in the Liverpool district had either not worked for five years, or had not worked at all, but all we get from the Government are measures designed to disguise the fact that they massage the figures. When will the Minister bring forward measures to bring jobs to Liverpool? That is what the people whom I represent are interested in.
Mr. Oppenheim: I am interested that the hon. Lady says that the Government massage the figures. I have a press release from the TUC which calls the labour force survey on unemployment figures "fully reliable". However, the LFS unemployment total is almost exactly the same as the claimant count, which blows a hole in the Opposition's claim that the claimant count is fiddled.
Mr. John Marshall: Would my hon. Friend expect employment in Liverpool to benefit from the introduction of a national minimum wage or the adoption of a social chapter? Is it not absurd that those who complain about unemployment would introduce measures which would increase the level of unemployment?
Mr. Oppenheim: During the 1970s, unemployment in Liverpool rose faster than it has under this Government, and unemployment in the constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy) has fallen by 10 per cent in the past year; long-term unemployment is less than half of its 1986 peak, while overall unemployment is more than 34 per cent. down on the 1986 peak. We now have a better record on jobs than the rest of the EC, in contrast to the situation in the 1970s when we were bottom of the EC league table on unemployment.
4. Ms Glenda Jackson: To ask the Secretary of State for Employment when he will publish guidelines on the requirements for behaviour and presentation of individuals seeking work as described in clause 6(3)(b) of the Jobseekers Bill.
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe): We shall in due course bring forward regulations underthis clause. Each case will be decided on its own merits by independent adjudication officers. The Chief Adjudication Officer, in accordance with his statutory duty, will give them advice and guidance on applying the law.
Ms Jackson: Will ex-Ministers, who the Government insist must be allowed to take jobs in companies with which they had dealings while in office, be subject to those behavioural and appearance tests? Was the chief executive of PowerGen, Mr. Wallace, subject to a critical
Column 128appraisal of his appearance before the Government handed him £1.2 million in the form of tax-free share options? Is not that squalid requirement of a mean-spirited and mean-minded little Bill yet a further example of a Government committed to preserving the privileges of the few while destroying the rights of the majority?
Miss Widdecombe: I am sure that the hon. Lady has never sought to be judged on her appearance in any profession that she has undertaken in the past. If people have jobs, at whatever level, they have clearly satisfied their potential employers in terms of appearance, ability and everything else. The hon. Lady's question is therefore wholly inappropriate.
Mrs. Roche: Does the Minister agree that that reply is totally inadequate when one considers training schemes for young people with special needs? The Harington scheme in my constituency, for example, which has been widely praised by many, including Ministers at the Department, has to struggle year in and year out because its budget is not ring fenced by the training and enterprise council. Is it not time that its budget was ring fenced so that it did not have to rely on a surplus from the TEC? Is it not time that the fine words of his Department were matched by action?
Mr. Paice: Madam Speaker, I listened to your exhortation for short answers. Had I taken longer on the first one, I could have told the hon. Lady about everything that we are doing for young people with special needs. I could have told her about all the additional financial help available through a number of routes. The training and enterprise council may provide separate enhancement payments for those with special needs. My Department may provide extra funds, and we do so in many cases. Most important, there are special arrangements to pay for low achievement outcomes, in terms of word power and number power, for special needs trainees. I could have told the hon. Lady about the funding pilot scheme now run by the north London TEC showing that the starts and outcomes--based youth training programme includes a commitment to pay premiums for special needs trainees. A range of measures is in place. The hon. Lady is right to identify a group of trainees who need special help, and they are getting it from the Government.
Mr. Rowe: Does my hon. Friend recognise the considerable contribution of charities in that area of training? Will he look carefully at the arrangements being made between TECs and charities? In the longer term, will he consider splitting the training of those who present particular difficulties from the rest of the responsibilities of TECs, which in many cases would be better employed raising the general prosperity of their area?
Column 129of some sort of standardised contract and we are talking to the TEC national council about how charities can be helped in that respect. However, I am not keen on the idea of separating those with special needs as it is a cross-party belief that overall integration into mainstream training and education is, wherever possible, the best way to help those with special needs.
Mr. Barron: Will not special needs trainees, many of whom need longer periods in training to achieve a successful outcome, be seen as too great a risk--some providers already regard them as such--because the Government's payment by results scheme has forced them to cut corners? When will the Minister take the right action and ensure that those with special needs are treated properly, rather than in the charitable way that he described in answer to an earlier question?
Mr. Paice: We recognise that those with special needs must have particular attention paid to their needs. If the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) had done his homework, he would have discovered that in the training for work programme, which goes national with a payment by results system on 1 April, we have specifically ring fenced the number of starts for those with special needs. We are paying substantial premiums for their achievements so that if they are unable, understandably, to get the higher levels of national vocational qualifications they will receive massive premiums for achieving lower NVQs than would be the case for mainstream trainees. Our action is right and proper. On the youth training programme for special needs trainees in the younger age group, we shall be looking at similar measures as we move that programme towards a starts and outcomes funding system at some stage in the future.
Mr. Barron indicated dissent .
Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he does not know what he is talking about. The simple fact is that we do not have starts and outcomes in the YT scheme, other than in pilot programmes. As I said to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), special arrangements operate in those pilot programmes to protect those with special needs and to provide extra premiums.
Mr. Evennett: Will my hon. Friend confirm that training for young people today, irrespective of whether they have special needs, is better than it has ever been in our history? Does he also agree that it is extremely encouraging to note the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who are in full-time education or training?
Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend properly identifies the tremendous improvement in staying-on rates. That is a tribute to all that the Government have done to improve the range of opportunities for young people. For instance, the development of general national vocational qualifications to provide an alternative vocational route for people to carry on into further education has been a major step forward and a major contributor to the improved staying-on rate. The massive expansion in higher education opportunities is also a great tribute to the Government. We have provided more opportunities for young people than any Government in history, particularly the last Labour Government.
Mr. Miller: When the Minister met representatives of my union-- Manufacturing Science Finance, or MSF--just before Christmas, he gave no comfort to the workers at G.S. Scott who were dismissed following attempts to gain union recognition when the vast majority of workers in that small company wanted that recognition. Is that not yet another example of the Government attempting to protect the interests of the privileged? Does the Minister accept that in this day and age if the majority of workers want union recognition it should be given by the employer?
Mr. Oppenheim: There is a fundamental difference between the right to belong to a trade union and the right not to be discriminated against for belonging to a trade union. There is redress-- [Interruption.] The union should have advised its members to go to an industrial tribunal, where they would gained some redress legally. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should address his question to the union leader who failed to give that advice, because redress is available. There is a difference between the right to belong to a trade union and politicians telling employers that they should deal with unions rather than dealing directly with employees, which they prefer to do. That voluntarist approach of allowing employers to make the choice does not seem to be causing any problems with the Opposition spokeswoman, as she has just sent her child to a school which has refused to recognise a trade union. [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker: Order. Sit down. That is a total abuse of Question Time. I have asked not only for questions and answers to be brief, but that they should be to the point and deal with the substantive question on the Order Paper.
Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I have dealt with the matter and reprimanded the Minister, as well as Back Benchers who take a long time to ask their questions. It is absolutely essential that Ministers should answer the questions that are on the Order Paper or are asked as supplementaries and not to try to sidestep those questions by introducing irrelevant material.
Column 131because of the high cost of the social chapter? Given that the TUC seems to believe in the social chapter, is it perhaps left in something of a dilemma?
Mr. Oppenheim rose --
Mr. Oppenheim: It is not only Mercedes; Sabena also wants to move workers out of Belgium because of the high levels of labour regulation. The sooner that our partners in the European Union realise that the more one adds to employers' costs, the more one will cost employees their jobs, the better the job prospects of people in Europe will be.
7. Mrs. Ewing: To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what recent discussions he has had with his European counterparts on the European Commission's Green Paper on European social policy options for the Union; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Portillo: The Council of Ministers discussed the Commission's White Paper on European social policy on 6 December. I argued that the Social Affairs Council should concentrate its efforts in future on a positive agenda designed to help member states in their fight against unemployment, rather than on unnecessary and potentially damaging employment legislation.
Mrs. Ewing: Given that the Government's papers change colour as often as their policy on Europe, does the Minister recognise that the veto that he used at the Council in December has left the UK very isolated in various areas of important legislation? Is it not a fallacy on his part to peddle the myth that the competitiveness of other countries is being damaged because of regulations? The reality is that the competitiveness of those countries is much greater than that of the UK.
Mr. Portillo: I am surprised that the hon. Lady chooses to make that argument in the week when the head of Mercedes-Benz has made the point that he may have to pull out of Germany precisely as a result of the high social costs that are imposed by the social chapter. The hon. Lady is quite wrong to think that the United Kingdom is isolated. The United Kingdom is following policies that are now recognised as being in the main stream around the world. In Korea, in Japan, in the United States, in South America and in Australia, Governments are following policies directed at making their economies more competitive. Specifically, they are putting the emphasis on keeping the burden of costs on employers light. This is a world -investing, world-trading and world-conscious country, and we shall not be browbeaten into imposing costs on our employers that would make us uncompetitive in that world.
Mr. Peter Bottomley: Is not most of European social policy supposed to be built around the protection of people's health and safety at work? Is it not a paradox that we have the best health and safety record in Europe, and one that builds on a tripartite voluntary system which requires no imposition from Brussels?
Column 132with my hon. Friend that the social policies of the European Community are built on health and safety matters. The social chapter is an ambitious attempt to build a social dimension into Europe--that is, to impose very high costs on employers for Governments to develop social policies that they cannot afford and to impose them on employers, and to achieve that by a massive extension of qualified majority voting. Only when they have not been able to achieve that by the social chapter, because of Britain's opt-out, have they resorted to health and safety chapter headings. In at least one case, I thought it to be so wholly inappropriate that I am contesting it in the European Court.
Ms Harman: Given the concern expressed by the President of the Board of Trade about the threat to employment growth caused by the divisions in the Government over the European single currency, will the Employment Secretary tell the House whether he continues to believe what he said on GMTV last year--that he does not want a single currency and that the 1999 timetable is unrealistic? Is that still his opinion, or does he agree with the Chancellor, who said last Thursday that Britain might have a single currency by 1999?
Mr. Portillo: I can tell the hon. Lady that that was not discussed at the meeting of European Ministers which was referred to in Question 7. The Prime Minister has made it perfectly clear that, if a single currency is recommended in 1996 or 1997, the United Kingdom will not be part of it and we will not make a recommendation about it to Parliament. I believe that people around the world are concerned about Britain's membership of a single European market, and that is not in doubt.
8. Mr. Riddick: To ask the Secretary of State for Employment on what occasions discussions have taken place between European Employment Ministers on the effects of a minimum wage (a) on young workers and (b) on the long-term unemployed.
Mr. Riddick: Is my hon. Friend aware of a report, commissioned by the French Government, which found that the minimum wage in France contributed significantly to the much higher levels of unemployment among young people and the long-term unemployed? Does he agree that the social chapter, while equally well meaning, could have the same bad effect on job prospects? Should he not encourage our European partners--all 11 of them-- to stage a mass opt-out from the social chapter and thereby create more jobs across Europe?
Mr. Oppenheim: My hon. Friend is quite right. It is interesting that two European countries--France and Spain--which have a minimum wage of the type that Labour proposes for Britain have youth unemployment levels which are two and three times that of the United Kingdom.
I find it amazing that the Opposition are trumpeting the fact that they are launching a campaign on the minimum wage, yet Opposition Members cannot come to the House and tell us at what level they would introduce the
Column 133minimum wage and what they would do about differentials. I urge the relevant Opposition spokesman to tell the House exactly what Labour's policy is.
Mrs. Anne Campbell: What is the Minister prepared to do for my constituent: a 50-year-old divorced woman who is trying to find work? She is not able to take up work because the only jobs that she can find are low paid and part time and if she accepts them she is then disqualified from benefit and cannot afford to keep herself. What will the Minister do for people in those circumstances?
Mr. Oppenheim: One of the schemes that we have to help such people is the back-to-work bonus. [Interruption.] Opposition Members may deride that, but it is designed to help such people. Obviously, Opposition Members are not interested in those practical measures. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) also ignores the fact that the number of full- time jobs has increased significantly in the past year, in contrast to what is happening elsewhere in Europe.
Sir Michael Neubert: When considering the interests of young people and others, is it not instructive to draw on our experience of the minimum wage in the United Kingdom? Is it not the case that, in those industries which were formerly covered by wages councils, not only have average earnings been sustained and even improved but the number of people employed has increased?
Mr. Oppenheim: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures clearly show that employees who were covered by wages councils have seen faster wage rises than has the work force as a whole. They are the facts and if the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) cares to deny them, he will have to produce other facts to counter them.
Mr. McCartney: Will the Minister accept that we are the only country in Europe which does not guarantee a minimum wage? This is the only Government in Europe who give pay jackpots to the boardroom while there is low pay in the workplace. Is it not the case that, under the jobseeker's agreement, the Government will force people to take employment for £1 per hour or lose their right to benefit?
Mr. Oppenheim: The hon. Gentleman should check his facts because only half the European Community countries have statutory national minimum wages. If the jobseeker's allowance is such an evil, why does his party not pledge itself to abolish it when it is in government? Let us not have any nonsense about the Opposition not wanting to give policy pledges, because they have just given such a pledge for a £75 back-to-work bonus. If the
Column 134JSA is such an evil, I invite the hon. Gentleman to commit himself here and now to abolish it if his party returns to power after the next election.
Mr. Ian Bruce: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the companies which are actually paying below the £4 level per hour are often those with marginal businesses such as rural sub-post offices and corner shops? Does he believe that those businesses are more likely to stay in business with a minimum wage of more than £4 a hour, or go out of business and destroy even more jobs?
Mr. Oppenheim: The figures clearly show that only four in 1,000 adult full-time workers earn less than £2.60 and that 60 per cent. earn more than £5.30 a hour. It is also interesting that a single man in the bottom 10 per cent. of earnings would have seen his take-home pay increase by more than 23 per cent. since 1979, whereas the same person would have experienced a fall of 1 per cent. between 1974 and 1979. The only time Britain was a low-paid, skivvy economy was not under the Conservative Government, but under the Labour Government.
9. Mr. Brandreth: To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what is his assessment of the impact on inward investment of the United Kingdom's recent industrial relations record; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Portillo: The turnround in industrial relations records since 1979 has contributed to our remarkable record in attracting inward investment, which has made the United Kingdom the number one location in Europe.