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8.21 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I marvel that the Conservative party can even stage a debate on unemployment, and I marvel that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) felt it possible to talk about the need to protect jobs. The Conservative party, when it was last in office, destroyed indigenous manufacturing industry in Britain: it destroyed the steel industry; it destroyed the motor car industry; it destroyed the shipbuilding industry; and it destroyed the extractive industries. The Conservatives left a wasteland that the present Government had to clear up and then build on.

In my constituency, we had—I went to see Margaret Thatcher about it when it was in danger, to no avail—an electronics factory that manufactured multi-layer boards. That went under, and it is now a blood transfusion centre. That is one of the legacies of the Conservative party in the Gorton constituency of Manchester. It created a wasteland in which the Gorton constituency was No. 1 in Great Britain for long-term unemployment and No. 1 in England for youth unemployment. We are still above the national average, but the situation in my constituency has been transformed since the Labour Government came to office.

How has the situation been transformed? One of the first things that the Government did when they came to office was to sign up to the social chapter, which the Conservative party said would be ruinous to the country. When we introduced the new deal, the Tory party voted against it in the House. We financed the start of the new deal by the windfall tax, and both the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats voted against the windfall tax when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister introduced it.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) has said that it would be dangerous to increase the national minimum wage at this point. In fact, the national minimum wage is being increased at this point. When our Government, when they first came to office, decided to introduce the national minimum wage, the Conservative party, with its spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), said that introducing a minimum wage would increase unemployment. In fact, the national minimum wage, rising regularly and periodically as a result of the Government’s decisions, has not only reduced unemployment, but given workers a self-respect that they did not have before.

I had a constituent who, during the period of Conservative Government, came to tell me that his employer—he was a security guard—had increased his working hours from 64 hours to 72 hours alternating, reduced his hourly wage and, what is more, would not pay him overtime. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Employment in the Conservative Government asking
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her what my constituent could do in those fraught circumstances. She very kindly wrote back to me and said that it was open to him to resign his job. He would, of course, have lost any redundancy benefits, if he had done so. That would not be possible now. Under the social chapter, that man could not be forced to work those hours, and his pay would be protected against the most rapacious employer under the national minimum wage. The present Government have not simply reduced unemployment and increased employment availability to the highest level that this country has ever known, but made it impossible for workers to be treated like serfs, as they were under the Conservative Government.

The projects continue. Even over the past month, two new projects have opened in my constituency, both as a result of Government policies. We have the new east Manchester construction centre, in which people, who include not only young people but men and women, are being trained in construction skills such as kitchen and bathroom fitting, plastering, carpentry and joining, and general construction operations. The centre is funded largely by the Government through the Northwest Development Agency, the new deal for communities and the learning and skills council.

The head of Manchester college, which is involved in the project, made a speech at the opening, which I attended, in which he said that before 1997 the only money that his college was given for job creation projects was £1 million to demolish a building. Now it has been given £50 million for employment projects. Those employment projects are not simply reducing unemployment in the Gorton constituency, but giving people skills, so that they can get better jobs and not be ground down and obliged to take the only job available.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a graduation ceremony in Gorton monastery, about which I spoke the other day, of people about to be employed in the huge new Tesco that is to open in Gorton later this month. They had an eight-week training period—130 people deliberately and specifically chosen by Tesco in co-operation with Jobcentre Plus, the learning and skills council and Sure Start. I do not know how the Tory party has the nerve to talk about child poverty when it opposed and jeered at Sure Start, which is one of the greatest of a series of projects in my constituency. The Tesco project is exactly what we want in this country today—private enterprise joining with Government and public agencies, including the excellent Manchester city council, in order to provide people with jobs.

When I attended an address at the graduation ceremony for Tesco, I was moved by the way in which people reacted to the opportunities that they have been given. A middle-aged woman said that she had her self-respect back again. That kind of thing is happening only because we have a Labour Government who are carrying out policies based on not some kind of blanket funding, but a one-to-one project. That is the merit of Jobcentre Plus, the new deal and the kind of projects that I have been talking about.

Those are not the only projects that are proceeding. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), came to Gorton a few months ago to deal with bringing offenders back into paid employment, which is again a Government project joining with private agencies. That is the kind of thing that the Government are doing.

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I am proud of this Labour Government. I am well aware that a great deal more needs to be done. In my constituency, we are part of east Manchester regeneration, which would not be possible without the Labour Government and Manchester city council. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came to my constituency a couple of weeks ago and opened a £47 million high school that is better than anything in Europe. That was only possible because of Labour Government policies, and, of course, it provided a huge amount of employment for local workers.

The Government have a record that will stand up against anything that I have experienced in my years in the House of Commons. Yes, there is a lot more to be done, and yes, of course, there is huge concern about how the current global crisis will affect employment. I was interested to listen to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell offering a solution to the global crisis—it was a bit different from the solution offered by the shadow Chancellor yesterday, but no doubt when the Leader of the Opposition speaks tomorrow he will offer yet a third solution to the global crisis.

What we have in this country today is far from perfection, but it is very, very much better than anything that my constituents have experienced since I was a Minister and did such good things for them. I do not criticise the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell—he has a job to do and he did it quite nicely—but it is just that it was totally incredible.

8.32 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) began his speech by marvelling, so let me marvel just a little at his selective memory. In 1982, following the death of Jocelyn Cadbury, I fought the Birmingham, Northfield by-election. There was a 0.02 per cent. swing against the Conservative party, the smallest swing ever recorded, and I lost the seat by 289 votes. We were accused of cutting jobs at the Austin factory in Longbridge. Employment had gone down, I think I am right in saying, from 15,000 to 9,000, and we were told that we had cut those jobs. The choice was not between 15,000 and 9,000, but between 9,000 and none. Under this Government, the automotive industry in Britain has been decimated.

I happened to take a train through the Northfield site only last week and 98 per cent. of it has been razed to the ground. That is what the Government have done to manufacturing industry, so let us not lay the blame just on the previous Conservative Government. The fact is that the game has changed and the game is changing now.

Mr. Flello: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gale: I do not have time.

On “BBC News” tonight it was said that retail and manufacturing had fallen and the chambers of commerce said clearly that jobs and business were suffering badly in the real economy. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), to the Dispatch
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Box. It is good to see a Kentish Member on the Treasury Bench. In a couple of years he will be on the Opposition Benches, or not here at all. As the Fisheries Minister he was courteous to our fishermen, and I am grateful to him for that. I know that in his present role he will be courteous to the unemployed, and I fear that before long there will be more unemployed than there are fish around the Kentish coastline.

As the Minister knows, Thanet has suffered historically from the highest levels of unemployment and social deprivation in the south-east—among the highest levels in the country. The reasons are not hard to find. Thanet has suffered from an enormous amount of immigration. During the 1980s, the immigration came from around the United Kingdom in what was known as the “dole on sea” syndrome: the unemployed came to the seaside to live on the dole in hotels and guest houses, and Thanet took more than its fair share. That contributed to its unemployed base. The Conservative Government of the time got to grips with that issue, but in 1997 the wave of immigration and asylum seekers began, and that pushed up the figures again. In common with Dover, also on the south coast, Thanet took more than its fair share.

Throughout the 25-year period, Thanet has also been the dumping ground for cared-for children from London boroughs and, shamefully, from some of the home counties as well. Those young people have grown up. Very many of them have been damaged and found it extremely hard to find employment of any kind, so we are used to unemployment in Thanet. However, the county council and Thanet district council have made a Herculean effort to attract inward investment, to promote skills training and to enhance employment opportunities in general and in Thanet in particular.

Thanet college is seeking to relocate to provide training in the skills that the sorts of businesses that we want to attract will require. Thanet council has promoted Thanet Earth, probably the most impressive glasshouse horticultural development in the whole of Europe. It is absolutely vast and its hydroponic techniques are staggering. It is highly environmentally sensitive and represents tomorrow’s agriculture. It will employ huge numbers of people, and we want those people to be locally employed. However, the other thing that has impacted on us has been the importation of labour—particularly from the new Europe, but also from aspirant countries on the fringe of Europe.

Yes, agriculture does need imported labour; on that we take issue with current Government policy because, as the Minister knows, agriculture in Kent relies heavily on casual student labour for the picking of fruit. Historically, the hop pickers from east London did the job, but now students come from all over Europe to pick our top fruit and soft fruit—and we need them. However, we also need jobs for local people. The recovery in east Kent has been extremely fragile and what we are seeing now, in the current economic climate, is the shattering of that recovery. It is no good those on the Government Benches saying that we Conservatives are talking the economy down—the economy is down. We are in recession. If the Government choose to be in denial, so be it, but we know that out there in the real economy businesses are closing, shops are closing and people are losing jobs.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, wanted me to be brief, and I will be. I want to make two specific pleas to the Minister and two observations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) on
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the Conservative Front Bench. I understand that there is a proposal to close the jobcentre in Whitstable, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I am concerned about that because the unemployed people involved—there are 220 at the moment, and the figure is rising daily—would have to come to the Herne Bay jobcentre in my constituency for the assistance that they need. On my estimate, were the closure to happen, there would be 500 extra journeys a month, which I do not consider to be environmentally friendly. It would also impact on staff and the services available to my constituents who use the Herne Bay centre.

I mention the issue not because I believe that the area jobcentre manager is not doing her job well; I am sure that she is—she is trying to maximise her resources. I mention it because I do not believe that now, as we go into a recession with unemployment rising daily, is the moment when this or any other Government should close jobcentres. Those centres will be needed more and more for the foreseeable future. I understand from other colleagues that similar proposals are being made around the country. I mention this now because I believe that the Minister needs to address it immediately in his new role. The game has changed; the economy has changed. Plans that were being laid nine months ago are no longer relevant. We have to look at the situation again.

Another issue that I wish to raise has a direct impact not on today’s employment but on tomorrow’s employment and the circumstances that we hope to face when, as we will, we come out of this recession—empty property rates. My political colleague who represents the Conservative interest in South Thanet, Mrs. Laura Sandys, has blazed a trail in east Kent on this issue, working with the chambers of commerce. I freely concede that she was ahead of me, but she has been ahead of many Members on both sides of the House, in recognising the damage that is being done by Government legislation that imposes full business rates on empty properties after six months. House building has virtually come to a grinding halt, with all the jobs that have gone with that. The same applies to the building of industrial properties. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton talked about investment in new industrial premises and said that under a previous Government money was offered to pull those premises down. Premises are being pulled down as I speak so that the owners of those empty properties do not have to pay business rates. If we continue down this road, when we come out of recession we will not have the properties or premises that we need. That must be changed, and Ministers have the power to act under existing legislation at the stroke of a pen. This legislation was designed, or dreamed up, for circumstances that existed three years ago but do not exist today. We must change it today, because tomorrow will be too late—it is already too late for buildings in the Medway towns that have already been demolished.

My final point concerns the impact that the current economic climate is having on the elderly. When we think about unemployment, we tend to think of young people; indeed, there are far too many unemployed young people. However, today I took a call from an elderly, dignified lady whose husband is too frightened to retire, although he is well over retirement age. After a long and successful working life, that man, fearing for his savings, his bank balance, his pension funds and his modest investments, is stacking tins in a supermarket at
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night to ensure that his wife does not go hungry. That is the reality of the economic situation that our constituents face.

8.42 pm

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): The Conservatives are not brave about many things, but they are certainly brave in tabling today’s motion on unemployment in the United Kingdom. They are surely the experts on unemployment, for they gave unemployment to every region, every community and every sector. In Edinburgh, South, their political heartlessness combined with their economic incompetence to leave a legacy of more than 2,000 people on the dole in 1997. That is the golden legacy that they hark back to. Now, in the seat of Edinburgh, South, within large boundaries, unemployment stands at 667—it has fallen by more than two thirds. That means that 1,372 fewer people are now worried about applying for jobs, seeking employment and where they will get the money that they need for themselves and their children.

In the past year alone, unemployment has fallen by 8.3 per cent. and more than 333,000 people have entered work. That has given the UK an all-time record employment figure of 29.5 million. Of course, none of this happened by chance—it happened by choice when the Government chose to levy £5 billion as a windfall tax on the excessive profits of the utilities to fund the new deal. Instead of 3 million languishing on the dole, unemployment recently fell to its lowest level since 1975. Our choice was to bring long-term unemployment to its lowest for 30 years. The Tory choice would have been no windfall tax, no new deal and not even a minimum wage to stop exploitative employers. But then, as the shadow Chancellor made clear on 17 September,

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): He never said that.

Nigel Griffiths: He certainly did say that.

Those are their values, not ours. It was their choice, not ours. It was their 3 million on the dole. Our choice was to help to create 3 million more jobs than there were in 1997, putting more people in work than at any time in our history. It was this Government’s choice to give the UK one of the highest employment rates of any advanced manufacturing country—it is higher today than that of France, Italy, Germany, Japan or even the United States of America. So far this year, every weekday, 10,000 new vacancies have been posted. With 600,000 vacancies, 90 per cent. of those losing their jobs and seeking another one find work within a year, while 80 per cent. find one within six months.

This motion was tabled by the party that regrets rien and labels as unemployed parents with very young children, the most severely disabled people, carers of disabled children and frail elderly people and the bereaved. Doubtless, the Opposition think that they should pick up their spirits and get on their bikes. Those are the very people—the disabled and others—that the Opposition pretended to care about in their welfare reform proposals of 27 May, when the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) claimed that they would be
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exempt. But now, just four months later, here in the House, the Opposition have counted them in, as we knew they always would.

The task of Government is to tap into the talents of every citizen. That is what the record number of university and college places is about, and it is why we have more than tripled the numbers of apprenticeships. Let us remember that other Tory legacy: 75,000 apprenticeships in 1996-97. Now there are 255,000, with 70,000 alone in manufacturing. But it does not stop there. This Government are committed to ensuring that every 17 and 18-year-old has an apprenticeship, a college education or skilled schooling to allow them to maximise their potential. And it does not stop at that either. We are committed to the £1 billion Train to Gain programme, which will allow businesses to invest in the training and retraining of their work force to meet the skills challenges all businesses face.

There must be no return to the mass unemployment, despair and poverty that ravaged many communities in the 1980s and 1990s. For this country to ride out these economic storms, and for us to prosper in the decades to come, we must tap into the talents of every person in every part of this country. As a nation, we cannot afford to neglect the talents of anyone, regardless of race, creed, ability or disability. That is the path we must choose.

8.48 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I will be as brief as I can. I am very concerned about unemployment, especially in Harwich and Clacton in my constituency. In August, male unemployment stood at about 6 per cent. and it is rising. Even before the full impact of the debt-fuelled recession is felt, unemployment in my constituency is high. I am concerned about unemployment and its grim consequences for my constituents.

Like many seaside towns, Clacton, Walton-on-the-Naze and Harwich have all suffered economically in recent years, and we have yet to see much of a vision on how to regenerate such resorts. Unemployment nationally is rising by something like 1,000 a day, and many of those folks are my constituents. Indeed, unemployment in Clacton could be increased by 50 in the next few weeks, by the Government’s decision to close the Revenue and Customs office. The raw data on unemployment hide other facts that should concern us. Almost one in five people of working age are classed as economically inactive. Despite all the Government’s boastful claims, the rate of economic activity today is virtually unchanged from what it was a decade ago.

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