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I am concerned that many of those who are not formally regarded as unemployed are being let down. They are not being helped back into work and, with a looming debt-created recession, they will find it even harder. I am especially concerned about long-term youth unemployment in Clacton. Far too many young folk in Clacton are not in employment, education or training and, to be frank, the new deal does not really do much for them. Rather than recognising the problem, the Government are, I fear, just cooking the statistics. Young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance for six months, for example, are automatically referred on to the new
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deal. If they fail to get a job on the new deal, they can be moved off jobseeker’s allowance, on to the so-called training allowance. They disappear from the official statistics, but believe me, they do not go away—they are there in Clacton. I want to know what the Government will do to help.

I am concerned about how rising unemployment will affect those on incapacity benefit. Some 2.6 million people are claiming incapacity benefit, which is three times more than the number on jobseeker’s allowance. I fear that incapacity benefit could end up being used as a way of trying to force unemployed people off jobseeker’s allowance—indeed, some say that that is already the case—which could make it much tougher for those who genuinely need incapacity benefit to receive it. If incapacity benefit becomes a substitute system of jobseeker’s allowance, that will not help anyone.

Finally, some eight out of 10 jobs created have gone to immigrant workers. I have always strongly disapproved of the phrase “British jobs for British workers”. It is a phrase that the Prime Minister used, which was extremely ill judged. The phrase had some unsavoury tones of economic nationalism and, as a free-market liberal, I found it offensive. The phrase is one that I would have expected to hear in the 1930s, not in Britain today. However, the new jobs created have disproportionately tended to go to people who were not born in the UK. I suspect that that is a fairly damning verdict on the Government’s education policy. They have simply failed to ensure that we have an education system that delivers the level of skills needed.

The Government have had a decade of extraordinary growth. The sun has shone. However, they have failed to reform welfare to help people into work. They have failed to listen even to voices on their side, such as that of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and to implement some of the proposals that he has made over the years. The Government have failed to produce an education system capable of providing people with the necessary skills to take the jobs that are available. With the Government having failed while the sun was shining, to coin a phrase, we now face a serious problem of unemployment, as the economy goes from boom into bust.

The tone of Labour Members in this debate has all too often been one of indignant outrage that the Conservative party should dare even to talk about unemployment. Their indignant outrage is matched only by their references to the past—to history. That shows that after a decade of being in government, Labour Members are out of touch. The rising tide of unemployment that we now face has increased and will increase on their watch.

8.53 pm

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I once had the great privilege of working for a very clever psychiatrist, who told me never to listen to what anybody says, but always to watch behaviour. I want to deal with the behaviour of the Conservatives when they were in power.

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the Conservatives on having the audacity to call a debate on unemployment, particularly this week, which has seen the anniversary, on 5 October, of the Jarrow march, when 200 men walked from Jarrow for 22 days. They
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collected 12,000 signatures to a petition, which was unprecedented, to campaign about unemployment. The anniversary was this week.

I want to talk about my personal experiences of unemployment from when the Conservative party was in power. I am a 55-year-old—I know that I look a lot younger—and I had friends who left school in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I had not one friend who left school who did not have a job. People left at 15 and went into labouring. Others left at 16 and went into apprenticeships. People such as myself left at 17 or 18 and went into further education. I remember this as a rite of passage. We left school and were part of society. We felt that we had status and standing, and we received a pay packet or a loan. There was something very special about it. It was our contribution to society, and it was about saying that we had a role in society.

In fairness to the Conservatives, every Government, Tory or Labour, since the late ’20s and early ’30s have been committed to full employment. As Harold Wilson once said, the Labour party is a campaign against poverty, or it is nothing. Tory MPs from Macmillan through to Ted Heath were committed to full employment, but that changed under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. It is naive for the Conservatives to pretend that they have changed, because many of them are still part of the No Turning Back group. They still believe in the basic Thatcherite philosophies that we had to suffer in the working class communities in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We had a Thatcherite Government who were prepared to indulge in a financial experiment that had an impact on individuals, their families and their communities.

Unemployment in parts of my constituency rose to 26 per cent. all the way through that time. I have seen the lump in operation—it was something that my granddad had told me about. For those who do not know, when the Tories were in power, men—there could be up to 25 of them—had to assemble at a pre-determined place and a builder would come along and pick five of them. He would take them away to a building site for a day, without any training, health and safety or access to a trade union. At the end of the 12-hour day, he would put £10 in their hands. This is what happened. Those unemployed men then had to go through exactly the same process the following day. It was demeaning and humiliating, and it was meant to be.

The film “The Full Monty” brilliantly characterised what was happening in working class communities at the time. The leading character, played by Robert Carlyle, was a man who had to steal lead so that he could take his child to the football on a Saturday. Then there was the manager who left his house every single day at the same time, dressed for work and carrying his briefcase, because he was too ashamed to tell his wife that he had been made redundant. A third character was a man who could not perform in the bedroom because the Tories were not allowing him to perform in the workplace. His dignity and his status had been taken away from him. The fourth senior character in the film was a man who tried to kill himself, because that was the logic of Thatcher’s view that “there is no alternative”. He took that logic to its natural conclusion. If that was what life was like on the dole, with no status, no standing and no ability to provide for his family, he did not want anything to do with it.

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I worked as part of a primary care psychiatric team in my constituency. I watched patients coming to the health centre and being prescribed anti-depressants and Valium. If they had been prescribed a job, they would not have had to go anywhere near that health centre.

Mr. Bone: I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman’s powerful speech, but I would like to bring us back to the 21st century. Is he not at all concerned that unemployment in his constituency has gone up by 8 per cent. over the past year?

Mr. Devine: I will deal with the current unemployment levels in my constituency at the end of my contribution.

Working as part of the primary care psychiatric team, I used to make appointments at 9 o’clock in the morning for such individuals. The reason was that the appointment was the only thing that they had to get up for—the only thing to get dressed and washed for, and to get out of their beds for. There was an appalling impact on the community in which I was born and brought up. We saw the destruction of individuals and their families and the break-up of marriages. That was the reality in such communities, and in the community that I represent.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the real difference between then and now—it is right to look back—is that what happened in his constituency, as in mine, was the direct result of Government policy, whereas what is happening today is outside the Government’s control?

Mr. Devine: I was about to come to that point.

We should remember this financial experiment and its consequences. We were told that mass unemployment was an accident of central policy. But mass unemployment was the central part of the strategy of that policy. We know that because we can remember Tory Ministers saying at the time, “High unemployment is a price worth paying,” and, “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working.” In my constituency, it certainly hurt. I find the Conservative party’s crocodile tears about the unemployed hard to take. I believe in what my psychiatrist told me: “Never listen to what somebody tells you. Watch behaviour.” When the Conservatives were in power, their behaviour destroyed my community and many others like it.

On the question asked by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), I am delighted to tell the House that unemployment in my constituency today is at 2.4 per cent. That is down from 20 per cent., and 26 per cent. in parts. It is no accident that unemployment is down to that level. It is the result of the Labour Government’s calculated strategy, to which reference has been made. I am a socialist, passionate about the Labour Government, and very proud of them. The aim and objective to create full employment, as we said 11 years ago, has been achieved. Yes, we have difficulties, which, in the main, are outwith our control. But we should ensure that the Conservatives never get their hands on the levers of power again, because we remember exactly what they did.

9.2 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), whose contribution was impassioned and
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at times entertaining. I must take issue, however, with his claim that those on the Government Benches have a monopoly of concern and interest in unemployment. We would take that claim more seriously were any of them willing to engage with the current circumstances.

I congratulate those on my Front Bench on securing this debate at a time when the international economy and financial system is undergoing a trauma that none of us has seen before in our lifetimes. As someone described it to me last night, the pieces have been thrown up in the air, and we do not know whether they will fall down in the same place—they will probably not—and how they will fall down. We do know, however, that real economic pain is starting to be felt.

I think that the hon. Member for Livingston—forgive me if it was not him—called out “Rubbish” when my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) talked about some of the economic difficulties being felt in his constituency. However, that is the reality. If we talk to any of the major recruitment agencies—perhaps some Government Members will have the opportunity to do so in the next 18 months—they will tell us that there is a freezing-up of recruitment in certain important sectors in our economy. This is not just a banking and financial crisis. The real economy is starting to slow down, and a real economic chill is starting to set in.

I want to focus on an issue that has been mentioned in passing by several hon. Members—youth unemployment, in which I take a close interest. Ministers have claimed repeatedly at different times in recent years that long-term youth unemployment has been virtually eradicated or wiped out. Unfortunately, the statistics simply do not back that up. Those who do not believe the statistics should go down to any town centre in the middle of a working day. In most constituencies, they will see large numbers of young people doing nothing with their lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) hit the nail on the head when he said that although we had experienced 10 years of good times—or relatively good times—involving sustained economic growth, the operation of a flexible labour market and the falling of the headline unemployment rate, during those good times there had been no success in tackling the hard core of youth unemployment. In fact, it has become worse. That represents a major stain on the reputation of the Government who were elected in 1997. I seem to remember from their election campaign that one of their five key pledges was to bring down youth unemployment, but what has actually happened is that youth unemployment has increased.

In 1997, the Prime Minister—with, no doubt, his famous moral compass buzzing—described youth unemployment as a “human tragedy”, as “sickening” and as “an economic disaster”. Those are the terms on which we should hold the Government to account. At the time, the Prime Minister asked

We can ask exactly the same question here in 2008. The Prime Minister said at the time that

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and that it would not be an option. Well, it is, actually, for too many young people; for 1.2 million young people, staying home or hanging out on the streets is an option.

That is the scandal of youth unemployment that is on the Government’s charge sheet. At a time of sustained economic growth with, as near as dammit, full employment in many parts of the country, when the cohort of 16 to 24-year-olds is shrinking slightly as a proportion of the overall population, why should there be a 70,000 increase in the number of people of that age who are not in education, employment or training? My constituency is in Wales, and in Wales the position is even worse. Nearly 20 per cent. of 19 to 24-year-olds are doing nothing constructive with their lives. Research commissioned by the Prince’s Trust suggests that youth unemployment is costing the country £3.6 billion a year.

What has let the Government off the hook over the past 10 years is the fact that we have benefited from a large influx of migrant workers. I for one do not consider it a negative development that people have come into our country with skills, drive and entrepreneurial initiative—it is a good thing that they have come into this country—but it has let the Government off the hook. They have not seriously had to tackle the long-term problem of youth unemployment.. The fact that 1.2 million young people are not in work has not caused severe economic problems, because the gaps in the labour market have been filled by migrant workers.

Reference was made earlier to the role of Jobcentre Plus offices. I for one have spent significant amounts of time with my two local offices. I have huge admiration for the staff, who are trying to do an excellent job, but they are very clear about what they can and cannot do—about what they are cut out to do and what they are not cut out to do. During my discussions with them, they have made clear that they are simply not in a position to address the multiple and complex needs of many newly unemployed young people who do not have the basic life skills and basic literacy to perform even very basic jobs in the modern labour market.

During the summer recess, I spent some time with my local Prince’s Trust organisation. It has a fantastic training centre at Pembroke Dock. Although it is in the neighbouring constituency of Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire, a significant part of the client base comes from my constituency. I participated in CV-writing workshops, and in all sorts of other activities. That is an example of a third sector organisation that is trying hard to rescue a lost generation of young people and give them back some self-esteem and direction in their lives, or at least to return them to the lowest rungs of the ladder, which will hopefully lead to sustained employment in due course.

I make the following appeal to the Government. At a time when businesses are starting to suffer, we should also remember that the charitable sector is starting to suffer as a direct result of the economic downturn, and there are organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and Fairbridge that provide strategic work in this area. A recent survey—it was published today, I think—by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations pointed out that there has been a 72 per cent. increase in demand for charities’ services, that 88 per cent. of chief executives of charities expect their income to fall as individual and corporate donations decrease, and that
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30 per cent. of charities say they have been forced to make redundancies. I know the Government recognise the role the voluntary or third sector plays in working in conjunction with the private and public sectors to tackle long-term—and in particular youth—unemployment, and I appeal to them to recognise the particular pressures it might be facing at this time.

9.10 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) because I do not accept that there is the doom and gloom he talks about in Wales, but I do remember recent history when there was real doom and gloom in my constituency. For the record, benefit claims have dropped by, I think, about 70 per cent. in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That is a success in the last 10 years that he failed to mention.

Mr. Crabb: No one is questioning the headline unemployment figures; there is no point in trying to score points on that. The point I was trying to make is that, underlying those headline figures, are deeply entrenched problems around long-term and, in particular youth, unemployment. That the hon. Gentleman responds by simply referring to the headline figures shows that he has not been listening and that he understands nothing about the problem we are discussing.

Albert Owen: With respect, before being elected to the House, I was a manager in a centre for the unemployed in Anglesey, and I dealt very much at the front line with youth employment—and with many issues such as lone parents. The centre I managed offered advice, training and support for the unwaged, so I think I do have a bit of experience in this field, and I wish to develop an argument that will defend what I have to say.

The centre was established in an area of very high unemployment in the 1980s, or re-established I should say, because the centre for the unemployed was originally established in the 1930s, and the sad fact is that unemployment in the 1980s under the Conservative Government mirrored that of the inter-war years of the 1930s, when we had mass male unemployment. In the 1980s, we had male unemployment in my constituency—I hope the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is listening now—of 25 per cent. A quarter of the male population was unemployed.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con) rose—

Albert Owen: I will not give way at present, as the hon. Gentleman has just come in and we are nearing the end of our debate.

The Conservative legacy in my constituency was threefold: mass redundancies, mass unemployment and mass depopulation. My constituency of Ynys Môn or Anglesey was the only county in England and Wales that in two successive censuses—those of the ’80s and ’90s—saw a decline in its population. That decline was caused by high unemployment, when young people and their families had to leave the area to find employment elsewhere. That is the legacy of the Tory years of the ’80s and ’90s.

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