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So let me give the answer to the question about what the Conservatives did for Anglesey or Ynys Môn: they
gave us two decades of mass unemployment, decline and stagnation, and two recessionsdeep recessions that bit very hard and hurt the people I was helping out in my previous job. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) mentioned the famous, or infamous, comment by Lord Lamontand we know who was advising him at the timethat unemployment was a price worth paying. My constituents, young and old, actually paid that price over the two decades of the 80s and 90s.
The story of the last 10 years is rather different. Unemploymentboth headline and realis down considerably. Employment levels are up by some 7 per cent. One of the highest increases in Wales is in my constituency, where we have seen a 29 per cent. increase in employment levels. That is the real story of Wales today under this Labour Government, compared with Wales in the 80s and 90s under the Conservative Government.
That did not happen by chance. The new deal for the unemployed was a policy, paid for, as has been said, by a windfall tax on the utilities. I am rather fond of windfall taxes, and I have tried to encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to go down that road again to help to tackle some of the root causes of hard-core unemployment that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire discussed. This Government invested in helping the unemployed back to work through that scheme and others. Labour Members rightly believed that unemployment was not a price worth payingit was a problem worth sorting. During the past 10 years, we have done our best to sort that problem out.
Labour also introduced the minimum wage, and, again, that did not happen by accident. The policy was opposed by the Opposition. I hear today that the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), who speaks from the Front Bench, is not happy that we are raising the level of the minimum wage; I am not sure whether that is Liberal policy. I recall that when the minimum wage was introduced in my constituency, the wages of hundreds of families doubled from £1.80 an hour to £3.60 an hour, giving dignity to families young and old.
By August, unemployment in my constituency had fallen to 4.2 per cent.; it had reduced by 53 per cent. Too many people remain unemployed, but Ynys Môn is not now top of the Welsh league of unemployment; it is halfway down that table, and the levels are well below those of the 1980s. There are black spots of unemployment in my constituency, which is why I intervened on the Secretary of State about the proposal by the Department for Work and Pensions to close a job centre in one of those black spots. It is located in a rural area where it is difficult for people to get to other job centres, as they will be required to do. I understand the back-up provided by the internet and various other things at the contact centre, but that contact centre will be moved. I am glad that he has agreed to meet me, because it is the wrong time to close job centres when unemployment is undisputedly rising. I hope that the closure of the centre at Amlwch in my constituency will not go ahead and that people will be able to get the face-to-face contact that they deserve.
This economic downturn has been caused by a number of factors: the world credit crunch; the global financial crisis, which we have debated today, and high fuel prices and energy costs. They are having an impact on businesses
in my constituency and across Wales and the United Kingdom. A cut in jobs is inevitable, but I believe that the UK is better placed than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when two deep recessions had an impact on constituents across the UK.
The largest employers in my constituency include an aluminium smelter works and Stena Line at the port of Holyhead, both of which face major challenges from the high increases in fuel prices, as do other companies. All energy intensive users across the UK, from paper mills to brick and cement works and aluminium smelters, face similar problems. I declare an interest, because I chair the all-party group on the aluminium industry. Electricity prices are too high in the UK, they make British manufacturing less competitive and they could lead to big job losses. According to The Times yesterday, the price of electricity in the UK is four times higher than in France.
David T.C. Davies: One of the reasons for that is the cost of the renewables obligation commitments, which is being put back on to the customer. The rate of unemployment looks so low because many people are on sickness benefits, and the reason why so many people have extra jobs is because they came here from abroad.
Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman has just come into the Chamber and has not listened to both sides of the debate or even to the debate about the financial situation. One of the reasons why electricity costs four times more in the UK than in France, and costs more than in Germany, is the lack of capacity. That lack is exacerbated by the fact that we have not built enough nuclear power stations over the past 20 years. Some 80 per cent. of Frances electricity comes from secure sources of electricitynuclear powerand France is able to keep its price low.
Rather than gibber about various issues that have arisen in the debate, I have raised a specific point that I would like the Government to address. I am pleased with their record and what they have said on new nuclear build. Indeed, I have campaigned for new nuclear build in my constituency, but I have been very disappointed by the Conservative party. It is dithering on nuclear power stations, trying to use the policy as a last resort, when we all know that it takes a decade for them to go through the planning system and be built. I am prepared to take an intervention from a Tory Front Bencher on that point[ Interruption.] Well, I would Get with it if I knew what the Conservative policy was. As I say, I will take an intervention from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan)[ Interruption.] He says that I am out of date, but I am not sure what has changed since their conference last week.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) echoed a remark by the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), and they both displayed a breathtaking chutzpah in suggesting that unemployment figures are being massaged by the decanting of claimants on to incapacity benefit. The Thatcher Government created invalidity benefit and saw a huge surge in the number of claimants. The number has floated up slightly over the last 11 years, but the huge growth occurred much earlier.
Albert Owen: I am grateful to my hon. Friend who has been in and out of the debate, unlike the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) who has just come in. That point has been addressed by many Labour Members, because the Thatcher Government not only massaged the figures, but they did so 18 times to mask unemployment levels. They put people on to long-term sickness benefit, contributing to long-term unemployment in many areas.
The other big employer in my constituency is transport, including the port of Holyhead, and fuel prices are having an impact not only on road hauliers, but on the ferry companies that use a lot of fuel to get people and goods across the Irish sea. I hope that the Government will take that on board. I welcome the fact that the Chancellor decided against the duty increase this autumn, because that will help the road hauliers, but more has to be done to help intensive fuel users such as fast ferry companies. They transport people and goods to help the economy to keep moving at full speed.
I have raised challenging issues for my constituency and they need to be addressed. The Government are not running away from their obligations, but it is right for Labour Members to remind people of recent history. The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) is not in his place at the moment, but I know that the Conservatives would like to forget recent history and their record on employment and unemployment. We need to secure existing jobs and provide opportunities and hope for the long-term unemployed. That is why it is worth investing in skills for our young people and in re-skilling older people.
We must help those who are still on long-term unemployment or sickness benefit to get back to work. I have said on many occasions that I want to see a carrot-and-stick approach to that, but I want the carrot to be bigger than the stick. We should help and encourage the long-term unemployed back to work.
The Government were right in 1997 to tackle mass unemployment and to put that at the top of their agenda. They were right to introduce the new deal, which has been a success in my constituency and many others in Wales, including Preseli Pembrokeshire, which has seen one of the largest falls in unemployment of the past 10 years under this Labour Government. They are also right to invest in people and communities. Getting people off unemployment benefit is a price worth paying. The immediate prospect of global and financial turmoil will be challenging, but we must remain focused on the need to modify and reform the welfare state by giving support and hope to our people, instead of returning to the bad old days of mass unemployment in the 1980s, which still scar my constituency and many others across the UK. We must move forward, not back to those days.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). Although I did not agree with everything he said, I certainly agreed with him on the subject of the closure of jobcentres. It seems to be a strange time to be closing jobcentres when it looks as though there will unfortunately be a lot more unemployment. I noted that unemployment in Ynys Môn increased by 7.8 per cent. last year, so the trend is going up. I also want to refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members Interests.
I thought that the debate was generally most interesting and that it tried to be constructive where possible. The most important issue to come out of the debate was the fact that the shadow Secretary of State pledged the Conservative party to a chapter 11 proposal, but I do not think that the Secretary of State understood the situation. Chapter 11 gives companies the time to reconstruct, to go to court, to get the whole thing on a level playing field, to get their business in order and to continue to trade. That does not happen in this country when companies go into administration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said, the banks come along and close the company down, and there is no method to save that company. That, of course, leads to increased unemployment.
I thought that those on the Government Front Bench were very complacent about the situation. We clearly have a boom-and-bust situation. I know that the Prime Minister kept saying that that would never happen, but if we are not careful, we will have the worst bust for more than 100 years. Unless a Government recognise a problem, they will never put it right. Now I have said that, I hope that I can be more constructive in my comments.
I have heard time and again how the wicked Tories left the country in a terrible mess last century, in 1997, how everything was evil and how it was terrible for people, so I thought that I had better look up the unemployment figures for Wellingborough in August 1997. Unemployment then was at 1,678. That must have been terrible, because we have heard time and again that it was the pits and that the whole world was going down at that time. Unfortunately, unemployment in Wellingborough today is at 1,710, an increase since 1997. Instead of there being a wonderful economic miracle up until now, the economy in Wellingborough has gone backwards. If it has gone backwards when there have been good times, what on earth will happen during the bad times that are just around the corner?
Let me make a point on a serious note, which I hope will worry the whole House. We have in Wellingborough a good multicultural society. We have people from all races in the town and we have had for a long time. I run a Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden survey, which tracks peoples concerns. Until a few months ago, immigration never appeared in that survey as a problem. It is now coming out as the first or second issue. I could not understand how that could have changed, but it is actually to do with unemployment. If we look behind the headline subject of immigration as the No. 1 issue, unemployment is the problem.
Let me give an example. A new supermarket opened in the town and needed to take people on. Let us imagine that we were the manager of that store. A Polish worker might come along, smartly dressed, and say, I used to work in a store in Poland. Please give me as much overtime as possible. I dont mind working nights; please give me as much work as possible. On the other hand, someone from the jobcentre might first ask, How much holiday will I have? and say, I cant possibly work weekends. It would not be unreasonable as store manager to give the job to the Polish worker. The problem is that the person from the jobcentre, who is British, would get offended. It takes only a few evil people from the British National party to come along and exploit that situation.
We never had any problem with the BNP until a few months ago. A BNP candidate stood in a safe Conservative ward, which we won quite securely. However, the Labour party, the traditional party that came second, was pushed into third place. So we have gone from being a town that did not have a problem to being one that does. I am sure that that problem is being repeated across the country. I do not know the solution, but it is a real problem. Unemployment is going up, while migrant workers are coming in, and the BNP says that they are stealing British jobs. That is not true, but that is what the BNP makes out, and the worse the recession and unemployment become, the greater is the danger that those evil extremists will come into our society. I hope that we can work together to address that problem.
A particular additional problem in Wellingborough is that we are part of a growth area. The existence of lots of new houses and new migrant workers means that people can see the change that is taking place, and I have to tell the Minister and other colleagues that we must look at the problem. We must not be scared to address it, as we must find some solution to it.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): In the first 10 years of this Labour Government, unemployment in my constituency came down by 50 per cent., youth unemployment came down by 80 per cent. and long-term unemployment came down by 90 per cent. Those are statistics of which the Government and I can be proud, and they represent one of the best things that this Government have done.
However, we have to recognise that the economy is on the turn. Male unemployment in my constituency has gone up to 10 per cent. We clearly face a problem with the hard-core unemployed, and I very much regret that we missed an excellent opportunity when the economy was booming to move many of those people into employment. We should have allowed the market to pull them into jobs, but instead we acquiesced in a policy of unlimited immigration.
The colleague who has just spoken, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), was undoubtedly right to say that many of the jobs that the market would have filled with people who were otherwise difficult to employ have been filled instead by eastern European migrants. As he said, an employer might have to choose between a person from eastern Europe who is highly skilled, motivated and educated and someone who has not worked for 10 years, who has a problem with drink or drugs or who has difficulties with attendance. Who will that employer select? The answer is a no-brainer. In my constituency, vacancies were not made available to people who would have benefited very muchgiven the right supervision and supportfrom those opportunities.
None the less, we have to recognise that what the Government are proposing is absolutely necessary. In the main, the proposals are excellent but, for constituencies such as mine, they are not sufficient. There are three areas in which I think that the Government must take some action.
The first relates to what I said in an earlier intervention on the Secretary of State, when I spoke about the old community programme. The private sector and the normal routes to employment are not going to cope
with the hard-to-place individuals to whom I have referred. If we are going to get them into the habit of work and attendance, so that they experience the pride that comes from making a contribution, we will have to create an agency similar to the old community programme. Perhaps it could be called the new community programme, but we need something that will allow the voluntary sector or local government to offer such people employment opportunities. In the present competitive environment, it would be unfair to expect the private sector to carry people who undoubtedly will be less productive than other workers in the same circumstances. Something needs to be done in that regard. Although much is already being done, it is not sufficient.
The second issue that we need to address is how the benefits system interacts with getting people into work. People are not always convinced that they will be better off in employment. I believe in incentives in those circumstances. It is not clear to me or to people in my constituency that they are genuinely always better off in work. The complexity of the benefits system cannot be explained to people who have some difficulty with literacy or numeracy; indeed, it cannot be explained to many people who have no difficulty with literacy or numeracy. It is unclear whether people will be better off.
There is a loss of benefits for many people who get employment. They lose council tax and rent benefits, and they lose in a number of other ways. That interaction means either that people are being invited to go into employment for almost nothing or that, as shown by the evidence given to me by local citizens advice and information centres, they are actually worse off. In those circumstances, it is entirely comprehensible and rational on economic grounds that people do not seek employment. That is why we need to decomplexify, if such a word exists
We need to simplify the benefits system, but we must provide greater incentives. If people believe that incentives of a financial nature are necessary for the masters of the universe, they must also be necessary for those at the bottom of the economic pile. We have to recognise that the national minimum wage at its current level does not provide sufficient incentive in all circumstances, when taking into account all the benefits that people will lose. We need to address that question, and I am very disappointed that the new Liberal party policy seems to be opposed to any increase in the national minimum wage.
As I understand it, the Liberals have now swung to the right. The first clear evidence that they are deserting the traditional caring aspect they embraced under previous leaders may be that they are distancing themselves from any prospect of an increase in the national minimum wage. I deplore that, and I am sure that the vast majority of my colleagues do, too, although I do not want to make too much of a meal of it. I simply draw to the attention of the House the fact that the Liberals are opposed to increasing the national minimum wage.
My final point is about Scotland. Many Members will be aware that the Scottish Executive have promised that money from Qatar will flow like water, that Qatar will provide an alternative to PFI and PPP and that Qatar will provide funds for public finances and for the private sector. Many Members will have noticed that the nationalists have disappeared from the Chamber. They did everything but intervene when I raised the point earlier.
Many Members will be aware that in the past the nationalists said that Scotlands oil would be the answer to the nations problems. Now it appears that Qatars oil will be the answer to Scotlands problems. Again, I do not particularly want to make a meal of that factI just draw it to peoples attention. I am sure that the Qataris will be very unhappy that their name has been used to intervene in domestic British politics in this way.
I have been invited by madam gamekeeper not to go beyond 9.40 pm, so I draw my remarks to a close. When we discuss employment, people in my constituency remember that we cannot trust the Tories. We could not trust them in the past, and we cannot trust them now. I do not accept that they are serious about trying to combat the evils of worklessness.
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