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5.45 pm

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Following on from the points made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), I wish to discuss the creation of jobs as well as some of the other matters that have been raised. Clearly, Scotland has been dragged into this recession by the UK— [Laughter.] I see that I do not have unanimous agreement on that. Some people thought in the good times that we were benefiting from being in the UK, but they are now realising that things are much worse because we are in the UK.

Mr. Bone: I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks. Does he agree that if Scotland had had to deal with the banking problem on its own, it would have had to put in £13,000 per household? Having the UK means that the amount has worked out at less than £2,000 per household. How does that tie in with his remarks?

John Mason: In the first place, the amount has not yet been worked out and we do not yet know whether the UK will survive this crisis. Secondly, it is possible that if we had been independent, neither HBOS nor the Royal Bank of Scotland would have been in such shape, and that they would not have been as large or as much trouble as they currently are.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell the House whether the First Minister of Scotland still regards Iceland as a proper model for emulation.

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John Mason: We have always compared ourselves with a number of different countries, and the main one is Norway, because it is similar to Scotland with regard to population, oil, fishing and so on. The special point about Norway is the huge oil fund that it has set aside, as have American states such as Alaska. Norway has put aside money from oil instead of frittering it away. That is why it has to be the best comparison. I shall now continue with paragraph 2 of my speech.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman first be kind enough to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) about Iceland and the First Minister?

John Mason: I have said that we compare ourselves to a range of countries. Iceland was one, although it has to be accepted that Iceland has a micro-economy that is similar in size to that of Dundee. There is also a valid argument on behalf of Iceland that its banks were deliberately and unnecessarily pulled down by the current Government, but I shall not spend too much time on that just now. Ireland is another comparison, but I return to Norway, which sets a fantastic example of wisdom in putting aside oil money instead of frittering it away on nuclear weapons, wars in Iraq and so on.

One problem with an economy such as that of the UK is that, like a tanker, it is large and takes a long time to turn around. The distance between ordinary people and government is too great. Now that we have the Scottish Parliament, the comment is frequently made in Scotland that businessmen, colleges and ordinary people can contact Ministers in a way that they could not before. If our country could borrow, we could do a lot to help get us out of the recession. More capital expenditure means more jobs. It is encouraging that Scotland’s capital expenditure is being accelerated; that will support more than 4,600 jobs in the next 15 months.

Construction has been especially hard hit throughout the UK. I sat in on a jobcentre interview a few weeks ago and watched an unskilled construction worker being interviewed and taken through his job options. The Jobcentre Plus staff did their best for him, but there were clearly not many jobs for people such as him. He had previously got jobs through contacts, but sadly that was no longer happening.

In passing, I want to refer to Glasgow city council and a relatively small construction project costing some £300,000. The council has taken so long to work through planning permission and building warrants that the project has not gone ahead for a long time and people’s jobs have effectively been at stake. I appeal to councils such as Glasgow to speed up the planning and the building warrant process. That would create jobs.

Anne Moffat: On planning applications and employment, will the hon. Gentleman comment on the Scottish Executive’s refusal to give planning permission for new build in nuclear and thus create jobs in Scotland?

John Mason: I do not think that the people of Scotland want nuclear weapons or nuclear power.—

Anne Moffat: They want jobs.

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John Mason: We want jobs in other ways. The money that is wasted on nuclear weapons would create many more jobs in the navy, the air force and the army that we would have as an independent country.

We welcome the £120 million that is being brought forward in the affordable housing investment programme in Scotland. In comparison, in England, which is 10 times the size of our country, only £550 million is being provided, and it took three months longer to do it. That is disappointing, and I appeal to the Government to give the people of England as good a deal as people in Scotland are getting. The front-loading of European structural funds is welcome. Again, Scotland was well ahead with that compared with England.

All parties agree that small businesses are important for jobs and the economy. In Scotland, they will get 100 per cent. rates relief from April if their rateable value is £7,000, whereas the relief is to be only 30 per cent. in England. Helping small businesses is a tremendous way of creating jobs and keeping people in them. I recently met the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, and there is much anxiety among small businesses in Scotland that the Government are too concerned about the banks and the big car companies, and not concerned enough about small businesses.

I welcome the commitments made by both the Scottish and the UK Government to pay suppliers more quickly. That is extremely good, but sometimes large contractors do not pay smaller contractors as quickly, and deliberately hold back money. I wonder whether Companies House or some other body needs to be more proactive in forcing larger companies to pass on the payments, especially if they receive money from the public sector.

I have already mentioned the cut in VAT. Did that really create the jobs that it could have done? It is estimated that the £1 billion has created some 7,200 jobs in Scotland, but a similar capital investment programme of that amount could well have created 14,900. I have some ridiculous personal examples of buying an electric shaver in Boots and clothes in Marks and Spencer. I see the price on the items and I am happy to pay it—I am on an extremely good salary. However, I get to the till to find that there are a few pounds off because of the reduction in VAT. The VAT cut has been badly targeted if it includes people such as us, who are relatively as well paid.

The Government often criticise the Conservative party for doing nothing, but I sometimes wonder whether they go to the other extreme and act simply for the sake of doing something. Perhaps that is the reason for the VAT cut—the Government felt that they just had to do something. Surely taking any action even if it is bad cannot be the way out of the current crisis.

Last July, I promised my constituents that I would keep asking what was happening to the gap between the rich and the poor. Clearly, people at the bottom are losing their jobs, but so are people who are better off. The harsh Welfare Reform Bill will further damage those who are struggling and losing their jobs. Rather than punish people who realise that jobs are not there or that they pay so poorly, we could do with fewer sticks and more carrots. One such carrot would be better minimum pay for people who seek jobs. That would incentivise people more than taking away limited benefits. Meanwhile, well-off people, such as us, save in VAT. There is something wrong if some people are benefiting
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from the recession. Members of Parliament are better off through the recession while others lose out. Surely the richer people should tighten their belts as well as those who are less well off.

Cutting public expenditure is not right in a recession. In the United States, President Obama’s stimulus package is boosting spending in individual states. Yet in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we face cuts to our budgets.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): A cut of £1 billion.

John Mason: As my hon. Friend, who is rushing me through my speech, says, in our case the cut is £1 billion over two years. We estimate that that means 8,600 jobs lost through the Government’s action.

We are already making efficiency savings. My understanding of efficiency is that we get either a better service for the same amount of money or the same service for less money. However, if we get less money and a poorer service, as the Government propose, that can be described only as a cut. If we are to lose 8,600 jobs, including 4,500 in the public sector and nearly 2,000 in construction, which is the last thing we need, where do the Government suggest that we cut them? Should we have fewer teachers and fewer nurses? Perhaps they can explain it to us.

It is not only bad economics but bad politics to make cuts in a recession. If the Unionists in government want Scotland to stay in the UK, they must give us a better deal to persuade us to do that. Cuts to the budgets of Scotland and of Wales at this time will make people ask, “Why is London doing this to us? Is it to prove that the UK Government don’t favour Scotland, so they go to the other extreme of deliberately damaging Scotland?” According to that way of thinking, HBOS was sacrificed so that the Government could not been seen to help a Scottish organisation. Now that the Government want to cut Scotland’s budget, many people will think, “Wouldn’t we be better in a recession to go off on our own? We’re not getting any dividend from this Union.” I warn the Government to be careful; they are playing with fire.

5.58 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am pleased to participate in this important debate on unemployment in the UK. I do not want to follow the line of the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), but I am delighted to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who made constructive and important points.

The motion highlights the current position nationally and the Government’s failure to introduce welfare reform during their time in office and to increase the flow of credit to businesses in the past six months to assist with the current economic and financial situation. The Government have also failed to relax the rules for jobseeker’s allowance to allow unemployed people rapidly to take up training opportunities, which they often desperately need. That is regrettable.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made a positive and enthusiastic speech about our policies to tackle the current position, and I was rather disappointed by the Secretary of State’s response and his failure to take on board some of the serious problems that confront us.

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In my constituency postbag, e-mails and surgeries, mentions of the economy and unemployment have grown dramatically in the past few months. There are fears in our area of Bexley about the economic future and the employment prospects—a fear of people losing their jobs; a fear that they will be unable to pay their mortgage or rent; and a fear of the regular bills and of a decline in people’s standard of living. Those are the issues that are affecting people and underpinning the current situation. Pensioners and those on fixed savings also fear that they are not getting enough income from their savings to supplement any other income that they may have.

I want to say a few words about my constituency, but I also want to highlight the skills and training situation, as well as the shortages of skilled people and the lack of training opportunities for certain people who are unemployed, including the long-term unemployed. My constituents do not believe the Government—[Hon. Members: “Who does?”] Indeed. They believe that the Government have failed to tackle the skills shortages and benefit dependency, and that they have often used migrant workers to address employment shortages.

We have had a lot of spin—we have had some from the Secretary of State this afternoon—and the restating of previous policy announcements, which we get regularly from this Government. That seems to be the order of the day, but it will no longer wash. When someone becomes unemployed, it is a tragedy for them, for their family, for the community that they live in and, of course, for the country. What people need is early intervention and early assistance, which are crucial in helping them get back into jobs. The majority of people want to get back into jobs as soon as possible. They do not want talk, investigations or generalisations; they want action. The Government need to commit to reforming Jobcentre Plus, so that there can be an in-depth assessment to evaluate claimants’ needs and capabilities within 24 hours of a claim being presented. Urgent and immediate action is required.

I want to say a few words about the Jobcentre Plus in my constituency. I visited it last year and met the district manager, the employees and a number of the clients. I had a useful morning seeing how Jobcentre Plus is endeavouring to help claimants. I have maintained regular contact since then—as I did before, of course. I have also received many comments from constituents about the service offered—many of them complimentary—and about how the staff have endeavoured to help with the problems that they face. I would like to commend the staff at that branch, because they are dedicated and hard working and because they are doing their very best to help people.

There are issues that the staff cannot deal with, however, because there is a bigger picture. Most claimants in my constituency find work within six months of making their claim. However, in the last period for which figures are available, 17 per cent. did not, which shows how the economic situation is changing, which is regrettable.

Mr. Bone: As usual, my hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. His constituency has seen a rise in unemployment of nearly 90 per cent. in the past year. How is that impacting on Jobcentre Plus in his area?

Mr. Evennett: It imposes serious constraints, because of the reduced time that staff can spend talking through
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clients’ problems. More importantly, there has been a shortage of vacancies, so staff cannot send people out. The change has had a dramatic impact; none the less, I compliment the staff on all the work that they have been able to do for so many people.

On a more general, national point, it is the skills shortages and the training issues that concern me. We need to get people who are unemployed back into work and ensure that people who leave school get opportunities for work. That means that they must have basic skills, but I have severe doubts about the Government’s training and education policies, which are not allowing those people to gain the skills that they need to meet the challenges that they could face.

Anne Main: Green jobs were mentioned earlier. When the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change appeared before the newly formed Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, I specifically asked him whether there was any buy-in from the Treasury to ensure that training was being put in place to deliver the skills that we need for the green jobs that we anticipate will arise in the future. However, I did not feel that we were given those assurances. It is no good looking to have green jobs in future if we fill them with people from other countries because we have not set up the necessary skills, training and educational courses. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about that?

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I agree with her entirely.

Regrettably, we have a low skills level in this country. Despite all the money that has gone in and the Government’s attempts and aspirations, the reality is that the situation is not good. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire that 5 million adults in Britain are classified as functionally illiterate, while 17 million are known to have problems with basic numeracy. It is a disaster that we should have such a skills shortage after so many years of investment in education and training. That is very worrying. Business potential is also restricted. I understand that three quarters of London businesses still have problems finding skilled staff. So many people are, regrettably, becoming unemployed, but they do not have the skills to be employed in businesses across Greater London.

I raised with the Secretary of State my concern about the money that has been removed from community learning. I am a big supporter of community learning. Adult and community learning is an important route to training for many people who have been out of the labour market for a considerable time. Despite his put-down, there are 1.4 million fewer publicly funded places than in 2005. That is not good news.

I mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training. That, too, is a disaster. Those people are losing opportunities as they do not have the skills that are needed. We need to ensure that they are in one of those three categories. Men are affected most; the number of males who are NEET has risen by 27 per cent., from 264,000 in 1997 to 336,500 in 2007. That is not success, but a failure to train and give people the opportunities to develop their potential. That is regrettable.

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I am also concerned that enrolments in further education are plummeting. Just when we need to be upskilling, training, retraining or reskilling people, FE enrolments are down. More money has gone in, but there are fewer learners. Targets have been missed on apprenticeships, as we heard from one of my hon. Friends earlier. All those things are regrettable at a time of economic deterioration. They need to be addressed by the Minister, who I know is a fair and reasonable woman. She needs to ask what more can be done to ensure that people are given the training and skills to take advantage of the situation.

In view of the time, I will bring my remarks to a close. It is important that we have a positive, determined and upbeat approach to the issue. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) said that we should be positive—he was talking about the green agenda, which I support—but we need to ensure that that optimism is based on fact. This afternoon we heard wishful thinking from the Secretary of State rather than facts. We need to build hope and confidence for the future, but that requires more training and reskilling, to ensure that people who are unemployed are brought back into the labour market as they would want to be. The opportunities for the future have to be increased.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead highlighted our policies on those issues, which I shall not reiterate. The Government seem to be unable to act. They seem to be bankrupt of ideas and rather discredited in their dying days. We need a new approach, to ensure that the unemployed are at the top of our agenda, with policies to restore our battered economy and give people hope and opportunities at this difficult time.

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