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Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I want to raise a few issues that I do not think have been touched on tonight. The first is how redundancy and closure programmes are announced. I was involved in a redundancy programme back in 2002. The people I worked with were told of the closure through the media, which does not seem to have changed over the past seven years. Lots of people are stressed enough worrying about
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their future without hearing about it through the media. I hope that companies in that situation will listen to that and tell their work force first, before telling the media.

Secondly, I want to mention the 90-day consultation, which is set out in statute. The problem is that there is a huge difference between consultation and negotiation. I know from personal experience that it is extremely difficult to change a decision once it has been announced. There can be tinkering at the edges, but once the decision is made the closure or the redundancy programme invariably goes ahead. I ask the Government to intervene and do all they can to influence 90-day consultation—so that it becomes real consultation, not a talking shop.

The 90 days of consultation is stressful enough on its own, but if there is no closure and individuals have to apply for their jobs or go through selection criteria, the pressure, worry and stress are immense, leading sometimes to mental health problems. I know that that has recently been recognised by the Government but, again, the resources need to be there to support people through that very difficult time. We must not forget that not only individuals but families are affected, so there must be support not just for the ones and twos who are in work, but for the tens and twenties in the families.

The other issue is that when someone leaves employment, having been employed somewhere for 25 or 30 years, walking into a jobcentre, college or training establishment is extremely difficult. People need support before they get there, but often those support mechanisms are not in place. Jobcentres need to work more closely with other organisations and signpost people much better.

A week ago, the Secretary of State and I were at a presentation by a campaign group called Need Not Greed. We listened to some of the experiences of people who were struggling through the benefits system and the unemployment system, trying to find work. Jobcentre Plus does all it can, but huge numbers of people are falling through the net. Individuals are often not informed of the welfare rights that are available to them. Again, there is a failure to join up what is out there in the marketplace.

To follow on from what the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) said, we must look at what is in some respects the opportunity of how to come out of the recession, and part of that must involve social enterprise. We have scratched the surface in encouraging social enterprise in entrepreneurship—co-operative systems of house building, council house building, investment in new homes and creating enterprise zones, which we did some 20 years ago. We need to go back to that consideration. Renewable energy systems are also a huge opportunity for people to train in new skills and introduce those systems to our communities.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have spoken a lot about bank lending. In my constituency, a number of businesses have asked for overdraft facilities, while some had overdraft facilities in the past. Now the banks are refusing to do that. I ask the Government to ensure that what is the best fit for businesses is delivered. If it is loans, so be it, but we must look at other opportunities and options.

I urge the Government to use the debates on the Welfare Reform Bill, which we will be considering over the next couple of weeks, to listen to the concerns of the individuals involved. As I said, the Secretary of State
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heard at first hand some of the problems that those people are experiencing. We should learn from those, and listen to the trade unions and the representative groups that bring those problems to the attention of the Secretary of State. Let us not make the Bill something that damages employment; it must create it.

6.39 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): This has been a good debate with thoughtful contributions that remind us how, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), unemployment is a searing experience for so many of our constituents, many of whom are experiencing it for the first time, or for the first time in a long time. We are entirely right to bring the subject to the Floor of the House today, as we did in October. We are also right to set out our plans for how we would help people in that terrible situation. We have done so in the motion and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) did so in her speech.

We have heard good speeches throughout the debate. We heard a thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), who looked to the future, and a brief one from the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who spoke about his constituency. I hope he will not mind my describing his speech as something of a late entry in this context. That was it, however: that was the sum total of the contributions from the Labour Benches, which have been empty for large parts of the evening. In contrast— [Interruption.] Labour Members are trying to make up for it with the noise that they are making now, but very few of them were present earlier. We will not be drowned out.

We heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), for North-East Hertfordshire, for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). Other Conservative Members had also hoped to contribute. Those who spoke gave specific examples of the way in which unemployment was affecting their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West described specific cases in which his constituents had tried to obtain help—real people who had not received real help from the Government so far. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough told us what it is like to have to deal with unemployment personally, and described the experiences of employers in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford highlighted the failure to provide people with the skills that they needed.

We also heard speeches from the hon. Members for Glasgow, East (John Mason), for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies). I hope that they and others will not mind if, in the short time available to me, I do not refer to the detail of their speeches.

In contrast to the way in which my hon. Friends have considered the present-day problems of unemployment, how those problems are affecting their constituents, how we can emerge from them and how we can best plan for the future, Labour Members have shown a tendency to look back to the past. That was no more
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evident than in the speech of the Secretary of State, who seemed much more comfortable when talking of the distant past than when discussing what is happening in the country today.

Rob Marris rose—

Mr. Clappison: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he has not been present throughout the debate.

The final line of the Government amendment states, somewhat unbelievably, that the House

So now we know: unemployment is all our fault. We have been occupying the Opposition Benches for the past 12 years, but little did we know that the present terrible economic impasse was our fault. Hang on a minute, though: let me bring Labour Members a little more up to date. Was it not this same Government who promised, in their 1997 manifesto:

Rob Marris: We did that.

Mr. Clappison: So the hon. Gentleman says, but one of Labour’s key pledges was:

Today, as my hon. Friends have reminded the House, there are 140,000 more 16 to 24-year-olds unemployed than there were in 1997. That is the scale of the Government’s failure. What is worse, however, is that it is not entirely connected with the present recession. The number of unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds started to rise long before this recession took hold. In their expert analyses, my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale, West and for North-East Hertfordshire demonstrated that the Government’s claims were a statistical fiddle, while throughout that time they were failing to provide the personalised help that people needed.

Yesterday—my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead mentioned this—the Government told me in a written parliamentary answer that there were approximately 200,000 more young people aged to 16 to 24 not in education, employment or training than there were in 2000, when the recording of the so-called NEETs began. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, from a sedentary position, “What about the 2 million?” I think that he would do better to spend his time thinking about the problems that people face today. He was happy talking about the claimant count in 1986; why will he not talk about the claimant count today, and about what should be done to bring it down? He must face the fact—he must admit—that his policies have not been the success that the Government wished.

As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) wrote in The Daily Telegraph last week—and he is in a position to know, if anyone is—the new deal has

Little wonder that the Government have chosen radically to alter, if not abolish, the mandatory new deal, and to put the flexible new deal in its place. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire pointed out, we want help to be provided for people, and we believe
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that our proposals would be far more effective in getting help to the unemployed. In the meantime, however, we need to ensure that whatever help is offered by the Government is put in place, and we need to hear a much clearer definition—a much clearer spelling out—of what will happen to the flexible new deal. Will the Government guarantee that it will be in place by 1 October this year? Thousands of unemployed people, including young unemployed people, want to know the answer to that question.

Far too often, instead of providing the help that is needed, Ministers have presented a picture of what is happening that is very far from the experience of the thousands of our constituents who are obliged to visit jobcentres. In October, when we last debated this subject, the Secretary of State said that whatever problems we brought to light, we could not

I will be corrected if I am wrong, but I think that there was an interesting silence from the Secretary of State today on the subject of the number of vacancies in the economy. What was the reason for that eloquent silence? Could it be connected to the fact that since the Secretary of State gave that figure in October, the number of vacancies has fallen in every month? In January, to which the most recent figures relate, the number of vacancies was barely 500,000. As for the number of vacancies advertised in jobcentres, the situation is bleaker still: the number has fallen from 383,000 at the time when the Secretary of State made his comment to 271,000, the most recent figure.

James Purnell: They are not advertised.

Mr. Clappison: Yes. The Government have broken another promise. They said that they would ensure that the vacancies were advertised in the jobcentres, but they failed. I think that the Secretary of State would do better to keep quiet rather than intervening from a sedentary position. What he fails to face up to is the reality encountered by so many of our constituents: that in jobcentres up and down the country there are many times more jobseekers than there are vacancies for them to fill.

I do visit such jobcentres. In Dartford, for instance, there are five jobseekers for every vacancy. In Harlow and Selby there are 12, as there are in Pendle. If the Secretary of State chose to visit his local jobcentre in Stalybridge and Hyde, he would find that there were 18 jobseekers for every vacancy in his constituency. He needs to reflect on that a little more, rather than talking about the past.

I can, however, offer the Secretary of State this consolation. He is good at finding consolation; it is one of his specialities. He may need to look for more consolation in the future. I recently visited a welfare-to-work provider in Hull. Apparently, in one of the Hull parliamentary constituencies there are 4,363 jobseekers and 74 vacancies. That means that there are approximately 60 jobseekers per vacancy. That is what this Government have done for the good people of Hull.

This is a Government who are failing to meet the challenge of the recession and unemployment. Everything that we have heard from them today suggests that here is a party that has lost its way. Its Back Benchers lack
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interest in the severe problems affecting many of their constituents, as can be seen from the pitiful turnout today, while its Ministers have run out of the energy and enthusiasm that are needed to tackle the problem. There is also a lack of policies. This is a Government who are failing to introduce timely policies to bring real help to people when they need it, and a Government without the vision to tackle the problems for the long term.

We need fresh thinking. We realise what a terrible experience so many of our constituents are undergoing, and we realise that this Government cannot provide that fresh thinking. In the meantime, we will do what we can to chivvy them along to provide some help, but the people of this country need far better help than they have been receiving. We have set out our plans for the future. We want to give the people affected by the recession hope for the future. This country needs fresh thinking, and it will fall to those on this side of the House to provide it.

6.48 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): I am afraid that, for all the passion and for all the absence of substance in the speech of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), if a speech does not include as firm as possible a commitment to the £2 billion extra that we are already spending, it is all hot air. It is all vacuity on stilts, counting for absolutely nothing.

Apart from the contributions from those on the Opposition Front Bench, however, we have heard some fine speeches. I pray in aid the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). If he wishes to discuss with me some of the serious points that he made about redundancy payments and other issues, I shall be more than happy to examine them in detail. He reminded the House, as did the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), that these are serious matters which should be dealt with seriously.

In formulating policy, neither a Government nor an Opposition should treat the British public as idiots, but I am afraid that, without the money, that is what is happening. If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is seriously suggesting that all that has been done—in driving efficiencies through, the creation of Jobcentre Plus and the mammoth task of merging the benefits service with the employment service—is somehow, in some quasi-Trot fashion, all about cuts, she needs to learn a serious lesson. If she is trying to equate the £1.83 billion in efficiency savings made by that entire process with the £2 billion extra money, with extra jobs, targeted appropriately through Jobcentre Plus to give people real help now, she is on a different planet. We welcome—it cannot come soon enough—the ennoblement of David Freud in the other place to add weight to what is palpably such a thin team to deal with such a serious matter. [Interruption.] No, there is no fear of me being thin; I totally accept that.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who is not in his place at present, made some serious points, but equally serious was the remark from our side that, happily, until very recently Oxfordshire probably has not required such a thing as job clubs. That should be a matter of rejoicing, rather than being seen as a matter
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of policy absence. If the hon. Gentleman were present—as he is a very honourable gentleman, I am sure that he has his reasons for not being here—I would tell him that I would welcome talking to him further about jobcentres. The job club process has existed for some time in other jobcentres; across the entire network, it never went away. However, I commend what the hon. Gentleman has done in the current circumstances for his constituents and others in the area.

I also commend the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) on his speech, although I do not agree with everything he said. He delivered a focused speech that, again, brought us back to the humanity behind the figures, and the potential destruction of communities if we do not address these matters. He took the issue very seriously, and I will relay to appropriate colleagues in Government some of the broader points that he made about administration and the 90-day notice of redundancy, because, for all that we can do with the rapid response service at present, we say time and again to employers, “Let us in at the earliest opportunity.” That can only thus far be after a request, and we will have to look at whether we can put a bit more substance around that—although, as ever with legislation, that will take longer than we might want.

However, I would not traduce—as some colleagues do in their enthusiasm—the rapid response service. Where it has worked effectively, it has worked very well. Some 800 employers have been involved at various times—that does vary. At some stages, it is about getting people to manage the process of unemployment, because of the current state of the labour market. At its best though, such as for Woolworths employees, people’s feet have not touched the ground. In the case of the Trafford centre in Manchester, because the rapid response service was there, employees went straight from Woolworths into other retail jobs, and did not even get to the unemployed stage. I accept that there is a huge range along this continuum, and we have never said any of these components are the magic wand that will solve everything.

We do not resile from the fact that every job lost is a tragedy, and that the cumulative loss of jobs can cause real problems for communities, but I reject the vacuous notion that somehow the UK dragged poor old Scotland into the recession, as though there it was, sitting happily in the arc of affluence—I think that was the phrase—and, together with Iceland, it could have struggled along regardless of the global recession. Nor do I accept the suggestions of the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) about capital expenditure. Given what the Scottish nationalist Government are doing with private finance initiatives and capital expenditure, and what they are not doing in terms of skills and apprenticeships—I have spoken to Ministers up there—they have no leg to stand on in even making a contribution on the economy or unemployment in this country, and they should be sidelined for the micro-little party they are, and will be again back in Scotland.

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