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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to defend myself. What we were saying was that, in a period of transition and restructuring that was necessary for all modern economies, there would indeed be areas in which large numbers of jobs would be lost and the entire job pattern redistributed. We went through that. It was very painful, but the net effect is that the British economy is now one of the most agile and flexible in Europe with the lowest levels of unemployment. It is not a question of rejecting or accepting levels of unemployment; it is a question of having the courage to go through a period of great difficulties and emerging in an advantageous position. Does the noble Lord dispute that Britain is now in an advantageous position? How does he think we got to this point?

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, Britain is now in a more advantageous position than it was before. However, I wished to make the point that a view was held in many parts of the country--particularly on the side of the Opposition--that a high level of unemployment was inevitable. Even the Labour Party, when it came to power, was cautious about the extent to which it would make the commitment to seek the reintroduction of full employment.

Lord Haskel My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. To enlarge upon what he was saying, the philosophy that prevailed at the time was that the price of a sound economy was high unemployment.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I shall move on. While global competition and markets, along with technological change, are bringing even faster challenges, we should continue to reject the scaremongering that went on for a good many years. I believe that the future of work is a matter of choice and priorities for the Government. Unemployment is not something that is inevitable, nor do we have to endure it if we choose not to do so. I also advance the view that it is not inevitable that the current deep divisions in society should continue.

In this difficult week for the Government, I should like to congratulate them on their efforts and for the considerable progress they have made in the short time since they came to power. I repeat that the major change we have seen in working patterns has been the shift in the numbers moving from the unemployment register into work. This has been achieved through skilful economic management--and with a little legacy left by the previous government; I am happy to acknowledge that.

High employment has also been achieved through the New Deal, which, I believe, my colleagues opposite are not prepared to embrace. It has also been achieved by encouraging people to move from benefits and into work by making work pay better than benefits. This

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has been aided by the introduction of the minimum wage, the working families' tax credit, a gradual approach to welfare reform, and reductions in income tax and national insurance contributions for those at the bottom end of the wage scale. These should all be set against the background of the priority and attention being given to education, which has been discussed by my noble friend Lord Puttnam and others. It is likely that the benefits that will accrue from changes in education and training will not be immediately apparent. However, we can trust that if we have got it right and appropriate education and training is being provided, those benefits will flow in the longer term.

Perhaps some critical friends from within the Labour Party cannot yet see quite how all this adds up for our supporters and for the electorate. But I believe the picture is now becoming clearer and I hope that increasingly we shall have the opportunity of putting the message across to the country. At the very least, it is good to see that the forces of conservatism within the Opposition are now beginning to recognise what is happening. We all welcome the recent U-turns in the Opposition's approach to economic and employment issues. We look forward with interest to see what further changes they may make in order to move closer to what we have been advocating.

To return to changing work patterns and the supply of labour, I recall that only 20 years ago--I am speaking primarily of the public service--we still had an overwhelming majority of males in the workforce. There was little part-time or flexible work available and most employees still, in the main, stayed with one employer for most of their careers. The view was held that people had jobs for life. Self-employment was still a small-scale activity.

Many of those factors have changed over the past 20 years, as several speakers have pointed out. Self-employment has increased from around 1 million to the current 4 million, with projections that the figure will rise to over 5 million in the not-too-distant future. The distinction between gender roles and work has been and continues to be eroded. There is now an increasing number of women in paid work--either full-time, part-time or on a flexible basis. Regrettably, many of them still seek to fulfil two roles: looking after the home and being in employment. Those are issues which need to be addressed.

On the other hand, on the male front, there are more young men who are no longer entering the labour market. That point has been mentioned by other noble Lords. An increasing number of men are withdrawing from the labour market in middle age. The problem of the young unemployed and of the middle aged needs to be addressed. The noble Lord, Lord Lea, mentioned the need to examine the inter-relationship between middle-aged men being made redundant and factors linked to pensions.

In addition, a significant proportion of the population are now working longer and harder. Other noble Lords have mentioned that, and it is a topic to which we should turn our attention. I believe that

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latterly there has been a change in attitude to the issue of job security. Although change is occurring, people now feel more relaxed than perhaps was the case some time ago.

Of course, we are faced with big changes arising from e-commerce. I believe that that will present a big challenge for the workforce and for employers. Inadequate research has been carried out into the consequences of e-commerce on the labour market, and work needs to be done there in the near future. Those are the big drivers which we must address. Overall, I believe that we are now in a much more confident position with regard to the labour market than we were some years ago and that we can look forward with a great deal more confidence than has been the case for a number of years.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord may look forward to a day when Mr Portillo endorses the New Deal. Having, as he said, made a couple of U-turns already, that would be a small step for him to take. While he is about it, perhaps he can help those of us who believe that the national minimum wage is rather too low and should be increased, at least to take into account the effects of rises in wage levels. Thus, the people who receive the national minimum wage may receive the benefits of the growth in the economy which apply to others in earnings.

I begin by saying how much I have learnt from listening to this debate, which falls outside my usual political horizons. I join with those who have already congratulated the noble Lord who initiated the debate and who, I believe, got it off to a tremendous start.

I was particularly impressed by what he said about the work of the trade unions in Brussels in trying to improve the working time directives there and in having labour practices examined more thoroughly than they would otherwise be. Like the noble Lord, I believe that that is an unsung story and perhaps it should receive a wider audience than it receives in this House. I should like to join the noble Lord in thinking of a way in which we can arrange for the achievements of the trade unions in Europe to be more widely known. I believe that noble Lords would like to hear about that, and that, not only those on the Tory Benches, but some of the residual anti-Europeans in his own party, such as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, should pay attention to what can be done by those who represent the workers in the corridors of power in Brussels.

I also add my few words to those already expressed in admiration of the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, to which I enormously enjoyed listening. I believe that we have something to learn from Northern Ireland in relation to both work and social exclusion. Last summer I was in Northern Ireland at the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to look at the activities of the Government there in relation to the travelling population. I saw several

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things which impressed me and which I believed were done much better in Northern Ireland than in this country.

In particular, in Northern Ireland travellers are regarded as being the most socially deprived of all the minority communities in the Province. However, in this country not only has the Social Exclusion Unit made no recommendations on how to tackle the social exclusion of gypsies, including their exclusion from the world of work, it has not even begun to consider making such recommendations for the future. Therefore, I hope that we shall hear a great deal more from the noble Baroness about Northern Ireland and about aspects of life in the world of work there from which we may learn something to our advantage.

I refer to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, concerning the fallacies of information technologies. He said that a great many people still believed that those technologies would replace unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and that, generally, they would have a harmful effect on the labour market. I remember my friend Bruce Page talking about the effect of information technology on the publishing industry. His point was that in every advance in technology in publishing, more people have been employed, from the days of Caxton onwards. If one thinks of the latest developments as being, in a way, an advance in publishing, I believe that the same thing is true now.

The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, talked about the expansion of services that can be provided by the Internet. Of course, he is absolutely right. More products will be offered on the Internet. There will be more entertainment, more goods and more information in terms of the uses that are made of it by other businesses--I include the Government in that. It is absolutely right to say that the Government are one of the chief beneficiaries of the IT revolution.

I believe that the only person who touched on that point was the last speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe. As he said, the Prime Minister has undertaken that in the next four years 25 per cent of government transactions will be carried out over the Internet. That represents an enormous revolution for the people who will provide that work.

We have already seen that information technology creates upheavals. I refer, for example, to some of the unfortunate glitches in the delivery of computer systems to government departments. Almost every week, there is a Question or a comment in your Lordships' House or another place about the tragedy of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's computer, which is way behind schedule and still has not been delivered. However, that does not diminish the importance of people who work in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. They still have to make judgments on who is entitled to enter this country and to whom they must issue a notice of refusal. If it is ever delivered, the computer system will provide the civil servants--the immigration officers--with the equipment and information at their elbow to

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be able to say whether a certain person comes within the rules which have been laid down by Parliament to decide who can enter this country.

In addition, I believe that we see the beginning of a period in which the boundaries between government departments will melt away. It is common facon de parler to speak about "joined-up government". That becomes possible with information technology because there are no boundaries between the information provided for tax services, social security services or for any other purpose, except those which Parliament chooses to impose. Provided that we can overcome people's natural anxieties about the security of personal data, there is no reason whatever in future why we should not have a joined-up system of taxes and national insurance. When that time comes, it will also mean that the individual consumer will be able to access his information very easily via any office of the DSS or any tax office. It will be immaterial where he goes because all those terminals will have equal access to the same information which, of course, will have adequate protection in terms of passwords and so on. The benefits here are enormous for the consumer and I think that they are enormous for the workers in those industries as well.

If anything, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, underestimated the extent of this revolution when he compared it with the railways because, after all, the railways are concerned only with getting from one place to another. But this technology will enter into every single nook and cranny of a person's life. It is not just a question of being able to shop more easily; being able to get information off the Web more easily; and being able to send e-mails; because devices which can be embedded in ordinary household articles are now on the threshold of development, technology can be extended into virtually anything. Already noble Lords have spoken about the joining up of television with the Internet. That is going to be one of the major developments of the next few years.

The other development which, I think, is really going to take off is the use of a larger band width by consumers. At the moment, the chief inhibiting factor is the time you wait to get a download or even sometimes to get on the Internet. If that process becomes instantaneous, not only will you be able to log on, send an e-mail, write an order to Tesco's, or download your SETI all in five minutes, but it will be possible to do all that without any skill. When I speak of SETI, perhaps I may just put in a plug for it because I think it is so wonderful. Last May Berkeley launched a system for allowing people with personal computers to process small quantities of data from the radiotelescope at Arecibo. Now, 1.6 million people are signed up to that world-wide. You just download a piece of software on to your personal computer and you are sent chunks of data, 330Kbytes at a time. Your computer processes it and sends it back to the University of Berkeley where it is analysed. If you have found the little green men, you will be told about that six weeks later.

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The wonderful thing is that instead of having to have one enormous computer centralised in Arecibo, it has managed to harness the power of all these millions of computers in people's private houses all over the world. I think--

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