Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time tomorrow.
1. Mr. Irvine : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on Operation Grocer recently carried out by employment service fraud investigation in East Anglia and Lincolnshire.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : This operation was one of two concentrated fraudinvestigations in East Anglia and Lincolnshire into possible cases of benefit fraud involving people working as crop pickers or in packing houses while claiming unemployment benefit. Claims to benefit in more than half of the 800 cases investigated were withdrawn, saving the taxpayer £400,000.
Mr. Irvine : Does my hon. Friend agree that carefully targeted unemployment benefit fraud investigations such as Operation Grocer are particularly cost-effective? My hon. Friend has already given the House some figures but can he provide the full figures for 1988-89 of claims for unemployment benefit withdrawn following investigations by his Department and give some indication of the overall savings made?
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is entirely right. Targeting these investigations carefully can produce substantial savings for the taxpayer while ensuring that those who are claiming public funds wrongly are prevented from doing so. The claims withdrawn in the year 1988-89 will be in the region of 869,000.
Mr. Hardy : Whilst in no way defending any form of fraud does the Minister accept that if the Government put the same resources into and took the same interest in dealing with tax evasion and tax dodging of all types, the benefit to the country would be enormously greater than that which has followed Operation Grocer?
Mr. Nicholls : The second part of the hon. Gentleman's question belies the sentiments that he expressed in the first. This is a question about those who wrongfully claim other people's money. The hon. Gentleman is talking about people who wrongfully try to keep more of their own money. If he is interested in the comparative figures, I can tell him that the cost of investigating Department of Employment fraud in 1987-88 was £15.9 million. The cost of investigating Inland Revenue fraud, which includes individuals and companies, was about £42.4 million.
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : In the year to April 1989 the number of people unemployed for 12 months or more fell by 28 per cent. Long-term unemployment has fallen even faster than total unemployment and is now at its lowest level for more than six years. Long-term unemployment has fallen in all regions. The biggest falls have been in East Anglia, the south-east and the west midlands.
Mr. Wood : I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, which demonstrates that Government policies have meant that many more people are working and producing goods and services that people require than are involved in wasteful Government schemes such as those advocated two years ago by the Opposition. Can my right hon. Friend tell me more about the specifics in terms of particular age groups such as those between 18 and 24, those over 25 and those over 50 who have particular problems in employment?
Mr. Fowler : There have been reductions in unemployment in all those age groups. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, long-term unemployment is now down by one third compared to a year ago and has more than halved over the past two years alone. Among the over-25s, long-term unemployment has fallen by a quarter over the past 12 months, and among those aged over 50 there has been a fall of almost 30 per cent. over the past two years.
Dr. Reid : I welcome any fall in any form of unemployment. However, will the Minister recognise that the long-term unemployed in my constituency have been among the worst hit by the decision to close part- time benefit offices? May I bring to his attention Cleland and Newmains where there would be no additional cost to his Department if the offices were run since the local club in Cleland offered its premises free, I have offered my parliamentary premises free and the local community has even offered to pay the taxi fares to those offices for Department of Employment employees? Does he think that the closure is a totally unjustifiable imposition on those who are already suffering through long-term unemployment?
Column 131beginning of his question was right--that the whole House should welcome the fact that long-term unemployment, which must be regarded as the priority, is falling quickly, and more quickly than unemployment generally.
Mr. Conway : I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend's comments about long-term unemployment. Will he debunk the myth put about by Opposition Members that the fall in long-term unemployment has resulted from people taking part-time jobs? Has not about 85 per cent. of the growth in employment been in full-time employment, in contradiction to the myth propagated by the Opposition?
Mr. Fowler : During the past 12 months there has been a large increase in full-time employment. However, I do not in any way devalue part -time employment, which many people want. As a purely factual statement, I confirm that full-time employment has increased by more than 80 per cent. during the past 12 months.
Mr. Corbett : As the Government have helped to create record unemployment, with the closure of one factory in five in Birmingham, the west midlands and the remainder of the country, can the Secretary of State tell us when unemployment will come down to the level that he inherited in 1979?
Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman needs to study the comparisons between Britain and the other western European countries, in all of which the unemployment rate rose in 1979 and in the early 1980s. The significant factor in what is happening in this country, especially in the west midlands, is that unemployment is falling faster than it is in any other western European country.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just the fall in long-term unemployment, but the massive rise in employment generally that is very beneficial to citizens of all ages? Is he aware that Lancaster is rapidly running out of industrial land because of the great pressure from businesses wishing to start up? Will he ask his colleagues to assist him in reclaiming what remains of derelict land so that it can be used for industry?
Mr. Fowler : I shall certainly consider any proposals put to me by my hon. Friend because I agree with the thrust of her question. She is right to suggest that the figures show that this country's record in creating new jobs is better than that of any other country in western Europe.
Mr. Fatchett : Is it not true that the Chancellor's only weapon to fight inflation--pushing up interest rates--is deliberately designed to squeeze activity in the economy, which will reduce the number of jobs and therefore increase unemployment? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to say what he expects the unemployment figure to be in 12 months' time? Is he aware that most people suspect that there will be an increase in unemployment and that the figures that he cheerfully announced this afternoon will look very different in 12 months?
Mr. Fowler : I will not make such an estimate, and I never have done. At the general election in 1987 the Labour party, in its wildest dreams, said that it would reduce unemployment by 1 million in two years. This Government have reduced unemployment by more than 1
Column 132million and there are still more than 600,000 vacancies. There is no reason why unemployment should not continue to fall. The hon. Gentleman cannot bear to hear the good news about unemployment.
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Cope) : Our department has not commissioned research exactly as described in the hon. Gentleman's question. The impact on particular sectors and regions will depend on how successfully individual firms respond.
Mr. Clelland : Should not the Department have conducted such research, given that during the past 10 years of Conservative Government manufacturing industry in the north-east has been reduced massively, with the resultant loss of skills that the Government are doing little or nothing to replace? How can the region be expected to compete on anything like equal terms when more and more people are being employed in service industries and fewer and fewer in making goods to sell outside the region and the country?
Mr. Cope : I noticed the report produced by the Northern Development Company the other day which stated that it had just had its most successful year ever in increasing jobs in the north-east and in investment. That is why business confidence in the north-east is now at its highest level for many years, as another recent survey showed.
Mr. Devlin : Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to see the projected employment increase for the third quarter of 1989? According to that, the north-east is second only to East Anglia in the projected rate of growth in jobs.
Mr. Baldry : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the possibility of any restoration to the trade unions of the potential of secondary action or secondary picketing would be disastrous for industrial relations, for British competitiveness, British jobs and British exports? Does not the fact that the Labour party is making such proposals demonstrate that it has learnt absolutely nothing during the past 10 years?
Column 133public regard that as creating indefensible hardship and we are very happy to debate the proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Oldham, West on that.
Mr. Heffer : Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the recent pamphlet on industrial relations issued by the Incorporated Catholic Truth Society which states that secondary picketing is a legitimate action on the part of workers to defend themselves from employers who are taking their rights away? Will the right hon. Gentleman look at that pamphlet? If he does, he might learn something and discover that it is not just members of the Labour party who feel strongly about the rights of workers in industry.
Mr. Fowler : I shall certainly look at that pamphlet. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will equally consider what a former Labour Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, said about secondary picketing in 1979. He said that he thought that it was entirely wrong that indefensible hardship could be imposed on innocent people. I believe that the great majority of the British public share that view.
Mr. Batiste : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way forward for industrial relations in the future to build on the steady improvements of the past 10 years is to encourage collaborative attitudes in industry and in particular, no-strike agreements? Does he further agree that to go back to the 1970s with secondary picketing and intimidation, as the Labour party suggests, would be a betrayal of ordinary working people who would not forgive any party which sought to do that?
Mr. Fowler : My hon. Friend is right. That would also destroy jobs in this country. The bad industrial relations of the 1970s caused job after job to be exported overseas. That is what the Labour party promises if it is ever returned to office.
Mr. Meacher : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the International Labour Organisation convention specifically includes a right to sympathetic action and that Britain, under the Thatcherite Government, is the only EC country which now legally bans secondary action? Having distinguished herself in a minority of one over the social charter, will the Prime Minister marginalise herself still further at the Madrid summit in a minority of one over the right to industrial action? When will the Government learn that industrial disputes will not be stopped by ever more repressive legislation or by trying to legalistically to ban the right to strike?
Mr. Fowler : The trouble with the hon. Gentleman is that he wants to remove the protection from the public. What he is about is putting the unions above the law. When the hon. Gentleman was interviewed in The Guardian he was not arguing for the right to strike ; he said that secondary picketing would also be sanctioned by his proposals. That is the situation and it is about time that he came clean on that.
Mr. Cope : There is a wide range of schemes to help small firms gain access to advice, finance and training, and to help those who want to start their own businesses. Those include the small firms service, the loan guarantee scheme, the business expansion scheme, the enterprise allowance scheme and business growth training, launched in April to help small businesses improve their competitiveness and profits through training.
Mr. Harris : As about 1,300 small businesses are set up each week, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an area of considerable success for the Government? However, what help is being made available to those small firms to improve their performance, profitability and skills training under the business growth training scheme announced by his Department in April this year?
Mr. Cope : Yes, there is tremendous growth in the small firms sector which reflects the growth in enterprise in the economy generally. Business growth training consists of five broad options to help small businesses improve their competitiveness, starting with small companies, open learning kits, and so on, and working up to seminars and consultancy projects at the higher levels.
Mr. Cryer : What effect does the current high level of interest rates have on small firms? Will the rate of bankruptcies among small firms, which has reached an all-time record under the Government, be likely to increase or decrease? Lastly, how many of the 2 million jobs that have been lost in manufacturing industry since the Thatcher Government were elected in 1979 have been in small firms?
Mr. Cope : The proportion of small firms in manufacturing is smaller than in the economy generally, but I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question precisely without notice. It is sometimes difficult for large as well as small firms to deal with high interest rates, but many business men realise that they are essential to deal with inflation.
Mr. Brandon-Bravo : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the establishment and growth of small firms often has its roots in self- employment? I believe that the number of self-employed in Britain has grown by 1 million over the past few years, but Italy, with roughly the same population, has 6 million self-employed people. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the help given to small businesses is also given to that seedcorn--the self-employed?
Mr. Cope : Yes, it is. Since 1979 the number of self-employed has increased by rather more than 1 million, but, in making international comparisons, one must bear in mind that the definitions are not always the same and to some extent the higher figures reflect the different tax and social security structures in other countries.
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : Does the Minister agree that a number of job opportunities in rural areas have been lost because small firms do not have proper access to training? Does he further agree that in rural areas the Government are already finding it difficult to find people to serve on the training and enterprise councils because people are far better off running their businesses and do not want to be bothered about joining such bodies? Is it not time that the Government took their responsibilities seriously and gave
Column 135the proper resources to training colleges and other educational establishments in order to provide decent training for jobs in rural areas?
Mr. Cope : As the hon. Gentleman will find out in a few days' time when we announce the first training and enterprise councils there is no shortage of good people who are only to anxious to contribute to the nation's training effort in that way.
Sir Anthony Grant : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the development of the small firms sector has been remarkable since the bleak days when the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) was the Minister responsible for small firms and when they were dying like flies? However, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that high interest rates are beginning to hurt the small firms sector very much and that they will be even more damaging if they go any higher? Will he please ram that point home in his discussions with Treasury Ministers?
6. Mr. Lofthouse : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what steps he is taking to encourage employers to participate in the industrial training boards when these boards no longer raise a statutory levy.
Mr. Lofthouse : Is the Minister satisfied that employers will respond to the voluntary levy? Does he realise that many will rely on other firms to pay the levy and then poach their apprentices, as I remember the Central Electricity Generating Board doing in respect of British Coal employees in the 1960s?
Mr. Nicholls : While I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, the evidence is to the contrary, because many non-statutory training organisations have the active support of employers. Over the past couple of years, employers in a number of industries that did not have statutory arrangements before banded together to organise training.
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is entirely right to harken to a theme of the White Paper "Employment in the 1990s", in which we made the point that the formalised structure of an industrial training board complete with a levy-raising power does not deliver the goods. That is why we made the proposals we did in the White Paper.
Mr. Tony Lloyd : How does the Minister seriously square his assertion that everything in the training garden will be lovely under the voluntary system with the comments of the Federation of Master Builders-- hardly a Labour organisation--that the power of ITBs to collect a levy would not have been given at the time that it was had the voluntary system met national training requirements?
Column 136If he thinks that that proposition is out of date, how does he square his belief with his own Manpower Services Commission's research showing that 79 per cent. of employers would not contribute more financial resources voluntarily if asked to do so?
Mr. Nicholls : If the hon. Gentleman were entirely right in his observations there would be no cause for increasing the number of skilled personnel within the construction industry, because there would be a full complement of trained people willing and available. Clearly that is not the case. We made the point in the White Paper that special circumstances may apply in respect of the construction and engineering industry training boards. Proposals for all ITBs are being received from employers who wish to make particular points, and they will be borne in mind.
8. Mr. Carrington : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will introduce legislation to prevent employers from using the remedy of sequestration of funds against trade unions who refuse to obey court orders ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Nicholls : No, Sir. The remedies available to the court in cases involving contempt are a matter for court procedures and rules, not for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.
Mr. Carrington : I am greatly relieved at my hon. Friend's answer. Does he agree that sequestration is frequently the only sanction that the courts have to ensure that trade unions obey the law-- [Interruption.] --and that any proposal from another political party to abolish sequestration would be a recipe for industrial anarchy? Far from abolishing it, we should consider expanding sequestration to cover the highly organised, so-called unofficial strikes that affected London's transport so badly over the past few months.
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is right in his comments about sequestration--and proof of that was the degree of sedentary heckling to which he was subjected when he made mention of it. Sequestration is not a new, Tory remedy--which is how the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) frequently attempts to portray it. It is a remedy that goes back as far as the ecclesiastical courts, as a way of enforcing particular court orders. If they could, the Labour party would ensure that that remedy would be left available for all classes of action except those against trade unions for breaking the law. They are in the business of restoring the power of the trade unions to kick the hell out of the public, and obviously my hon. Friend disapproves of that.
Mr. Leighton : Is not the Government's rhetoric about handing the unions back to their members completely misleading, because the draconian step of sequestering union funds has the effect of taking a union away from its members? Is it not the case that British workers have fewer rights than those of any other western industrial nation? Unions find it completely impossible to have lawful disputes, and that is why there is a rash of unofficial action.
Column 137simple. It is that trade unions should not be above the law but should be subject to it as the rest of us are, and, if they disobey it, subject to the same penalties. The hon. Gentleman's policy --to allow the right of sequestration to be used against anyone except trade unions that break the law--clearly appeals to the hon. Gentleman and his friends, but it does not appeal to the public.
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is entirely correct. The Labour party tries to present itself as a new, squeaky-clean, moderate party, but it is a creature of the trade union movement and is funded by it.
9. Mr. Allen McKay : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment which local authorities have refused to co-operate with employment training ; and what was the date on which his Department received notification in each case.
Mr. McKay : As the Minister knows, the Conservative-controlled Barnet and Merton authorities have refused to take part in the employment training scheme. Is that not further evidence that the scheme was ill- thought-out and ill-funded from its inception?
Mr. Nicholls : I am deeply shocked that the hon. Gentleman should launch an attack on his own Labour-controlled local authority. Barnsley metropolitan borough council is Labour-controlled, a training manager and a member of the main consortium training agency. Moreover, the Barnsley trades council is a training manager as well, in its own right. All the trade unions that were apparently against employment training, including the Transport and General Workers Union, are serving on the trades councils. The decision of two Conservative-controlled authorities not to join the programme, whatever their reasons, is a matter for them. The hon. Gentleman should rejoice at the fact that his Labour-controlled authorities do not see it that way.
Mrs. Maureen Hicks : Is my hon. Friend aware of the valuable contribution made by employment trainees to daycare centres for the elderly and handicapped in and around my constituency? Is he also aware of the insecurity that faces those centres--and the trainees--as a result of the spiteful action of the Labour-controlled Wolverhampton council in withdrawing 400 ET places provided by the Government with £700,000?
Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is right to deplore the spiteful attitude of certain Labour-controlled authorities. If, however, she hears the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) inveighing against employment training, she can take some comfort from the fact that his feelings are not shared by his local authority : Oldham borough council is a training manager under employment training.
Mr. Meacher : It is not the Labour authorities or the trade unions that are refusing to co-operate with ET. Is the Minister not aware that only 13 major companies have signed up nationally, and that only two have filled more than half the contracted number of places? Does he know that, according to the Government's own figures, Habitat has filled none of its 200 places, Mothercare has filled none of its 50 and Remploy has filled none of its 456? Worst of all, only 41 per cent. of the Government's national target number of places have been filled. With a record like that in meeting targets, will the Secretary of State be applying for the Chancellorship in the coming reshuffle?
Mr. Nicholls : Two points need to be made. First, as always, the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. It is difficult to know whether he is wrong because he really does not understand or because he chooses not to. Secondly, if accurate, his scenario is extremely bad news for the unemployed. When faced with giving such an account--wrong though it is--all that the hon. Gentleman can do about the plight of the unemployed is to giggle his way through it.
If the hon. Gentleman really wants to know the position, let me tell him what he knows well enough : in addition to the companies that are part of the large companies unit, a whole range of companies are providing placements instead of being training managers in their own right. The hon. Gentleman makes no mention of that. He has also failed to remind us that the programme is still building up, and that other companies will be joining the LCU shortly. As always, what he cannot stand is good news, even when it comes from his own constituency.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Does my hon. Friend accept that in Harrow the employment training schemes are regarded as so successful that the problem is not that advanced by the Opposition but the fact that uncertainty is being caused because they do not yet know whether they have a contract for next year, or what the budget will be? Will my hon. Friend confirm that they will be dealt with as soon as possible so that the excellent work of employment training can continue?
Mr. Nicholls : Obviously the contracting and recontracting programme has to be done as speedily as possible. However, my hon. Friend is right to make the point that this is an outstandingly successful programme. It is far more successful than any other Government training programme has been and it has given real hope to the unemployed--a great deal more hope than the sour words and diatribes that we hear from the Opposition.
10. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will now bring forward proposals to amend the restart scheme in respect of redundant mineworkers ; and if he will make a statement on the progress of his discussions on this matter.
Mr. Skinner : Yes, it is No. 43 on the remaining Orders of the Day. With all the Cabinet reshuffles that are being suggested, I want to make sure that the Department of the Employment Minister gives a commitment that the order
Column 139will be brought before the House during the next 14 sitting days, to stop the harassment that is going on at Department of Employment and Department of Social Security offices. Will he also guarantee that when the amended regulations are brought forward they will include retrospective payment of up to £1,000, for miners who have lost that kind of money during this year-long battle?
Mr. Cope : If the hon. Gentleman looks at the order, he will find that it contains a provision for retrospective payment. I think he will find that it is in article 3(d). The order is subject to affirmative resolution, so it will certainly come before the House. The hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity at that stage. There has been no harassment of which I am aware, but if any hon. Member wishes to raise individual cases with me he can do so.
Mr. Dickens : Despite the carping by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), does my right hon. Friend agree that VAT returns prove conclusively that in every week of the year something like 900 new businesses are started in the United Kingdom? Does that not show-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Dickens : Of course. Many of the beneficiaries of these new businesses are miners. Does that not show that the spirit of enterprise is now growing throughout the United Kingdom, and will it not be reflected in the results at the next general election?
Mr. Eadie : We certainly welcome the last point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the order that is to come before the House of Commons- -that he intends to implement the promise that he made to the miners' parliamentary group that there would be retrospective legislation. Are we also to take it from what the right hon. Gentleman said that if we know of any cases of harassment of miners--I have evidence that some harassment is taking place in the midlands and the north-east--we shall be able to present those cases to him and he will look into them?
Mr. Cope : Yes, that is what I have said this afternoon, and it is also what I have said in the past about such cases. So far, they have not been raised with me, but if there are any cases I shall look into them. The hon. Gentleman knows, from when he came to see me with his group, that we take this matter seriously.
11. Mr. Hayward : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what is the rate of fall in unemployment in the United Kingdom and in other comparable European countries ; and if he will make a statement.