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9 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I too should like to join in welcoming and congratulating my two noble friends Lord Attenborough and Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on making their maiden speeches today.

It was about one year ago this week when I made my maiden speech. It seems only like five minutes ago; but it was a year ago. I can recall very clearly the ability of this House to make each individual Member making a maiden speech quite nervous. Even the most accomplished speakers, among whom I do not count myself, can be made nervous before they speak. Like most things in life, one remembers the good points and forgets the pain very quickly. I remember the friendliness with which my speech was received. I remember too, and continue to value, the friendship and friendliness of Members across all the divides in this House. I believe that the varied breadth of experience and working life which the three new noble Lords will bring to this House will add to what I very quickly learnt was the wonderful voice of experience and knowledge about life as it is. I hope that the noble Lords will join in and enjoy the debates, some of which are more enjoyable than others.

This evening we have had a very wide-ranging debate and it is right that we do. I sat here thinking about the topic I wish to talk about, which is unemployment. I came to the view that so many of the issues which have been discussed feed back to that key issue for each one of us; namely, employment and unemployment. It touches all of us: it is the meal ticket for so many in society. When we meet someone new, we still ask the question: "What do you do?". There is still a stigma in society about being unemployed.

So it was with great disappointment, in listening to the gracious Speech, that I found absolutely nothing in it which would give the unemployed hope or any kind of vision of their value in society and of what measures the Government would be taking in the next Session to attack this problem at the core of our society. As I see it, the only measure in the gracious Speech--and it was mentioned from the Dispatch Box today by the Minister--is the job seeker's allowance. That is not a measure to help the unemployed; it is not a measure to reduce unemployment; and it is not a measure which will contribute in any constructive way to helping unemployed people find employment.

I say that because I believe it is a breach of contract, not in the legal sense, but on the basis of integrity and fairness. When people have been in work they have paid through their national insurance contributions for this benefit. The Government have broken their contract with them by cutting the benefit in half as the job seeker's allowance will do. It is not as though there are not already in place regulations which will deal with the

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so-called work shy or people who do not want work. I say "so-called", and I shall return to that issue in a moment.

There are three compulsory measures which the Government have introduced for the unemployed. They are the restart interviews, job plan workshops and restart courses. There are seven non-compulsory measures that the unemployed have to be tested against, too. They are non-compulsory; but they can be punitive because the refusal of an unemployed person to take part in one of the seven voluntary measures can result in a decision that they are not actively seeking work and therefore their benefit can be withheld and they are disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit.

I say that I am disappointed by the content of the gracious Speech. When one looks at the British social attitudes survey which was recently published, it shows that the British people are actually more in touch with the reality of what is going on than the Government. The people who were polled in that survey said that they did not believe that the unemployed were not looking for work or were unemployed voluntarily. Among all the issues that have rightly been debated this evening, the issue of unemployment, according to a Gallup poll which I looked at today, is the single most important issue. People believe that it is the key issue even above crime and law and order.

I know that Ministers on the Benches opposite will probably say that I am completely out of touch and will question whether I have looked at the figures because unemployment is coming down. The numbers registered for unemployment may be coming down but I suggest that the number of people employed are also falling at a faster rate. The figures which are available from the Department of Employment appear to contradict each other and I am not too sure whether that department is absolutely positive about their base.

It is pretty clear that the number of people in work in Britain is declining. It is estimated that something like 100,000 fewer people are in work today than a year ago. Even the Treasury itself, in its summer forecast, conceded that employment has contributed relatively little to the fall in employment. The jobs which we have seen grow are part-time jobs, casual jobs and very low paid jobs. The American term "the working poor" is here today with us in Britain and is a reality. Indeed, since the abolition of the wages councils, 37 per cent. of those who were formerly covered by them have seen a drop in their wages. That is what has happened since that underpinning has been removed.

So there is no evidence that there is a pool of workshy people who need measure after measure to try to persuade them to work. The simple question is: where are the jobs? What are the Government doing about creating work? I agree with what my noble friend Lord McCarthy said on that. Why, for instance, cannot we see a release of the £6 billion that is held by local authorities following the sale of council houses? That money could help to start the economy by providing work for people.

Why do not the Government show more concern about the reduction in investment? Investment in the previous two quarters was among the lowest that this

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country has seen. We have seen a gradual deterioration in the level of investment at a time when the work that is created is in the high-tech and added value area.

Britain has a bad reputation for training. Out of the 22 countries in the OECD, we come 21st for the low skills of our workforce. Between 1979 and 1991, 5 per cent. of the companies of our partners in the European Union reported skills shortages. In Britain the figure was 14 per cent. What we need right now is training for our people that will give them the opportunity to be able to offer the skills, helped by Government policies, which would open up the gates and make work available.

Against that background, I was therefore disturbed to read that the Government appear to be letting go of something like £525 million which the European Union is trying to give us for training employees in frontline companies which are going through a restructuring process. I am sure that all noble Lords could list at least three industries, and many companies, which are having to go through restructuring. So why are we not claiming those training funds from the European Union? I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that we are going to claim that money and that those newspaper reports are incorrect. However, I have to say that the newspaper concerned was the Financial Times.

I should now like to raise an issue which has been discussed in the media although not in the gracious Speech. I ask the Minister whether we shall be seeing measures to abolish industrial injury benefits, again transferring more costs on to employers and making workers even more vulnerable.

We are to have a Bill on disabilities. People with disabilities will certainly take great heart from the many speeches that have been made today in support of proper measures to provide equal dignity for people with disabilities. I support all the statements that have been made in that regard.

I should like to conclude by referring to pensions, which we shall be debating in depth when that Bill is introduced. When looked at in a cursory way, it does not seem possible to argue against equalising pensions at 65 because it appears to be only a question of equality. However, I ask the House to bear in mind the fact that the majority of women in Britain in the age group to which we are referring are not covered by occupational pensions, so we would be saying to them, "If you do not have work, you will be means-tested", and we would be putting that vulnerable group at the bottom of the economic ladder.

When the gracious Speech was given, the newspapers said that it was empty. They said that it did not contain anything and they asked what we were going to do this Session. I do not agree with that view. I believe that when we come to discuss the issues that were touched on in the gracious Speech, we shall realise that we are dealing with some pretty nasty provisions which do nothing to look after, to help, to support, to give dignity

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or to create the "feel good" factor which is so elusive in Britain today. The gracious Speech does nothing to help the vulnerable.

9.12 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I too should like to join in the congratulations that have been paid to the three maiden speakers. I congratulate particularly my noble friend Lord Dubs. I was amused by his story that in another place he once made a speech of which nobody took any notice. If he has a similar success in this place and makes only one speech of which nobody takes any notice he will have made an exceptional contribution.

Several noble Lords have spoken about the audible sigh of relief that was heard throughout the country when it became clear that there would be no further legislation on education. That is indeed to be welcomed. Since this administration was elected in 1979 there have been only two years without any education legislation. This year will be the third. However, the Government should not be under the impression that that sense of relief in any way indicates acceptance of the successive education Acts. No, it indicates a desire for stability, continuity and for allowing members of the teaching profession to be free to act as the professionals that we pay them to be.

It is worth reflecting on some of the reforms that we have seen in recent years. What of grant-maintained schools? Of the 23,000 schools in England and Wales only some 1,000 have grant-maintained status and only four new grant-maintained schools were created in October this year. That policy is now in collapse. In an interview published in the Independent newspaper on 19th October this year, the Secretary of State said that she had no special powers to speed up the rate of schools opting out. However, she said that the local government review would propel more schools into grant-maintained status as they feel uncertain about their future. Is that not a dishonest and wrong way to use the local government review? It was not part of the Local Government Commission's brief and it flies in the face of a true choice being offered to governing bodies as they consider their school status each year.

What of the other reforms? What of the national curriculum? Sir Ron Dearing is to be congratulated on producing the new national curriculum, but what a price we have had to pay to reach that point. Against a background of Government indecision we have seen teachers' workload, resignations and early retirements rising. That is to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been spent and the some seven years it has taken us to reach this point. If Sir Ron Dearing is to be congratulated, then the traumas and costs of the national curriculum should be laid firmly at the Government's door.

A further plank of the reforms we have seen in recent years is the introduction of league tables. Today, of course, we have seen this year's much-vaunted, much-publicised results. I must confess that I have always found the whole debate about league tables somewhat sterile. As far as I can judge, all the political parties agree that the added value --to use the jargon--

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which a school gives a child properly reflects the quality of the school rather than do crude examination results. The difficulty, of course, is that added value is difficult to measure whereas examination results are simple to measure and thus simple to tabulate.

The political debate has been whether the examination results alone are so crude that when they are put in the national league tables they can actively mislead parents. As I said, I find this a sterile debate as it is not tables, in whatever form they come, or tests, however consistent they be, which will raise standards. It is good teachers who raise standards; it is proper resources that raise standards. I shall be much happier when the political spotlight turns to the quality of teachers in our schools and the resources we choose to make available to them rather than to testing and tables.

Earlier this year we saw the publication of the Parent's Charter. I shall say nothing about the lack of consultation or the great expense incurred in posting it to every household. The two watchwords in the charter were "standards" and "choice". I should be more impressed by the Government's concern for standards had they accepted that there is a link between resources and standards. Parents who send their children to private schools know that that link exists. Indeed, all parents know that that link exists. Why do not the Government produce league tables showing the money spent on a child's education versus the examination results achieved?

As to choice, that is surely the most abused word in the education lexicon. Never mind that parents are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the choice made available to them, judging from the number of appeals. Choice for an 11 year-old in my borough, which is the Conservative-controlled borough of Wandsworth, means a choice between specialisations. I do not want my daughter to be given a choice between specialisations when she is 11 years old. Like all parents, I believe, I want her to have a broadly based and thorough education so that she is better able to exercise her own choice later in life. I know of no evidence that parents are seeking greater specialisation for their children at that young age.

The Government were right to allow for a period of calm in the education world. It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge their successes with the national curriculum and the local management of schools. However, I hope that they will not continue to pursue policies which are unpopular and proving to be unworkable, and which divert attention from the true education debate that we should all be having. That debate should be about the resources we make available, and the quality of teachers in our schools. Those, not tests and tables, are what matter.


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