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The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, regional differences in unemployment have narrowed in recent years, with the North-East among the regions that have experienced the largest labour market improvements. However, over the past year, sectors on which the North-East is particularly reliant for employment have been particularly affected by worldwide problems. Government help has accordingly been focused on the region, with around 60 per cent. of the total approved expenditure for the Rapid Response Fund having already been allocated to the region.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful Answer, but will she accept that my Question is neither a moan nor a grumble and that I appreciate very much indeed what the Government are doing for the region? However, the figures to which the Question refers are peculiar and disappointing. Does not the fact that ever since these figures were first kept the North-East has been the area with the highest unemployment rate suggest that unemployment is endemic in the North-East? Does my noble friend agree that that should be the subject of a short but major investigation by the Government?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, is the Minister aware that her noble friend's Question is not entirely accurate because the most recent figures for Scotland show that, like the North of England, unemployment has grown there in the past year? Is the Minister also aware that the narrowing of which she speaks has been very welcome but that it occurred largely under the last government and as a result of their policies? Now that the policies of this Government are beginning to be triggered, unemployment in Scotland, for example, has risen by 12,000 in the past year and, as the Minister's noble friend said, it has risen also in the North of England. Is not that something to do with the Government's economic policy?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, no. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is not entirely accurate in the statistics that he has given either, though I accept that there has been some growth in unemployment in Scotland in recent months. Perhaps I can remind the House of the statistics. Since May 1997 UK employment is up by over 500,000 to the highest level since labour force records began and it is continuing to grow. The claimant unemployment rate is down by 324,000 and the ILO unemployment rate is down by 200,000. Moreover, the number of vacancies that have been notified to the Employment Service jobcentres continues to run at an historically high level at 200,000 a month.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, in view of the disagreement as to what is accurate, perhaps I may add a bit of accuracy. Does the noble Baroness recall that her noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington tabled a Question every month asking what the unemployment figures were? When they went up her noble friend gave the then government stick. As the unemployment figures are going up now, why does her noble friend not give the present Government stick?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is not true that across the country unemployment figures are going up. If we look across the country as a whole, there has been an increase in the levels of employment.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those interesting statistics. I am aware that the lack of encouragement to inward investment seriously contributed to the previous government's record in this respect.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I am delighted that my exercises in those days are remembered. It is quite right that I tabled a Question every month concerning unemployment. The reason I have not questioned this Government is that it was reasonable to see what this Government would do, and the figures have continually gone down. Perhaps even more important, can my noble friend say what the figures are in relation to the closure of small businesses in the North-East? We all know about the big closures that have taken place, but it would be helpful to hear what is the situation with respect to smaller firms.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I cannot give the precise statistics on closures of small businesses in the North-East. However, we are of course aware that the closure of the Siemens and Fujitsu plants in the North-East caused specific problems. That again is the result of worldwide developments. However, many new jobs have been created in the North-East. Indeed, since this Government came into power, more jobs have been created there than have been lost.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I suggest that the Government do so. Not knowing how those exercising the right to roam will be compensated for accidents is another deterrent to landowners who might otherwise enter into voluntary agreements in relation to increased access to land. Does the Minister know that even in my gentle part of the Sussex downland, a large area, under the Minister's proposals, may well become available for free access? It is possible when climbing a fence to put one's hand on rusty barbed wire and contract tetanus, or walk through grass, put one's foot into a badger hole and break one's leg. Potholes do not exist only in Regent Street, as mentioned by my noble
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government do not expect the new statutory right of access on foot to open countryside to have a significant impact on public insurance costs for landowners. Their liability to people who are exercising that right will be the same as the liability which they already owe to those who are not on the land by their invitation or licence. Therefore landowners and their advisers will wish to decide whether and to what extent insurance, including public liability insurance, is appropriate for their needs. An economic appraisal study by independent consultants for the Government suggests that any increase in the public liability insurance premium will be very small.
The Earl of Radnor: My Lords, does the Minister realise that this will add another expense to farmers' accounts at a difficult time? Further, does he realise that the right to roam and the use of the countryside by people who do not understand it is growing apace? People do not know the difference between a bull and a cow; do not know that a cow with her calf is very dangerous; and do not know that allowing dogs to go everywhere can excite all the animals. It is not just wire fences; I suspect that soon someone will be killed.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the assessment by independent experts does not suggest that the insurance costs to landowners will be significantly greater than now. Your Lordships are aware that the right of access does not apply to cultivated land; it applies to moor, heath and downland. There is not therefore the direct effect on farmed land that the noble Lord assumes.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, if, contrary to the Minister's expectation, the cost of insurance increases substantially, will the Government be prepared to indemnify the landowner against that added cost? If the answer is no, will the Minister explain why the landowner should bear that added cost as a result of rights imposed upon him for others to roam on his land?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, all occupiers of premises or land owe to some degree a duty of care to those who are there whether or not by invitation. It varies, but there is a duty of care. There is no reason why countryside landowners should be treated and indemnified any differently from owners of other premises and property.
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