Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th March 1959.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Iain Macleod Mr Iain Macleod , Enfield West 12:00 am, 18th March 1959

All the figures, of course, are of those who are registered at any given time. This has always been the definition taken. There is no new definition. if the hon. Member is making the point—I concede that it is a perfectly fair one that in some industries—textile is one—there are people who are particularly interested in employment in one given mill and if that mill is on short time they often do not register, that was true in 1959 and has been true in all previous years.

I wish now, in the light of that and having tried to put the winter unemployment in perspective with the advantage of hindsight and having seen how the trends developed, some more favourably than I thought and some less favourably than I thought over these months, to come to the March figures which I have just got. I am very grateful for this opportunity to give them to the House at the earliest possible moment.

There has been in Britain between February and March a decrease of rather more than 58,000. The unemployment percentage goes from 2·8 per cent. down to 2·5 per cent. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in every region of England, there have been substantial decreases so that this overall decrease is very widely shared. What is perhaps of even more value is that this seems to be a true decrease in that it is concentrated amongst the wholly unemployed, who have dropped by 48,000.

The figures of Christmas school-leavers, in which the House has been, rightly, so interested and which show a level of unemployment among boys and girls leaving school of 17,000 in January, is now, in the middle of March, 3,347. That is an enormous and very welcome improvement.

The biggest decrease in total unemployment has taken place where, in fact, we would like to see it most, in Scotland. There the unemployment percentage drops from 5·4 to 4·8.

There has also been—these are figures which I have obtained from the Northern Ireland Government—a very welcome decrease in unemployment there of the order of 3,000. That will mean a substantial decrease in the unemployment percentage, although I have not got the precise percentage. The decrease for Great Britain, is the biggest decrease in unemployment, with the exception of the 1947 fuel crisis year, in any March since the war, and it is the biggest decrease in any month since the months of 1947.

Those are some of the bare facts, and the House, I like to think—the whole House—will welcome them as I give them. I am not, of course, yet ready to do the sort of industrial analysis that I have attempted on some of the earlier months. In some of the key sectors—I asked for some of the figures—there has, of course, been a very big drop, which one would expect. This, no doubt, is largely seasonal in building and contracting as the better weather comes and as demand begins to grow in that sector.

There is a very welcome drop indeed in textiles of 3,400 and a drop of over 4,000 in engineering. The one sector which seems to have increased at all noticeably is shipbuilding and ship-repairing. I am told that the reason for this—I am sure it is right; I have tried to find out from two or three of my regional controllers—is the end of the winter ship-repairing programme before new work has come in.

Those are the main key sectors which I have looked at, and, with the exception of shipbuilding and ship-repairing, they, again, make pretty good reading. The interpretation of these figures may, of course, be altered to some extent in the light of subsequent analysis. I have given an example of a month which seemed fairly hopeful and which on closer analysis was not encouraging and of the immediately succeeding month which did not seem so hopeful but which, on analysis, showed improvement. I have no reason to think, because this decrease is fully three times what the seasonal decrease could possibly be, that it can be explained by anything but a genuine revival of demand. One figure in March—an important figure—is that the vacancies figure has climbed by 25,000 in the same month.

To some extent, at least, this seems to me to put one side of the House in a little difficulty. I will read the first two lines of the Motion which we are debating and on which, I take it, the Opposition intend to divide. They state: That this House deplores the failure of Her Majesty's Government to prevent the recent substantial and widespread rise in unemployment … The Liberals, tumbling headlong into the same pit, although they have an Amendment, start to amend too late to avoid these words.

Frankly, I do not see how the Opposition can call on the House to vote on the Motion because it is simply 100 per cent. away from the truth. There has, in fact, been a "recent substantial and widespread" fall in unemployment, and unless the Opposition chooses to move a suitable manuscript Amendment, I do not see how they can possibly move the Motion now before the House. I have no doubt that the Opposition will improve. The first seven years in Opposition are always the most difficult. Nor, indeed, is there any point in the Labour Party getting cross with me. I did not put this Motion on the Order Paper, and I cannot help it if every time the Opposition are asked to name their weapons they pick boomerangs.

We have, of course, on many occasions, and no doubt we shall again, debated unemployment in the House. I think it worth putting on record, because the two Governments have shared the authority in the country in the post-war years, how astonishingly similar—we can say that our ideas are different, and they may be—the records are.

The position now with the later figures is this. If we take the average monthly unemployment in all the months under Socialism, right from the time when there was virtually no unemployment at all in the summer of 1945 to October, 1951, the average monthly unemployment was 334,000. The average monthly unemployment under the Tories was 334,000. Precisely to 1,000, the figures are the same. But, of course, because employment has been very much higher under the Tories, not only absolutely, which would be understandable because the numbers at work have increased, but also as a percentage of the potential working population, percentage unemployment under the Tories has been rather better than under the Socialists.

One is quite entitled to use these figures to say that a Tory Government has done at least as well—perhaps marginally better—than the Socialists. No one is entitled to use these figures to say that we on this side of the House care more than hon. Members opposite do about unemployment. That would be a shabby thing to do. But it is just as shabby to make that charge, on the basis of less impressive figures, in reverse. There are any number of speeches which have been made and which I could recall to this House—and the House knows this—in which that charge is particularly made. But I should like to recall one speech made fairly recently by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Sir T. O'Brien), who is a member of the Opposition and a former President of the T.U.C. I am sorry to learn from my newspaper that the hon. Gentleman is in hospital. Speaking on 5th November, 1958, he said: I am a politician as well as a trade union leader, but I do not believe that it is right for any politician, whatever his party, to suggest that another party is trying to create unemployment in this country. Personally, I do not believe it. I am glad to put that on record. Personally, I do not believe it for a moment either. Nor, frankly, do I think that in their hearts most hon. Members opposite think anything other than that.