Orders of the Day — Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th April 1971.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East 12:00 am, 29th April 1971

I beg to move That this House deplores the rise in unemployment by over 150,000 above that for the same month last year, and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to introduce new and relevant policies which will produce a speedy reduction from this totally unacceptable level. The House has debated unemployment on many occasions in recent years, and in those debates a great deal of anxiety has been expressed about the regions and pressure has been put upon the Government to deal with special problems. The level of unemployment was, as I said myself in a debate on the subject last year, a great cause of concern to the last Government, and we were not satisfied with the progress that we ourselves made. But in recent months the situation has altogether changed. It is more serious in Scotland and the regions, but the problem is by no means confined now to those areas, and forecasts indicate that we might reach a level of 1 million unemployed during this coming winter. In addition, there is a general lack of business confidence and policy statements by Ministers suggest that they regard unemployment as an essential part of their strategy.

This debate therefore is not one of a past series but is the first in a new series in which unemployment is emerging for the first time since the war as a major political issue which threatens to develop into a national crisis. It is not a quantitative but a qualitative change that has taken place, and the Opposition Motion calls for new and relevant policies to deal with it.

I remind the House of the basic facts of the situation as they have emerged. The total number of people out of work in the United Kingdom on 5th April was 815,819, or 3·4 per cent. of all employees. The figures of the wholly unemployed—that is to say, excluding school leavers—who are the real hard core of unemployment, on a properly seasonally adjusted basis reveal the trend more dramatically. If we leave out Northern Ireland, the figure of basic unemployment has been increasing at an accelerating pace since the beginning of the year. From January to February it rose by 10,000; from February to March it rose by 23,000; from March to April by 48,000. Jobs have thus been disappearing at the rate of 2,000 per working day. The total now stands at 704,000, which is 3·1 per cent. nationally compared with 561,000, or 2·4 per cent., in June last year.

The position in the regions is even more serious. In the South-East unemployment is still 1·9 per cent., but in the Northern region it is nearly 5·2 per cent. In Scotland it is 5·3 per cent. and in Northern Ireland it is 7·2 per cent. These over all figures conceal pockets of rising unemployment all over the country, and I give one example from the Midlands. Coventry now has 3·5 per cent. out of work, an increase of about 20 per cent. in 12 months in an area where vacancies have halved.

There is another aspect which gives special cause for concern. This, of course, is the problem of male unemployment. In Britain today one man in 20 is out of work. In Scotland and the North, it is one in 13; in Northern Ireland it is nearly one in 10. According to the Sunday Times, Britain is now the industrial nation with the highest percentage of male unemployment in the world, having overtaken the United States, where 4·3 per cent. of the men are out of jobs.

The age structure of the unemployed is, of course, yet another problem. About half of them are over 40 and the over-40s form a much higher proportion of those who have been out of work for over six months. In Scotland nearly two-thirds and in England and Wales nearly 80 per cent. of those who have been out of work for over six months are over 40.