Unemployment

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th November 1971.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Urwin Mr Thomas Urwin , Houghton-le-Spring 12:00 am, 9th November 1971

It was predictable that most hon. Members would address themselves to the serious problems which have developed in their regions and constituencies instead of emphasising the national position. The hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Parkinson) was concerned with the allocation of blame. Since June, 1970, we have had three Budgets, each completely irrelevant to solving the problems of the unemployment that has developed so rapidly over this period.

It is not unusual for me to speak about regional problem, particularly those of the northern region where I reside and where my constituency is. We have reached the appallingly high rate of 8 per cent. male unemployment. In common with other development areas, we have the continuing experience of thousands of school leavers leaving school starry-eyed, on the threshold of life, but often without any prospect of any form of employment, for even the dead-end jobs are becoming scarcer. Many of these school leavers are still awaiting their first job in industry. One of the worst features in the northern region is that we are top of the league of longterm unemployment. For unemployment lasting more than six months and more than 12 months we take second place to Scotland, but we are way ahead of all the other regions. The position is even worse among people over 40. The cold, clinical figures of unemployment do not, of themselves, tell the whole story. Many people do not register for unemployment benefit, they never report. There are factories, some of them in my own constituency, which, because of the economic climate, are on short-time working, three days on, three days off, sometimes three weeks on and one week off. This pattern is increasing throughout the regions, and in other parts of the country as well.

It is impossible to view this situation with any degree of equanimity, especially in view of the vulnerability to further unemployment of regions like the northern region. We thought, and we were right, that the peak figures in the decline of the coal industry were reached in 1969 and 1970, in terms of job loss, but there are still too many pit closures. In my own constituency last weekend we had to face this situation. A pit employing more than 600 men closed. Despite redeployment in other collieries, there is all too high a proportion of men who will become redundant when salvage) work is completed.

In the midst of the rationalisation programme in the steel industry, it is the development areas again which are being hardest hit in terms of job loss. In the northern region, on Tees-side, the inevitable redundancies are all too hard to bear. In answer to a Question yesterday it was revealed that in the nine months ended 31st October this year, 16,500 men had been declared redundant by the B.S.C., 3,900 of whom are in the northern region. Unfortunately, many more will follow, and these are losses which regions like the north cannot afford. It is no compensation to us to know that the burden is falling almost equally as heavily on other development areas.

I turn next to the statement made last week on rationalisation of the postal services. While it is said that a mere 25,000 jobs are at stake here, and that, when shared out among the regions, perhaps not more than 2,000 or 3,000 jobs per region will be affected, these are, nevertheless, jobs which we can ill afford to lose. More important, while the report states that the estimated 5,000 wastage each year means that there will be no really heavy redundancies, it nevertheless means that there will be an absence of opportunity for people to take up new employment when those 5,000 jobs each year disappear.

I must sound a discordant note on the question of the implications for Britain of joining the Common Market. It is generally accepted that, if there is to be an unrestricted flow of capital, this of itself will influence industrialists to invest more heavily in Europe than in this country, especially if there is a relaxation of the policy regarding industrial development certificates. If. for example, an applicant in the South-East is refused a certificate, there is nothing to prevent him from settling in Europe and taking his capital investment there. There is already too much evidence of the effect of the centrifugal pull in the Community as far as regional development policy is concerned. One stark prospect which emerges is that the situation, as it develops, will be deleterious to the economic advance of the development areas themselves. One cannot look at this serious question and the intolerably high level of unemployment without appreciating the human tragedy and waste of human resources involved.

Government policies must be reshaped to create more confidence for industrial investment. We have been told often by the Government spokesman that the future prosperity of the regions lies in a resurgence of the national economy; that if there is a healthy national economy, the regional economies will follow suit. I can accept this analogy, as would also many of my hon. Friends, but this cliche over-looks the fact that under-developed, to some extent under-privileged regions, in any system of regional policies, ought to have preferential treatment, over the more prosperous areas of the country.

If we enter the Common Market, it is imperative not only that discussions should take place with the Community on regional policy but that, long before the Treaty of Rome is signed—if it is ever signed—we should have hammered out a policy beneficial to the regions of the United Kingdom. We must not allow ourselves to become subservient to the Community. One does not wish to appear too pessimistic, but we cannot face the future with any degree of optimism, having regard to the abject failure which has attended Government policies thus far in relation to regional development.

The first crass mistake, made at a time when consolidation was really necessary in regional policy, was the immediate transfer from investment grants to investment allowances and the second, to announce the abolition of the regional employment premium when the first seven-year period expires in 1974. These two announcements by themselves were responsible for the creation of the crisis of confidence to which so many hon. Members on this side of the House have referred since June, 1970.

The hon. Lady the Member for Fynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) argued the question with her right hon. Friend, but she must know the answer. She will not get any change of direction by this Government, no matter how serious and difficult the unemployment situation is. The decisions have been taken, the new regional policy which we were promised late in 1970 has never been presented to this House. We have had instalments which have not measured up to the concerted and co-ordinated policy which is essential for the development areas.

The Government must recast their policies. The prospect of exporting labour to Europe is not an acceptable solution to the unemployment problem in Britain. In the meantime, the Government can do a great deal to alleviate the situation in development areas. I would briefly refer to the let-down we had in the northern region, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterle-Street (Mr. Pentland), when the decision was taken not to proceed with the establishment of the P.A.Y.E. centre at Washington, a new project which would have created jobs for over 3,000 people, including many school leavers, the kind of employment for which a region like ours cries out, lacking as we do that kind of opportunity. Then to add insult to injury, it was announced that the V.A.T. centre would be situated at Southend. That was too much for us to swallow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand), in whose constituency Peterlee lies, is well justified in the Question which he put, and we wish him success in his efforts to persuade Ministers to change their mind and site that office in Peterlee. If it is not to go to Washington, it should certainly go to Peterlee, in the same geographical area. An urgent review of the Government's location policy is called for. There must be other Government offices which could be redeployed to other parts of the country.

We shall soon see the raising of the school-leaving age to 16. This of itself will have a significant impact on the unemployment figures. It is by no means the best solution to any part of our unemployment problem, but in purely statistical terms it will reduce the number of school leavers at least in one year who are unable now to find a job, and one imagines that the situation will be much the same at the time the present policy regarding the school-leaving age is put into effect.

I conclude with this serious suggestion to the Government. Will they consider reducing the official retirement age from 65 to 60 for men? In this age of advancing technology, jobs are disappearing all too rapidly. Experience with the mine workers' redundancy payments scheme so far—I am sure that it will continue—has been that men reaching the age of 60 much more readily accept the benefits which a beneficent Labour Government bestowed on them through that scheme for retirement at the age of 60, even though they have two blank years, from 63 to 65 years of age, before they qualify for their retirement pension.

In the month ending 30th September, 1971, over £1½ million was paid out in unemployment benefit in the Northern region alone. Some part of that disbursement could be used as a contribution towards the money which would be required to lower the retiring age. I leave that thought with the Government. I have no idea what the cost would be, but I am sure that it could easily be met. I repeat that there are many people, especially in constituencies such as mine, miners and people working in heavy industry, who would, provided that there was an adequate retirement pension, welcome the opportunity to retire at 60.