Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th November 1978.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Urwin Mr Thomas Urwin , Houghton-le-Spring 12:00 am, 24th November 1978

I wish to echo the tributes paid by my hon. Friends to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) for having succeeded in the Ballot and initiating the debate.

For many years my right hon. Friend, as Member for Sunderland, North, has been one of the greatest champions in fighting Sunderland's problems and seeking to resolve the domestic difficulties which have for so long faced the town. It is not surprising that the debate should have ranged much wider than was expected by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who said a short whole ago that he understood that it was about unemployment. We cannot discuss unemployment without talking about the remedial measures needed to overcome the tremendous problem that confronts the Northern region.

I hope that we are coming to the end of what I have often described as the new industrial revolution. The industrial revolution of the 19th century provided new jobs, and industry in this country began to make a name for itself. By comparison, the present phase of this second industrial revolution has denuded the old industrial areas of a massive number of jobs.

This is symptomatic of the developments that began at the end of the Second World War, and gained momentum throughout the 1950s with the tremendous job losses in British Rail. It climaxed with the major recession in the coal mining industry in the 1960s. More recently we have had the reorganisation of the steel industry, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) referred, and this has resulted in a further reduction in employment opportunities.

The worsening employment situation has been accentuated by the decline in world shipping requirements since the beginning of the oil crisis. The shipbuilding industry in this country has faced fierce and successful competition from the Japanese, and the even newer fast-developing industrial nations in the Far East. I look forward to the early presentation of the corporate plan for the shipbuilding industry.

I wish to link myself with my right hon. and hon. Friends who have drawn attention to the alarming compendium of very difficult factors, every one of which is applicable to the Northern region, which have contributed to enormous job losses in Northern region constituencies.

The hon. Member my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool referred to the form of professionalism—certainly expertise—being gained by hon. Members representing Northern constituencies who have become expert in factory and other closures. I represent a mainly mining constituency, part of which lies in the administrative area of the Sunderland borough council. Very few people could be more expert at closures, particularly pit closures, than I was in the long and seemingly unending period of the 1960s, when almost every week a new pit closure was announced.

Coal was the basis around which the economies of so many communities in the Northern region revolved. A pit closure was a body blow to a community of 15,000 in which probably 50 per cent. of the men worked in the coal mining industry. That industry was the very lifeline of the people.

The problem of loss of jobs is closely allied with the absolute necessity for people to migrate from this area, depriving it of the more virile and younger people. This leaves those communities sadly depleted economically, and also depleted of young people who must leave to find other employment opportunities in other areas—probably in London.

While I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) who spoke of London's problems, I must point out that the problems of the Northern region are far more endemic and of longer duration than those that are now sadly appearing in London. That is all part of the economic decline that this country and other industrial nations are experiencing. Therefore, I join with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North in the renewal of his efforts to bring the Government's attention to the sad plight in which we, in the Northern region, find ourselves. We are continually at the top of the league table of unemployment.

I referred earlier to the fact that for as many years as I can remember—and that is now a great many—even when the national economy is most buoyant the unemployment figures in the Northern region are never less than two and a half times the national average. The problem has not defied solution entirely because we have always regarded the diversification from our major basic industries as being at the forefront of our requirements and our demands.

It is true that a fair measure of success has been achieved by successive Governments since 1964. With respect to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Sir W. Elliott), who is a regular attender at debates on the Northern region, however infrequent they may be, I believe that the Labour Government can claim more success in regional policy and in the creation of new jobs pro rata than the Conservative Government of 1970–74.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) tried to look forward to the possibility, however remote, of the next Government in this House being Conservative. If that arose, the least I would expect from a Secretary of State for Industry from the Conservative Party would be not to repeat the mistakes of the first Secretary of State for Industry in the Conservative Government of June 1970, when industrialists up and down the country were increasingly impatient about lack of activity in industrial investment and investment grants which were always a major part of regional development policy.

The then Secretary of State—and I am sorry that he is sick and has had to resign his seat—apparently had no idea of industrial policy, despite the abundance of bad advice he received from some of his colleagues, including the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph).