People's March for Jobs

Petition – in the House of Commons at 11:35 am on 22 May 1981.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 11:35, 22 May 1981

Unemployment now stands at more than 2½ million, and everyone expects the number to continue to rise substantially. The other day the Secretary of State for Employment admitted that the Treasury unemployment forecast was too low. He refused, when questioned in a Select Committee, to give an undertaking that unemployment would not exceed 3 million in this financial year. He said "It is quite possible". It is indeed possible. It would be surprising if it did not reach that figure. Every day 6,000 people are joining the dole queues. More than 150 companies a week are closing. Forty per cent. of the jobless in Britain are aged under 25, and one-fifth under 20. There are 400,000 people who have been out of work for more than 12 months.

By November 1980 output in manufacturing industry was at its lowest level since 1967. Unemployment has spread throughout the country. It has risen in my region in the West Midlands faster than in any other part of Britain, including Northern Ireland. Manufacturing industry has been so hard hit—indeed, devastated—that that is hardly surprising.

I wish to quote some figures for short-time working which were given to me in answer to questions. I asked for a comparison of the figures for May 1979 and the latest available date. In the West Midlands in May 1979 there were 3,604 on short-time working schemes. In February this year there were 127,064. That rise in short-time working happened in one region. In the Black Country, in the West Midlands—my constituency falls within that area—1,846 people were on short-time working in May 1979. The latest available figure is 40,203. In my borough of Walsall, 12 people were on short-time working in May 1979, and in February this year the figure had risen to 9,802.

What about job vacancies in the West Midlands? Again, I shall refer to figures supplied to me by the Minister. In May 1979, when the Labour Government left office, there were 16,069 vacancies. In April this year the number has been reduced to 6,435. So much for the talk occasionally heard about people not wanting to work and that some unemployed may be genuine but others are not.

Where are the job vacancies in the West Midlands, especially for the redundant workers from the engineering and other related industries? How many jobs are now being lost? How many of my constituents, having been forced on to the dole queue, will wait months, perhaps years, before they obtain another job? Some of my constituents in their late fifties may never work again. That is the bleak situation. According to the latest available figures, there are 75,000 people over 45 years of age who are jobless in the West Midlands and 50,000 under 20 years of age. If the Rover plant at Solihull closes, the situation in the West Midlands will worsen.

That is the background against which the people's march for jobs is now taking place. The march has been organised by the North-West, the West Midlands and the South-East regional councils of the TUC. It is a march from Liverpool to London. It set out on its way on 1 May. Last Friday I had the honour of joining the march when it came through Walsall. We marched about six miles from the outskirts of the town to the town centre. The Bishop of Lichfield joined us and we were pleased to see him. My parliamentary colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), accompanied us.

During the six-mile walk to the centre of the town I believe that there was not one hostile remark made by onlookers. However genuine a march, one would expect some onlookers to jeer a little because of their political views—for example "Why don't you go back to work?". I should have been surprised if there had been many such jeers and hostile remarks. However, I believe that not one hostile remark was made.

Why? I believe that when the public saw the marchers they remembered the devastation that has come to the West Midlands and the Black Country areas in the past 18 to 20 months. They know and understand that the marchers are the conscience of the nation. That is their reaction whatever their political views. The marchers are the nation's conscience in fighting against the return of mass unemployment. That is my explanation of why there was not one jeer and not one hostile remark from any onlooker.

Today the marchers will be in Northampton, and I shall have the pleasure of joining them and speaking at the rally which is to take place. I understand that it has been organised by the Northampton trades council. The final rally will take place in London on 31 May. I am sure that there will be a tremendous turnout and a tremendous amount of sympathy from those in London and from the surrounding areas to greet the marchers and to give them the same warm reception that they have had in the rest of the country. I am sure that London will do its duty on 31 May.

There are 500 long-term marchers. They are the ones who have been marching from 1 May. They will be coming to London at the end of the month. The marchers are a cross-section of trade, industry, age, race and sex. When I was marching last week I was in the second row. Ahead of us was a disabled person—and this year is the International Year of Disabled People. He was being pushed in his wheelchair by one of his colleagues on the march. He reflected those who suffer because of their disabilities, especially at a time of high unemployment. On each day of the march the long-term 500 have been complimented by thousands of supporters in each town along the route.

The Government's economic policies have done much to create the present crisis. There has been a tight squeeze on credit and, reduced demand because of tax increases and spending cuts. The over-valued pound has created many difficulties for those trying to export. We have had record interest rates. We have had a monetarist policy that can be said without exaggeration to have been a nightmare for the British people. When I fought, alas unsuccessfully, in a by-election in the autumn of 1976 for my present constituency, I made the prophecy that if a Thatcher Government came into office there would be 3 million unemployed. Unfortunately, it seems that my prophecy is turning out to be only too true.

The Government have already cut back the employment and training services. They now intend to reduce or abolish the industrial training boards. The cuts in the manpower services programme have meant closures of skillcentres and there will be staff reductions in jobcentres.

The employed have been hit. These are the men and women who are the victims of the Government's monetarist policy. They have been hit because unemployment benefit did not keep pace with inflation. It was allowed to fall behind by 5 per cent. The unemployed have been hit because the earnings-related unemployment supplement is being phased out. It will be abolished next January. The Minister may not appreciate the assistance which those who became unemployed received as a result of the supplement. It did not mean that they had the same income as when they were in employment, but it provided some cushion, some assistance, when they were faced with being on the dole queue. What possible justification could there have been for the Government to abolish the supplement?

If an individual exhausts his unemployment benefit and is unable to get a job within 12 months, he may claim supplementary benefit if he does not possess more than £2,000. If either the claimant or his wife has more than that sum, they will not get a penny. A man who is made redundant after some years in employment may have some savings and may save his redundancy money. A constituent wrote to me who was made redundant in his late fifties. He told me that he and his wife hardly ever went on holiday and had saved for their retirement. They were not to know that the husband would be made redundant in his late fifties. He will not receive a penny in supplementary benefit once his unemployment benefit is exhausted. He will have to spend it all before he receives a penny.

These are measures taken by a Government who only last week, by making changes in capital transfer tax, enabled the very rich to transfer their wealth and assets without any tax provided that the transfers took place within 10 years. I am not waging class war. It is the Government who are doing so. It is those whom I represent, and many like them who are represented by my right hon. and hon. Friends, who have been penalised and discriminated against by a Government who, in my opinion, are as reactionary as the Chamberlain Government of pre-war days.

I asked the Prime Minister whether she would receive the organisers of the march. It is known that the right hon. Lady replied "No". I find it difficult to accept that that reply was drafted by civil servants. It seems so characteristic of the Prime Minister. Why is she so high and mighty that she will not receive the marchers? I know that the Secretary of State for Employment will do so. It is perhaps an indication of the support that the march has received throughout the country that a Cabinet Minister is to receive the organisers. However, I hope that the Prime Minister will do so. It is her policies that are largely responsible for the unemployment from which we are now suffering. She is the first to defend those monetarist policies inside and outside the House. Why does not she defend them to the victims of monetarism? I hope that even at this late stage the Prime Minister will agree to meet the organisers of the march.

In his reply the Under-Secretary of State may wish somewhat to dismiss the march. He may have read about political affiliations. However, the march is not a sinister Left-wing plot. There are many on the march who are not particularly political. I accept that there are some who are. I would hardly wish to deny that. There are some who are not. The onlookers who have given the marchers such a rousing reception, from Liverpool to London, are not political so much as against mass unemployment. The bishops and the clergy have given support. Perhaps some of the clergymen voted for the Government, but that made no difference to the support which they gave to the marchers.

The Minister should not dismiss the marchers lightheartedly. They represent the best in our country, and the protest against unemployment will continue in one form or another until policies are changed or until, finally, at the next election, the Government are driven out of office because of the people's loathing for mass unemployment.

Photo of Hon. Peter Morrison Hon. Peter Morrison , City of Chester 11:51, 22 May 1981

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said. I appreciate that he is concerned about the present high levels of unemployment. I understand that he is most concerned about unemployment in the West Midlands, particularly in his constituency in Walsall.

I hope that when the hon. Gentleman addresses the marchers this afternoon in Northampton he will correct himself in two respects. He talks about the high level of interest rates and the over-valued pound. Thanks entirely to the good housekeeping policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, interest rates in this country are at the lower end of the scale of all Western countries. The hon. Member also talked about the over-valued pound. I hope that he will be aware that the over-valued pound, which has come down substantially, helps to reduce inflation and means that we can buy raw materials from overseas more cheaply. Despite his saying that the pound is over-valued, the fact remains that our balance of payments surplus has been at record levels. That means jobs.

I come from a constituency in the NorthWest—Chester. It is but a stone's throw from Merseyside and Liverpool. I would be unbelievably blind and callous if I did not see the unemployment in the North-West, particularly in Merseyside, and if I did not desperately care about it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give me credit for caring about it. I did not go into politics—nor did any of my right hon. and hon. Friends—to see people without jobs. We want to see full employment, as the hon. Member does. To suggest that we do not care about the situation—he did not say so in so many words, but he nearly did—is both untrue and is not borne out by the facts.

The hon. Gentleman said that a large proportion of those without a job were under the age of 20. I accept that. If we did not care, we would not have a youth opportunities programme. That programme has been expanded this year to 450,000 places. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the long-term unemployed. If we did not care we would not have a community enterprise programme. About 25,000 of the longer-term unemployed will receive temporary support under that programme.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about short-time employment. If we did not care we would not have the temporary short-time working compensation scheme. Nearly 1 million jobs are being supported under that scheme. That is helping employers to avoid redundancies. The hon. Gentleman may not like that, but it shows that the Government and my right hon. and hon. Friends desperately care.

I accept that certain areas of the country are suffering more than others. The hon. Gentleman will agree, because that is common ground. Merseyside is one of those areas. Certain parts of the West Midlands may be other areas. The Government realise that. I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what the Government are doing for Merseyside. As he knows, the march started from Liverpool. Under the Industry Act Merseyside, as a special development area, is eligible for maximum Government financial assistance. In fact, no area in Great Britain is eligible for more assistance. From May 1979 to March 1981, assistance worth £23·3 million was offered to 105 projects in Merseyside under section 7 of the Industry Act. The estimated employment associated with those projects is over 13,500. In the same period, £125 million was paid out in regional development grants. Under section 8 of the Act, over £1 million has been offered to 94 projects in that area.

The hon. Member will also be aware that in Liverpool we have set up an urban development corporation. It will be based on the Merseyside docks area. It came into being on 25 March this year. An enterprise zone will be established at Speke. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is also aware that Liverpool is an inner city partnership area with a budget this year of £17·6 million.

In terms of special employment measures, people in Merseyside are currently benefiting on the following basis: over 12,000 jobs are being protected under the temporary short-time working compensation scheme; about 1,120 people are benefiting from the job release scheme, and community industry has 638 participants; over 17,000 people in Merseyside entered YOP courses in 1979–80 and 24,700 entered in 1980–81; the provisional allocation for 1981–82 is 33,800.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that much taxpayers' money—not Government money—is going to an area where there is a big unemployment problem. I accept that it is a big problem. However, the hon. Gentleman may not like the fact—I may be wrong, and I shall be happy to give way if I am—that from the European regional development fund £51·7 million has been put into the Merseyside, Widnes and Skelmersdale special development areas since 1979. The hon. Gentleman may not like that, because he is not an eager supporter of the Common Market. However, the Common Market has substantial advantages because of the funds that are available. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if we were not a member millions of jobs would go, thanks to the lack of trade that would result from our withdrawal.

The march left Liverpool on 1 May. Therefore, it is now in its twenty-second day. I shall give the hon. Gentleman one or two figures to demonstrate that the Governmemt are doing everything within their power to make sure that unemployment is not as bad as it otherwise might be. In the last 22 days the Government have given the British Steel Corporation £77 million. That has meant the preservation of jobs. Over the year it will be £1·2 billion. In the last 22 days the Government have given to British Leyland £18 million. In the same period they have given British Shipbuilders £15 million and Rolls-Royce £7 million. Other industries have been given money, but those four industries alone receive nearly £2 billion from the taxpayer. In the past 22 days they have received over £100 million. We are also spending nearly £1 billion on special employment measures, and since the march began the amount spent has been over £60 million.

The Government will not throw more pounds at problems, because the country simply cannot afford it. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman speaks to the marchers in Northampton tonight he will put the other side of the balance sheet and explain how Labour will create jobs. If he intends to put more money into the system, where will it come from? Over the past 25 years Governments have spent too much money, which is why we are in our present predicament.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the money spent on giving the unemployed a minimum existence, which will increase as unemployment increases? Also is it likely that by the end of the year 3 million people will be unemployed?

Photo of Hon. Peter Morrison Hon. Peter Morrison , City of Chester

I shall deal with those points in due time.

I was explaining that throwing pounds at problems does not necessarily solve them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will draw attention to the Lambeth authority and the new Greater London Council, both of which may create unemployment by throwing pounds at problems, as the money will have to be raised by substantially increased rates, which will drive industry away. Cheshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire now have Labour-controlled authorities. The marchers should ensure that they do not spend money that commercial and industrial ratepayers cannot afford. If they do, the industry that we are attracting to those parts will be driven away.

The picture is not half as bleak as the hon. Gentleman and some politically motivated people would have us believe. He did not tell the House that last month 270,000 people found jobs. In the North-West last year 700,000 people left the unemployment register. In the West Midlands, around Coventry and Birmingham, with which the hon. Gentleman is understandably concerned, last year 450,000 people left the unemployment register. In his own area of Walsall the number was 40,000. What is more, nine out of 10 of last year's school leavers have now found jobs. It does not help to stir the pot.

The hon. Gentleman did not compare the march with the Jarrow march in 1936, although it has been so compared. Those who organised the earlier march would not recognise this one. InThe Times of 14 May the Venerable Harvie-Clark stated: Sir, Mr. Hughes quotes Ellen Wilkinson on 'What good do such marches do?"'— Ellen Wilkinson was the Member for Jarrow— Perhaps we ought to remember that she wrote:'The Jarrow march was kept irreproachably "non political" by David Riley whose powerful frame marched at the head of our column…with a certain humour, the march committee had sent ahead as our advance agents the two political agents for the division, Councillor Suddick, the Conservative, and Harry Stoddart, the Labour agent.'Mr. Len Murray and Mr. Scargill, please note. As the hon. Gentleman may know, that march was even disowned by the national Labour Party and the TUC. The marchers were protesting simply about what happened to their town, where unemployment was far higher than it is anywhere today. Their protest was led by local representatives. Understandably they attracted much sympathy, not least because they fully co-operated with the authorities along the way, which I believe the current marchers are also doing.

Many who have identified themselves with the aims of the march and spoken in its support have done so from honourable motives. They are concerned about high unemployment. However, as the hon. Gentleman admitted, some of those closely involved with promoting and organising the march have less charitable motives, and many hold opinions on a range of other issues with which I doubt that the hon. Gentleman would wish to be associated. At least, I hope that he would not.

We are entitled to ask whether Opposition Members believe that in a parliamentary democracy such marches are the right way to seek to influence Government policy. We are prepared to listen to anybody who has constructive suggestions to deal with unemployment, but we are under no obligation to encourage those who see unemployment simply as a handy stick with which to beat the Government, or see the march as an opportunity to parade their divergent political philosophies. I do not for one moment believe that doing so would be in the interests of the unemployed.

TheMorning Star reported the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), who speaks for the Opposition from the Front Bench, telling the march: 'we've got to win' in the struggle for social change and for Socialism. It appears that the hon. Gentleman was playing at politics with people's lives, which I do not applaud and which I hope the hon. Member for Walsall, North does not applaud.

It would be a betrayal of the real interests of those whom the marchers claim to represent for the Government to give way to demands for a change of course. Such changes were made in the past, and proved wrong. It is easy to protest. The call for change and dramatic action is seductive, especially in hard times, and I can understand why people have joined the march. However, the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends are misguided if they give false hopes to the unemployed. The efforts of the union representatives who organised the march would be better spent in trying to reach serious agreements with employers to make industry more competitive, which would be to the advantage of every worker in industry. That is a less glamorous, more difficult and demanding approach, but it is far more constructive.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Prime Minister has said that she sees no purpose in meeting a delegation from the march. She has Secretaries of State in many different areas and it seems to me perfectly appropriate and totally right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment should meet the marchers. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend has agreed to do that on his return from America on 1 June.

I can only say to the hon. Gentleman—I hope that he will repeat this at his meeting this evening—that when the delegates from the march meet my right hon. Friend I hope that they will put forward constructive proposals showing how they see jobs—and I mean real jobs—being found and will not be purely negative in their approach.