People's March for Jobs

Part of 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.