Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:08 pm on 3rd December 1982.

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Photo of Mr Ron Leighton Mr Ron Leighton , Newham North East 12:08 pm, 3rd December 1982

I hope that we shall use our oil revenues more sensibly than we do at the moment, when we are using them to finance unemployment to the tune of £15 billion per annum.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) on giving us the opportunity to discuss the scourge of unemployment, which is spreading across the land like a plague, a blight and a pestilence. It is getting worse all the time.

During and after the war there was consensus among the parties that we would never go back to the days of mass unemployment. It was common ground among all those who were politically active that it would be public policy to work for full employment. However, we now have this Government and this faction in the Conservative Party who deny all responsibility for unemployment. Their attitude seems to be, "It has nothing to do with us. It is not our responsibility whether there is unemployment in this country. It is not within our control. We do not intend to do anything about it." They even blame unemployment on the unemployed.

I am appalled by the Government's attitude. It is a crime against our society, particularly against the younger generation. I look around the Chamber at our generation. We have a responsibility to the younger generation. It is the responsibility of our institutions to see that there is full employment. If our institutions cannot provide full employment, perhaps they will not survive. Perhaps they will not deserve to survive. I hope that the Government are considering that matter.

I should like the Government to pay some attention to what is happening in my borough of Newham, where unemployment is higher than in the rest of London and the rest of the country. There is a view in some parts of the country that there is unemployment in Scotland, the North and Wales, but not in prosperous London. However, the rate of unemployment and the rate of increase of unemployment in Newham is higher than in the rest of the country.

The figures for April 1982 show that male unemployment nationally was 12·8 per cent. and in London 11·9 per cent. In Newham it was 15·3 per cent. More recent figures were given to me by the Department of Employment on 23 November. In October 1980, registered unemployment in Newham was 9,216. Two years later, in October 1982, registered unemployment in Newham was 16,038. In other words, in two years unemployment in my borough has more than doubled. The Department of Employment has massaged the figures. It is now giving the figures on a different basis. However, even on the new basis, the figures are worse. Registered unemployment is 16,038, but the number of unemployed claimants is 16,397. Even on the new figures unemployment is worse.

Unfilled vacancies have halved. In April last year there were 519, but in April this year there were 222. Therefore, in my borough hundreds of workers are chasing every job. Why should they? Many of them will give up. They will not bother to look for a job. What will they then do? An unemployed subculture is growing up. There is an increase in vandalism and petty crime. An acid is eating the whole of our society. We have the emergence of a non-working class—people who have never been to work and who never expect to go to work; people with no hope of ever going to work.

I am particularly concerned with the age group from 18 to 25. At that age people are starting out on life. They are starting to plan their families and to think seriously about their careers. They are starting to lay the foundations of their lives. They cannot do that now, because they have no work. The consequences, which I see in my borough, will live on long after the present members on the Treasury Bench have disappeared. Long after they get on their bikes and cycle away, the consequences of the damage that they are doing to society will remain.

Hope would be a great healer. We saw that in the war. If people thought that an improvement was round the corner or even in sight, they would hang on. However, we know from the CBI that there is no hope. It seems that the Conservative Government have virtually thrown in the towel. They do not worry. They do not accept any responsibility. They shrug their shoulders.

What effect does the Minister think that chronic idleness and frustration and a sense of rejection are having, particularly on the energetic, imaginative and eager younger generation? If our society rejects the younger generation, it will reject society. Is that not obvious? That is what is happening.

One can reason only with reasonable people. I am afraid that the Government are completely unreasonable. The young people in my constituency think that the Government are unreasonable. It is my duty to tell the Minister that young working-class people, whom he perhaps does not meet often, are thinking people.

We have already had riots on the streets, and we shall probably have more. Martin Luther King said that "riots are the voices of the unheard." There are many frustrated young people today who have no unions to represent them. They probably think that they have no MPs representing them. They have nobody to represent them. They have no hope. How long are the young expected to put up with that? The Government are creating an out-of-work society. Since the Government took office, an average of 1,800 people have been thrown on the scrap heap and into the dole queue every day. I believe that that works out at about one a minute.

Freedom to work is as important as freedom of speech. They have equal value. The right to work for those who want to work is being destroyed daily. If one is honest, the Government do not give a damn. They shrug their shoulders and say that it is nothing to do with them. Do they understand the symptoms of family stress that I see in my surgery every week? Do they understand the disharmony, the breakdown and the increase in mental illness that result? Do the Government realise that unemployment takes away the purpose in life from whole generations? Because a person is what he does, if he does nothing he becomes nothing.

If society gives the unemployed person no respect, why should he feel respect for society? That is why there is an increase in crime and vandalism and why the country is becoming a shabbier and more unpleasant place in which to live. The Government are responsible. They should do something about it, but, they tell us that it is a world problem and nothing to do with them.

I remind the Minister of the Tory manifesto, which said, that the Labour Government's favourite but totally false excuse is that their appalling record is all due to the oil crisis and the world-wide economic depression". That was when there were 1·3 million unemployed and when the figure was decreasing. Now we have more than 3·3 million unemployed, and the figure is increasing. The Government say that it is nothing to do with them, but is due to the world-wide economic depression.

Which world are we talking about? We are talking about the capitalist world. Does the Minister want me to return to my constituency and say that the Marxist prophecy that capitalism will have recurring slumps, cannot exist without unemployment and causes unemployment is true and that nothing can be done about it? If the Minister can give some alternative or some hope that I can take back to my constituency, I shall listen, because at the moment all that we are doing is paying £15 billion per annum for people's souls to rot in the dole queue, when there is so much to be done.

We are paying teachers not to teach and skilled bricklayers not to build houses. We are closing rail workshops when we have clapped-out railways. Council estates in London generally and in Newham in particular are crying out for better housing. There are 1¼ million bricks stockpiled and bricklayers who are paid not to lay bricks. What sense is there in that? What answer does the Minister have that I can give to unemployed construction workers who are roting in the dole queues and who go home to unhappy and miserable families as a result?

The Minister and the Treasury Bench tell us that the only glimmer of a solution will come from what they call moderation in pay bargaining—if only the workers would accept lower wages. I have the figures from the Library. I shall not quote them unless the Minister asks, but real wages have gone down. Wages are a fixed percentage of total costs, and therefore in many industries the workers could work for nothing, but because of British industries' loss of competitiveness we should still make no progress. We have lost 30 per cent. of our competitiveness because of the regime of the Treasury Bench.

When the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and the London Business School apportion blame for the loss of competitiveness, they do not lay it against real wages. Wages have no part, because real wages have gone down. The Government's only suggestion for getting the country out of the difficulty is that wages should be cut.

We must expand demand. The labour and plant are there. We must put them to work. Whenever we have done that before, we have run into balance of payments problems. It is the duty of any Government to deal with such problems. We have the great advantage of oil. It is the Government's duty to put the country back to work, either by dealing with the exchange rate or by negotiating arrangements for reciprocity and balance in trade; otherwise I shudder to consider the fate of the country or my borough.

Unless the Government do something better, they must get out and let in people who are willing to do better.