Oral Answers to Questions — Scotland – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th May 1987.
asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what are the seasonally adjusted unemployment figures for Scotland for the last available date and in May 1979, compiled on a similar basis.
On a comparable basis, seasonally adjusted unemployment in Scotland was 150,400 in May 1979 and 344,600 in March 1987.
Is it not astonishing that the Secretary of State for Scotland can stand at that Dispatch Box without hanging his head in shame when announcing these horrendous figures? I suspect that he will not need a crystal ball to translate those figures into terms of human misery, despondency and despair that the Government have spread throughout Scotland. I say to him, on behalf of the unemployed of Scotland, that he has one opportunity for atonement, and that is to resign here and now.
Before I do, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his return to the House? We are all pleased to see him after his recent illness.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's strength of feeling on this subject, but he should be aware of the substantial progress that the Scottish economy has been making, particularly over the last few months. I remind the House that the Scottish Business Survey, which was published by the Fraser of Allander Institute a few weeks ago, said:
The short-term prospects for the Scottish economy have improved markedly during the opening months of 1987 with business optimism continuing to rise and the prospects of some growth in employment. Firms in all sectors expect both sales and new orders to grow over the next few months with manufacturing and construction being particularly buoyant.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend find it objectionable that the Opposition should speak in the way that they do, when their policies on nuclear power and weapons would, at a stroke, destroy scores of thousands of jobs in Scotland?
My hon. Friend is correct. The South of Scotland Electricity Board has estimated that electricity tariffs would have to increase by 20 to 30 per cent. as a consequence of the abandonment of nuclear power. Apart from anything else, that would have meant that the Finnish pulp mill, which is coming to Irvine, would not have contemplated a Scottish location, and many of the tens of thousands of jobs around Scotland—Caithness, in particular—would have been severely affected, if not entirely lost.
Is not the real indictment of the Secretary of State that after eight years he can rejoice in the unemployment figures that we have heard? He is so complacent about the situation that he relies solely on grasping the straws of short-term prospects. When will he do something about the Scottish economy, because under his care and that of his predecessor it has rotted away?
Far from being complacent, I am delighted that, over the past eight weeks, unemployment in Scotland has fallen by more than 16,000. I believe that the prospects for the Scottish economy are better than they have been for years. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the increased competitiveness of the Scottish economy, the increased productivity of those who work within that economy, and the far healthier state of the whole spectrum of Scottish business have enabled such improvements to take place.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall reading an article, in the Glasgow Herald in 1978, written by the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) predicting that unemployment would be well over 3 million in the next five years and pointing out that that would be due to the large numbers of new young people coming on to the labour market? Surely the hon. Gentleman was right. Is it not wrong for the Opposition to indulge in such double-standard electioneering and to seek to repudiate the figures that members of the Opposition predicted when they were in government?
My hon. Friend is correct. The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) made that prediction and emphasised that that increase would take place irrespective of which party was in government. However, thanks to improvements in productivity, competitiveness and the fall in inflation that has taken place since the Government came to power, not only is the standard of living of the Scottish people higher than ever before, but we have the prospect of a continuing fall in unemployment in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.
Does the Secretary of State realise that unemployment in the Irvine travel-to-work area is now nearly 12,000, which is the equivalent of 25 per cent.? Is the Secretary of State aware that during the past six weeks I have twice raised the question of the threatened closure of McKinnon of Scotland knitwear factory in Irvine? The right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends promised me their full support, but I have now been informed that the Industry Department in Scotland has withdrawn its offer of financial help to one prospective buyer of that factory. Why?
The hon. Gentleman has been misinformed. Discussions are continuing, and we have made it clear that the prospect of financial help for anyone interested in taking over that particular plant remains available for discussion. The Scottish Office has withdrawn no offers of help from anyone in connection with this particular plant. The hon. Gentleman, who represents Irvine, knows perfectly well that the prospects for Irvine took a tremendous turn for the better with the decision by the Finnish pulp mill to locate in Irvine. The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Labour party's policy on nuclear power would doom any prospect of that pulp mill coming to his constituency.
In view of the figures, is not this professional optimism from the Secretary of State beginning to sound a little like cant? Is it not shameful that, after eight years of Conservative success, of which we hear so much, there are 363,000 Scots drawing unemployment benefit? According to the Library statisticians and working on a comparable basis, that is about 130 per cent. more than the figure that the Prime Minister inherited in 1979. Does the Secretary of State accept that unemployment must be a key issue in the coming weeks? Whatever the hopes of Scottish Ministers, many people in Scotland cannot forget the scarring misery of the dole queues and, I am afraid, the contribution that has been made to that crisis by the Government's thrawn indifference to what is happening in our communities.
First, the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that unemployment doubled under the previous Labour Government, and I do not recall his drawing comparable conclusions at that time. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman knows well that the competitiveness and productivity of Scottish industry have never been higher. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have not only given substantial support to the Scottish Development Agency and Locate in Scotland, but have transformed those bodies into internationally recognised agencies, which are the best of their kind anywhere in Western Europe. In addition, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Labour party's proposals for an assembly with tax-raising powers have already been condemned by Scottish industry as likely to do enormous damage to industry and to the prospects for employment in Scotland.
Order. I remind the House that there are a number of questions on unemployment on the Order Paper. I ask for brief questions, which may lead to brief answers.