Unemployment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:11 pm on 14th December 1987.

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Photo of Clare Short Clare Short , Birmingham, Ladywood 5:11 pm, 14th December 1987

I had heard about that. It is worrying. I recently watched a television programme which showed children under 16 and young people aged between 16 and 18 in the United States who live on the streets through prostitution or the sale of drugs. Many have grown up in care and been victims of sexual abuse. I fear that such conditions may apply here as a result of such a decision.

The Minister referred to the Secretary of State's announcement of 18 December. It outlined plans for a new compulsory work scheme for the adult unemployed. Such a scheme exists in the United States. It is called workfare. The intention is to force people to work for their benefits.

The Government have now announced the introduction of workfare to the United Kingdom. They are combining the budgets of the community programme and the job training scheme, which was introduced before the general election to try to encourage the unemployment figures to decline in the run-up to the election. It flopped because the offer was so bad. It was effectively an offer of work experience for benefit.

We are now offered a massively increased 600,000-place scheme which pays a few pounds—the exact amount has not been announced — on top of benefit. The Department of Health and Social Security tables make it clear that the cost of going to work—the bus fare, more expensive food at the workplace and different clothes—is £7 a week. It therefore costs £7 a week to be no better off.

The Government propose to pay a few pounds a week more than benefit for full-time work. The harm is not restricted to those people being denied choice; they will be used to compete with people in work and thus to drag down their wages. The Minister has announced more compulsion today. We have the Minister's new questionnaire, restart, the new availability for work test and powers which are to be taken in the Employment Bill. The latter provides that, once the scheme is running—if the Government get away with it—it will be designated as a training scheme and that anybody who refuses to apply, refuses a place or leaves because he thinks it is inadequate will have benefit cut for six months. We are now talking about compulsory schemes for the adult unemployed. The Government will then boast that long-term unemployment has declined.

I can tell the Government that they cannot have such a scheme. They could not have had the schemes that they have already established without the co-operation of the trade union movement, local authorities and voluntary organisations. Their co-operation will not be forthcoming for the proposed scheme. On 8 December, there was a meeting of representatives of a powerful new alliance, which The Guardian called the new triple alliance, of trade unions, voluntary organisations and local authorities. They came to the House of Commons to ask the Government to think again and to say that they would not co-operate.

I hope that the Minister is listening, because this is an important message. The trade unions represented were the Transport and General Workers Union—in the person of Ron Todd, its general secretary and a Manpower Services Commissioner—the National Union of Public Employees, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section, the Society of Civil and Public Servants, which organises those who work for the Civil Service who will be used to compel people to take a place on the scheme, and the National and Local Government Officers Association. They have previously co-operated with authorised schemes but will now refuse to do so.

For local authorities, we had John Pearman, the leader of Wakefield council, who is the representative of local education authorities on the Manpower Services Commission, and representatives of the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities, Rochdale, which runs one of the largest schemes in the country, Manchester and the Association of London Authorities.

The representatives of voluntary organisations were led by Rev. Roger Clarke, who represents voluntary organisations on the MSC's advisory group on special measures. He said: It appals us that we are being cast in the role of workhouse managers herding unemployed people through training schemes … We shall play no part in a scheme that would take away fundamental human rights and involve us in conscription. Those groups have rejected the Minister's new scheme and say that there are five basic principles which must be complied with if any new scheme is to receive their cooperation. First, it must be entirely voluntary. Secondly, there should be real training so that people go away at the end with skills that are relevant to their future employment prospects. Thirdly, those concerned must have employee status so that they are protected by health and safety and equal opportunities legislation. Fourthly, they must be paid the rate for the job—not benefit-plus—and, finally, projects must have trade union approval.

If the five conditions are not forthcoming in the new scheme, the Government will not have the co-operation of the coalition, which means that they will not have the scheme. The coalition stated: Our aim is to protect the interests of the unemployed. It is totally unacceptable that they should be forced to work for their benefits and be used to drive down wage levels for those in work. The success of Government training schemes has depended on the co-operation of trade unions, voluntary sector and local authorities. Such co-operation will not be forthcoming for the Government's new scheme. We are asking all groups currently involved in running schemes to support the Charter. The charter is a document that incorporates the five principles to which I have referred. The coalition's statement continued: We are asking the Government to think again before the publication of the White Paper. The Government boast of a healthy economy but we see a slum economy with increasing impoverishment and low pay. We know that conditions within the economy will become worse without some intervention. The Government have been able to obscure the destruction of our manufacturing base by using North sea oil revenues, but those revenues are now in decline and there is the prospect of a balance of payments crisis and the deflation that will inevitably follow from that. We know that the Government's privatisation programme will come to an end when they have sold off everything that can be privatised. There will then be a gap in Government revenues and pressure for even further public expenditure cuts. This will lead to further impoverishment of our society and loss of employment.

The Government's free market economy does not work. It is not a glamorous economy. The Government's policy is creating poverty and a lack of hope and choice for our people. We ask the Government to think again. The Opposition say in all seriousness that the Government will not be able to implement the scheme that has recently been announced unless they are willing to listen to the new alliance and redesign their scheme so that it meets minimum standards.

The real answers to the problems of the British economy lie in Socialist intervention, planning and use of the massive resources of our economy. After all, we are about the 20th richest country in the world. Unfortunately, the Government are increasingly delivering poverty to our people. The Japanese economy is not run on Socialist lines but within it there is room for planning and Government intervention. The Government's obsessive and prejudiced belief in free-market economics is doing enormous damage to the British people and to the future of the British economy. We reject the Government's economic policy and we hope that they will think again about the scheme that they intend to introduce, which in its present form would lead to more poverty and more compulsion for the unemployed.