According to estimates compiled by the statistical office of the European Communities on a harmonised basis, the unemployment rate in the United Kingdom in January was 9·4 per cent. compared with 10·4 per cent. in the European Community as a whole. Over the past year our unemployment rate has fallen faster than in any other industrial country and is now lower than many of our European competitors, including France. Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Is not the optimism of the Secretary of State and his colleagues short-term? Has he had an opportunity to study the report published last week by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which looks specifically at the longer-term position and warns against the decline in the British economy and other European economies —[Interruption.] Conservative Members may not like long-term analysis, but they have to face it. The report warns of the importance of pursuing expansionary fiscal policies to prevent European stagnation in the longer term.
I do not think that any economic analyst would agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is the slightest sign of decline in the British economy. Also, the Budget will considerably help employment. On the matter of trends, I have to point out that what has taken place in this country has not occurred over only two or three months. Unemployment has come down for 19 months in a row. One of the parts of the United Kingdom in which unemployment has come down most is Wales.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that apart from Britain's splendid example, where we are pursuing excellent Thatcherite policies, there is a serious problem in the continent of Europe and the rest of the Common Market, particularly by comparison with EFTA? Does that not suggest that we should be reviewing the excessive expenditure, high protectionism and excessive bureaucracy of the European Economic Community compared with EFTA and other parts of the world?
The latest EFTA figures show that unemployment has gone up slightly over the past month. I do not want to make too much of that. —[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) rightly says, it is below the Common Market average. What pleases me is that unemployment is going down in this country at a faster rate than in any other industrialised country. We should take all the opportunities offered by 1992 and the open market, which I think fits in with at least part of what my hon. Friend is urging.
Do not the Europeans, to some extent, show us the way? Does the Secretary of State know that four firms have nearly disappeared in my constituency over the past two months and have been saved only by the good work of Enterprise West Cumbria? In part, the reason has been the failure of the British clearing bank system. Why can we not have the same level of support from our banks in the regions as is available in other parts of the European Community?
Unemployment is coming down in all regions of the country. Some of the biggest falls have been in regions such as the west midlands, the north and the north-west where the problem has been greatest. If the hon. Gentleman is considering disincentives to employment, I hope that he will point out to his Front Bench the disincentive of what happened at Dundee and how that has destroyed jobs for literally hundreds of people there.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that unemployment in the United States is now about 5 per cent.? Does he draw any conclusions from that fact—such as that the European Community is overregulated and suffers from excessive bureaucracy and hardening of the economic arteries? Will my right hon. Friend persuade his colleagues in Europe to draw the obvious lessons from the United States?
That figure shows some of the things that my hon. Friend has mentioned. Certainly we need to knock down the remaining barriers to trade. In addition, it shows how much further there is still to go and the opportunity that we have. There is no doubt that over the past two years our record inside the Common Market has been the best of all member countries.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this country has one of the highest percentages of the population in work at 66 per cent.? Does he also agree that a far higher percentage of people are in work in this country than in the European Economic Community, which has an average of 57 per cent.? Does he also agree that the record fall in unemployment rates in the past two years is due to the Government's economic policies and initiatives by the Department of Employment?
All those facts are correct. I would only add that I do not believe that we should be remotely complacent about our position. We want unemployment to fall even further. I believe that unemployment will continue to fall under the Government's economic policies.
While I welcome the fact that there has been a fall in the unemployment rate, has the Secretary of State consulted his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and perhaps even the Irish Government, about the possibility of introducing the fair employment legislation for Northern Ireland into Great Britain especially in view of the statements from the Commission for Racial Equality, which has said that there has been no appreciable improvement in the past 20 years in the prospects of the black community?
Before the Secretary of State is dazed by his own complacency on this matter, will he acknowledge that on the counting basis used by all previous Governments, including Tory Governments, the number of unemployed today is still 3,329,000, nearly three times the level that the Government inherited? Is he aware that more than half the alleged cut in the past 18 months is due to the increased numbers of people on Government schemes plus the tighter availability-for-work rules? Is he also aware that the Government's recently published labour force survey shows that for every seven persons knocked off the unemployment registers, only one new job was created? Is it not clear that the Government's unemployment figures are scarcely worth the paper that they are written on?
No, I do not accept a word of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Certainly the Government are not complacent. On the common basis of the European Community's statistical office, the figures show clearly that the unemployment rate in this country is below the European Common Market average. There is no question about that. [HON. MEMBERS: "The right hon. Gentleman's figures."] No, that is according to the EC's figures.
I am bound to say to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that, after Dundee, we will not take lectures from the Opposition on reducing unemployment. The unions which the hon. Member for Oldham, West so discreditably supported at the weekend have destroyed jobs, not created them. That is the responsibility of the hon. Member and his friends.
Obviously there has been a significant reduction in unemployment in my constituency over the past two years. Does my hon. Friend agree that the unemployment rate in my constituency is still too high? When does he expect that the figure will be down to the 1973 level?
Of course I agree with my hon. Friend that the figures are too high. As he knows, we are not in the business of making specific forecasts, but we are slowly and steadily winning the unemployment battle. I place on record the contribution made by tourism to employment in my hon. Friend's constituency. Alton Towers will employ 1,400 people this year.