Recession and Unemployment

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:24 pm on 19th February 1992.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield 7:24 pm, 19th February 1992

One of the functions of a Member of Parliament is to explain as best he or she can to their constituents what is happening, why and what may be done about it. Having listened to some of the speeches today, I wonder whether they would make much sense to people who are suffering serious economic difficulties.

I make no apology for speaking about the constituency that I have the honour to represent and for describing a Chesterfield development plan which is being considered with the good will of the council of the chamber of commerce, the trade council, the law centre and the citizens advice bureau, among others.

The reason why I want to approach the problem of unemployment from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, is that I—and, I believe, many other hon. Members—believe that there is a world slump. I went further and recently used the word "slump" rather than "recession". The decline in the past 10 years has been very serious, and it is most unlikely that prosperity will trickle down from the top even if interest rates are reduced, even if the Common Market and 1992 works as promised, and even if there is a devaluation.

Every community has its own history and tradition. Chesterfield was built on coal, steel, chemicals and engineering, and it had canals and railways. During the past decade, a decision was made—not an economic but a political decision—to close the coalfields in Britain. Nuclear power costs three times as much as coal, but pits are being closed to make way for it. We heard today of the imminent announcement that the port of Immingham is to be used—as we knew it would be—to provide imported coal. I think it is likely that the north Derbyshire coalfield, which when I was elected only eight years ago provided a quarter of the employment in Chesterfield, may well go—to be replaced by imports from countries where conditions for miners are disgraceful.

Our manufacturing industry is in decline. I shall not give all the figures that other hon. Members have given, because statistics often do not reveal the true position. However, on the old 1979 figures, we have 13 per cent. Unemployment—6,000 people out of work. We hear about days lost in industrial disputes, but what about days lost in unemployment? In Chesterfield, 6,000 days are lost every day because of unemployment. If one adds the number of people whose work is lost through unemployment to that of people whose work is lost through industrial disputes, one finds that the figure has soared under this Government, and it has done so at an enormous cost. I understand that every unemployed person costs nearly £9,000. Chesterfield alone is therefore paying £50 million for the privilege of having those people out of work.

Other problems include the housing crisis—the fact that no houses can be built—and the rundown of schools. I think that I speak for many hon. Members, whatever their political opinions, who take long surgeries as I do every week for four or five hours. We receive 15,000 or so letters a year. The problems brought to us divide equally into two types: those of people who are out of work and those of people who have needs which would be met if those out of work were in work. That is the issue which I put to the Secretary of State.

There is no question but that the Government accept a demand only if it comes from someone who can afford to pay for it. A need unbacked by money does not constitute a demand. The Secretary of State said that they did not believe in employing people to meet unmet needs because it would involve the direction of labour. I must point out that people on the dole have been directed on to the dole. If one wants to see a brutal direction of labour, one need only look to that. If money were provided for unemployed people to be used, there would be a move back towards full employment.

Two factors are necessary to achieve full employment. That is what the Chesterfield development plan is all about. First, local authorities must be provided with general powers. I will not go into the details now, but I have introduced two or three Bills to give local authorities such powers. There should be only two restraints on what they can do: the police station if there is corruption, and the polling station if they are unpopular. Apart from that, local authorities should be able to do whatever is necessary to meet local need.

The second question which always arises is: where is the money to come from? I asked the Library kindly to break down the national budget into personal figures, and I will tell the House some of those figures. I do not know where to start—except by saying that Trident has cost the people of Chesterfield £18 million, and that North sea oil and gas revenues, worked out pro rata among my constituents, would have brought £192 million to Chesterfield. Pro rata among all the people in Chesterfield, the capital exported has been more than £600 million. The EC contributions from Chesterfield alone represent £45 million.

I cited another figure earlier today—that the cost of defence is £30 per week for every family of four. When one looks at it like that, one realises that if the money were redirected—[HoN. MEmBEas:"Oh!"] Of course it would be redirected. Do hon. Members think that Trident should take priority over manufacturing industry? Why are the Japanese and the Germans so powerful? It is because they do not spend money on weapons on that scale. Of course, that means that the money must be provided by borrowing. The party which opposes borrowing has encouraged more irresponsible personal borrowing than any other Government. So many people who need to have reserves have been encouraged to spend them.

The way back to full employment is to fund local communities so that they can put their unemployed people back to work.

What interests me about what I have just said is that I have won the support of the local chamber of commerce, which said in a letter to me that what was needed was a new freight terminal for the east midlands, electrification, and so on. It was concerned about matching skills to jobs. There is a common interest in every community between the firms that have laid people off because money is not being spent and the community which has a need for requirements to be met.

The next election will be the 16th that I have fought as a parliamentary candidate, and I am looking forward to the whistle being blown. I believe that when that happens, our arguments are the ones that will convince people—we need homes, better schools, and better facilities. If we were to elect a Government who committed themselves to that, there would indeed be a way out of the recession. Otherwise, we shall go deeper and deeper into a situation that will prove comparable with that of the 1930s, which cost so many hopes and destroyed so many lives and which ended with right-wing Governments in Europe and a war that cost us 50 million more lives.

That is what the House should be telling the people —the truth about how to get back to full employment. If they do not do that, if they just play games, I believe that the Conservative party will come a cropper on polling day.