Orders of the Day — Employment (Waveney)

– in the House of Commons at 11:10 pm on 15th May 1995.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]

Photo of Mr David Porter Mr David Porter , Waveney 11:12 pm, 15th May 1995

I would like to thank Madam Speaker for the opportunity to raise the matter of employment in Waveney, in particular the barriers to employment. I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice), is unwell and cannot reply to the debate, as he knows something of my constituency in addition to what his officials tell him. I am delighted, however, that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is here to reply, and I am grateful to her.

Clearly, unemployment nationally is falling, but the perception in Waveney is that we are still in dire straits economically. Unemployment in Waveney from March 1994 to March 1995 fell by 3 per cent., but that is not the perception locally. Politics is all about perception, and that is why I want to bring to the attention of the House some aspects of Waveney's particular circumstances. I do not want to be guilty of the same charge that I sometimes level at my local authority of running my area down, but some unique circumstances need attention.

My constituency association recently did a survey in a residential area, and the overriding concern on the doorsteps was local employment. When I visit schools, the overwhelming issue for all youngsters approaching school-leaving age is local employment and the inevitability of having to move away to work. In a constituency where the majority of people are still native born and bred, that is a serious factor in the political equation.

SCEALA, the Standing Conference of East Anglian Local Authorities, found last year that the region is beginning to recover from recession, but the Henley centre for forecasting put Waveney among the worst economic prospects for Britain, along with Liverpool, Gateshead and south Tyneside.

Historically, Waveney developed around the fishing industry at Lowestoft and agriculture in the hinterland. By the 1970s, the whole economy had become dependent on oil and gas offshore, shipbuilding, fishing, food processing and tourism. By 1981, we were the most industrialised district in Suffolk. Since then, there has been a 19 per cent. reduction in the proportion of the work force employed in manufacturing nationally, but a 26 per cent. reduction in Waveney. We know that no one owes the country a living, so it certainly does not owe Waveney a living. We know that. We know the stark modern facts on industries—that, in general, the time between the sunrise and the sunset of an industry is getting smaller. We know that. We know the reality on national manufacturing figures—7 million jobs in 1979 and 4 million today, but the 4 million make more than the 7 million did, and all because of technology, which we cannot uninvent or even slow down. We know that. But Waveney's dependence then and still on a declining manufacturing base makes prospects seem much bleaker.

The UK national average of manufacturing employees in the work force is 22 per cent.; in Waveney it is 27 per cent. There has been some service and high-tech industrial development, and some firms are doing very well. I should list some of them for the record. They are SLP, Kvaerner Oil and Gas, Birds Eye, Clays of Bungay, Harrod's of Lowestoft, Sanyo, Adnams of Southwold, Bernard Matthews, M and H Plastics, Fibernyle of Beccles, and a host of smaller firms. We know that.

We know that in a vibrant economy, businesses collapse and are taken over, and new ones are born. We know that. Recent contracts won by SLP Engineering and Kvaerner Oil and Gas are very encouraging and welcome, but they cannot solve the problem of the economy being dependent on a small handful of sectors. Help for diversity and training and retraining to diversify is what is needed now.

We also know that we are the most easterly point of the United Kingdom, yet we are only 120 miles from London. In some ways, it might as well be 1,000. I have said that before many times in the House, and the previous time I said it, I was rewarded with a cartoon in the Lowestoft Journal portraying me as Indiana Jones trying to get from there to the House.

That is part of the charm of the area—I accept that—but the lack of reasonable roads, either the A12 north to south or the A47 upgraded as a major European route east to west, and the want of the third crossing at Lake Lothing at Lowestoft, all combine to hamper economic growth, compared with other parts of the country. That is the perception of businesses, and of people in the tourist and job-creating sectors of the community whom I talk to and whom I represent in the House.

We have fallen victim to a freezing of the roads programme and a changing of policy on roads, which might be right in national terms, but it is welcomed only by areas that already have reasonable roads. We are just 26 miles from Norwich, which is our regional and economic centre. Norwich itself has suffered enormous job losses recently. Norwich Union is to cut 20 per cent. of its work force during the next 12 months. The Nestlé Rowntree factory is closing, with 900 jobs going. Colemans of Norwich is up for sale.

I do not say that all the Norwich economy is bad—it certainly is not. Again, the picture in Norwich is much the same as that which I have portrayed in Waveney—a host of firms are doing well—but it is the perception that all are not doing well that does not help to boost business confidence. In a sense, the whole of Norfolk and north Suffolk belies the image of prosperous East Anglia which so many people from outside the area have. That is perhaps why many people in the area are unfortunately voting Labour, tragic though that is.

Jonathan Sisson, the president of the Norfolk and Waveney chamber of commerce and industry, recently launched a debate about our local economy. He centred it on two arguments. The first was that it was time to lower the drawbridge on Fortress Norfolk and Waveney and end the view that the isolated nature of the area and the quality of our life compensate for economic stagnation. The second was that the road and rail infrastructure needs to be dealt with. He understands, as we all do, that growth is as essential for the economy locally as it is nationally. When we do not achieve that growth, commensurate with our location, population and assets, something is wrong. When we are 80 miles from the motorway network, and when it is quicker to get to Amsterdam than to London or Birmingham, all is not quite right.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will consider what I am saying from an economic and employment point of view and pass those thoughts to the Department of Transport when the roads programme is reviewed again next year, not so that East Anglia is covered in roads, but to put what we have got on the competitive level of other parts of the country.

From her position, my hon. Friend the Minister will know of the decline in employment. In 1991, the Rural Development Commission identified Waveney as an area likely to suffer further agricultural job losses. She may also realise how much fishing has suffered, too. One hundred years ago, there was a fleet of 500 boats; today, there are fewer than 20 beam trawlers. One thousand jobs have been lost in the fishing industry in the past 12 years alone. I do not blame the Government alone for that. It is part of the global decline of the fishing industry as technology and mechanisation have improved. However, the common fisheries policy, as my hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised to hear me say, has failed to conserve fish stocks. I believe that it should be scrapped so that we can start again.

Worse than that for Lowestoft is the fact that a plaice swap has been imposed by the Government, which will take £1 million-worth of plaice out of the fish market and run the fleet out of quota by the autumn. As a consequence of the CFP, to which the Government are so wedded, there will be no fishing industry left before long—or perhaps I should say that there will no British fishing industry left before long. It is a further barrier to employment, economic development and business confidence and contributes in many people's minds to the feeling of a spiral of decline and decay. The much-vaunted decommissioning scheme encourages owners to make fishermen redundant and puts merchants into bankruptcy.

Waveney failed to win assisted area status, whereas neighbouring Great Yarmouth succeeded. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) here tonight. I do not complain about Great Yarmouth's success in this instance, because, on the day the figures were set, Great Yarmouth's unemployment was greater than that of Waveney. However, my hon. Friend and I put it to the Minister that the areas should have been treated equally—both, or neither, should have received assisted area status. We have, however, been awarded objective 5b money, which could be a very big boost. To be fair, the local authorities, the training and enterprise council and the private sector are coming up with ideas for the money.

The sad thing is that it is now necessary to have that money, that kind of life support. We are pleased that the Government have approved it—the European Union will now give some British taxes back to us—but it would not have been necessary had the Government funded our infrastructure improvements at the same time as those of other parts of the nation.

There is much that we can do to help ourselves, and it is being done. The trade unionists to whom I talked last week, the local authorities, the major employers and the smaller job creators are all singing from the same hymn book, although I wish that our local authorities spent less time employing people on poverty strategies and concentrated more on driving down the council tax.

There is a determination locally to use our natural assets better. Kvaerner has come only recently to Waveney because of its location and the quality of the work force. The Government can lend two helping hands. First, they can keep inflation down, keep interest rates stable and business taxes low, deregulate and privatise, help with training and retraining and resist the minimum wage. All that they are doing but, secondly, they could remove the extra barriers that we have and that other areas of structural decline do not have. I have already mentioned poor road and rail links and the common fisheries policy, but additional barriers are the special assistance schemes to our competitors at our expense and excessively zealous bureaucratic enforcement of rules and regulations. No magic wands are asked for or expected, only a fair deal.

The area is almost the closest part of the United Kingdom to the rest of the single market. We should be able to use that advantage our way. Nobody predicted 25 years ago that tourism would be the great job creator that it is today. In Waveney, about 3,800 jobs—10 per cent. of the work force—are in tourism-related work, even though it is sometimes seasonal, short-term, part-time or low-paid. No one can predict how the future will produce the work that the country needs, including the 4,500 new jobs that Waveney needs in the next 10 years to stand still.

In the meantime, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do her best to help Waveney to pull down some of the barriers to employment that need not be there, so that we can fight fair.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe , Maidstone 11:29 pm, 15th May 1995

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) on securing the debate. I thank him for raising the issue of employment in his constituency. It is only right to record the interest shown in the debate by my hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) and for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). The defence of the British fishing industry by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives has commanded much respect in the House.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney knows, the number of people out of work fell again in March, to its lowest level since June 1991. That was the 19th month in a row when there had been a fall. Furthermore, throughout the country employment is growing. Nearly 300,000 more jobs were created in the past year, and over 200,000 were in full-time positions. In the United Kingdom as a whole, unemployment has fallen by over 600,000 in the past two years. East Anglia has shared strongly in that improvement. Indeed, it has the lowest unemployment rate of all UK regions.

My hon. Friend paid tribute to the attractive areas of East Anglia, including Waveney, the constituency which he represents. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has sadly been prevented from replying to the debate due to a dislocated shoulder. He is familiar with the area and I cannot compete with his familiarity with it. He assures me that it is an area that provides a wide range of wildlife habitats, waterways and tourist attractions, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney referred.

I recognise that Waveney has some special difficulties, and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has eloquently described them. At the same time, many positive things can be said about the district in economic terms, to which I shall return to focus upon if time permits.

I know that, for many years, agriculture has been the staple industry in the area. I am aware also that the fishing industry has traditionally played a major part in the prosperity of the local coastal towns. Tourism is also important. I am sure that the seaside resorts on the East Anglian coast are beginning to see the holiday makers emerge as the weather becomes warmer and brighter.

Even in a prosperous region such as East Anglia there will still be areas of high unemployment if the traditional local industries decline, especially if they decline more quickly than new ones grow to replace them. Similarly, all industry needs to modernise and invest to compete at a European and world level. That means that many traditional, existing industries, such as fishing and farming, cannot always be sustained with the same employment levels that they have enjoyed in the past. I am pleased that those problems have been recognised in the granting of assisted area status to Wisbech, Harwich, Great Yarmouth and Clacton. That entitles them to apply for regional selective assistance.

I am sorry that Lowestoft was not successful in its bid for assisted area status. I can assure the House, however, that my Department is aware of the employment situation in the area. There is no single factor that determines eligibility for assisted area status. Decisions on the map were not taken on the basis of an automatic statistical process. Current employment, as well as the unemployment rate over the past five years and the level of long-term unemployment, were taken into account, along with several other factors.

More recently, Lowestoft and parts of the Waveney valley, and three rural areas—the Fens, central rural Norfolk and rural east Suffolk—have been awarded European Union objective 5b status, which will entitle them to £46 million of extra resources over five years for projects to diversify their economic base. I understand that a wide range of organisations in the area, including the TEC and district council, recently submitted bids to make best use of that newly available funding. The European programme PESCA will also assist the fishing industry in Lowestoft to cope with the current structural difficulties by diversifying coastal regions.

We all appreciate that economic change brings difficulties for industries and those who work within them, but change should not always be portrayed as a negative process. The business community in East Anglia and Waveney is resourceful and enterprising and, over the years, a broad economic base has developed with a wide variety of industries, including a high number of manufacturing industries, particularly in the Waveney area. Those are not only vital for local prosperity, which so concerns my hon. Friend, but important for the economy of the UK as a whole.

That is undoubtedly why the region has one of the highest rates of employment in the country. I prefer to say "employment", as my hon. Friend did in his title for this debate. We should all talk much more about employment. That is the important issue, whether it be in Waveney or elsewhere in the country.

We take the problem of long-term unemployment very seriously and it is worth pointing out that between January 1994 and January 1995, the latest period for which we have statistics, the number of people out of work for more than a year fell by 19 per cent. in the eastern region, compared with 15 per cent. across the UK as a whole.

The Government have a number of initiatives to help long-term unemployed people, in addition to the wide-ranging support offered by the Employment Service. For example, we have job plan workshops, work trials and the jobfinder's grant, which we announced in the last Budget. The training for work programme offers more than 1 million training opportunities every year. It is worth mentioning that many of those made unemployed in the eastern region as a result of redundancies in manufacturing, the vehicles industries, and the financial and banking sectors are extremely well qualified and would be in demand by businesses requiring high skills. That is good news for the region's economy as it returns to growth.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of transport infrastructure. We are well aware of the importance of economic growth and the relationship between transport infrastructure and competitiveness. We understand that companies move 90 per cent. of their products by road, and they do it in lorries, rather than buses, trams or on bicycles. The Highways Agency has the task of delivering the roads programme, but I understand that the recent transport supplementary grant settlement for the county is perfectly fair, with 14.8 per cent. of its bid being accepted.

Substantial investment has been made in improving the major routes to and through East Anglia in view of its importance as a region in its own right but also as a major gateway to Europe. Those improvements and the Government's future proposals are an important element in improving the attractiveness and competitiveness of the area for economic development. I understand that Suffolk county council will make a package bid for Lowestoft in this year's transport plans and policies round. It has already been successful with an Ipswich package bid, and substantial progress is being made.

Perhaps I should mention some of the good economic news of which I am aware in the Waveney district. Despite its difficulties, unemployment has fallen in the Waveney constituency and 194 fewer people are registered unemployed than a year ago. We acknowledge that unemployment in the Lowestoft travel-to-work area is still too high. The Employment Service and the TEC will do all that they can to promote enterprise and help local people get back to work. The unemployment rate, which is down 1.1 per cent., has fallen across the East Anglian region and 11,359 fewer people are now registered unemployed than a year ago. As I said, the unemployment rate in the region is the lowest in the country at 6.8 per cent.

New jobs have been created in the region. For example, a multi-million pound offshore contract to design and build a 2,000 tonne accommodation module has been secured by SLP Engineering, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend. That will secure the jobs of 225 workers at Lowestoft and could create new jobs. The Norwegian offshore giant, Kvaerner, is bringing new jobs to its Lowestoft-based operation with a construction contract worth more than £1 million. Around 25 jobs will be created as Kvaerner Oil and Gas services works on a major contract for the port of Felixstowe. Lowestoft-based graphics firm, Supersine, is to become a centre of excellence for screen printing. The recently launched Enterprise 2000 will also help 1,000 people to become their own bosses in the region.

During the past decade, the Rural Development Commission has been actively involved in the Waveney area. It has promoted development so that rural businesses and services can prosper and provide for the varied needs of rural communities. For example, the RDC provided £40,000 in grant aid last year to encourage the refurbishment of 14,000 sq ft of redundant buildings, which is likely to accommodate 40 jobs. That has been a typical level of grant aid.

Since the launch of Norfolk and Waveney TEC's "Train and Gain" initiative in October 1993, 727 people have been placed back in work. It offers training grants to employers taking on people who have been registered unemployed for six months or more. There are also extra payments to encourage national vocational qualification take-up. The TEC is also operating a business expansion loan scheme, in partnership with the Midland bank. The scheme allows small companies to borrow up to £15,000 at low rates to encourage expansion and, with that expansion, new jobs.

We can concentrate on our achievements nationally, regionally and locally. There will always be room for improvement in certain areas, but the way forward to prosperity in every area of the country is through sustainable economic growth. That means the encouragement of employment policies that are not just short-term expedients but long-term solutions with long-term benefits to meet the nation's current and future needs. I believe that Waveney and Great Yarmouth will benefit from the prosperity generated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Twelve midnight.