I do not have time.
On "BBC News" tonight it was said that retail and manufacturing had fallen and the chambers of commerce said clearly that jobs and business were suffering badly in the real economy. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Jonathan Shaw, to the Dispatch Box. It is good to see a Kentish Member on the Treasury Bench. In a couple of years he will be on the Opposition Benches, or not here at all. As the Fisheries Minister he was courteous to our fishermen, and I am grateful to him for that. I know that in his present role he will be courteous to the unemployed, and I fear that before long there will be more unemployed than there are fish around the Kentish coastline.
As the Minister knows, Thanet has suffered historically from the highest levels of unemployment and social deprivation in the south-east—among the highest levels in the country. The reasons are not hard to find. Thanet has suffered from an enormous amount of immigration. During the 1980s, the immigration came from around the United Kingdom in what was known as the "dole on sea" syndrome: the unemployed came to the seaside to live on the dole in hotels and guest houses, and Thanet took more than its fair share. That contributed to its unemployed base. The Conservative Government of the time got to grips with that issue, but in 1997 the wave of immigration and asylum seekers began, and that pushed up the figures again. In common with Dover, also on the south coast, Thanet took more than its fair share.
Throughout the 25-year period, Thanet has also been the dumping ground for cared-for children from London boroughs and, shamefully, from some of the home counties as well. Those young people have grown up. Very many of them have been damaged and found it extremely hard to find employment of any kind, so we are used to unemployment in Thanet. However, the county council and Thanet district council have made a Herculean effort to attract inward investment, to promote skills training and to enhance employment opportunities in general and in Thanet in particular.
Thanet college is seeking to relocate to provide training in the skills that the sorts of businesses that we want to attract will require. Thanet council has promoted Thanet Earth, probably the most impressive glasshouse horticultural development in the whole of Europe. It is absolutely vast and its hydroponic techniques are staggering. It is highly environmentally sensitive and represents tomorrow's agriculture. It will employ huge numbers of people, and we want those people to be locally employed. However, the other thing that has impacted on us has been the importation of labour—particularly from the new Europe, but also from aspirant countries on the fringe of Europe.
Yes, agriculture does need imported labour; on that we take issue with current Government policy because, as the Minister knows, agriculture in Kent relies heavily on casual student labour for the picking of fruit. Historically, the hop pickers from east London did the job, but now students come from all over Europe to pick our top fruit and soft fruit—and we need them. However, we also need jobs for local people. The recovery in east Kent has been extremely fragile and what we are seeing now, in the current economic climate, is the shattering of that recovery. It is no good those on the Government Benches saying that we Conservatives are talking the economy down—the economy is down. We are in recession. If the Government choose to be in denial, so be it, but we know that out there in the real economy businesses are closing, shops are closing and people are losing jobs.
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, wanted me to be brief, and I will be. I want to make two specific pleas to the Minister and two observations to my hon. Friend Alan Duncan on the Conservative Front Bench. I understand that there is a proposal to close the jobcentre in Whitstable, which is represented by my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier. I am concerned about that because the unemployed people involved—there are 220 at the moment, and the figure is rising daily—would have to come to the Herne Bay jobcentre in my constituency for the assistance that they need. On my estimate, were the closure to happen, there would be 500 extra journeys a month, which I do not consider to be environmentally friendly. It would also impact on staff and the services available to my constituents who use the Herne Bay centre.
I mention the issue not because I believe that the area jobcentre manager is not doing her job well; I am sure that she is—she is trying to maximise her resources. I mention it because I do not believe that now, as we go into a recession with unemployment rising daily, is the moment when this or any other Government should close jobcentres. Those centres will be needed more and more for the foreseeable future. I understand from other colleagues that similar proposals are being made around the country. I mention this now because I believe that the Minister needs to address it immediately in his new role. The game has changed; the economy has changed. Plans that were being laid nine months ago are no longer relevant. We have to look at the situation again.
Another issue that I wish to raise has a direct impact not on today's employment but on tomorrow's employment and the circumstances that we hope to face when, as we will, we come out of this recession—empty property rates. My political colleague who represents the Conservative interest in South Thanet, Mrs. Laura Sandys, has blazed a trail in east Kent on this issue, working with the chambers of commerce. I freely concede that she was ahead of me, but she has been ahead of many Members on both sides of the House, in recognising the damage that is being done by Government legislation that imposes full business rates on empty properties after six months. House building has virtually come to a grinding halt, with all the jobs that have gone with that. The same applies to the building of industrial properties. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton talked about investment in new industrial premises and said that under a previous Government money was offered to pull those premises down. Premises are being pulled down as I speak so that the owners of those empty properties do not have to pay business rates. If we continue down this road, when we come out of recession we will not have the properties or premises that we need. That must be changed, and Ministers have the power to act under existing legislation at the stroke of a pen. This legislation was designed, or dreamed up, for circumstances that existed three years ago but do not exist today. We must change it today, because tomorrow will be too late—it is already too late for buildings in the Medway towns that have already been demolished.
My final point concerns the impact that the current economic climate is having on the elderly. When we think about unemployment, we tend to think of young people; indeed, there are far too many unemployed young people. However, today I took a call from an elderly, dignified lady whose husband is too frightened to retire, although he is well over retirement age. After a long and successful working life, that man, fearing for his savings, his bank balance, his pension funds and his modest investments, is stacking tins in a supermarket at night to ensure that his wife does not go hungry. That is the reality of the economic situation that our constituents face.
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