My Lords, in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, claimant unemployment has fallen by 48 per cent—nearly half—since 1997. In South Yorkshire, unemployment has fallen by 53 per cent—more than half—since 1997. Employment and unemployment rates in the Yorkshire and Humberside region are similar to the UK average. Every local authority district in that region has an employment rate above the EU average.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that welcome reply. Would she care to comment on the fact that, while the progress in the county as a whole has been very good, it has been particularly so in the hardest hit areas, such as in the nine parliamentary constituencies comprising the metropolitan boroughs of Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham? Given that advance, does my noble friend consider that it would now be appropriate to give higher priority to tackling the social consequences of the economic devastation that the area experienced in the 1980s?
My Lords, I join my noble friend in welcoming the progress that has been made in the area. I am sure that my noble friend is aware that in 1992 the unemployment figure for Yorkshire and Humberside was 250,000. It is now 85,000. That figure has fallen to a third of its previous level. That is true across almost the entire UK, accompanied again by redundancy rates at half their level of the early 1990s and other factors. My noble friend is right that, having built up the economic prosperity of South Yorkshire, aided by the New Deal, employment zones, action teams, step-ups, work pilots and the like, we must turn to building up the social and environmental infrastructure.
My Lords, those were heartening replies for those who live in Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham. As the House is aware, they suffered terribly from the pit closure programme. The unemployment figures have been awful. To what extent has the European regional development fund helped to secure jobs? Is the coalfield communities regeneration programme proving successful? Finally, South Yorkshire has now received Objective 1 status, which shows that it is still one of the poorest regions in western Europe. How will that help?
My Lords, my noble friend has raised the situation of the coalfields communities previously. He is right about that. Objective 1 funding is a combination of the European regional development fund, the European Social Fund and some funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Put together, that Objective 1 funding allocates to South Yorkshire £1.8 billion between 2000 and 2006 to help make an impact on the economy. It is being spent on projects such as the New Deal. Together with the coalfield communities regeneration project, it is also being spent on progress to work in places such as Barnsley, which is helping unemployed recovering drug misusers, a minority ethnic outreach programme in Leeds and Bradford and the like. The money is being used to target those groups who are most distanced from the labour market, as well as seeking to regenerate the social and environmental infrastructure.
My Lords, the noble Lord is right. At the core of the problem is conventional unemployment. The noble Lord mentioned extremist politics. It is certainly case, as some of us said last night when debating the social security up-rating statement, that the gap in regional prosperity is not particularly a gap between north and south, but that there is a north and south divide in many cities, which particularly affects ethnic minorities in many communities.
The figures for the North West, the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside show that unemployment is down to one third of what it was in 1992 in those areas. However, in more than half the regions, ethnic minority employment has not only not improved but has actually got worse during the past decade. The noble Lord is right to remind us that such areas are a breeding ground for extremist politics of all colours.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, despite all that the Government have done and are doing, the northern region continues to have the highest regional rate of unemployment in the country? As there is normally a link between long-term unemployment and ill health, will the Minister say what the position is in the northern region?
My Lords, we do not collect statistics for the northern region as such, but we have them for the North West and the North East. I assume that my noble friend is especially interested in the North East. The statistics for that area show that, whereas unemployment in 1992 stood at 148,000, it is now down to 54,000, which is one-third of what it was. We are seeing the same pattern in that region as in the rest of the country: not only is unemployment coming down but the regional disparities are narrowing. None the less, there is still some way to go, as we can see from house prices and wage rates.
My Lords, much of what the Minister says is welcome. However, does she accept that the programmes for economic regeneration and safer cities, the City Challenge and City Action programmes, and the introduction of the Single Regeneration Budget made quite a contribution in areas such as Tyneside, Teeside, Liverpool, Manchester, Don Valley, Leeds, Plymouth and many other parts of the country including the Docklands? When the Minister's Government came into office, unemployment was falling in all those areas.
My Lords, I would not disagree for a moment. I am glad that the noble Baroness welcomes the significant achievements made since not only 1992 but 1997. She is right: at the end of the day, environment as well as jobs is crucial. When I was in opposition, I read some reports from the previous Conservative government, which showed that the growth in capacity must be locally owned and bottom up. That means local authorities and others going down to ward level. One needs to build that capacity so that, when the funding is taken out, the initiatives do not dry up.
There are various stories in that regard. In the Docklands, there may be more of a question mark about the success of local ownership than there is in some northern regions. As a philosophy, however, I agree with the noble Baroness that the process must be bottom up. One needs to do more than simply reduce unemployment figures.