The Conservatives held a debate on unemployment in the House of Commons yesterday. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Theresa May spoke from the front bench.
"I am sure that no one in this Chamber needs reminding of the unemployment challenge that this country faces. Every day, Members of this House deal with letters and e-mails from constituents who have lost their jobs and are unable to find another. People feel helpless, frustrated, distressed and utterly let down. Who can blame them? The recession is having a devastating effect on employment around the country. No industry or geographical area remains immune from this downturn and the people of Britain are dealing with its harsh realities every day.
What has been the Government’s reaction to this crisis? Have they taken immediate action to help people now? Sadly not; unemployment has been rising constantly for more than a year, yet the Government closed an average of one jobcentre a week in 2008. As late as last July, Ministers were still issuing press releases patting themselves on the back for record levels of employment, and brushing the unemployment problem to one side. As Ministers were reminding us that we should see the rise in jobseeker’s allowance “in context”, perhaps I can provide a little context for the Government, in the hope that it will get them to face up to the problems that we face.
There are 1.97 million people unemployed. Youth unemployment is at its highest level since 1995. There are record redundancies, combined with the lowest level of vacancies since records began. Jobseeker’s allowance claims are up by 55 per cent. in one year, with the claimant count smashing through the 1 million mark, and there are over 130,000 fewer jobs in the economy since June last year. The reality is that Britain now faces an unemployment crisis.
Yet there is still no real action from the Government. Instead, true to form, they have given us only empty promises. In October, the Government announced £50 million of help for people “currently facing redundancy”. Five months on, how many have received that help? None. Why? Because the projects will not start until April. In December, the Government announced £79 million of funding. Two months later, they reannounced that help. Only then was it revealed that no new employment programmes would be in place as a result of that money until the end of this year.
The golden hello scheme was announced in January. We welcomed that—the Government had finally taken up the proposal for tax breaks for new jobs that we announced in November, but again nothing will happen until April. Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced in an interview with a newspaper that he was spending £40 million to provide extra support for white-collar workers with one-to-one interviews, which they are supposed to have anyway, and the creation of job clubs, which some job centres, such as the one in Maidenhead, already run.
We should pity the poor unemployed white-collar worker who heard that and logged on to the Department for Work and Pensions website to find out more, because there is no more information. Indeed, the announcement is not even on the DWP website. So what sort of commitment is it? Is it new money? How many job clubs will be created? Where will they be, and crucially, when will what has been announced happen? I cannot refer to job clubs without mentioning the excellent work that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has done in setting up a job club in his constituency, which I am looking forward to visiting this Friday. I am sure that many people will be helped by it.
If press releases created jobs, we could believe the Government’s proclamations that they are offering real help now. Unfortunately, far too many people who are struggling to find work each day know that that simply is not the case. One of the reasons why the Government have been so complacent about tackling the unemployment crisis is their complete inability to acknowledge what caused the problems that Britain now faces. This is a global recession, but Britain entered it worse prepared than almost any other developed economy. If it is all America’s fault, why has the value of the pound plummeted against that of the dollar? Why is the UK’s economy predicted to be worse hit than any other major economy, and why has the OECD predicted that unemployment will rise faster in the UK than in any other G7 country?
In the past few weeks, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform have been keen to reassure us that jobcentres are better because they no longer look like those seen in the film “The Full Monty”. I have been somewhat bemused by their preoccupation with that issue, for what matters is not what the job centre looks like, but the service that it can offer. Whether someone is blue collar or white collar, when they lose their job such distinctions seem immaterial—they just want help and they want it as soon as possible.
The last 12 years of Labour government have left us woefully ill-prepared to deal with this recession and its impact on employment, but I call on the Secretary of State to prove his progressive credentials and to adopt our proposed measures. That would offer immediate help to people worried about their jobs and to people waking up everyday without a job to go to, and it would make a real difference to the lives of millions of people."