Major 'standing idly by' as jobless total rises: Stephen Goodwin reports on the angry scenes in the Commons as unemployment passed the 3 million mark

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Indy Politics
THE INCREASE in unemployment to over 3 million sparked furious exchanges in the Commons yesterday, with John Smith accusing the Prime Minister of standing 'idly by' and allowing the jobless total to rise in every single month of his period in office.

The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, had to call for order repeatedly as MPs howled down John Major's attempts to rebut the Labour charge by reading lists of training measures introduced by the Government.

Mr Major said that until Labour dropped its support for the Social Chapter, a minimum wage and a windfall tax, the party was in no position to lecture anyone about joblessness. But Mr Smith said it was 'rather contemptible on this tragic day' for the Prime Minister to 'seek to blame others and abuse his opponents'.

Opening his Question Time attack, the Labour leader said the country would never forget that it was Mr Major's government and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, who had said that unemployment was a price well worth paying.

He asked: 'On the day when unemployment has reached the tragic total of 3 million, will he now publicly repudiate this heartless approach?'

Mr Major said the Government had put in place a comprehensive system of schemes to assist the unemployed 'unmatched in the history of this country or elsewhere across Europe'. They included training for work programmes, Job Clubs and Re-start courses, he said to Opposition jeering. 'They're not working, sunshine]' Bob Cryer, Labour MP for Bradford South, shouted.

Mr Smith asked: 'Does the Prime Minister not appreciate that unemployment at this level is not just a personal disaster for millions of honest and decent people who want to have the independence and dignity that employment can give them, but it is also an economic millstone round this country's neck?' It cost Britain pounds 27bn a year and lost 780 million working days. It was 'economic madness as well as social tragedy'.

Mr Major said that of course the Government appreciated that fact. 'That is why we are seeking to help those who are unemployed and to create the circumstances to make sure they have permanent, long-term, sustainable jobs in the future.

'We are determined to bring unemployment down and we will, but with our policies, not the lack of policies of the Labour Party.'

But the Labour leader retorted: 'If these schemes were of any value and if they were successful, and if the Prime Minister really cared about bringing down unemployment, why has he stood idly by and let it rise in every single month of his period of office?'

Mr Major said it was very revealing that Mr Smith had said 'if' these schemes were of value. Did that explain why Labour had opposed every training measure the Government had put in place for the unemployed? 'I would find Mr Smith's concern more convincing if he had just one decent economic policy to tackle unemployment.' Instead he had two bad ones, a training tax 'to put more people out of work' and a tax on 'excess' profits.

Paddy Ashdown asked why Mr Major always told the House what the Opposition said instead of what he was going to do. On Wednesday night, President Clinton had given his country hope through strong leadership and a clear programme for renewal, the Liberal Democrat leader said.

'Is it not fortunate that the Prime Minister does not have to make a State of the Nation address, because if he did it is perfectly clear he would have nothing to say, not even, it appears, 'sorry'?'

Conservative backbenchers came to Mr Major's aid, praising the turn- round in the fortunes of British car manufacturers and optimistic reports of increased exports from businesses in the Thames and Chilterns area.

Leading article, page 18

(Photograph omitted)