Leading Article: Just the job, Mr Delors

'WHY THIS White Paper? The one and only reason is unemployment.' Whatever the weaknesses of Jacques Delors' paper on Growth, Competitiveness, Employment - which Christopher Huhne analyses in detail in our business section - the European Commission President deserves congratulations for this alone. He has put unemployment at the top of the agenda. The British government prefers not to do so. Unemployed people have few votes and many do not bother to vote anyway. To the employed and contented majority, they are marginal, even invisible. Better to concentrate on keeping inflation to the minimum at whatever cost in jobs; better to reduce budget deficits; better to keep taxes low; better to insist that only the market can provide more employment and that government's role is to give business its head. Better, above all, to ignore the truth that the much-vaunted 'supply side' measures of the 1980s failed in Britain to deliver the promised growth in jobs.

The Delors White Paper rightly states that there is no miracle cure for unemployment. But only the British Conservatives, obsessed with the supposed beauties of the free market, have ever argued that there is. Delors has included in his paper the favourite Tory themes of low labour costs, deregulation and private sector investment. Nobody denies that these may play some role. Delors, however, raises four further issues, which have been virtually wiped out of public debate in Britain, yet are equally important in any strategy for reducing unemployment.

First, he proposes an old-fashioned Keynesian programme of public sector investment: for example, new rail, road and waterway links, improvements in airports, new telecommunications networks, more efficient energy and water distribution. The projects will bring permanent benefits, and possibly provide attractions other than rock-bottom costs to potential investors. They will also be labour-intensive and they will usually involve relatively low import costs. The Tories insist that they should be mounted only with private sector funding. But the Jubilee Line, the Channel tunnel rail link and Crossrail - to name just three examples - show that this is merely a recipe for delay and uncertainty.

Second, Delors raises the question of creating new, socially useful jobs. The elderly and handicapped need home helps, children in run-down areas need play areas, old houses need renovation, rural areas need transport services, polluted rivers need cleaning up. Is it entirely beyond the wit of governments to use the pool of long-term unemployed for such tasks?

Third, the White Paper raises the possibility of work-sharing, which is anathema to the British government and to most industrialists and orthodox economists. David Hunt, the Secretary of State for Employment, has called it 'utter nonsense' and the 'politics of despair'. Yet it seems a matter for much greater despair if there is no alternative to a society in which some people work 70 hours a week - often neglecting the 'family values' that ministers consider so precious - and others not at all. Over the past decade, average weekly hours have increased in Britain, for both men and women, manual and non-manual. At 43.7 hours, the average week for a full-time British employee is by far the highest in Europe - Portugal, at 41.9, is the next highest. If the 9 million hours now worked in overtime each week in manufacturing were converted into full-time jobs, that alone would take 250,000 people off the jobless register. A national edict limiting hours would be wrong, and cuts in the working week would be pointless without corresponding cuts in wages. But the Government should at least encourage employers to explore this solution. During the 1980s, it had two schemes offering incentives for work-sharing; it scrapped both.

The main objection to work-sharing, discussed in a paper published last week by the Employment Policy Institute, is that the job vacancies would be taken by less skilled and less productive people. This brings us to the fourth issue: the need to raise the skill levels of the workforce. Britain is catching up with the rest of Europe in the provision of higher education; but, in vocational training, we still trail far behind.

Ministers have modified their earlier scorn for the Delors White Paper. Their European partners, they have found, have listened and accepted some of the arguments they have put in the past. But the Tories must listen, too, and stop huffing and puffing whenever it is suggested that tackling unemployment requires more than a simple faith in the market.