Every month during my ten years as our MP, I have studied the monthly unemployment figures for the constituency. Universal Credit has changed the significance of these figures quite a bit, as it now covers both low paid and out of work people, but it’s still a useful guide to what is happening in the local economy. Although already braced for bad news, when the figures for April’s claimant count arrived, they took my breath away. There are now 3,945 people receiving unemployment benefits in the constituency – a rise of 1,585 in just one month. That is nearly 7% of our entire working population. I have never seen so drastic a change before.
Unfortunately, the national figures are just as bad, and are likely to get worse: they only cover the beginning of the crisis. We should never forget the human stories behind them – the anxiety, the uncertainty, the stress. When I was growing up in the 1980s unemployment dominated everything. The Government then had no plan for the thousands of skilled people no longer needed in shipyards, mines and factories. We also know from history that recessions hit the young particularly hard, with suitable jobs fading rapidly from the market, as I told BBC News.
That’s why how the UK recovers from this crisis will be as important as how we have responded to it. The Government will have to be much more active, equipping Job Centres and councils with the capacity to get people back into work. They must guarantee a job or training to young people, as Labour did with Future Jobs Fund after the 2008 financial crisis, or another generation will be scarred by early unemployment.
As a country we must also build back better. In the space of a few months those fortunate to still be in work and able to do it from home have had their working experience revolutionised. Even the House of Commons, not known for its modernity, has adapted for remote votes and speeches. Lots of you told me you liked seeing me appear in Parliament from my home in Stalybridge – between you and me, the only tidy bit of that room is the small bit that appears on camera!…
Disappointingly, whilst still asking others to work from home where possible, the Government have already ditched the digital Parliament option. To me this shows a failure of leadership – we should be asking employers to maintain the positives of lockdown as we build back better.
Meanwhile, I continue to make the case to revisit the benefit cap, and to meet remotely with a range of stakeholders and policy thinkers, including the New Economics Foundation, the Fabian Society, and the Co-Operative Party