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Salmonella and Eggs

3.30 pm

Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on salmonella and eggs.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke) : My Department issued guidance on 26 August and 21 November concerning salmonella and eggs. I am advised by the Government's chief medical officer that up to the end of October there had been 46 reported outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning in England and Wales, involving about 1,000 cases in which the most likely source of the infection was uncooked or partially cooked eggs. Recent studies show that some sporadic cases of salmonellosis have been caused by eggs. It is likely that these figures underestimate the total number of people affected.

The chief medical officer is today repeating his advice to the public not to eat raw eggs or uncooked foods made from them. He has advised caterers to use pasteurised egg instead of uncooked egg. Some of the 46 outbreaks were assoicated with the consumption of lightly cooked eggs or foods containing them. Although the risk of harm to any healthy individual from consuming a single egg is small, it is advisable for vulnerable people, such as the elderly, the sick, babies and pregnant women, to consume only eggs that have been cooked until the white and yolk are solid. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is in his place alongside me, is this afternoon publishing details of a voluntary code agreed with the poultry breeding industry to reduce the risk of salmonella infection in poultry breeding flocks.

To put the problem in perspective--30 million eggs are eaten every day--the risk of an individual becoming ill is very small. Nevertheless, there are grounds for concern, and my Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the poultry industry are working closely together to tackle them.

Sir Hal Miller : Will my right hon. and learned Friend reiterate that the 46 outbreaks relate to a consumption this year of 9 billion eggs? Is he aware of the consternation and anger that have been caused by the rather rash statement of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health? Does he realise that there are signs in Birmingham market advertising Dutch eggs that are salmonella-free? The woman at the pub in the Cotswolds at which I stopped for breakfast over-cooked the eggs because of the salmonella scare. Is it not time that something was done to put an end to this uncertainty?

Mr. Clarke : We are all agreed that we must keep this matter in proportion. There is no doubt that there is genuine concern in this country and abroad about the increased incidence of salmonella poisoning from eggs. It is right that particularly vulnerable people such as the frail, the sick, the elderly and young children should be protected from eating raw eggs. I agree with my hon. Friend about the vast consumption of eggs in this country, but the risk of infection to any individual is small, and the risk to a healthy adult is small indeed. This is an international problem, so anyone advertising overseas eggs as being safer than our own is plainly wrong.

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I noticed that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health drew attention to this problem this weekend. The House should reflect on the fact that my hon. Friend was talking about a serious matter on which my Department had already issued public health advice twice this autumn. My hon. Friend's words have sought to draw further attention to the problem and, I trust, to warn people who are vulnerable to infection if they eat raw or uncooked eggs. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) that I shall carry on eating eggs, as I am sure he will. The chief medical officer tells me that he had egg sandwiches for lunch. Every healthy individual need not be too worried about an unreasonable scare.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) : Does the Secretary of State recall that when his Department last issued guidance on eggs and salmonella, on 21 November, it stated :

"the risk of any individual egg being infected is likely to be very small"?

How does the right hon. and learned Gentleman square that with the claim at the weekend by the Under-Secretary of State that most of the egg production in this country is now infected? Which of those two statements reflects the Department's view? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman content to preside over a Department that issues two totally and utterly contradictory views in the space of two weeks?

Is not the lesson of today that the Government will let the hon. Lady insult pensioners, caricature northerners and threaten child benefit, but that stubbing the toes of the National Farmers Union is going too far? Surely it must now be clear to the Secretary of State that the hon. Lady's embarrassment quotient exceeds her entertainment value? Is it not about time he removed such a major obstacle to our taking his Department seriously?

Mr. Clarke : The Department's position has been consistent throughout. There is a growth risk of salmonella. It is obviously right that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my Department and the industry should tackle it together. The risk of any individual being infected is quite small, but it is right that we should draw the public's attention to the need to be careful in the way that they handle and cook food. My hon. Friend the

Under-Secretary of State for Health is an extremely valuable member of the team in this Department and the Government. It may be that many hon. Members are a little envious of her natural gift for obtaining publicity. This is not the first occasion on which she has obtained great publicity on a serious matter and drawn the public's attention to something that might otherwise have passed their notice.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that unsubstantiable remarks by anyone must be denied by Secretaries of State? Will he make it clear to the House that there is no scientific evidence that there is any salmonella in an uncracked egg, one that is still in the shell? Therefore, statements made over the weekend which have a major effect on a large industry in agriculture are to be condemned.

Mr. Clarke : I do not hold myself out as having any scientific expertise. I obviously rely heavily, and with total confidence, on the advice that I receive from the chief medical officer to the Government and his staff. My understanding is not the same as my hon. Friend's. I do

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not think that it is true that an uncracked egg can be guaranteed to be salmonella-proof. The advice that we are giving is that the public should be careful about how they handle uncracked eggs, that they should cook them thoroughly and use them sensibly. The remains relevant advice until the industry's efforts have reduced the present level of infection.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : Will the Minister acknowledge that the statement of his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has created a tremendous loss of confidence in the egg industry? How will he give more confidence now that that statement has been made? There is no question but that there needs to be an investigation and thorough inquiry into what has gone on. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, if the facts are established and there is a problem, he should discuss with his hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the possibility of a thorough eradication programme, should that prove necessary?

Mr. Clarke : My Department put out information in August advising the public not to eat raw eggs. That advice was followed up in November with advice not to eat raw or lightly cooked eggs, together with a recommendation in caterers to use pasteurised eggs for any food that required raw or lightly cooked eggs. All we are doing is reinforcing that message.

As I have said today, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is putting out a code that has been drawn up with the industry and will be followed by the industry to reduce salmonella infection to acceptable, minimal proportions. At the moment there is a source of anxiety which is being tackled by all concerned. Meanwhile, the public will simply have to be sensible and carry on eating their eggs in a way that ensures that the risk to health is the absolute minimum.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) : I would hazard the guess that millions of people will be infinitely depressed at the prospect of hard-boiled eggs and no fresh mayonnaise. What practical steps are he and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food taking to investigate the cause of salmonella in poultry and to eliminate it?

Mr. Clarke : I agree that I would miss my mayonnaise, but, personally, I shall probably not desist from eating it. I imagine that that is true of most people in this Chamber who regard themselves as healthy adults and therefore the risk of infection to be acceptable. However, we have a duty to warn the public that salmonella infection is rising and appears to be poultry-based. The Ministry of Agriculture, my Department and the public health laboratory service will all be seeking to find more information about the full extent of the infection and the steps that can be taken to reduce it. We are sure that steps can be taken to get British poultry and eggs back to the high quality that we are accustomed to receiving.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton) : Does the Minister unequivocally and strongly support the statement made by the Under- Secretary of State?

Mr. Clarke : My hon. Friend was quite right to answer a question put to her on another occasion, stressing the

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concern that we feel about infection in eggs and drawing attention to the advice that the Department had already been giving over the previous few months.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that even the fact that he has come here today and said that there is a very small risk is doing damage? The risk is minuscule, but we have witnessed today, in this House, some embarrassment and laughter, and, outside this House, a fall in consumption of 1 per cent. or more, which may put egg producers out of business. My right hon. and learned Friend must address that matter.

Mr. Clarke : I agree with my hon. Friend that, despite the undertone of hilarity in the House, there is a serious problem. We must steer the proper course between, on the one hand, the ridiculous scares that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) described after his experiences, and, on the other hand, undue complacency which might leave some of the very elderly and the very young and the sick and frail at risk. All the public have to do is cook their eggs carefully--fry them or boil them properly--and for any frail person to make sure that they are hard boiled. I am sure that the industry and ourselves can tackle the risk together.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : The half-baked, half-boiled irrational statement by the Under-Secretary of State has caused tremendous concern in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that no outbreak of salmonella has been identified in connection with any eggs or poultry products produced in Northern Ireland? Does he also accept that the sweeping allegations, which, from what we hear today, are largely unfounded, threaten egg production in Northern Ireland farms as we are virtually totally dependent on exports? Does he agree that greater attention should be paid to imports of foreign eggs into this country in future? Does he acknowledge the excellent health record of Northern Ireland poultry flocks and of Northern Ireland eggs exported to this country?

Mr. Clarke : I shall take advice on whether any of the cases involve Northern Ireland eggs, but it may not be possible to discover that.

We all realise the concern of egg producers, and I am satisfied that nothing that I have announced today or that my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State said at the weekend need threaten egg sales or egg consumption in this country. On the other hand, there have been one thousand cases of salmonella connected with eggs. Much as I would wish to give the industry a totally clean bill of health, we cannot suppress the advice of our own chief medical officer and his staff. That advice is sensible and balanced and need not worry any housewife or healthy member of the public and merely warns us all to be prudent until this sudden and worrying upsurge in salmonella is brought back under control.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, according to the public health laboratory service, the majority of cases of salmonella in eggs are due to mishandling by caterers because the eggs are stored in high temperatures? Is he further aware that the British Poultry Federation has carried out a check on eggs throughout the country but has not found one case of salmonella?

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Mr. Clarke : I was not aware of my hon. Friend's first point. I know that many poultry producers are making careful checks--and if they continue to do so, they will eventually discover salmonella in poultry flocks. The code is being drawn up with the industry to eliminate that risk. I appreciate the egg industry's concern and I am saying all that I can--it is the right thing to do--to reassure the public that they can continue to buy eggs. However, we cannot ignore the public health advice. There have been 1,000 cases, which is 1,000 too many. A little more care is required in the cooking of eggs to avoid infection. People should be warned not to eat raw or lightly cooked eggs. My hon. Friends should not consume prairie oysters in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : Does not the adverse publicity during the past few days, especially that created by the Under-Secretary, emphasise the lack of co-operation and co-ordination between the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Are there not conflicting statements from the two Departments? Is not one reason for the current problem the reduction in research funding?

Mr. Clarke : There has been the closest co-operation between my Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Government's chief medical officer. We all agree on our statements and on our message to the public. Whenever there are minor public health worries, it is inevitable that people will exaggerate. Some of the reactions to my hon. Friend's statement, including all the publicity-seeking stuff this morning about dismissal, rebounded on those making the claims because it has drawn more attention to the problem. I hope that the House will get the matter in proportion and will accept that there is a health problem, which we are tackling, and that the average member of the public is not at risk.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East) : Does my right hon and learned Friend agree that it is the obligation of any responsible Government to inform and not to alarm? Do not the Under-Secretary's remarks this weekend fall into the latter category?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the next time that we attend a football match together we will have our customary lunch of beer, cigars and a couple of Scotch eggs--none of which our hon. Friend the Under -Secretary approves of?

Mr. Clarke : I accept that it is the Government's duty to inform and not to alarm, and we shall follow that course. The House must accept that we have a duty to inform people that the risk of salmonella is higher than it was and that we are tackling that. I shall continue to consume my customary fare when I attend football matches with my hon. Friend. I am sure that that will alarm a number of hon. Members, but I intend to persist in that habit.

Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich) : Does the Secretary of State agree that, on available statistics, there is a one in 350 million risk of salmonella poisoning from eggs? Was not

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the remark made on the radio this morning-- that it was as likely as being hit by a meteorite--probably true? Was it not highly irresponsible to put the egg industry at risk and to jeopardise the long-established eating habits of this nation?

Mr. Clarke : As I have already said, I do not have scientific experience in this matter. I shall consult on some of the propositions being made to me. I agree that nothing has been said that should put the egg industry at risk or justifies exaggerated public alarm. There is no point, however, in going too far the other way and exaggerating the minuscule nature of the risk. There have been 46 outbreaks of salmonella and 1,000 reported cases, and there may be others that have gone unreported. That is why we have taken action and made some comments. We do not believe that the public should be put off buying eggs.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why both his statement and that of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agree, when the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture--which is an agent of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food--has made a clear statement that the egg industry in Northern Ireland has a clean bill of health and that there is no poisoning? Does he realise that the Under-Secretary's statement has greatly exacerbated an already difficult position in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Kenneth Clarke : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in Northern Ireland are better informed about the Irish situation than I am. I would certainly rely on their advice on the industry in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food put out a statement this afternoon, which states :

"The industry are aware of the need to take effective action. And action is being taken on several other fronts."

The action is in proportion to the risk, which is not too grave. All we are giving is some sensible advice to the general public and, meanwhile, taking steps for the industry to get the situation back to normal.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. This is a private notice question. No doubt the House wil be able to return to this matter when we have health questions next week.

Sir Peter Emery : In view of the entirely unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, I give notice that I will attempt to raise the matter on the Adjournment as soon as humanly possible.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : I shall take it afterwards.

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"Employment for the 1990s"

3.52 pm

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : With permission, I would like to make a statement on the White Paper "Employment for the 1990s" which I am publishing today.

Over the last five years, almost 2 million new jobs have been created in this country. Unemployment has also fallen in each of the last 27 months. Since the 1987 general election, unemployment has fallen by almost 700,000, and there has been a particularly significant reduction in long-term unemployment. Our unemployment rate is now below that of the average in the European Community, and, with an estimated 700,000 job vacancies in the economy, there is no reason why unemployment should not fall further.

One of the main reasons why unemployment has fallen so far and so fast is that, over the last nine years, this Government have sought to remove some of the main barriers that stood in the way of employment growth. The theme of this White Paper is the need to tackle barriers which could impede employment growth in the 1990s. Ten years ago, one of the most serious barriers was poor industrial relations. In the 1970s we lost an average of 13 million working days a year through strikes. As a result, British job after British job was exported overseas, and, all too often, our industries had a record for unreliability. We have moved decisively away from that position.

The number of strikes today is lower than at any period since 1940. There is no doubt that one of the major reasons for this improvement has been this Government's reform of trade union law. The White Paper makes it clear that we will take any further legislative steps which may be necessary and that, in particular, I will be reviewing the operation of the pre-entry closed shop.

There is a clear link between pay and jobs. Pay arrangements need to be more closely linked to local labour market conditions, differences in performance and the continuing profitability of the individual company. The Government also believe that the time has come to reconsider the future of the wages councils.

There are real questions about whether a statutory system of this kind is relevant to pay determination in the 1990s ; about whether, even now, wages councils give sufficient weight to the impact of settlements on jobs ; and about whether a system which is so shot through with anomalies should be preserved. I am therefore publishing, together with the White Paper, a consultation document inviting views on the future of the wages council system.

As we move into the 1990s, the greatest obstacle to employment growth is likely to be lack of skills. Over the next five years we shall see a significant slowing down in the growth of the labour force and, in particular, a dramatic fall in the number of young people in the work force. The number of people in the work force under the age of 25 will fall by over a million between now and 1995.

Therefore, employers will not be able to rely solely on young recruits to meet their new skill needs. They will need to look increasingly to other sources of recruitment, such as women, unemployed people, and older workers. Above all, employers must train the people they already employ. If we are to have the skills our economy will need, employers must undertake a massive retraining effort.

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This White Paper describes the radically new training framework to which the Government believe we must now move. The key element in this framework is the establishment of a network of local employer-led training and enterprise councils. These councils will be responsible both for promoting training by employers and for operating the Government's existing training programmes. They will also become responsible for the day-to-day operation of most of my Department's small firms and enterprise programmes. I shall be inviting employers to come together at local level and contract with my Department to set up these councils.

Two thirds of the council members will be drawn from private sector companies at chief executive level. Chambers of commerce, the CBI, and local employer networks will all have a vital part to play. The other council members will be drawn from organisations in the local community which want to play an active role in promoting training. The Government's aim is to establish a network of about 100 councils throughout Great Britain over the next three to four years, and I expect the first councils to be in operation before the end of 1989. The training and enterprise councils differ from the present training framework in two important respects. First, they will be executive bodies, not advisory. They will give the leadership of the national training system to employers. It is employers who are the customers for training and they are also the main providers of training. Secondly, the establishment of the councils will move the focus of planning and delivery of training to the local level. It is in the local labour market that training needs can be best assessed and practical steps taken to meet them.

To help and advise me during the transition to these new arrangemens, I am setting up a national training task force. The task force will have up to 12 members, drawn primarily from leading figures in industry and commerce. The chairman will be Mr. Brian Wolfson, the present chairman of the Training Commission. The White Paper also describes other steps I propose to take to improve the effectiveness of our training arrangements. These include consulting the remaining industrial training boards about the steps they need to take to become independent non-statutory organisations and determining the future of the Skills Training Agency. The agency is currently loss-making and over-dependent on Government training contracts. It would be in a better position to win more employer business if it were to move into the private sector, and the Government are therefore taking advice on this.

The changes I have set out mark a radical change in our training arrangements. International competition is fierce and the old ways have not been successful. People are this country's key resource. Seven out of 10 of the work force in the year 2000 are already in the work force now and therefore will be unable to benefit from the changes taking place in education. What is needed is the fundamental reform of our training arrangements so that they are employer-led and based on the local labour market.

Over the past five years, we have had dramatic success in creating new jobs and reducing unemployment. For the 1990s, success in training is the best guarantee of jobs and continued growth.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition fully accept that a major new training initiative is urgently needed, when the

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CBI is now reporting that a huge and growing skills gap is limiting output in one third of companies and constraining investment in nearly half, and that more than two out of five companies expect it to worsen? Is he further aware that half of the total work force got no training last year and that one third has never had any? Yet he is now proposing that employers, who have shown little or no foresight or will in meeting their own training needs, for which they have the strongest private incentive, should be the very people to be put into the driving seat to meet the training shortfall for the nation as a whole. Is it not perverse that employers who have persistently refused to spend enough of their own money on training their own employees are now being put in undisputed control of £3 billion of public money to train others-- rather like putting Barlow Clowes in charge of investment protection?

Is the Secretary of State aware that our most successful competitors are moving in the opposite direction by adopting a national training strategy, based on an overall skills audit to meet the needs of industry, by ensuring that employers invest adequately in training their own employees and by having Government investment in high quality skills training for the unemployed? This Government, in their fourth restructuring of adult training in nine months, are now passing the buck to a series of unrepresentative and unaccountable local quangos. How can the Secretary of State justify giving employers absolute control, when the Government, local authorities, trade unions and the voluntary sector have at least as much, if not more, commitment and expertise in achieving high training standards?

I shall now deal with funding. It is widely acknowledged that employment training is grossly under-funded. Will the White Paper add a single extra penny of new money to that budget? Given the parallel organisation, for several years, involving retaining ET while switching to the new training enterprise councils, will the Secretary of State not be cutting the level of training, unless he also increases funding? What provision is there in the White Paper to ensure that employers will be spending a penny more on training? Will not the removal of the training levy, through the abolition of the statutory powers of the industrial training boards, actually reduce employers' spending?

The proposals are based on the experience of the United States, but is the Secretary of State aware that, while he has lifted American ideas, he has omitted the legal safeguards that exist there against job substitution, the duplication of training provision and exploitative pay rates? That is one reason why the Opposition totally oppose the abolition of the wages councils.

These proposals come from a Government who largely created the skills gap by abolishing the grant levy system for training those in work, by chopping three quarters of the industrial training boards, by axing one third of the skill centres and by decimating apprenticeships. Is it not clear that the White Paper is motivated far more by ideological dogma that favours the privatisation of training than by a desire to build a new national consensus to confront and overcome the huge skills gap facing the nation? The Chancellor of the Exchequer has often spoken about a low-pay, low- skill, low-tech economy. The White Paper will help to deliver that objective.

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Mr. Fowler : I cannot bear to take lectures from the hon. Gentleman on training. When he spoke about a national consensus, one remembers his own performance on employment training. He, the Labour party and the Trades Union Congress turned their backs not only on the unemployed, but on training. His own record on that was lamentable, and he is in no position to lecture anyone about training incentives.

Our aim is to achieve a well-trained, professional work force for the 1990s. In essence, we want more training of staff to be carried out by employers. The hon. Gentleman made international comparisons, but he should consider West Germany's programmes, which are based on the chambers of commerce. In this country, it is employers who understand the local needs of the labour market and the local needs for training. The training enterprise councils will be employer-led and they will involve local organisations. Why are they to be employer-led? The reason is that they are training for industry. Employers know what the skill needs are because they are the customers for training and the providers of training. Everything that I have been told by organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and the chambers of commerce has led me to have confidence that employers will take the opportunity with both hands. There will be no cut in resources. A new programme--the business growth through training programme--is proposed. It will unify 10 existing programmes and will have £55 million to help to encourage training for small firms.

The position of the wages councils has changed fundamentally since their inception in 1909. The system is out of date. There are, for example, still wages councils that look after coffin furniture workers, flax and hemp workers and ostrich and fancy feather workers. Those councils are still in existence. There is no evidence that the changes that we made in 1986 affecting young people had any impact on the position of young people, except that unemployment among the 16 to 19-year-olds has come down by no less than 62 per cent. The Opposition have no credibility in their views on training and unemployment or on programmes to bring down unemployment. The White Paper will bring about more employment now and, above all, more employment in the 1990s.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : I assure my right hon. Friend that I welcome the system of local delivery, for two principal reasons. First, it will minimise the number of free-loaders, who have been a problem in training for as long as I have been involved. Secondly, what is needed more than anything else is a period of continuity, so that those who are involved in training can convince local communities that training is an essential part of any company and essential for the future of this country. We need a period of continuity so that people can get on with the training.

Mr. Fowler : I accept what my hon. Friend, with all his experience, has said. The training and enterprise councils will be responsible for encouraging and promoting training. For the first time, we have brought together training for the employed and for the unemployed and training and development for small businesses. It is crucial to the proposals that training is carried out at local level,

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as that is where progress will be made. I have no doubt that proposals will be put forward that will have the effect of transforming training in this country.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley) : Now that the Secretary of State has admitted that we are facing a training crisis, will he also admit that the Government abolished three quarters of the industrial training boards and closed down skill centres, which were making profits? Is it not a fact that one of the most successful skills training organisations is the engineering industry training board? Will the Secretary of State ensure that it will have an assured budget which will provide some continuity because at present it does not know where it stands from one year to another? What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure the quality and standards of training under self-regulation? Can he guarantee that we shall not have the bad standards of the past few years?

Mr. Fowler : The Training Agency will continue to monitor standards for the training of unemployed people. We shall also seek to guide and examine the training that is provided for employed people, so that there will be monitoring and checking arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the industrial training boards. There are now only seven training boards, which have progressively reduced their dependence on levies and exempted most companies. The clothing and allied products industry training board levies under half of the relevant companies and receives 90 per cent. of its costs from training services. We want to move all the boards in that direction, while keeping the good qualities of the training boards. I must point out to the House that, at the moment, the Skills Training Agency is making a loss of about £20 million on a turnover of about £55 million. I put it to the hon. Gentleman--the Public Accounts Committee has already raised this point-- that in the face of those figures the Government have no alternative but to seek a way of satisfying and finally reconciling that position.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that, for many of us, the sooner the wages councils are done away with the better? However, will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the West German scheme, to which he has referred, produces a much greater number of people with vocational qualifications as opposed to vocational training? Does my right hon. Friend think that it is a good idea to consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to see whether there is cause for joint action in producing more people with vocational qualifications than is the case at present?

Mr. Fowler : My hon. Friend has made a strong point. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and I will work closely together on this. The basic case for seeking to take action on training is that seven out of every 10 people who will be in the labour force in the year 2000 are in the labour force now, so unless we act on training in employment now, those people will miss out on any improvements that take place in the education system.

It is right to consult on the future of the wages councils. They are full of anomalies and date back to 1909. Looking at the position today and comparing it with what it was in

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that period, one sees that today's circumstances would not lead anyone to set up the kind of wages council system that we have at the moment.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye) : Although the Secretary of State is correct to identify the need for greater local sensitivity in the organisation and delivery of such services, will he concede that the absence of any commitment on the part of the Government to increase real funding is bound to be an impediment to the progress that he wishes to see achieved?

In looking at local sensitivities and regional disparities throughout Britain in the context of the abolition of the wages councils, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that in many parts of the country--my own is an example--there is genuine rural deprivation because of distinct local geographic and economic factors? Surely the Government have a duty to maintain a tolerable minimum income that can be met on the part of the potential work force?

Finally, on education, will the Secretary of State confirm that, despite his statement, as a country we are still lagging woefully behind our main industrial competitors in gearing our education system to the available and potential labour market?

Mr. Fowler : On the hon. Gentleman's last point, we have made a great number of strides in the past four or five years with, for example, the training and vocational education initiative and the new compact system, which has been an outstanding success and has taken off in a short amount of time.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that wages councils govern only 11 per cent. of the work force and that the two thirds of the work force who are governed by wages councils are part-time workers in any event. Therefore, by definition, the other 90 per cent. of the work force are not covered by wages councils at the moment.

As far as the task of the training enterprise councils is concerned, I must make it clear that training in employment is first and foremost a task for the employers themselves. It is not a task that Government can carry out. We are not in a position to double-guess the requirements and needs of employers. Training is essentially a task for employers, and I am confident that they will take up that challenge.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the White Paper will be widely welcomed by those who believe that the next stage in improving the employment position is to ensure that more people acquire skills? Is he further aware that there will be a particular welcome for the greater involvement of employers in the scheme? Will he take note of the points that have been made about education, and does he agree that to date the further education sector has played an important part in working with employers, in creating jobs and in helping people to acquire skills? Therefore, in what way does my right hon. Friend see that sector playing a full part in the future?

Mr. Fowler : I believe that our further education system will continue to play a part in training and it is important that it should-- certainly the offer is there as far as the Government and the Training Agency are concerned. In most local authorities, such involvement is taking place, and I hope that will continue.

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The basic point about the involvement of employers is that training must be relevant to jobs. It is the employers who provide the jobs, so training must be relevant to their needs. We are following the logic of that in the new training structure that we are setting up.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : The Secretary of State must know that some of us who have had experience of training in engineering and other areas have been explaining to the Government for years that we were heading for a crisis unless we had proper training, carried out by the employers as well as by the Government, and with the involvement of trade unions. I am absolutely delighted that the Secretary of State has now come round to the view that some of us have been expressing for a long time.

How will the White Paper affect the position in the construction industry where there is the growth of lump labour and the decline of direct labour through the local authorities, which used to train people in the construction industry? What will this scheme do to ensure that we have proper training and apprentices in the construction industry? Will the construction industry training board be strengthened or diminished?

Mr. Fowler : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will concede that training problems go back over many years. It is complete nonsense to say that training has suddenly become a problem in the past 10 years : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

As for industrial training boards, in general the most effective incentive for companies to train is an understanding of their own skills needs and not a centralised regulatory system, based on statutory powers. As I have said in the White Paper--the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity of studying it--I recognise that particular issues affect the construction industry training board, and we shall be talking with the CITB about those.

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