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House of Commons

Tuesday 16 May 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Skill Training

1. Mr. Jack : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what plans he has to stimulate skills training in the tourism and catering industries ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee) : Skills training is crucial to secure the quality and professionalism which the tourism and catering industries need to keep their competitive edge. The Government are helping across the full range of training programmes, including the youth training scheme, employment training and the newly launched business growth training, and are working with the industry through the tourism training initiative. The emerging network of training and enterprise councils will provide a further boost for skills training.

Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. He will be aware of the excellent contribution being made to training in catering and tourism by Blackpool and Fylde college. Does my Friend feel that with more than 1,000 people coming into this industry every week enough is being done elsewhere to meet the industry's training needs?

Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend is right about the Blackpool and Fylde college. The close liaison between the college and the hoteliers of Blackpool in tailoring training to fit employers' needs is widely regarded as exemplary. The industry is seeking to recruit nearly 1, 000 new employees per week. There are far more people than ever before in training for our tourism and hospitality industries and there are an increasing number of courses right across the country, be we need even more.

Ms. Short : Is the Minister aware that the problem of low pay is great and growing in catering and tourism? Does he not understand that the problem with the whole of the Government's strategy is that if they keep encouraging low pay, we cannot achieve higher standards of skill and the proper management of enterprise because the two aims are contradictory? When will the Government give up their obsession with low pay so that we can achieve decent standard in industry and employment?

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Mr. Lee : The hon. Lady asks the same question almost every Employment Question Time. The answer is that the industry increasingly is improving its remuneration package and far more people than ever before are realising the industry's potential for career opportunities.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is my hon. Friend aware of the excellent courses available in catering and similar subjects at the Lancaster and Morecambe college of further education, which is one reason why unemployment in our area has fallen yet again?

Mr. Lee : Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The courses at the Lancaster and Morecambe college are excellent and I have visited the college. I must point out that the college head was trained in my own constituency, at Nelson and Colne college, and I have a high regard for him.

Statutory Wage Provisions

2. Mr. McAvoy : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will give details of which European Community countries have statutory wage provisions.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Cope) : Five EC countries--France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg-- have a statutory national minimum wage on various bases. Ireland and the United Kingdom have statutory minimum rates of pay in certain industries.

Mr. McAvoy : Does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom and Ireland are at the bottom of the league in terms of low pay for workers and protection for those workers? Should not the Government be trying to improve their record instead of undermining and trying to destroy the wages council structure?

Mr. Cope : I rather agree with the report that Mrs. Barbara Castle produced when she was doing our job.

Ms. Short : That is a bit old hat. It was 1968.

Mr. Cope : She said :

"The introduction of a national minimum will add to labour costs. This could in turn increase the level of unemployment."

We are doing much better in employment than all the other countries of the European Community put together, and that is what counts most.

Mr. Redwood : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will make strong representations against any increase in social regulation from Brussels which might damage employment-generating prospects and that they will be especially vigilant to preserve the flexibility of the English labour market?

Mr. Cope : Yes, indeed, for the reasons that I gave in answer to the previous questioner.

Mr. Nellist : I wonder whether the Minister remembers the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying on television on 28 April : "half average earnings in this country, which is poor ; that's poor--half average earnings."

Given that the wages council structure pays on average £30 less than the Treasury definition of poverty, why is the Minister still proposing to abolish the wages councils?

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Mr. Cope : We are consulting about the abolition of the wages councils and we shall consider the results of those consultations when we see them.

Mr. Hill : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great myths of the Community is that one can bring out statistics to prove that we should all abide by the same rules on salary and conditions of work and that almost anything that happens in the workplace can be regularised throughout the Community? Despite that myth, however, does he agree that each country has different living standards, different costs of living and different indices and that in the short term it is impossible to have a standard answer for every occasion when such foolish questions are asked of the Department of Employment?

Mr. Cope : I agree that not only the statistics but the traditions of wage bargaining and similar arrangements are different in the different countries. They are not comparable one with another. However, all sorts of studies have shown that minimum wages tend to increase unemployment.

Mr. Meacher : When the Secretary of State leapt to the defence of the Prime Minister's attack on the supposed European Socialist superstate, did he include in that the minimum wage provisions in the EEC? Is he aware that Britain is the only country in the EEC with neither a statutory minimum wage nor any statutory underpinning of collective bargaining, which amounts to the same thing? Do the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister not realise that the risk after 1992 is not of a Socialist superstate but of a capitalist jungle in which bad employers will compete, not by improving quality and price, but by driving down working conditions?

Mr. Cope : I am surprised at some aspects of the hon. Gentleman's question. He spends a lot of time telling us that we are doing the wrong thing by introducing statutory controls and statutory arrangements into free collective bargaining, but he has just urged us to follow the example of European countries which have greater statutory controls on free collective bargaining.

Mr. Sayeed : As those without jobs are the poorest in our society, should we not try to reduce the barriers to employment rather than increasing them?

Mr. Cope : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Skill Centres

3. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on progress towards the privatisation of skill centres.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : Preparations are well advanced to offer the Skills Training Agency for sale by private tender. All preliminary expressions of interest are being recorded by the Government's sale advisers, including the proposals for a management buy-out.

Mr. Dalyell : What is the figure in the Secretary of State's brief for the amount that the Government hope to raise through the sale of skill centre land and buildings?

Mr. Fowler : The straight answer to that is that we are taking advice from property advisers on that point. I am glad that we have now been able to employ property

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advisers. They are in the process of valuing the sites and clearly the Government will want a fair price for those sites.

Mr Paice : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will consider applications and proposals to purchase individual skills centres rather than just the national network? Will he also confirm that selling skill centres into the private sector will put them in a better position to provide the flexible response that the private sector has already clearly demonstrated that it is able to do?

Mr. Fowler : I entirely agree, especially with my hon. Friend's second point. At the moment we have had about 40 expressions of interest in the purchase of skill centres, and they will be considered. It must be understood that the present position of the Skills Training Agency is not sustainable. About one third of the centres are seriously underused and are now making a loss approaching £20 million per year.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Deptford skills centre is on freehold land which already has B1 planning permission? Will he speculate on what that site will be worth on the open market in that part of London? What did the Minister of State mean when he told me in a written answer that he would make provision for the Government to share in any development gains--not to take them, but simply to share in those windfall gains? Why are the public not to have the full value of any increase in those assets?

Mr. Fowler : It is certainly the Government's aim that the public should have the full value of the sites. However, I do not believe that it would be sensible for me to speculate about the value of a particular site, especially as we have just appointed a firm of surveyors to carry out the exact exercise required by the hon. Gentleman. Surveyors were appointed following a competitive tender, which is a sensible and businesslike approach.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Will my right hon. Friend take note of the unsatisfactory situation at the Perivale skill centre in my constituency, which is managed from the Twickenham skill centre some considerable distance away although all the jobs and industry are in the Perivale area? Will my right hon. Friend seek to achieve the division of the management of those two skill centres before any privatisation?

Mr. Fowler : It will not be before privatisation, because privatisation will take place over the next few months, but I will ask my advisers on the privatisation to take that into account.

Mr. Dalyell : In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

Disabled People

4. Mr. Wareing : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what plans he has to eradicate discrimination against disabled people in employment and seeking employment.

Mr. Lee : It is in the employer's interest to adopt good policies and practices on the employment of people with

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disabilities. My Department will continue to encourage and help them to do so through its disablement advisory service and other appropriate media.

Mr. Wareing : The Minister's Department has not been very successful. Does the Minister realise that only 31 per cent. of disabled people below pension age are in jobs? Will he explain why it is illegal to discriminate in employment against a person because of colour or sex, but it remains lawful for any employer to discriminate against a person because of his or her disability? Will the Government legislate to do something about that problem?

Mr. Lee : On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he will know that statistics are rather thin in that area--

Mr. Wareing : There is the OPCS survey.

Mr. Lee : The Department has therefore commissioned a study to provide information on the numbers, the distribution, the characteristics and the needs of people with disabilities in the labour market. We hope to have the results by the year end. The hon. Gentleman knows, because he has repeatedly asked for legislation in this area, that the Government do not favour a legislative approach.

Mr. Evennett : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is much better to encourage employers and to give them practical help than to legislate?

Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend is right. Through our mainstream programmes during 1987-88, we helped about 117,000 people at a cost of £193 million, and through our programme specifically geared to help the disabled we helped 78,000 people at a cost of £135 million.

Mr. Alfred Morris : Do not the OPCS figures referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) shout of discrimination against disabled people? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that even those with jobs were found to be mainly on very low pay? What is the hon. Gentleman's response to the report of Dr. Eileen Fry on discrimination against disabled people in employment? What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the case that is known to the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation--RADAR--where a public employer recruited a disabled young woman only to exclude her from the superannuation scheme because of her disability?

Mr. Lee : If the right hon. Gentleman writes to me about that particular case, I will look into it. On his earlier points, I repeat that the Government do not favour the legislative route. Nevetheless, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have instituted a major review of our whole approach to the disabled in employment and, of course, there is the earlier study to which I referred.

Tourist Accommodation (Classification)

5. Mr. Butterfill : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what progress he is making towards agreement on a common classification scheme for hotels, boarding houses and self-catering accommodation throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Lee : The tourist boards for England, Scotland and Wales have now agreed common criteria for their classification and grading scheme for serviced accommodation. The English and Scottish boards have reached

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agreement on uniform criteria for self- catering accommodation. The English tourist board plans to begin inspections using the new criteria in September 1989, and to include the new classifications in accommodation guides for the 1991 season.

Mr. Butterfill : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and I am pleased to hear his answer, but it seems to imply that there will be different classification schemes for the catered and non-catered sectors. I should be grateful if he would confirm whether that is the case. If so, is it not rather unsatisfactory and likely to confuse the general public? Would it not be better to have a symbol common to both but different in some way, such as a filled-in crown for the catering sector to show that the inner man is being looked after, and an outline crown for the non- catered sector?

Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend has written to me on that point. I understand that the English tourist board considered an outline crown symbol for self-catering, but it was rejected because it wanted to draw a clear distinction between serviced and self-catering accommodation. My latest understanding is that it is proposing a key containing a crown, so there is an element of compromise.

Mr. Kennedy : Will the Minister use his offices to encourage the English tourist board to reach a final agreement on the matter? The Scottish self-catering sector is concerned that the general aim, which everyone should endorse, of a common crown system throughout the United Kingdom is to some extent being thwarted because of what is probably an unnecessarily severe view on the part of the English tourist board about the discerning abilities of the public with regard to self-catering and fully-supportive holiday accommodation, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) said.

Mr. Lee : The hon. Gentleman is right. We want to move towards common criteria. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that the changes that I have announced move increasingly towards the Scottish system, in which the classification introduces a quality assessment--something that we do not have in England.

Mr. Key : I thank my hon. Friend for his progress report, which will be welcome in Wessex where many farmers are seeking to diversify in that area. However, who is to bear the cost of the new classification and what plans does my hon. Friend have for revising and updating the guide, as that is a crucial aspect?

Mr. Lee : We hope that in the long term the classification scheme will become self-financing, but in the short term, we estimate that it will cost about £468,000 net in 1989-90, which I hope will be reduced to about £300,000 net by 1992-93.


6. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what reduction there has been in the number of people on YTS in the past 12 months ; and if he will make a statement on the likely future trends of YTS.

Mr. Cope : About 390,000 young people were in training on YTS in both March 1988 and March 1989. We

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keep the scope and role of YTS under review to ensure that training for young people continues to meet the changing needs of the economy.

Mr. Bruce : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am surprised that nationally YTS numbers have not yet started to fall, although they have clearly evened out. In the south-east, and in my constituency of south Dorset the number on youth training schemes is declining as a result of demographic changes and extra jobs. As the number of people on youth training schemes declines, how can the current level of spending on training be redirected to other forms of training and to helping people to obtain a real technological education?

Mr. Cope : We believe in improving the quality of training and we are trying to achieve that. In particular, we are having a greater drive towards youth training schemes resulting in qualifications. That is all part of the greater concentration on the outcome of training schemes. At present about 63 per cent. of those who complete youth training schemes gain qualifications.

Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in Wales and some other regions there has been difficulty in finding suitable quality trainers for YTS? Will he ensure that the training and enterprise councils have sufficient funds to recruit trainers and to keep an ongoing check on the quality of training that they provide for young people?

Mr. Cope : Yes. Part of the point of the training and enterprise councils is to involve employers more so as to improve the quality of the training offered, not only on YTS but on other schemes as well.

Mr. Latham : As the construction industry training board is the managing agent for YTS in the construction industry, and as that industry's training record is abysmal, is it not clearly important that the construction industry training board should be retained?

Mr. Cope : My hon. Friend will know that we have that matter under consideration, and that it follows from what was said in the recent White Paper.

Mr. Fatchett : Given the question posed by the Minister's hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) and the possible decrease in the number of YTS trainees, what measures will the Government take to ensure that 16-year-olds who find immediate employment on leaving school also find employment which guarantees training opportunities? If they do not, will there not be a danger that those youngsters will find themselves with no training, no hope and no future jobs?

Mr. Cope : The labour market for young people is changing as their numbers decrease and their bargaining power in the market increases. However, the system should remain voluntary because not all young people want to be forced into a job that guarantees particular arrangements. That thinking underlies all our policies. It is also why we intend, as I said earlier, to improve the quality of YTS training.


8. Mr. Arbuthnot : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how many people have consulted jobcentres in the last 12 months ; and if he will make a statement.

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Mr. Lee : Precise information is not available. However, I would expect the total to be broadly similar to the 29 million inquiries recorded in 1985-86, the last year for which comprehensive information is available.

Mr. Arbuthnot : What proportion of the inquiries received by jobcentres came from the unemployed and from job changers, and how many people were placed in jobs as a result of those inquiries?

Mr. Lee : The last information that we have is from a sample survey in 1987, which indicated that about 83 per cent. of unemployed claimants used the jobcentre network. In 1988-89, 1.9 million job seekers, 1.5 million of whom were unemployed, were placed in jobs.

Mr. Leighton : Are not the numbers of staff in jobcentres now being reduced? The Under-Secretary of State has an opportunity to provide a better service to the unemployed. Why is he throwing that away?

Mr. Lee : I have to make the point--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of it--that unemployment is falling substantially. Therefore, we obviously have to look at the jobcentre network. Having said that, we are at the same time trying to improve the quality of service for those individuals who are, sadly, unemployed. Even at present, the jobcentre network employs about 6, 800 people.

Mr. Devlin : Why does not my hon. Friend consider merging jobcentres and unemployment offices as quite a few people still seem to get lost somewhere between the two? It seems self-evident that people who are registering as unemployed should be directed at least to somewhere in the same building so that they can be found employment as quickly as possible.

Mr. Lee : My hon. Friend has a good point. Obviously, we have been thinking about this, and there have been 79 pilot schemes in which we have considered the options for integrating unemployment benefit offices and jobcentres. As he will know, the employment service is intended for agency status.

Mr. McAllion : Does the Minister not understand that one of the main barriers against people finding work at present is that more than 150 major United Kingdom employers are buying personnel management systems which claim, on the basis of a 15-minute pencil and paper test, to establish the honesty and emotional stability of job applicants? Does the Minister approve of employers taking such a crude approach or does he intend to do something to stop that abuse?

Mr. Lee : With respect, I am not sure that I fully understood the hon. Gentleman's question. With regard to the employment service for which my Department is responsible, I should have thought that the placement figures that I gave earlier indicated the success of what we are trying to do.

Employment Training

9. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment what progress has been made on employment training in Yorkshire since its inception ; and if he will make a statement.

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Mr. Fowler : Employment training continues to make excellent progress in Yorkshire. Almost 20,000 people are currently in training. This reflects the success of employment training across the country.

Mr. Riddick : Does not that reply show that employment training is proving highly successful in the Yorkshire area--perhaps more so there than in any other area of the United Kingdom? Would my right hon. Friend care to join me in congratulating the training agencies in and near my constituency --for example, the Kirklees chamber of commerce--for responding so positively to the challenges presented to them by employment training?

Mr. Fowler : I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says, particularly about Kirklees chamber of commerce, which I know and admire. I am glad to say that in Yorkshire generally, unemployment has fallen by an average 24 per cent. in the past 12 months.

Mr. Hardy : There may be some effective operations in Yorkshire, but does the Secretary of State accept that he should be aware--if he is not, some of his colleagues in the Department should be--that there are grounds for serious concern in certain parts of Yorkshire, and certainly in the metropolitan area of Rotherham, which deserve serious attention?

Mr. Fowler : I shall certainly look into any points that the hon. Gentleman wants me to consider. After only eight months in operation employment training now has about 185,000 people in training--the best start for any adult training programme that we have ever launched.


10. Mr. Yeo : To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the work days lost through strikes in (a) February 1979 and (b) February 1989.

Mr. Fowler : Nearly 2.5 million days were lost through strikes in February 1979. In February 1989, it is provisionally estimated that 58,000 working days were lost. In the year to February 1989, 3 million working days were lost. In the year to February 1979, 13.3 million working days were lost. It is in everyone's interest that this improvement should be maintained.

Mr. Yeo : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one absolutely certain way of increasing the number of days lost through strikes would be to repeal the Government's employment legislation, as some union bosses want their lackeys in the Labour party to do?

Mr. Fowler : That is entirely right. Those problems would be made even worse if any of the proposals on the extension of secondary action and secondary picketing were ever adopted in this country. The sort of proposals that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and the Labour party are putting forward represent a charter for strikes.

Mr. Bidwell : Does it not appear that as we head towards a summer of discontent, employment legislation is taking this matter out of the hands of trade union leaders to such an extent that unofficial strikes are likely to increase enormously, as inflation rises and the value of wages falls?

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Mr. Fowler : That is not true. The hon. Gentleman was drawing a comparison with the winter of discontent, when the headlines in February 1979 ran as follows :

"Health warning as the rubbish piles mount up" ;

"Ambulance men walking out" ;


"Strike in children's wards".

That was the record of the Labour Government, of which the hon. Member for Oldham, West was a prominent member.

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