Previous Section Home Page

Column 914

As I have already said, there is little prospect of

improvement--indeed, there has been none in the past three months, as shown by the most recent state of trade surveys.

The building and construction industries are always the first to be hit by recession, they are always hit the hardest and they always take the longest time to emerge into recovery. Let us not overlook the importance of the industry to Britain, however. In 1992, the recession notwithstanding, the industry had a total turnover of £47 billion, or about a tenth of Britain's gross domestic product. Construction amounts to about a third of the nation's manufacturing base and even in this recession it continues to provide about 1.4 million jobs. A tenth of the entire population depends directly or indirectly on the construction industry.

Moreover, construction accounts for half of Britain's fixed investment and it has a crucial role to play in extending and improving our economic and social infrastructure. There is a widely recognised need for new investment and for more maintenance work on housing, on school and hospital buildings, on roads and factories and on other areas of construction work. To that extent at least I can agree with the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham).

The order is to be welcomed, but I have two reservations about it. I apologise for the fact that they are repetitious, in the sense that I have inevitably made these points before, but they remain relevant. The first criticism is that the order provides for the threshold for exemption to be increased, from £45,000 to £61,000--the intention being to exclude firms with four workers, whereas the number used to be three.

At a time when the Government talk of the need for increasing training it is ironic and contradictory that, by means of this exemption, they should reduce the obligation to contribute to the costs of training. No fewer than 35,000 businesses are estimated to be excluded from the levy--businesses effectively in receipt of subsidy for training from the rest of industry.

The raising of the ceiling reduces the board's income by £1 million. I agree with the hon. Member for Stretford that it is unfortunate, at a time when we want more training and recognise its importance, that we should start by giving the board a new lease of life for five years but then reduce its income. It is estimated that a nil threshold under which everybody would be required to contribute would yield £8.5 million. That would give a significant boost to training, and it would be money from the industry and not from the public purse.

The Federation of Master Builders represents many small and medium businesses, and it may seem odd that it should support the view that all should contribute. I support that view because I recognise its fairness. Competition is distorted because some businesses have to pay the levy. It is a small amount compared to the funds with which those firms manoeuvre, but is another competitive disadvantage for small and medium businesses that are liable for the levy. That is obvious from my earlier illustration about the level of turnover for VAT registration, which was likewise increased by the Chancellor to £45,000. The same considerations apply because revenue is lost. In a parliamentary answer on 16 December, the Paymaster-General revealed that the revenue forgone as a result would be £40 million in the next financial year and £45 million in the following year. It is surprising that, with

Column 915

the deficit running at £1 billion a week, the Chancellor is willing to forgo that amount. One would have thought that it would be welcome.

It is understood that we want to encourage small businesses : that is the purpose of those policies. However, it could be argued that small businesses should learn from the beginning that the full cost of training and VAT liability are among the expenses that they will have to bear if they survive and succeed. That would be fairer than the current system and would remove the competitive disadvantage of having to charge customers 17.5 per cent. plus the cost of training for work that could be done for much less by a smaller business. Most customers may find the extra amount rather too much to pay. We are not debating the difference between small and large businesses because such an advantage could accrue to a business with four workers and not to one that employed only five. That is where it hurts and the disadvantage must be resisted.

I have reservations about the training and VAT exemptions. I understand that the Minister is not responsible for VAT but she will appreciate how the two come together in the minds of business men who are struggling to survive in this over-long recession. Firms that could constantly exceed the ceilings might be tempted to take short cuts and adopt devices to avoid liability. In such cases, the cash-only-no-questions-asked payment becomes attractive and the black economy beckons.

Despite those disadvantages I welcome the order and I am glad to know that it will give the Construction Industry Training Board another year to plan and execute training in one of the country's most important industries.

5.3 pm

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan) : Nobody is enthusiastic about the order, because everybody knows what the Government have been like over the years. It is almost 32 years since the levy raised its head, following a White Paper in 1962 and an Act in 1964. I must declare an interest because I am proud to say that I am sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union. I was also the Scottish political education officer. We carefully examine any schemes that the Government organise, and we looked at the situation in 1962 and again in 1964. When the Government do not agree with a scheme they use a Ways and Means resolution to change an Act and give power to a Minister or a Secretary of State.

In 1973, the Government used the 1964 Act to set up boards. The 1962 White Paper had examined the state of firms throughout Britain and had found that no training whatever had been provided. Everybody knows that a country without a skilled work force cannot survive. Everybody also knows that the country is bankrupt. The Minister said little, but neither did the Minister who produced the orders in 1993. The record of what was said is in Hansard.

The Employment and Training Act 1973 again gave power to the Secretary of State, and he used it to get rid of the training boards. At that time, there were about 27 boards, but now there are only two. The Minister spoke about reviews. The Government have had more reviews on training than any other Government, and the reasons for their reviews were, first, that they could not stomach the trade unions and people in the community being

Column 916

represented on the boards and, secondly, because they had no control whatever. They gave the power of supervision to the Manpower Services Commission and then removed it when they limited the 1 per cent. levy. They abolished that in the way that they abolished 25 out of 27 training boards.

The two boards that remain have been given a life of five years, but the Government do not really agree with them. That is why the Chamber is empty and why the Minister has little to say about the matter. As trade unionists and socialists, we are interested because our political philosophy greatly differs from that of the Government. They believe in consultation with big business and in consultancies for themselves.

An ordinary Member of Parliament's wage is no use to this lot. They have had their fingers in the till for years and that is why they have bankrupted the country. They wasted money on the poll tax and on other schemes on which they had to turn back. Now they are talking about training.

It is instructive to compare training in countries such as Japan and America with the state of our 16 and 18-year-olds who have to beg in the streets because the Government have taken away allowances for the kids. Their lack of investment has turned Britain into a drug-ridden, crime- ridden country. Anybody knows that a Government who will not invest in houses, schools and hospitals to give bread and butter to the electors will not survive.

We are looking at a fallen House. The Government are out and they know it. They are on the run and that is why they have little to say. The former Prime Minister has moved to the hierarchy and many more will follow, and the Prime Minister is running scared.

[Interruption.] I could not say that they have done a good job. I get that message from my union and the workers I support, who are working- class, humble people. They get out of their beds in the morning ; they do not go to wine bars and live in other ways. I want to get it all on record to let the Government know the effect of the orders.

The 1994 draft order maintains the arrangements that applied in earlier years, except in one important respect--the exclusion threshold level-- which greatly concerns us.

The exclusion threshold provision in the draft order means that employers with annual payrolls of less than £61,000 will not have to pay a training levy, though they will continue to be eligible for training grants. That is unfair to other employers and employees, who should all have the same quality and reserves.

In 1993, the exclusion threshold was £45,000--a figure which was set in 1990, when the exclusion threshold was increased from only £15, 000. It was a substantial agreement and represents a considerable loss to the training boards.

My union, the Transport and General Workers Union, opposes the principle of an exlcusion for small employers and objects to the proposed increase in the threshold. The Construction Industry Training Board is also opposed to the principle of the exclusion, as is the Federation of Master Builders, of which I once applied to be a member, and which encompasses 20,000 building firms with more than 300,000 employees, including many smaller companies.

As the levy is set as a percentage of the payroll, it falls proportionately on small firms and large firms. The order sets an exclusion threshold, outlined in paragraph 5 of the

Column 917

schedule and article 6 of the order, expresses a sum in pounds sterling, which represents the threshold size of net payroll below which employers are excluded from payment of the levy.

An exclusion threshold has been in place for the construction levy since 1971, when it was set at £6,000. So it has moved a long way--from £6,000 to £60,000.

In 1993 and preceding years, the exclusion threshold was £45,000 ; however, for 1994, the Government are proposing that it be increased to £61,000. The Government's intention to increase the exclusion threshold has been known for some time. In 1992-93, the future of the Construction Industry Training Board was reviewed by the Government and on 23 February 1993, it was announced that the CITB would be reconstituted with effect from 1 May. The Government kept the training board dangling on a string, thereby destabilising its effect on employers.

The Minister decided that the CITB would continue in place for a further five years and would retain its statutory levy powers. The change in the exclusion threshold was announced by a junior Minister at the Department of Employment on 5 May 1993 when he said : "We need to ensure that small firms are relieved of burdens and encouraged to grow. In future firms with combined payroll and payments to labour only sub-contractors of less than £61,000 a year will not be subject to the training levy".

That was bad news for the construction industry.

The Construction Industry Training Board has consistently objected to the principle of exclusion on the grounds of equity and competition. However, it reluctantly accepted on 13 July 1993 the Government's rquirements to raise the threshold, and that was included in its proposals to the Minister. The CITB was worried that, if it did not accept the new threshold, the Government might close the board down, as they closed down the other 25 boards.

The Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors also expressed serious concern at the raising of the exclusion threshold to £61,000. In addition to concerns about equity, it said that the system is open to abuse and it would not be beyond the abilities of some companies to manipulate the figures in such a way as unreasonably to gain an exclusion from payment of the levy.

The Building and Allied Trades Joint Industrial Council, which brings together the Federation of Master Builders and the Transport and General Workers Union, is also opposed to exclusions from the levy. In its submission to Ministers dated 10 November 1992, it said :

"The current levy arrangements exclude firms with combined payroll and labour-only subcontracting payments of up to £45,000 per annum". We know that some firms work the lump and abuse the system. It continued :

"This seriously distorts competition. Such excluded small firms derive benefit from the training carried out by other firms, but can claim a grant for their own training. This is inequitable". The Transport and General Workers Union concurs with that view. The existence of the exclusion challenges the very principle on which the levy is based--that all the firms contribute equitably to the cost of training within the industry. Small firms get all the benefits of the schemes, but with none of the cost.

More than almost any other industry, the construction industry has a need for an equitable training levy. That is because of the short-term nature of much employment in the sector ; the high geographical and company mobility of employees ; the high levels of skills required in many

Column 918

sectors of construction ; the exceptional health and safety risks to workers in the industry and the importance of ensuring high standards of safety for the public in construction projects. The CITB estimates that the yield of the levy in 1994 will be £46 million compared with £54 million. That is a big loss to the construction industry and it will mean less training, for fewer people. The decrease is largely a consequence of the decline in construction employment due to the recession ; the levy is a percentage of the payroll.

The CITB estimates that the raising of the threshold will represent a loss of income of less than £1 million, but certainly many hundreds of thousands of pounds. The existence of an exclusion threshold also serves to set an informal poverty trap for the industry, whereby firms that can expand to just above the threshold level are penalised for such growth by suddenly having to make payments for all their employees.

The proposed new exclusion threshold represents a fourfold increase on the level less than five years ago of £15,000, yet the training needs of the industry continue to grow. It cannot be right that, when long-term investment in the skills of the work force is so crucial to future recovery, the CITB should lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in income so that even more small firms should be excluded from making a modest individual--but significant collective--contribution to the industry's skills.

When the industry's funds for training are declining, the further erosion by the Government of the levy powers of the Construction Industry Training Board is to be deplored. The Transport and General Workers Union and the Federation of Master Builders are extremely concerned. I read out their comments to put on record every word they said, but they fell on the deaf ears of the Government.

The Opposition are disgusted at the way in which the people of the country and especially the youngsters, have been treated. The House should decide to make a hefty contribution to the construction industry, and every other industry, to retrain our people and to provide us with a well trained and skilled work force of men and women, irrespective of their creed or colour. We will get out of this pit only by investing.

We must build roads, railways, trams, trains, hospitals, schools, police stations and training colleges. That is how to get the country back on its feet. We will not get the country back on its feet by squandering money and looking for as many jobs as we can get. The Conservatives are into every till in the City. They have been exposed.

The Government have been disgraced. For the past few weeks, they have been embarrassed to come to Westminster. I would not say that they do not know their asses from their elbows because they certainly do-- [Interruption.] I said "ass" because I am talking to asses. I have described what we have to put up with. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House come to this place and work hour after hour. We are telling the Government Front Bench to do its job. The Government should act honourably and pick up their morals.

5.20 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West) : We have just heard an extraordinary tirade from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray). He must be living on a different planet if he believes that the

Column 919

Government have not been investing in housing, roads and other construction projects. He should come and look around my constituency.

I have an interest to declare because the Construction Industry Training Board is located in my constituency at Bircham Newton. If the hon. Member comes to Bircham Newton, he will arrive on a new, electrified railway. He will see a local health authority which has new buildings and facilities which have been created over the past 10 years or so. The hon. Gentleman will see a brand new leisure centre in King's Lynn. He will see that a very large amount of money has been spent on new housing by the local authority and by different housing associations.

If the hon. Member for Provan comes to my constituency in two weeks' time, he will see a start being made on the new A47 bypass around Tilney High End and Terrington. That will be six miles, of dual carriageway bypass just outside King's Lynn. A huge amount of Government investment has gone into East Anglia. The hon. Gentleman should come and see it because it is so important from the point of view of the construction industry. During the recession, the Government have continued to invest in fixed capital formation by way of public projects. Had they not done that, the recession in the construction industry would have been much worse.

In that context, the staff at the CITB in Bircham Newton welcomed last year's announcement.

Mr. Wray : Would the hon. Gentleman like to come to my constituency to see the crime that is rife in the city? The city has a drug problem amounting to £188 million a year. There are 12,000 drug addicts. What kind of world is the hon. Gentleman living in? He is certainly not living in the same world that I am living in. Five thousand people in my constituency have never had a job and will never get a job unless we get rid of the Government. The hon. Gentleman should go and see it for himself.

Mr. Bellingham : As my grandmother came from Glasgow, I go there from time to time. If I were a Glasgow Member, I would be proud of my city and of the fact that, two years ago, it was European city of the year. I would not be talking Glasgow down, I would be talking it up. The staff at the CITB were extremely relieved by last year's announcement. That sword of Damocles and uncertainty which had been hanging over the CITB had been extremely debilitating. Morale at the CITB had been suffering. The lecturers and other staff had no idea what the future held for them. That is why they were so grateful for the announcement last year.

Mr. Graham : Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that the Prime Minister guaranteed in the House that every school leaver would have a training place? However, in Scotland, more than 8,000 young people have not yet received such a place. How can we expect the Government to deliver the goods when they could not deliver the goods to our young school leavers? How can we get folk into training to rebuild the infrastructure?

Mr. Bellingham : I do not entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. However, he must bear in mind what the Government have done. When hon. Members say that they are going to vote against the draft order, they must bear in mind that the very fact that the levy has been continued

Column 920

means that organisations like the CITB can help to provide that guarantee. If that had not happened, the situation would probably have been far worse. Far from trying to suggest that the Government have not done enough on training, the draft order is all about the Government doing more than many people expect them to.

I have always supported the work of the CITB. The complex at Bircham Newton is a centre of excellence which probably has no rival. The commitment and dedication of the staff must be seen to be believed. The impact on the local economy is enormous, not just in terms of local services but in respect of the indirect jobs that have been created.

I did not need to be convinced about the importance of the CITB in west Norfolk and I needed no convincing about the principle of the levy. Construction is very different from other types of industry. There can be training in a factory complex or a plant. However, as construction is so widespread and dispersed, if we did not have a levy which brought money into an organisation such as the CITB, training standards would undoubtedly fall. Above all, there would be serious problems with safety standards.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) explained, the construction industry is a very large employer. It employs 5.5 per cent. of the work force. However, it accounts for 60 per cent. of all deaths caused by falls, in spite of fast-rising safety standards. That statistic shows that if the levy and the CITB had not continued, that figure would undoubtedly be worse.

I welcomed last year's announcement and the fact that the then Secretary of State and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Technology accepted the arguments from both sides of the House. In that context, I thank my colleagues who helped me in my lobbying campaign.

On this point, I should also like to thank the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), who has been extremely active. Whenever I have asked for his support and asked him to lobby on behalf of the CITB, he has been extremely supportive. I hope that he will visit the CITB in the near future. The campaign was an all-party campaign and it is unfortunate that today's debate has become a confrontation that will result in a Division. We are talking about good news today, which should be supported across the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford referred to the problems caused by the recession. No industry has been harder hit by the recession than the construction industry. The downturn in housing and new starts in construction generally have had a very damaging effect. As a result, the number of new trainees on CITB schemes has fallen to 10,000. That is roughly one third down on the figure in the late 1980s.

That has meant that the CITB has been under pressure. Pressure has also arisen because the levy is raised on a payroll basis. As many firms have suffered a fall in their payrolls, it is hardly surprising that the levy funds have also decreased.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford and the hon. Member for Provan have said that it is unfortunate that the threshold exists and that there are exclusions from the levy. I agree. It would be far better to have a blanket levy on everyone because among the firms that benefit most from the training schemes and the work of the CITB are the very small firms. It is interesting and telling that the Federation

Column 921

of Master Builders, which is represented in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, supports that point of view. Many small builders resent paying the levy. I receive letters from small builders who want to know why they have to pay the levy. They want to know what the tangible benefits are. The levy is not popular. That the Federation of Master Builders firmly supports the idea of a blanket levy shows great foresight.

During the recession, the CITB was most imaginative. It was able to continue many schemes and build on its excellent work during the 1980s. It has been criticised for using its reserves in funding extra training places. However, that should be applauded. Over the years, the CITB has built up considerable reserves through its levy collections.

One argument was that its reserves were too high. During the recession, at least 2,000 of the 10,000 trainees participating in CITB schemes were funded by its reserves. As a result of that funding, we will have, I hope, enough trainees as the economy picks up and as employment in construction increases. There will also be courses and schemes at further education colleges and other centres as a result of that spending. If the CITB had not used its reserves in that way, the infrastructure of such courses might have collapsed.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Over the past few years, the industry has lost half a million people. I have said before that it is normally estimated that only one out of every two people who leave the industry will go back to work ; therefore, 250,000 skilled people have left the industry. Even though I applaud the way in which the board has marshalled and kepts its reserves, I must point out that we are not only failing to train enough people in the construction industry but falling further and further behind with every week that passes.

Mr. Bellingham : To some extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, if there were an increase in training, the CITB in my constituency would expand. We must consider the complex at Bircham Newton and its schemes, and not just the immediate training places that are provided but some of the activities on which the money is spent. It is a huge operation. It would be extremely expensive to extend it in the way suggested by the hon. Gentleman and it would mean an increase in the levy. We must ask whether the Government's training budget is realistic. Bearing in mind the decline in the construction industry work force, the CITB should be applauded for maintaining such a high number of trainees--far in excess of the proportionate decline in the construction industry's work force. I fall out with the hon. Gentleman when he criticises Sir Clifford Chetwood and accuses him of being complacent. About two and a half years ago, Sir Clifford Chetwood criticised the Government and said that they had not woken up to the fact that the recession was biting far more deeply in the construction industry than anyone realised. He is now much more supportive and he is saying that the economy is picking up and that many Government measures are the right measures. One can listen to Sir Clifford Chetwood because his approach has been completely fair throughout. When criticism was deserved, he was critical, but when praise was deserved, he gave it.

Column 922

The CITB has progressed since the uncertainty was lifted. Uncertainty greatly damaged the moral of lecturers and other staff at Bircham Newton, but they are now concentrating on the task in hand and coming up with many new initiatives. Their initiatives over the past year represent a positive achievement. They have worked very closely with City and Guilds as an awarding body for non-vocational qualifications. More than 30 construction non-vocational qualifications are awarded by the CITB in co-operation with employers in the construction industry. That is very good news. On quality standards, the CITB puts great effort into helping companies to achieve BS5750 certification. More than 400 companies have been helped by a training programme at quality clubs which the board set up two years ago.

Continued investment in pre-vocational educational projects has enabled school children to use construction as a context for learning under the requirements of the national curriculum. There are now more than 70 projects at centres all over the country, and the CITB has been working closely with employers and other educational interests. I have mentioned how crucial health and safety standards are. Any fatality in the construction industry is a tragedy. Over the past few years, there have been too many fatalities, but I wonder how many more there would have been had it not been for the work of the CITB and the constant emphasis on raising safety standards. The board has come up with a large number of initiatives, and it will continue to do so. The CITB has approached many employers in various occupational sectors. About 300,000 people are registered on industry record schemes, and that excludes those who have registered on the new construction NVQs. That is excellent progress.

I pay tribute to the CITB for using the past 12 months extremely wisely, bearing in mind all the problems that it faced as a result of the uncertainty of last year. That uncertainty has been lifted. It will now continue to exist for five years, instead of three. I welcome that because it will be able to plan for the future and build on the five specific aspects that I mentioned. At the same time, it will move forward in the context of a significantly improving economy with reducing unemployment. The CITB will have a critical role in ensuring that we have a well-trained construction work force. Rather than regarding the debate as an opportunity for confrontation and a chance to criticise the Government, Opposition Members should give credit where credit is due, and credit is due to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has done all that he can to make sure that the levy continues and that the CITB remains in existence. That is why I support the order.

5.36 pm

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : The hon. Member for Norfolk, North- West (Mr. Bellingham) has spoken eloquently from his special knowledge of the Construction Industry Training Board. I agree with everything that he said about the effectiveness of that board. I suspect, however, that the Construction Industry Training Board is one of the exceptions that might prove a rule. It appears that the rule now is that the Government oppose industry-specific training boards and industry-specific wages councils whenever they can get away with it,

Column 923

although they were not able to get away with their original intentions in respect of the Construction Industry Training Board. It is welcome that the Construction Industry Training Board is to have at least another five years of existence ; but, logically, everything that the hon. Gentleman said about the board, which has its headquarters in his constituency, can be applied elsewhere--for example, to the Agricultural Training Board. In Wales--this matter affects my constituency- -the Agricultural Training Board is being run down. Its activities are being reduced from a high and active level to what might eventually become nothing much more than a residual level. The board might be driven to dealing with virtually only the aspects of health and safety that it can barely ignore, having regard to the fact that agriculture is even more prone to accidents than the construction industry.

It would be unsatisfactory to conclude the debate without registering our concern that, although the Government are prepared for the boards that we are considering to continue, they are nevertheless not prepared to apply the same logic to other industries.

One of the great advantages of the CITB--the hon. Gentleman highlighted it very well--is that it is focused and industry-specific. It understands everything about its own industry and it is able to undertake research and teach the teachers within its industry. One of the disadvantages of having a multiplicity of agencies dealing with training--certainly, it is a problem that we face in Wales--is that there is not such necessary focus or specificity. For example, in my constituency we have the Powys training and enterprise council. We have Coleg Powys, the local FE college ; the Development Board for Rural Wales ; the Construction Industry Training Board ; the Agricultural Training Board ; the local education authority and others, all involved in training--a multiplicity of agencies which lose their focus in the generality of the training courses that they supply.

I add a comment. If the Minister were listening, she might take this point on board. I should like her comments later. One of the problems that we have with the multiplicity of training agencies is that it is extremely difficult to detect fraud. It is a fact that fraud is taking place in the training structure at present. Some of the companies and firms which are engaged to provide training courses are not doing so competently or even honestly. It is well documented that some organisations are simply fee- churning, taking as much money as possible for the minimum of training provided.

That does not happen in organisations such as the CITB. Of course, the CITB is scrutinised by its own industry. The hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), who speaks for the Federation of Master Builders, made it clear that his organisation scrutinises as well as supports the work of the CITB. However, that form of focal scrutiny is not available in the generality of training that is available for most other aspects of working life.

Some time ago, a bright but cynical, frustrated and rebellious 16-year-old girl told me that the trouble with the people who taught her was that for the most part, with exceptions, they taught only to perpetuate their own jobs. That may have been an over-cynical view of the education that she was receiving. Nevertheless, it is probably true to

Column 924

say that education for its own sake is a minority pursuit which is attractive to only a few, and not necessarily all, of the brightest and the best.

I am sure that such cynicism drives away many young people like her from being trained to the careers, or even interests, in which they would make the greatest contribution to society. My view and that of my party is that it is extremely important to give the highest possible priority to that wide scope of training which fits people on the broadest possible basis for the jobs and careers which might be available for them.

I deliberately chose the example of a girl because the Minister referred earlier to apprenticeships for girls. Of course, she is right. It is extremely important that there should be equality of opportunity across virtually all walks of life. It may not be 100 per cent. possible--there may be some jobs which men cannot do--but there should be virtually 100 per cent. availability of training across all walks of life to enable those who may reject other forms of education to maximise their talents and their opportunities.

The continuing economic problems of the construction industry are easily described. It was a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Romford making his third consecutive speech in a debate on this subject. If the hon. Member will forgive me for quoting his words, on 8 February 1993 he said :

"Small builders need work now. They are clinging on by their fingertips It is just as well that the CITB exists, because if the responsibility had been left on a voluntary basis, there would unquestionably have been a very sharp reduction in training even sharper than has been the case."--[ Official Report, 8 February 1993 ; Vol. 218, c. 789.]

Those words are as true today as they were one year ago. Unemployment in the construction industry has continued to rise over the past 12 months. The statistics are stark. If one looks at unemployment in construction in 1989, it was 6.7 per cent. ; in 1992, it was 17.6 per cent. ; and in 1993-- the latest available figures--it was 20 per cent. Those figures highlight the need for

industry-specific training and are evidence that small builders--and, indeed, those who are able to obtain any work in the building industry, especially at the smaller end--are, to use the hon. Gentleman's words, still "clinging on by their fingertips". How does one maximise the potential for ensuring that, in construction and elsewhere, training is not simply training for training's sake but training for jobs ? There is a respected and growing body of academic opinion led by a leading economics professor from the London school of economics who, in an interesting TSB lecture on the subject, said recently that training without the removal of long-term unemployment was a complete waste of money. What worries many hon. Members on this side of the House is that, although the Government have announced an increase in the number of training places--and anything that takes young people who have nothing better to do off the streets is very welcome, for reasons mentioned earlier in this debate--at the end of the training as it is structured at present too many young people, especially young men, enter a period of long-term unemployment from which some will never recover. I do not subscribe to the unrealistic view that one can restore real full employment in this country--a situation in which everyone has a job. That is a vision, but not one that can be brought to fulfilment. What is possible is to bring back an element of fuller employment. The element that needs to be brought back is the one which means that practically no one faces long-term unemployment. The

Column 925

body of academic opinion to which I referred believes that there is no need for anyone, other than rare exceptions, to be unemployed for more than six months. The Government have not yet grasped the nettle of that issue or shown proof that they are dealing with the question of long-term unemployment.

Miss Widdecombe indicated dissent.

Mr. Alex Carlile : No, the Government have not proved that they have found anything like a solution to the problem of long-term unemployment. One way of starting towards that solution--I recognise that one cannot solve the problem overnight--is to extend the principle of training levies, as my party advocated at the last general election and before. There may need to be exceptions for very small businesses which may not be able to afford such levies. Nevertheless, the imposition of training targets, reinforced by the power to impose levies when companies do not voluntarily meet proper training targets, is a sensible policy and a course which would greatly contribute to the reduction of long-term unemployment. Sir Brian Hill, then the chair-elect of the Construction Industry Employers Council, said after the last Budget :

"Any hopes we had that this budget would help early recovery from the construction recession have been disappointed. In the short-term its effect will be to reduce further workload, jobs and to raise the costs."

There is a myriad of similar quotations and opinion. The CITB tries to stem the tide of that trend, but it is bound to be fighting a losing battle if economic policies are not tuned to ensure that employment can be increased quickly in the construction industry. The Minister must answer a number of questions when she replies to the debate. Is she satisfied with the state of the construction industry? If not, what are the Government going to do to stimulate the recovery in the industry? Is she satisfied that housing starts are meeting the need? If not, will the Government take steps to reduce the evident housing shortage and to stimulate the construction industry by increasing resources for that industry? There must not be a skills gap, and the CITB, with its specific focus, is the best-equipped body in the construction industry to deal with the skills shortage. Does the Minister think that the same principle might be applied elsewhere in British industry and commerce? 5.53 pm

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) : I had not intended to speak in the debate, but after hearing some of the speeches I feel I must bring my wealth of experience to bear in the House.

When I hear Conservative Members speaking, I fear for the future of Great Britain. I certainly fear for our infrastructure, for our young people and for people who have to live in housing which the Government have allowed to deteriorate. In Scotland, damp housing is causing tremendous anxiety and places a huge burden on people who are on fixed incomes and who want to heat their houses. What do the Government do? They sit on their backsides and allow many people to become unemployed, when those people could be reducing Government expenditure and ensuring that folk have a better quality of life and a more healthy life.

Since 1978, I have been an executive board member of an organisation which has worked hard to create training places for young people in Scotland. The organisation has

Column 926

looked closely at the training needs in Scotland, but I am not here to put in an advertisement for that organisation, which is a voluntary and charitable organisation.

Something has deeply worried me since 1979, when I was a councillor in Strathyclyde, and I will speak about it in my rather nice English voice rather than my broad Scots accent, so the Minister can understand me. I travel around my constituency and around other parts of the country and I concur with a friend of mine, an exiled Scotsman who lives in America, who on his visits back here has seen a terrible deterioration in the country's road network. There are potholes in the roads, and every day I hear of constituents who have fallen and broken their ankles or legs because of broken pavements. Every day I hear of parents complaining that schools are leaking, or that the schools have no books.

Perhaps the Minister does not have eyes to see the problems, but many of us do. The infrastructure of the nation is falling apart in front of us. I should be delighted to take any Minister on a guided tour of my constituency, and I could show the Minister the problems clearly. We have allowed the building industry to deteriorate. Our European partners have more bottle and brains than we have, because those nations are investing in training. While we allow our training and infrastructure to run down, nations in Europe are investing in training, in their young people and in their infrastructure. That training is allowing their folk to gain experience in house building, in sewerage and in water supplies.

I want to make sure that my point is heard and felt. Our European partners- -I call them partners, and not the enemy--in France, Germany, Spain and elsewhere are training their work forces. Their training levels have been kept up while this country's training and skill levels have been pushed down. If any major public works jobs were put on the market, we would fall back into the tendering scene. So instead of Scotsmen, Englishmen, Irishmen or Welshmen working on the jobs, it will be Spaniards or Portuguese because those workers will be the most skilled. They will be able to undercut British workers by being able to do the jobs faster and with better quality. If the Government continue to run down our skill levels, we shall not be able to meet demands to improve our infrastructure. I am a working- class guy. My background is that I was trained as an engineer and I served an apprenticeship on Clydeside. I am not a graduate of any university, but I come from the university of life and the university of experience. That experience tells me that if I want to fix a door now, I need to do it myself. At one time, a skilled joiner would have come along and fixed it in five minutes, instead of me taking an hour to do it. We cannot become a group of do-it-yourself has-been specialists. We need proper training so that our folk can meet challenges.

If we want to build new schools, those schools could be built by the finest workers Britain can produce. We should have the skills to ensure that we do not just build a school, but that we build a school which will withstand the weather and will be comfortable for our young people to be educated in.

We are throwing the baby out with the bath water. The Government have got us into such an incredible mess, with a borrowing requirement of £50 billion which has really blown us out of the window. We seem to be chasing mistake after mistake. There have been the problems in the City, and a lot of money has been squandered. That money does not seem to be going to the right places. I am sure that

Next Section

  Home Page