|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 927the audience tonight could all cite cases where they know of where a construction job could come into being which could make our country a better place to live.
The other day, I went to a photo call for a local newspaper which was rightly campaigning about the environment. If a person drives along a road- -particularly in a rural area--what does he see? Rubbish is dumped at the roadside by polluters, some of whom are the fly-by-night builders the Government are encouraging.
We should have proper areas where folk can dump rubbish. That is where we should put in the skills. If we go to the local council, it says, "We can't really do it, we haven't got the money." If the Government would provide the money, we would not have to see our cities, towns, and rural areas being devastated. We could provide skips, dumps and so on which could be controlled and at which skilled workers could work.
I raised a point about Scotland in an intervention in the Minister's speech. I know that we face the same problem everywhere in Great Britain as a result of the Government's lack of action and lack of commitment to the public sector. In Scotland we face a horrific situation. The Government have sought to reduce the standards for drinking water. So the folk in Scotland will be expected to drink water that is not so good as the water in Europe. It is unbelievable that Scotland, which is renowned for its surplus of water, is to be expected to drink water that does not reach the European standard. The Government have done a deal.
The Government themselves have told us that Strathclyde alone needs expenditure of £5 billion to bring the water supply up to standard. We also know that we need to spend a fortune on the sewerage systems in towns and villages throughout Great Britain. We can do that only if we have the trained work force to do the work. At present we can hardly cope with the plumbing in Westminster because we do not have the necessary skilled people. Perhaps the woman Porter could show us how to do it. She could fiddle anything by the looks of it. We need to ensure that there is adequate training to meet the upturn.
Mr. Graham : I am most grateful for that helpful intervention. I was referring to training for it if the upturn comes. I represent a constituency that has suffered raging unemployment. Factories such as the Talbot car factory at Linwood closed down 10 years ago, putting 5,000 people on the dole. The famous manufacturer of tyres, India Tyres, closed seven years ago, putting about 3,000 workers on the dole. I used to work at Rolls-Royce, where almost 3,000 workers are facing the dole.
I have seen a litany of factory closures and the decimation of the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde. I am desperate for an upturn, not for myself but for the people whom I represent. I wish to see apprentices, shipbuilders
Column 928and plumbers back at work. I want to see Britain great again. The Minister should not think that I do not. My ambition is to see my young people get the full potential of their education. I want to see people living in decent houses. I want to see our people able to die in comfort and live in comfort from the cradle to the grave. Make no doubt about it, Mr. Deputy Speaker : my wish is for Britain to be a good society and a caring and sharing nation. I do not want it to be one which is epitomised by the Government. They simply squander and fritter. I have made some remarks in the House on previous occasions about how I believe that the Government think. They seem to think so small that they have no vision. They have less vision than the people of Britain. I am sincere when I say that the next election--the European election--will show the door to the Tory party.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. We have not been wide for a couple of hours. The hon. Lady spoke a couple of hours ago. If she had been wide of the order, she would have been out of order--but she was not out of order.
Mr. Graham : I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can only say that, perhaps because of my bulk, my vision and my brain are such that I feel sincere and genuine about what I am saying. I do not think that the Minister has been bad with me. I believe that she sincerely wishes to improve the lot of people. But she does not listen to the advice that she receives from the Opposition. She thinks that it is purely opposition. She does not see that we are offering constructive advice and suggestions.
I will finish on this note to the Minister. I believe that the Government's role is to plan as best they possibly can. If we are training young people or any people for that matter, we should not train them for the dole. We should plan for those people to finish their training and find a job. How do we get construction workers through their training and fit them into a job? The private industry is not meeting that need. I do not believe that it has the finance. we are talking about Britain's infrastructure. The Government can take effective decisions today which would start things moving tomorrow and which we could see starting next month.
I have mentioned roads, housing and hospitals. The Government could set up projects to look after the environment and improve our sewerage and water systems. Those are things that we know need to be done. I am sure that the Minister recognises exactly what I am saying. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) asked what was the point of training folk for the dole. I agree that there is no point, but I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with me that we want to improve our infrastructure, which we all know is falling apart. The only person who does not believe that it is falling apart is the "back to basics" Minister. The rest of the country is going back to the wall. When we try to move forward we fall into a pothole. Eventually, we shall have to swim to get across the road.
The recent flooding in England is disgraceful. We have been talking about floods for years. At what stage will the
Column 929Government take preventive measures? Folk have been telling us for years that floods will happen. Do the Government use our construction industry--
Mr. Graham : I was going to say that we could have trained workers, fully fledged construction engineers and so on, in place working to prevent flood damage. But the Government do not plan. They lurch from crisis to crisis. We shall have an incredible problem in Britain because we will not be able to move for foreign workers building our houses and improving sewage works while our folk are unemployed. That will be because the Government have not given sufficient money to training or educating our young folk to deal with the crisis in Britain.
Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Small Heath) : I have listened with interest to the debate this afternoon. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) made a telling point when he said that training without a proper programme for employment was in many ways a waste of money. He was right.
The constituency that I represent in inner-city Birmingham has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. There are more than 7,000 male adult unemployed in my constituency. There is an enormous need in the constituency for infrastructure development. Apart from having one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, it is one of the most deprived areas of the country. Like other hon. Members, I welcome the supposed reduction in unemployment in the past few months. The only problem is that no one believes the figures any longer. As everyone knows, in the past 14 or so years there have been more than 30 changes in the way in which the unemployment figures are calculated. Nobody believes the Government's unemployment statistics. It is a matter for regret but it is something over which the Opposition have no control.
However, I know for sure that more than 7,000 people in my constituency have no job. Many of them have been unemployed for a long time, and some school leavers will be added to their number. Very few of them have any prospect of finding a job.
Miss Widdecombe indicated dissent.
Mr. Godsiff : The Minister shakes her head. I invite her to tell the 7,000 people in my constituency who are without jobs and the school leavers who will soon join the unemployment queue what will happen to them in the future. What are their prospects?
If the Government want to contribute to the country's long-term development, they should put aside other aspects of their policies and accept that it is vital to invest in skills. It is universally acknowledged that the countries which have a skilled, trained work force are those that succeed. No hon. Member, and certainly none of the acknowledged experts, will disagree with that.
It is vital that we have a trained work force to meet the challenges of the next century ; but what have the Government done? They have halved the number of apprenticeships, which has resulted in the disappearance of more than 500,000 jobs in the construction industry--that
Column 930figure applies to one industry alone. It is absurd that 500,000 jobs should go in an industry that is desperately important to the improvement of the infrastructure which, in many places-- not least in Birmingham--is falling apart. [Interruption.] The Minister throws her head back and turns it from side to side, uttering an exclamation. I am more than happy to give way to her if she wishes to respond.
It is part of the arrogance that goes with being in power for 14 years that Ministers do not want to hear what the Opposition have to say. They believe that we are irrelevant and that only the Conservatives have a divine right to rule the country. Arrogance breeds contempt for democracy and, in the past few weeks and months, we have witnessed the Government's utter contempt and arrogance. They do not realise that they are answerable to Parliament and to the people ; they believe that they have a divine right to be in power, running the country's affairs.
Mr. Godsiff : That is true. You have an electoral right, but I was taught that in politics one should listen. You may not always agree with what you hear but, from time to time, you might find that your political opponents have something valid to say. With respect, I must say that the way in which the Minister is behaving now and the way in which she has behaved in the past two hours reveal her contempt for the points made by me, by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery and by my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray).
We are not claiming to be the repository of all wisdom, but we have a point to make. Many of our constituents do not have jobs and many of our future constituents will not have jobs. Like you, Minister, we are concerned about the country's future. We believe that we must create a skilled work force, and we will support any of your proposals that help to achieve that objective.
It is vital that we create a skilled work force, but the Government are not attempting to deal with the problem. As I said, the number of apprenticeships has been halved since the Government came to power and there has been a massive loss of jobs in the construction industry. At the same time, in constituencies such as mine, there is a desperate need for improvements to the infrastructure, for the construction of new homes and for improvements to school buildings and health facilities. The Government, however, are presiding over a country in which apprenticeships are declining and in which there is massive unemployment in the construction industry.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) who is parliamentary adviser to the Federation of Master Builders. He spoke with great authority, but there was a contradiction in what he said. He painted a supposedly bright picture of the economy, but also mentioned the opinions of the organisation that he represents. That opinion is, in effect, that small builders are in a desperate plight, are on their knees and need help. The two pictures did not match. I have spoken to many small
Column 931builders in Birmingham and I believe that the picture painted by the hon. Gentleman of their being in desperate need of help is the right one.
Most small builders are desperate for work. Many have held on for one year, if not for two years, in the hope that there will be an upturn. For many, there are no reserves left and there is no fallback position. If there is no increase in public investment in Birmingham and areas of great deprivation, small builders will go out of business. I do not care what the so-called official statistics are because I believe in living in the real world, not in the world of statistics concocted by Government Departments-- their statistics have been conveniently massaged. I am interested in the real world, and in that world many small builders face losing their businesses because there are no more orders.
Opposition Members do not seek merely to score cheap political points against the Government. We are trying to express a genuine concern and to ensure that we have a skilled work force for the future. I hope that the Government have listened to the valid points made not only by Labour Members but by members of other parties, especially by my very good friend the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. I hope that they will not view our comments with contempt in the belief that only they can be right.
We owe it to future generations to provide them with the opportunity of employment, of obtaining skills and of leading a fulfilling life. If we are not prepared to address the need for a skilled, trained work force, I fear that the future of Britain will not be bright and that the country which at one time led the industrial revolution in the world will be relegated to the status of a third-world country.
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) : I begin by congratulating the Minister on upholding what seems to be becoming a fine old tradition of opening debates on training levels with a short speech. I was interested to note that there only were two other speeches from the Government Benches, from the hon. Members for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) and for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), both of whom have specific interests in training. The hon. Member for Romford is a representative of the Federation of Master Builders and the hon. Member for Norfolk North-West has a constituency interest--the siting of a Construction Industry Training Board college in his constituency. They both hinted that they did not agree with the Government's voluntary approach to training and they agreed that there must be intervention in the market to ensure that training takes place.
I associate myself with the passionate comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray), for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham), and for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) about the useful and effective intervention that planning for training has and the disaster that occurs if it is left to the market.
I was contemplating the meaning of the Secretary of State's recent speech, in which he claimed that going "back to basics" in the labour market would bring us success, with special reference to our debate on training, and I came across something that may enlighten us. It is a book called "The British Common People 1746 to 1946", a classic of
Column 932its kind, by G. D. H. Cole and R. Postgate and it gives an account of one of first apprenticeship systems in the country : the parish apprenticeship system.
That system was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century to try to deal with some of the effects of rapid industrialisation. The book states :
"many thousands of children from London and other large towns having become inmates of pauper institutions were shipped in droves to the new factory areas, there to be bound apprentices to some cotton Lord who undertook to feed and clothe them in a barrack built specially for their occupation."
It states that that kind of bonded slave labour
"died out rapidly as soon as local supplies of child labour became available ; for the factory owners soon found that free' labour which they could engage and discharge at will came cheaper than pauper labour which they were bound to maintain throughout the period of apprenticeship, whether trade was good or bad."
That "back to basics" theme still exists in the Government's training policies today.
In many ways, it is remarkable that we are having a debate at all after 14 years of a Government who are notable only for their dogmatic adherence to laissez-faire economic doctrines. Indeed, the period has seen the abolition of no fewer than 21 of the 23 industrial training boards, leaving only the two that we are considering in the debate.
Conservative Employment Ministers come and go, with all due respect to the hon. Lady, but they all intone the same dogma : the state must get out of the way of the private sector, voluntary private provision is always better than statutory provision and the market will, as their gurus always predict, provide whatever the circumstances. We knew what nonsense that was before they tried it and now we have the evidence to prove it. As a result of their neglect and incompetence, Britain now has the worst-trained work force in the European Community. Training has been starved of resources and has suffered a £1.5 billion cut before the past election and has a budget which will continue to decline following the two Tory tax raising budgets of 1993.
Worst of all, the privatisation of 54 skillcentres led to their complete collapse when Astra, the brave, new, private company which was supposed to do a better job than the state ever hoped, went quickly and spectacularly bust, taking all the training opportunities with it.
While that makes the case for statutory provision more eloquently than hundreds of speeches ever could, Astra's collapse deprived thousands of people of access to any training at all, at a time of historically high and persistent mass unemployment. In addition we have seen a 60 per cent. reduction in apprenticeships in manufacturing between 1979 and 1990--a castastrophic fall, which has condemned hundreds of thousands of young people to a life on the dole. Britain cannot hope to complete in an increasingly high-tech world with the low skills base which we have inherited from 14 years of leaving it to the market.
As Sir John Cassels, formerly at the Manpower Services Commission, said in 1990 :
"left to itself, the market will function in such a way as to cause a great deal of harm to the interests of young people, companies and taxpayers."
How right he was, and what a pity it is that the Government have chosen not to admit to the wisdom of those statements and act on them.
That is why the Labour party believes that the retention of the two remaining training boards is desirable at the margin ; but, to be effective, it must be accompanied by the
Column 933creation of a national strategy for training with the work done by the boards being improved and extended to other areas of the economy. We shall vote against the orders because we feel that training provision is inadequate at all levels and is failing the economy. However, some aspects of the structure of the boards point to the way ahead, some of which were pointed out by Conservative Members in speeches that praised the boards. The work of both boards amply demonstrates the advantages of a collective approach to training, based on co-operation and financed by a levy on employers. It is an approach which we should like to see extended and one which would allow for counter-cyclical measures to be taken in a
recession--planning, in other words. At a time when companies are shedding labour and may have insufficient work to justify taking on trainees, special measures could easily be taken to protect training and to ensure that there would be no skills shortages once the recession ends.
That is precisely what the CITB did in 1992 when it spent £6.5 million on doubling the number of entrants to the industry's youth training scheme in the midst of the recession. Before we congratulate the boards too much, we must realise that they managed only to raise the number of places from 5,000 to 10,000. Such planning and counter-cyclical activity is done as a matter of course by our industrial competitors.
The collective active approach which would allow a national strategy of training to be developed and delivered, including adequate provision of the right skills and real achievement in equal opportunities policies, would also allow us to plan for a flexible and well-trained work force. That approach would prevent firms from poaching already trained people and would guarantee that training occurs. That would ensure, importantly, that every firm would accept responsibility, either for financing or for providing training, so there would be no freeloading in an a deregulated industry. That approach would also guarantee the quality of training, and would provide an efficient way in which to deliver high-quality, meaningful and recognised qualifications.
The two boards that we are discussing today ensure the continuing collection of statistics for their industry and their work also include developing databases of trained practitioners for prospective employers to consider. They also do valuable careers advice work to attract school leavers into their industries. Unfortunately, this important work is not going on elsewhere in the economy.
We believe that there was an implicit recognition of the superiority of this interfering in the market, over leaving the market to decide for itself which decimated training last year, in a Government press release announcing the retention of the CITB last year. Hon. Members will recall that, when the House last debated these orders, the CITB was subject to its periodic review. Many of us feared that it would be abolished in yet another spasm of free market frenzy. Significantly, the Government backtracked when faced with the overwhelming support of the construction industry for the board and the levy on employers which finances its activity. Rather than abolish it, the Government reconstituted it for five years. To reconcile that flight from Thatcherite orthodoxy the then Under- Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), commented in the official press release :
Column 934"Whilst it remains government policy that sector training arrangements should normally be non-statutory, the government is persuaded that different considerations apply in the building and civil engineering industries."
Those different considerations" turned out to be the casualisation and deregulation of the industry, which has led to a massive increase in subcontracted labour, making it cheaper and more economically rational to poach than to train. Of course, we all know that the outcome of that is a catastrophic collapse in training to the detriment of the whole economy.
Yet, the Government's "back to basics" policy in the labour market is to casualise and deregulate the rest of the British work force. By their own logic, that implies a massive extension of the training board system or a further catastrophic collapse in our already dismal training record.
That press release and the decision to retain the CITB are recognitions of the fact that the Government simply cannot leave the provision of training on a voluntary basis to the whims of the free market. I note that the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board is also currently subject to review and I await its fate with interest.
It is frightening to realise how far behind our major competitors we are in training. In 1989, the then Secretary of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), now the chairman of the Conservative party, where I hear he is doing a wonderful job--
He reacted to a major report "Training in Britain--a study of funding activity and attitudes" by saying :
"It's mindboggling--we still have a mountain to climb."
Five years later, we are still in the foothills and our attempts to scale the peaks have been fatally hampered by a guide who thinks that it will be easier if we all find our own way up.
I do not care a jot for the fate of the Conservative party. Indeed, I hope that it follows the example of its Canadian counterpart into well-deserved oblivion at the next general election. However, I care about our young people and the future of our country. I know that training is vital to ensure the future prosperity of both. As the youngest Labour Member and the youngest woman in the House perhaps I have the advantage over some hon. Members in that I still remember what it was like to be young.
It angers me more than I can say that I regularly meet people in the mid to late twenties who have never worked, and not for want of trying. Their prospects of working are still not improved. The fact that entire generations of our young people have been written off, fobbed off with Mickey Mouse training schemes, denied benefit, and blamed for their predicament by this Government is a matter of record and a serious indictment of Government policies.
I cannot stand the poverty of this Government's ambitions for our young people. They are content to jeopardise all our futures in pursuit of a profoundly mistaken dogma which has brought us nothing but mass unemployment, economic failure and a breakdown of social cohesion. They are content not to strive for the gold medal in training provision and to unlock future prosperity for Britain, but instead settle meekly for the wooden spoon.
Column 935It is time to end the experiments with voluntarism. It is time to admit that they have not worked. It is time to create a real and serious national strategy for training.
Mr. Widdecombe : This has been an interesting debate, if a somewhat wide-ranging one. I am surprised to hear the Opposition say, first in the person of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and then in the person of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), that they intend to oppose the orders and to divide the House.
That statement has been made by Labour Members who, throughout the debate, have stood up and said that they represent the "working class". I would not use that phrase because I find it patronising, but they have. [Interruption.] It does not matter how they pronounce the word "class". I think that the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) would not say it quite like his colleagues. I look forward to hearing how an hon. Member with his slender majority can explain to his constituents why he will vote against these orders and cause the training boards in question to have less funds for training.
Let us work through what would happen if these orders were defeated. We know that it will not happen because Conservative Members will ensure that the measures are not defeated. What are the Opposition trying to cause to happen by voting against the measures? First, the industry training boards concerned would be able to raise a levy of under 1 per cent. only, because they would not have permission to go ahead with more. Therefore, they would need to use their reserves to maintain a training programme.
Nevertheless, it would lead to a massive reduction in training, a reduction in apprenticeships and a reduction in the adult training work force. It would contribute to skills shortages. There would be no advance towards training for the recovery and for emerging from recession, which several Labour Members told us that they consider, rightly, to be important. There would be redundancies and the board would lose highly skilled staff. If that is the outcome that Labour Members want to achieve by defeating these orders, I look forward to hearing how they will explain that in detail to their constituents.
Mr. Tony Lloyd : First, I will take the Minister outside afterwards and explain to her how this place works. If the Government were to agree with us that the orders should be withdrawn, we would expect them to table orders making proper allowances for those boards. The hon. Lady makes an excellent point in justifying the existence of the training boards in all those industries where the Government abolished them. Does she agree that training was stopped in those areas?
Miss Widdecombe : Given the arrangements that are in place for training within the construction industry and the engineering construction industry, if the boards are not allowed to raise the sums that they wish to raise in order to deliver training that they assess to be necessary, we shall face the situation that I have just outlined. The hon. Member for Stretford says that if the Opposition defeat the
Column 936order, the Government will come back and do something different. [Interruption.] What we have done is what the industry--
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. We need a little training here, or at any rate a reminder that seated interventions, particularly when they are constant, are not acceptable to the Chair.
We are doing what the boards have asked us to do. That is what we endeavour to deliver in the House tonight. If Opposition Members are seriously trying to defeat the order, they are going against the wishes of the boards, whom they have been lauding as necessary. Of course they can vote against it, because they know that they will be defeated. That is precisely the sort of irresponsible attitude that has cost them four elections and which causes them to sit in the thoroughly deserved position of the Opposition Benches, where they will stay.
I have been challenged to talk about Astra. The hon. Member for Wallasey stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the collapse of Astra has denied training to hundreds of people. It has done no such thing. It did not have a monopoly. When various branches of Astra were closed, it became the immediate duty and responsibility of the training and enterprise councils to provide replacement training through other providers.
We made a point of asking the TECs concerned whether there were difficulties in finding that training provision. The reason why we asked that was because of Opposition assertions that many people would be without training. We have not received any indication from those TECs that they have had difficulties.
Mr. Tony Lloyd : Will the Minister tell us a little more about Astra? When she asked the TECs whether they could find training places after the collapse, did she also ask them to give details of the way that they conspired with Astra to cheat? They were making up non-existent trainees and inventing non-existent jobs for them. All that is well documented. Has the Minister done a single thing to bottom out those allegations?
Miss Widdecombe : We have no evidence of cheating by TECs. What we do have, and what it is right that we should put into place, are proper audit procedures. We audit what the TECs supply, what they claim for and what the outcomes are of what they are claiming for. That system is in place.
Mr. Lloyd : If the Minister is so confident that the auditing procedures are accurate, why has a recent report been highly critical of the TECs and waste? But more importantly, it is well known and well documented that Astra was fiddling. I can provide the information, but the Minister has already had it. Why has she not asked the TECs what went on? When the TECs were happy to allow that to take place and public money was corruptly being abused by that company, why did the Government not ask those questions?
Miss Widdecombe : I part company from the hon. Gentleman. What I was trying to indicate, and my reply was precise, was that there was no evidence of cheating by TECs. The hon. Gentleman has just asked me how TECs could allow that to take place. I do not think--there is no
Column 937evidence to suggest it--that there has been deliberate malpractice by TECs. But where anything of that sort arises, and where there is ever any evidence to suggest that public money may have been misused, or that the value for public money may not have been met, that is something worthy of investigation, which would come up through the ordinary audit procedures.
Mr. Lloyd : We are making a little progress. Let me ask specifically whether the Minister accepts that Astra cheated. If so--there is no doubt that it did--why did she not undertake any investigation into what took place? It was public money. It was our money--taxpayers' money. She should have looked after it for us.
Mr. Tony Lloyd rose --