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Miss Widdecombe : If the hon. Gentleman cannot understand that when I have said it three, four, or even five times, I do not think that a sixth intervention will take him very much further forward. I should like to answer the rest of the debate, including the points that he has raised.

Several hon. Members rose --

Miss Widdecombe : No. I am sorry, but I should like to make progress.

The one thing that has come through consistently as a theme from the Opposition tonight has been a picture of gloom and doom about employment and training prospects for young people. I must tell the Opposition that if they had adopted the reasoned tone of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) and said that they wanted to put proper training in place and that they have criticisms about some of the things that are happening, that would be a rather different story.

National vocational qualifications are new. I would be the last to say that there is no further refining or improving to be done. It is quite obvious that there must be. But that is very different from saying that the whole of the Government's strategy and training programme is a Mickey Mouse set- up.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : What strategy?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, which I understood that Madam Deputy Speaker had forbidden, asked, "What strategy?" I shall tell him. The reason why I want to tell him is not because I do not think that he does not know, but because I want to put on the record exactly what the Government are doing, not only for the young people of this country, but for those of later years. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. Any hon. Member who has the Floor is entitled to be heard. It is getting to the point where I am finding it difficult to hear because of mutterings on the Benches. That is not good enough.

Miss Widdecombe : What do you, Madam Deputy Speaker, expect? There are no arguments from the Opposition. Indeed, when the hon. Gentleman started his speech, I thought that I was hearing him reading the same speech that he gave last year. There were no new ideas coming out.

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The Government's training strategy is to develop a system of several routes to be available to young people when they leave school, which are then continued throughout life. We want a system where matching vocational training and vocational qualifications run alongside the more recognised route of academic qualifications. What worries me about those who pour scorn on NVQs, and those who deride the skills revolution and the training programme, is that they are encouraging young people and, more importantly, their parents to think that those qualifications and courses--the vocational as opposed to the academic route --are somehow second-class or worthless. They are neither.

At a time when we are trying to encourage parents to look seriously at vocational as well as academic qualifications, it is grossly irresponsible to try to portray NVQs as some sort of unmitigated failure. Even in the critical reports that have emerged recently, there has been a recognition and encouragement of, and total support for, the overall strategy of NVQs.

The skills revolution is recognised by the construction industry. It will be our policy to pursue that skills revolution. But it would be far more beneficial for the people of Britain, for our work force and development, as well as for those who have to teach and train within it, if we could at least go forward with a positive attitude, rather than trying to persuade every young person that there will be no training and no jobs when they leave school. Neither of those statements is true.

We heard many statistics earlier--

Mr. Graham : Will the Minister give way?

Miss Widdecombe : I am longing to come back to the hon. Gentleman, but will certainly give way.

Mr. Graham : Is the Minister reiterating that we are guaranteeing every school kid wherever a training job? By the way, Minister, just for your information, I understand that my boundaries will be changed and that my seat might be safer.

Miss Widdecombe : What we guarantee young people is that there is a choice. They can stay on in education, but the Opposition always pour scorn on that option. It is a solid choice, because 77 per cent. of young people choose to do, or they can find work, and 13 per cent. do that. They can also take up a training place. I have consistently given the House the figures relating to the number of young people who wait more than eight weeks for those training places. That number is going down and I now believe that it is controllable, although I look forward to further improvements. That is the essence of our guarantee.

I want to draw attention to one Government training scheme, Investors in People, which has not been mentioned in the debate. I look to the Opposition to support it, so I shall study their reactions to my remarks carefully. That scheme is designed to train every person within an organisation, whether management or worker, whether he is a full-time, casual or part-time employee. It is geared to train those people in the aims and objectives of their business and to bring on their personal development. It is centred on NVQs level 3. No such programme has ever been introduced by any Labour Government. It is light years ahead of what many of our competitors are practising in Europe.

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I have been waiting to see the nods of welcome for that scheme from the Opposition. The hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde almost managed to nod, but he changed his mind quickly when he saw that none of his colleagues was doing the same. We should all welcome it.

I want NVQs developed to the extent where it should be possible to have two people at a university, one of whom got there via the ordinary academic route while the other gained his place through work-based training and competence. I will not argue that there is no such thing as a further necessary refinement to NVQs. It is a bit of an insult to the lead industrial organisations, however, to those within the Business and Technician Education Council and those connected with City and Guilds to pour scorn on NVQs, which those people may have developed.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West) : The hon. Lady said that she was waiting for a reaction from the Opposition, but I suppose that we have been absolutely stunned into silence by her statement that we are light years ahead of all other European countries. I do not believe that anyone, even those who have greater faith in the Government's training schemes than we do, believes that we are light years ahead of the German training system.

Miss Widdecombe : As Hansard will show, I did not say, "all other countries". I actually said, "many of our competitors in Europe". Few of our competitors have the equivalent of our defined national education and training targets. They were the subject of a debate a few weeks ago when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made it clear, target by target, how the Government were managing to achieve the targets set not by us, but by industry. It knows what targets should be set.

Mr. Spellar : Can the Minister tell us which of those major countries we are ahead of ?

Miss Widdecombe : The trouble with the hon. Gentleman--[ Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question."] I will. The hon. Gentleman interrupted just as I was getting to the point that I was trying to make. [ Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question."] If hon. Members really want to hear the answer, they should listen.

As I was just explaining, we are light years ahead in setting defined targets and having a system of matched vocational qualifications and academic training. The hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) is perfectly right to pick out Germany as a leading example in Europe. What is the essence of the German system? It is designed to run vocational qualifications alongside educational ones. They are given equal esteem. Vocational qualifications are not considered as second class or second choice, but that is what the Opposition have suggested, patronisingly and rudely throughout the debate. They have suggested that those who do not opt for the academic route have chosen a second-class option.

The essence of the German system is respect for NVQs. If we want to compete with Germany, it is time that the Opposition caught up with that sentiment. It is time that they welcomed the measures that we have taken to introduce NVQs.

Mr. Tony Lloyd rose --

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Miss Widdecombe : If the hon. Gentleman is about to welcome the NVQs, I will willingly give way ; if he is going to whinge, I will not give way.

Mr. Lloyd : Despite what the Minister believes, the Germans do not have NVQs. They operate a high-quality vocational training system. Many people enter it after they have already completed high-quality academic training. The Minister said that industry supports the current levy system. Can she confirm that it was Ministers from the Department of Employment who told the CITB that it has to raise the small firms exemption? It was not the other way round.

Miss Widdecombe : As usual, the hon. Gentleman has not even bothered to understand the workings of the system. Once NVQs are fully developed, it should, of course, be possible for people to take them after they have undergone academic training and for them to feel no shame about working for that qualification. However, as long as the Opposition portray NVQs as a second-class, low-grade alternative to academic training, people are not likely to want to take such a qualification. That will make the job of making that transfer from academic training to NVQs even harder.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West) : Does my hon. Friend accept that NVQs are one of the greatest sources of blessing and that hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from that training? Would she care to reflect on where she was on 19 November, when she presented an award for an NVQ to a company in the constituency that I have the honour to represent?

Miss Widdecombe : I will take my hon. Friend's word that that ceremony took place on 19 November, because my memory is not so exact. I remember the occasion, however, and I congratulate the firm.

In the short time left, I wish to answer the hon. Member for Stretford, who asked me about Scotland. He expressed a great deal of derision and asked me whether I knew what would happen in Scotland, because he said that he did.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : I did not say anything about Scotland.

Miss Widdecombe : Yes, he did. He said in so many words that what we have proposed will not apply to Scotland. The trouble with the hon. Gentleman is that he is anxious to rush in without ascertaining the facts, whereas I am a bit wiser. In case he has forgotten, he mentioned modern apprenticeships.

Model schemes will be developed by industrial training boards and industrial training organisations to cover Scotland. My hon. Friends in the Scottish Office will meet to consider carefully how best to develop corporate and comparable arrangements in Scotland, based on SVQs, Scottish vocational qualifications. That is the answer for which the hon. Gentleman asked.

The hon. Gentleman said that young people have nothing to look forward to except long-term unemployment. He should note that one quarter of those unemployed leave the register within one month, half leave it within three months and two out of three leave the register within six months. He should stop spreading doom and gloom. He should start putting heart into our young people. He should welcome what we are doing and cringe with shame at the lack of ideas from the Opposition.

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6.59 pm

Mr. Campbell-Savours : The Minister might like to care to listen to what I have to say. [ Hon. Members :-- "Why?"] Because she was pressed on the issue. She seems to be having an argument with the Whip at the moment about why she sat down early. We want to know why there has not been a full investigation into what happened in Astra. She was asked that specific question by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd).

The Minister said that auditing arrangements were in place to allow auditors to follow the use of public moneys by training organisations. If so, are we to presume that the people who are responsible for auditing the TECs are equally responsible for going to what remains of Astra to establish precisely what did happen concerning the phantom trainees and the other schemes that it established for the purpose, in effect, of robbing the taxpayer? The Minister herself identified the fact that taxpayers' money was used, and was not fully accounted for in that particular case. Perhaps the hon. Lady will, in the one minute that remains, say whether auditors will examine what happened in the Astra case.

Miss Widdecombe : With the leave of the House, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain how the comments made by two Labour Members can be compatible. The hon. Member for Wallasey said that as a result of Astra's collapse, hundreds of people will no longer receive training--but the hon. Member for Stretford said that training was not real, it was all Mickey Mouse stuff, and we were putting taxpayers' money into nothing. Does the hon. Lady want to maintain a Mickey Mouse set-up, or are we to accept the hon. Gentleman's version? Which is it?

Mr. Campbell-Savours : I am here to ask questions, not answer them. I put this to the Minister the fourth time. Will an investigation be undertaken of what happened at Astra? The hon. Lady has 30 seconds left to answer from the Despatch Box.

Miss Widdecombe : I might be more impressed by the hon. Gentleman's intervention if he had been present for the debate, which he was not.

It being Seven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to order [14 January] :--

The House divided : Ayes 320, Noes 272.

Division No. 80] [7.00 pm


Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)

Aitken, Jonathan

Alexander, Richard

Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)

Allason, Rupert (Torbay)

Amess, David

Ancram, Michael

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)

Ashby, David

Aspinwall, Jack

Atkins, Robert

Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)

Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)

Baldry, Tony

Banks, Matthew (Southport)

Banks, Robert (Harrogate)

Bates, Michael

Batiste, Spencer

Beggs, Roy

Bellingham, Henry

Bendall, Vivian

Beresford, Sir Paul

Biffen, Rt Hon John

Blackburn, Dr John G.

Body, Sir Richard

Bonsor, Sir Nicholas

Booth, Hartley

Boswell, Tim

Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia

Bowden, Andrew

Bowis, John

Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes

Brandreth, Gyles

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Graham

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)

Column 942

Browning, Mrs. Angela

Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)

Budgen, Nicholas

Burns, Simon

Butcher, John

Butler, Peter

Butterfill, John

Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Cash, William

Channon, Rt Hon Paul

Churchill, Mr

Clappison, James

Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)

Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coe, Sebastian

Colvin, Michael

Congdon, David

Conway, Derek

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cope, Rt Hon Sir John

Cormack, Patrick

Couchman, James

Cran, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)

Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)

Davies, Quentin (Stamford)

Davis, David (Boothferry)

Day, Stephen

Deva, Nirj Joseph

Devlin, Tim

Dickens, Geoffrey

Dicks, Terry

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dover, Den

Duncan, Alan

Duncan-Smith, Iain

Dunn, Bob

Durant, Sir Anthony

Dykes, Hugh

Eggar, Tim

Elletson, Harold

Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter

Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)

Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)

Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)

Evans, Roger (Monmouth)

Evennett, David

Faber, David

Fabricant, Michael

Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas

Fenner, Dame Peggy

Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)

Fishburn, Dudley

Forman, Nigel

Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)

Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)

Forth, Eric

Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman

Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)

Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)

Freeman, Rt Hon Roger

French, Douglas

Fry, Sir Peter

Gale, Roger

Gallie, Phil

Gardiner, Sir George

Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan

Garnier, Edward

Gill, Christopher

Gillan, Cheryl

Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair

Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles

Gorman, Mrs Teresa

Gorst, John

Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Greenway, John (Ryedale)

Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)

Grylls, Sir Michael

Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn

Hague, William

Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie

Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)

Hampson, Dr Keith

Hannam, Sir John

Hargreaves, Andrew

Harris, David

Haselhurst, Alan

Hawkins, Nick

Hawksley, Warren

Hayes, Jerry

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward

Hendry, Charles

Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael

Hicks, Robert

Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L.

Hill, James (Southampton Test)

Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)

Horam, John

Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter

Howard, Rt Hon Michael

Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)

Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)

Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)

Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)

Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)

Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)

Hunter, Andrew

Jack, Michael

Jackson, Robert (Wantage)

Jenkin, Bernard

Jessel, Toby

Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey

Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)

Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)

Jopling, Rt Hon Michael

Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine

Key, Robert

Kilfedder, Sir James

King, Rt Hon Tom

Kirkhope, Timothy

Knapman, Roger

Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)

Knight, Greg (Derby N)

Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)

Knox, Sir David

Kynoch, George (Kincardine)

Lait, Mrs Jacqui

Lamont, Rt Hon Norman

Lang, Rt Hon Ian

Lawrence, Sir Ivan

Legg, Barry

Leigh, Edward

Lennox-Boyd, Mark

Lidington, David

Lilley, Rt Hon Peter

Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)

Luff, Peter

MacGregor, Rt Hon John

MacKay, Andrew

Maclean, David

McLoughlin, Patrick

McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick

Madel, Sir David

Maginnis, Ken

Maitland, Lady Olga

Major, Rt Hon John

Malone, Gerald

Mans, Keith

Marland, Paul

Marlow, Tony

Marshall, John (Hendon S)

Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)

Martin, David (Portsmouth S)

Mates, Michael

Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick

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