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Social Security Benefit Rights

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : I have to inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.27 pm

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : I beg to move,

That this House would fully restore social security benefit rights to all 16 and 17 year olds.

I was slightly surprised this afternoon when a message was received in our office which suggested that I speak as long as I like because there would be a dearth of other contributors to the subject. That reflects seriously on aspects of the policies of the other Opposition parties and on Government policy, because the issue is serious and affects many young people and families throughout of the United Kingdom.

I attach great importance to this aspect of social security legislation. It would not be amiss to say, Madam Deputy Speaker, that when you and I were 16 or 17 years old, we were living in the 1960s, when it seemed to young people that the world was their oyster. There were job opportunities in abundance and many of us, irrespective of background, could go to university, further or higher education, guaranteed a full student grant, and could find summer jobs with ease to eke out that grant. Those were very opportune times for many of us.

I am deeply concerned about what is happening to young people throughout the United Kingdom today. Our young people should be filled with optimism and idealism. But instead we seem to have a society where many of our youngsters feel that they are in a dead-end. They feel alienated from the democratic process and downtrodden, and the world no longer seems to be the oyster which we envisaged in the 1960s. It now appears to be a shark--often a loan shark.

In moving the motion, I shall quote several figures which I think are of relevance. [Interruption.] I note that there is an element of disrespect from the Government Whips and others on the Treasury Bench, but these are serious figures which should be taken into account.

Figures drawn up by Shelter, for example, show that one in four of Scotland's unemployed is between the ages of 16 and 25. Training allowances for 16 and 17-year-olds have not been uprated since 1989. In September 1992, a careers service survey showed that only one training place for every 26 young people was available if they were registered with that service, although I am sure that the Minister will argue about the importance that is attached to training schemes.

I shall quote from the Social Security Advisory Committee, which said :

"The YT guarantee is not being delivered in full and, without such a guarantee, the absence of a right to continuing entitlement to Income Support can leave vulnerable young people with no visible legal means of support . . . If the general exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from Income Support were removed, those in genuine need would be able to access Income Support quickly in the normal way." The reality is, of course, that those young people cannot access income support in the normal way. Forty-five per cent. of young people staying in emergency accommodation had previously slept rough. [Interruption.] I wish that the Minister would listen to the statistics. He is busy

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talking to somebody else, but I wish he would listen because the statistics are important and merit the attention of the House and of hon. Members who are present.

My colleagues from Plaid Cymru have spoken on the issue of homelessness. That is a very serious issue, because if people have neither a job nor a home, what kind of hope is there for them ? Last year, 14,000 16 and 17- year-olds in Scotland were out of employment, and it was estimated that 75 per cent. of them had no income whatsoever.

Throughout Britain, 122,500 16 and 17-year-olds were defined as jobless and, of those, 90,400 had no source of income. The reality is that 75 per cent. of 16 and 17-year-olds who are out of work have no source of income. They have no opportunity in society to find themselves a home or a job, and they have no income whatsoever. I suggest that the Government are driving them into despair. In 1988, the Government removed the benefit from young people. No doubt the Minister's response--which has been presumably written for him in a departmental brief--will emphasise that income support is available in exceptional circumstances.

Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside) : Hear, hear.

Mrs. Ewing : I notice the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside's comment. No doubt he is, as always, looking for promotion within the Government. May I remind him of those exceptional circumstances ? A 16 or 17-year-old might have access to income support if he is a parent, in physical or moral danger or if he is handicapped. That covers a small percentage of the number of people we are talking about and, of course, the bureaucracy ensures that many of the people who might be eligible in those circumstances do not apply. We will never know how many people do not apply for income support in exceptional circumstances ; nor will we know the numbers who have been rejected.

No doubt the Minister will talk about the severe hardship allowance as a safety net established by the Government. Originally that was introduced as a stop-gap measure for young people, but it has now become a mainstay provision. In the first 12 months of the existence of the severe hardship allowance, 10,669 successful applications were recorded.

Let me remind the House of the mechanisms that young people have to go through to be succesful. A young person who wants to make a claim for income support under the severe hardship provision must register at the careers office and take his proof of registration to the unemployment benefit office. The unemployment benefit office will then issue the young person with a form to take to the local Benefits Agency office, where he will be interviewed. There are three offices through which any young person seeking that mechanism of support must pass.

In the four years since then, the numbers have increased sevenfold. That is an indication of the crisis that exists. I also link that with the issue of homelessness, because that is a major aspect of the problems that young people face.

The Scottish Council for Homelessness says clearly that one of the greatest problems that young people face is homelessness. It argues that we need to restore the claim to income support to 16 and 17-year-olds and ensure a single rate of income support for all those who are living independently, regardless of age.

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Much has been made of the cardboard cities and the homeless in London, but it happens in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling and any town within Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. What kind of life are we holding out to those young people ? The attitude struck by the Government comes close to being criminal.

It will be interesting to learn what other hon. Members say in the debate, and there is a moral issue at stake for all of us as legislators. I started by saying that when you and I were 16 or 17, Madam Deputy Speaker, the world seemed to be full of opportunities. For many people now, the world is not full of opportunities. Young people throughout the United Kingdom are left in desperation, despair and hopelessness.

We have costed in our budget what it would cost to restore benefits to young people in Scotland, and we reckon it would cost £23 million. I believe that that would be £23 million well spent. It would enable young people to have dignity and the decency of an independent life. I ask the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) who sit on the Opposition Benches : what exactly is the Labour party saying to 16 and 17-year-olds ? Much play was made during the European elections of the Prime Minister's attack on beggars, people sleeping rough and people who have not had any other opportunity in life.

Yet when the Labour party was asked about what it would do, there were four different replies in one day. The acting leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), confused the issue when she said that there must be "good quality training" and "some assistance", but she refused to say what form that would take. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) intervened, saying on Radio 4's "World At One" programme : "If more money is required that will have to be considered . . . The major point is that we are not going to be passive and simply criticise the results of present policy."

But no indication was given of what position the hon. Gentleman would adopt as shadow Secretary for Social Security on that issue. Labour's Treasury Spokesman, the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) said that the Labour party would announce detailed plans "nearer the time" of a Labour Government. That, perhaps, was very optimistic from her point of view, because whether there will be a Labour Government is for the people to decide.

The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) said :

"The benefits to the young, in particular, equalled the benefits in most of Europe."

Yet the reality is that 16 and 17-year-olds in the U.K. do not have equality with their counterparts in Europe. Not only the Government but the official Opposition face the challenge of reviewing their policies towards 16 and 17-year-olds. The Opposition must come clean tonight on their policy. My party has made it clear that it will reinstate the benefit ; we have costed it and it is within our budget. It is an important aspect of our policy.

There is an element within the House that does not understand the strength of feeling and passion within our communities about young people. Many hon. Members, particularly from Scottish constituencies, spent the past few weeks campaigning in the Monklands, East

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by-election. People regularly said on their doorsteps that they were deeply concerned about what was happening to youngsters in our society. From time to time, we talk about the problems of drugs, crime and deprivation, yet it is in our hands to ensure that money is made available to young people to ensure that they do not fall into those traps.

We must make clear our commitments, because principled guidance exists in our politics. I find it strange when I pick up The Herald and find that it carries the headline

"Blair accuses Tories of stealing Labour policies"

The newspaper reported :

"Tony Blair yesterday accused the Conservatives of getting ready to steal some of his party's clothes on employment and social policies."

On the same page, under the headline

"Lang cautions against one more right turn'"

the newspaper reported :

"In fending off the challenges of a revitalised Labour party, which he accused of stealing Conservative policies in their quest for office, the Conservative party had to deal with voters wanting change."

It seems weird to me that one party, the official Opposition, is accusing the Government of stealing their policies while the Government are accusing the other party of stealing their policies. Do we intend to address the issues that confront our society or are we just going to sit back and let 16 and 17-year-olds become the victims of unionist policies ? I am not going to take any lectures from members of the Labour party in particular, but from any member of any unionist party about Santa Claus policies. The sum of £23 million is a small in comparison with the problems involved. My party is totally committed, if the other parties are not, to the idea of social justice in our society. We will ensure that that is offered to young people as well. That policy will not be assimilated by the rather exclusive nonsense of the London parties, which seek power for themselves rather than power for the people.

My party believes that the packaging of the Labour party and of the Government are exactly the same--they just try to label it differently. I want to hear clearly from both of those parties tonight exactly what they will do for 16 and 17-year-olds.

7.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the endof the Question and to add instead thereof :

recognises that vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds and those facing severe hardship continue to have access to benefits ; believes that it is in the long term interests of 16 and 17 year olds that they do not go straight from school on to benefits, but into training, employment or further or higher education ; and fully endorses the Government's training guarantee and the continued expansion of vocational, further and higher education.'.

I ask my colleagues to vote for the Government's amendment. For the past 15 minutes, I have felt like an innocent bystander at the clash of the tartan armies, because the remarks of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) were intended for consumption in an internal argument north of the border rather than to address the issues that should concern the House tonight.

The hon. Lady was a little ratty with me earlier when I was having a discussion with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security

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about a matter she had raised. I suspect that that was due to her chronic insecurity at being alone, at that time, on her Bench. No matter that the issue we are discussing is of great importance ; alas, the sense of that importance was not shared at that time by her colleagues. I am delighted to see that the leader of the Scottish nationalists, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), has arrived and I should be delighted to give way to him.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : I was absent because I was on St. Stephen's green giving an interview on the future of Rosyth. Given that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is sitting next to the Minister, perhaps he could use this opportunity to enlighten us rather more than the Prime Minister was prepared to do when my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) asked him a question about it this afternoon. Is Rosyth naval base to close, which will mean that more job opportunities will be lost for young people and others in Scotland ?

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I must point out to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) that the motion is narrowly drawn.

Mr. Burt : All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is : good try. I am sure that that does not relieve the sense of insecurity that his hon. Friend felt at the beginning of her speech.

I was also delighted to listen to the hon. Lady's remarks about who is stealing whose clothes--whether the Labour party is stealing the Tories' clothes or the Tories are stealing Labour's clothes. All that is obvious is that no one is stealing the hon. Lady's clothes or those of her party, so it would appear that the paucity of her remarks tonight is reflected in her party's other policies. That is why no one wishes to steal them.

I should like to address the real issues, which are genuine and important. That is why I am surrounded by a number of my colleagues who share my interest in this subject.

Mrs. Ewing : Two thirds of my party are present.

Mr. Burt : Two thirds of nothing is nothing.

I accept that the motion tabled by the hon. Lady may be based on the best of intentions, but it is just one more example of how the Opposition parties fail to see how policy towards young people must be rather more than just a knee-jerk back to benefits.

Our policy is the only real one on offer. It is about education and training for young people, and developing a positive approach to life in a highly competitive world market economy. It is about helping young people fulfil their potential so they can live independent and productive lives. It is about the United Kingdom as a whole ; Scots as much as anyone else.

If young people aged 16 and 17 are not yet in work, we offer them real options : Scottish highers and A-levels--as good as anything comparable anywhere in the world ; general and national vocational qualifications, building up our vocational skills base ; and youth training, also usually leading to NVQ level 2, which delivers a wide variety of courses to a wide range of abilities. All those options carry with them financial support in one way or another, either from the parents of those at school, employers or the youth

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training allowance. Those options are available to all young people ; young women as well as young men and members of any minority group.

Given all this, I have to ask what is the point of reintroducing income support for 16 and 17-year-olds. All those not in employment, such as young mothers, are entitled to claim income support as of right already. So who would gain and what would be the effect if this apparently generous motion were actually put into effect ? I suspect that, in terms of welfare, which presumably is the intended justification, the answer is "not much".

Mrs. Ewing : Would the Minister like to give us the latest training figures on the basis of how many people who apply for YT opportunities are offered places ?

Mr. Burt : According to the figures for Scotland, there are more vacancies for YT places than there are people ready to take them up. At the end of the last monthly count, some 4,000 places were still vacant according to local enterprise companies. I do not believe that there is any doubt about the improved efforts of the Government and those who assist them to fulfil the YT guarantee.

If benefit were restored, a majority of those in education and training would continue as they do now, and be supported as they are now. Those waiting for a place on a YT scheme could claim for a short time while they waited, but those in severe hardship can claim now, as they could in the future. As a result of the motion, extra money would be given to some young people, many of whom will be from relatively well-off backgrounds living at home with their parents. From a welfare point of view, the measure would be ineffective. What is worse, it would encourage those with less commitment to think they can give up their school, their course, their employer training and live on benefit. A wholly negative and inappropriate effect. During the mid-1980s, when the economy was moving ahead rapidly and unemployment falling--a look back, perhaps, to the halcyon time in her youth about which the hon. Member for Moray talked--claims from school leavers remained at a high level. That is an indication of the effect that easy benefit access can have. Perhaps even more significant, 16 and 17-year -olds leaving school would be able to go straight on to benefits with no incentive to do more. That gives exactly the wrong message and represents a sharp step away from the attitudes we should be trying to foster in this House.

Anything that undermines our skills effort in this way is a serious matter. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund have said that the United Kingdom is set to have the fastest growth of any major economy this year and next. This growth will be reflected in Scotland. Unemployment has been falling and employment rising--26 per cent. of employers expect to increase the number of jobs on offer this summer, the most optimistic figure for four years.

Especially important in the context of this debate is the forecast by the independent Institute for Employment Research that the number of jobs at technician level and above is expected to rise by 1.6 million during the 1990s. If we can educate and train our young people, the jobs will be there ; and we will ensure that that education and training are available.

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Our overall approach to unemployment and economic regeneration was recently highlighted by the OECD as the best way forward. The active policies that we are pursuing to help the unemployed were singled out in particular. We will not give up now on what is one part of a successful and coherent set of policies.

The future demands better educated young people, and young people are recognising that it is in their interests to get those qualifications. In 1992-93, 70 per cent. of 16-year-olds stayed on in full-time education--a 70 per cent. increase over 1979.

General national vocational qualifications have made an exciting start and are proving very popular. Action is in hand to ensure that they are rigorous and of high quality. They develop skills, knowledge and understanding in a broadly vocational context. We expect successful GNVQ students to go on to higher education and good jobs. NVQs--covering 80 per cent. of the work force--have now been accredited and will increasingly offer a firm basis for most job-specific training.

We have substantially improved the educational information and advice available, which allows young people to make informed choices about the school or college and type of course that best meet their needs. The local education authority, via the careers service, provides statutory vocational guidance and planning services for young people. Again, the publication of performance tables for schools and colleges has been an important step and now includes vocational qualifications.

Those steps should help us achieve a further aim--increasing the number of young people who continue to develop their knowledge and skills after their 16th birthday. The number has risen rapidly over the past few years--more than 20 per cent. since 1979, so that 87 per cent. of 16-year-olds are now in some form of education and training. The target is 91 per cent. by 1995- 96, and funding to the further education sector allows for a 25 per cent. growth in the numbers of their students from 1993-96. What a contrast to offer such a positive future, rather than turning back and offering our young people a future of benefits.

Training is the other arm of our success story. The quality of training is improving rapidly. The Government are committed to ensuring that young people not in work or at school will have a greater range of choice through youth credits, and the opportunity to become better equipped with high- quality skills and qualifications. That will be achieved through the introduction of modern apprenticeships and accelerated modern apprenticeships, which will provide high-quality, work-based training to NVQ level 3 for 16 to 17-year-olds. To enhance further the range of options available for young people, accelerated modern apprenticeships will also be available for 18 to 19-year-olds. The modern apprenticeship initiative should result in some 70,000 young people achieving NVQ level 3 or higher each year.

Youth training NVQs are a valuable step towards higher standards and there is evidence that young people are taking increasing advantage of the opportunities that we provide. The much higher standards now required by employers are resulting in many more higher level

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qualifications. For example, the proportion of all leavers gaining an NVQ qualification rose from 38 per cent. for leavers in 1990-91 to 67 per cent. in 1993-94.

In Scotland, our training policies have been centred on the creation of Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, with their unique remit to bring together training and economic development, and have produced good results for young people in recent years. In the Scottish Enterprise area, total vocational qualifications gained by trainees in youth training have risen by 50 per cent. from 7,015 in 1991-92 to 10,443 in 1993-94 ; there has been a 24 per cent. increase in achievement in youth training of vocational qualifications at levels 2 and 3, from 6,621 in 1991 -92 to 8,211 in 1993-94 ; and the proportion of young people with employed status in youth training has risen over the same period from 25 to 41 per cent.

Mr. Salmond : I thank the Minister for giving us those statistics, but is he familiar with the statistic from Shelter, which estimates that last year, 5,000 young people slept rough in Scotland at some time ? Will he explain why, in this land of opportunity that he is outlining to us, 5,000 youngsters in Scotland slept rough last year ?

Mr. Burt : We shall come to benefits and the safety and security of young people a little later. In contrast to the speech of the hon. Member for Moray, I was offering a picture of how measures taken by the Government to improve education and training opportunities for young people were being accepted and taken forward. That is a much more positive picture than the hon. Lady was painting.

Mr. Salmond : Answer my question.

Mr. Burt : I shall come to the subject of benefits later. As the hon. Gentleman was late arriving, he can wait for me to come to his question a bit later.

Even better results have been achieved in the Grampian Enterprise area, where youth credits pilots have been running for three years. Here, training starts have almost doubled and the vast majority of trainees have employed status and are working towards a vocational qualification. Indeed, attainment levels among young people in Scotland generally are such that the Advisory Scottish Council for Education and Training Targets has launched challenging new Scottish targets for competitiveness to replace the 1991 national education and training targets.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has taken over responsibility for training policy in Scotland with effect from 1 April. He will work within our overall Great British strategy, published in December last as "Prosperity through Skills", but now has the opportunity to adjust and develop aspects of policy to reflect Scotland's distinctive institutional arrangements and levels of attainment.

My right hon. Friend is now reflecting on such adjustments and on the content of a package of training measures comparable in resource terms to that announced for England and Wales in the competitiveness White Paper. It is too soon to say what the package will include, but a number of areas are being looked at, including apprenticeship training and the guidance needs of young people.

The Government are also committed to making the YT guarantee work. The hon. Lady mentioned that matter. We are spending more on youth training this year than last ; and

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in 1993-94, we spent £849 million, which is an advance on the previous year. In the future, we shall spend more per trainee. Broadly the same budget that covered 210,000 first-time entrants to the programme in 1990-91 will cover about 160,000 first-time entrants--more than 25 per cent. fewer--in 1993-94. So, in spite of falling numbers in that age group, we are not only maintaining our investment in their future but increasing it.

We also recognise the practical importance of linking the training with employers. Training and enterprise councils and local enterprise councils in Scotland have conducted marketing campaigns to generate more employer- based training places ; funded new workshop and initial training provision ; and offered subsidies to offset employer costs of training places. And for trainees with special training needs, additional funds have been provided.

However, there will always be some people unable to take advantage of these opportunities, either in the long term or short term, and who need the help of the benefits system.

In 1988, we substituted the youth training allowance for supplementary benefit for unemployed young people. That was a sign of our commitment to invest in the future of young people and help them make the most of their potential, which is a stark contrast with the proposals apparently put forward by the Opposition's Commission on Social Justice. Their proposal seems to be that we should pay more money for less work with no end product in terms of training or qualification.

One of the most important policy aims of our programme was to ensure that those young people who could not take advantage of youth training, either through having to look after their child or because they were disabled or vulnerable for some other reason, were protected. We took great care to ensure that those vulnerable groups retained entitlement to income support at any time.

Since then, we have extended the length of time that child benefit could be payable by up to 16 weeks after the young person had left school. That enabled parents to continue to receive not only child benefit but other benefits such as dependant's allowances and family premium while their children looked for work or YT places or, indeed, waited to go back to school or on to college at the end of the summer.

In addition, where young people cannot stay at home to grow up in a stable and caring environment, we have given automatic entitlement to income support while they are in secondary education. Most important, we completed the safety net for vulnerable youngsters by introducing the severe hardship provision. That enables support to be given at any time to those in particularly difficult circumstances. To guarantee maximum flexibility, we made decisions under that provision discretionary. Each case is judged on its merits and, where there is a risk of severe hardship, benefit will be paid, normally until a job or training place is found.

Help can be given under that provision to young people irrespective of whether they are homeless, living independently or living with parents who are having difficulty supporting them, so help is targeted to where the need exists. Our monitoring shows that help is reaching those who need it.

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Mrs. Ewing : Does the Minister accept that those discretionary payments must be backdated because of the nature of the award, so a young person in critical, emergency circumstances must apply for a social fund loan ? Would not it be better if those youngsters received automatic payments without the backdating that leaves them in that vulnerable position for a period of time ?

Mr. Burt : Having visited the Glasgow unit that deals with that when I was first appointed, I am immensely impressed with the speed with which severe hardship provisions are dealt with. It is probably the benefit with the fastest turn-around, and I suspect that in very few cases are people who need a severe hardship payment turned away or given a length of time to wait.

More important, as the hon. Lady knows, quoting the statistics, we are making more severe hardship awards than we did. We paid 118,000 young people under the provision in 1993-94, and we are currently dealing with about 11,000 claims a month, with a success rate of nearly 90 per cent.

I know something about that, too, because, when I was first appointed, I received representations from lobby groups representing young people throughout the country, and one of the things that worried them was the availability of severe hardship awards. Not only did it appear to be a difficult route to follow, but there was insufficient information about who was, and who was not, entitled to receive benefit. There was a widespread belief that one could not obtain that benefit when one was living at home.

I worked very hard, personally, with the lobby groups to explain that that was not necessary. We developed a new leaflet to publicise to young people's advisers that benefit would be payable even if the young people were living at home, if their parents were on benefit and they could not manage.

We took steps to ensure that that information would be made available in the places where youngsters go. We took steps in the Benefits Agency offices to ensure that one person in each office would be responsible for 16 and 17-year-olds, and that that person would develop expertise and skill in dealing with them and dealing smoothly and rapidly with the complaint. We ensured that the benefit was more widely available. The same criteria had to be met as previously to ensure that someone was eligible, but efforts were made to ensure that those people who were in need had the best opportunity of obtaining it.

I regard the increased figures as a reflection of the efforts that we took to make the benefit more widely available. I think that we did the right thing.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : I am interested in what the Minister says, and I think that there is some truth in it. Things have changed--there is no doubt about that, for reasons that I may refer to later. However, does he recognise what an indictment it is of the original quality of the arrangements, and of the continuing claim that there is a guarantee to every youth, that there should be 11,000 claims a month for severe hardship, 90 per cent. of which succeed ? How does that square with the idea that every one of those youngsters was guaranteed a training place in the first place ?

Mr. Burt : They are guaranteed a training place and, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows, the ability of the YT guarantee system to produce places has improved

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markedly in the past year. On the most recent figures, I think that we are down now to about 1,800 or 1,900 people who are left waiting for more than eight weeks--that is all.

A variety of different situations can give rise to a youngster feeling that he or she needs to make that claim. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.

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