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Westminster Hall

Thursday 25 January 2001

[Mrs. Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Basic Skills Challenge

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Pope.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks) : Here we are at the start of the 21st century and, while many of us would argue that within the period of our democracy, education has always been pretty centre stage for those of us interested in social progress and social reform, one can argue that education, learning and skills will become even more important, if only because it will become increasingly difficult for those without reasonable levels of education or skills to obtain a place in the labour market.

Education is a powerful driving force and, I hope, a great force for social progress in the 21st century. We should therefore reflect on the irony that we are finding it necessary to discuss basic skills, which is a euphemism for the fact that too many of our adults struggle with basic literacy and numeracy. At worst, many cannot read, write or do simple arithmetic. I am not sure that if we had been participants in the great debates on the Education Act 1944 and had been asked to predict the issues being debated in 2001, we would have said reading, writing and arithmetic for adults. We might have imagined debating how young children could be taught nuclear physics or how we could achieve a better balance between arts and science, but we would not have expected to be talking about the three Rs. It is right and proper for us to talk about the three Rs, for reasons that I shall come to.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I can assure the Minister that I intervene not to be contentious, but to amplify his point. Does he not feel that one of the troubles has been that it has been assumed--successive Ministers have frequently asserted it--in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and elsewhere that western countries, especially this one, have no literacy problems? We assumed that we were 100 per cent literate because there had been broadly 100 per cent. school attendance when, sadly, later researches showed that not to be the case.

Mr. Wicks : That is a good point. Despite the best efforts of the Basic Skills Agency and others in recent years, this problem has been neglected by successive Governments and successive generations. Incidentally, those who sometimes tell us that we are not teaching our children to read and write as well as we used to should be confronted by the hard reality of the evidence of adult basic skills.

I very much welcome the opportunity to debate an issue that lies at the heart of the Government's social reform agenda. There may be some disagreements

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between us, but the debate is unlikely to be confrontational. The issue is also central to our economic purpose, as literacy and numeracy skills are the backbone of almost any worthwhile activity in modern life. They provide an essential foundation for further and higher education and skills training, and are often the deciding factor in whether a person is successful at work or active in the community.

Advances in technology are placing ever more emphasis on good literacy and numeracy skills. Computers, the internet, mobile phones and digital technology will all make the home and the workplace increasingly reliant on good communication and a good understanding of numbers. Those who do not have adequate skills will consequently find themselves increasingly marginalised from the rest of society. The prospect for someone who cannot read, write or do basic arithmetic looks increasingly bleak--bleaker than it would have been in 1951 or 1901, given employment and economic and technological developments. We cannot allow that marginalisation to occur. The Government's vision of a prosperous and decent society, in which everyone is productively employed and fulfilled in their personal and family life, will not be achieved while a large number of people lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.

What are the facts? The hard truth is that up to 7 million adults are struggling with reading and writing. That is hard enough to believe, but it is estimated that an even greater number have difficulty with basic arithmetic and numbers. Those are appalling facts. In practice, they mean that around one in five of the adult population have literacy skills below those of an average 11-year-old. For numeracy, the ratio is one in four. Those people cannot look up a plumber in the Yellow Pages or calculate their change from a £2 coin when purchasing a loaf of bread and two pints of milk from the corner shop.

Adults who lack those skills face enormous problems daily. Using a bus timetable, reading a memorandum at work, or working out their household finances is likely to be frustrating and unnerving. When I visited a primary school in my constituency, I was told about a mother of one pupil who wanted the best for her child. She had received the school report and realised that she was required to comment on it and sign it. She brought the report in, and it became apparent only after a while that she wanted someone to read it to her. That is a basic problem.

The longer-term effects on such people's lives can be devastating. There is a high correlation between poor basic skills and low self-esteem, low self-confidence, low aspirations and low motivation. Evidence shows that such people also stand a much greater chance of being unemployed and therefore on benefit, or in low-skilled jobs with no prospects of better pay or career opportunities, because 49 out of 50 jobs are closed to people without entry-level basic skills. Their families and children also suffer. Pupils whose parents have poor basic skills are inclined to struggle with literacy and numeracy themselves. There is a clear correlation. How can parents read bedtime stories to their children if they cannot read?

All that has a knock-on effect for society and the economy in general. People with low basic skills are more likely to suffer from depression and other health

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problems, less likely to be actively involved in the community, less likely to vote and more likely to turn to crime. Some 60 per cent. of people in prison are said to be suffering from functional illiteracy and/or innumeracy, so the agenda for prison education is clear.

The result is an enormous waste of valuable manpower. The loss of productivity and the cost of welfare support has enormous financial implications for the country. Some estimates have put the annual cost at as much as £10 billion a year. The United Kingdom is not alone in facing these problems, but our record seems to be poorer than that of many of our international competitors. The 1997 international adult literacy survey showed that of the 12 countries surveyed, Britain came 10th. Only Poland and Ireland had a higher proportion of adults with the lowest literacy skills levels. In the UK, some 23 per cent. of the adult population had literacy skills at the lowest levels, compared with 12 per cent. in Germany and 7 per cent. in Sweden.

What is to be done? The Government have clear views about that, but we do not have a monopoly of wisdom. As I shall explain, we need the assistance of many institutions and individuals to help us with the crusade that we must mount. I welcome advice and good questions about how to proceed, and I enter the debate in that spirit.

The Government have a clear commitment to improving the country's record on the matter. We have set ourselves an initial target of reducing by 750,000 the number of adults with weak literacy or numeracy skills by 2004. We are supporting the target by increasing the level of funding specifically for adult basic skills from £241 million this year to at least £400 million in 2003-04.

To achieve the target and continue making progress, three key issues need to be tackled. The first is to lay the right foundations at school level. We are already well on track as a result of the national literacy and numeracy strategies for schools. The proportion of our 11-year-olds achieving the level expected for their age rose from 57 per cent. to 75 per cent. in English, and from 54 per cent. to 72 per cent. in mathematics, between 1996 and last year. What we are doing in primary schools adds up to a remarkable achievement, but more progress needs to be made.

The second key issue is to attract more adults into learning--the subject of today's debate. Currently, about 390,000 learners receive basic skills provision, whereas we believe that at least double that number will be needed by 2004 to meet our target. Adults with poor skills are notoriously difficult to engage because of their poor experiences at school, their lack of self-belief or poor motivation and the difficulty of reaching them through the usual marketing and communication channels. Indeed, many such adults have become remarkably skilled at disguising their lack of basic skills--an understandable survival technique. We have therefore developed a targeting strategy aimed at several key groups. However, we are consulting on the matter, and I would welcome advice and comment. The key groups are young adults in the work force, people who live in disadvantaged communities, parents, workers in low-skilled jobs, unemployed people, benefit claimants, prisoners and those on probation, and Government employees. Government employees are included

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because we take the view that the Government, as a major employer, must show a lead in this respect to other employers.

Mr. Boswell : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wicks : Before I do so, I should point out that we recognise that people overlap across such categories.

Mr. Boswell : The Minister mentioned Government employees. Will he consider giving advice to and co-operating with local government interests in relation to their employees? After all, they are, typically, local education authorities, and I suspect that many of the problems of low skills in their work forces, especially their manual work forces, mirror those in the central Government sector.

Mr. Wicks : That is an important point. As I suggested, we felt that we should provide a lead, and all permanent secretaries are now engaged in developing strategies in their own Departments. We are discussing the difficult but important issue of work in Government Departments that is contracted out, such as cleaning. Such work does not involve Government employees, but some of the people who clean our offices every night may be in need of basic skills help. How do we reach that group? I do not necessarily have the answer to that question; perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) does.

Mr. Boswell : I am grateful for the appellation "my hon. Friend". I had hoped not to have to intervene on the Minister again, but I thought that I would try to be helpful. I am associated with the Business Services Association, which is supported by an all-party group. It is in a sense the responsible representative organisation for the outsourcing industry, and I advise the Minister to consider carefully whether he might consult it about rolling forward the programme of employee development and improvement into that sector, too.

Mr. Wicks : That is a helpful suggestion. We were actively discussing the issue and we shall do that. I am not ignoring the point on local government. As we roll out what some have described as a crusade--for once, I think that that is not exaggerated vocabulary--we shall need to find in each and every industry and key institution a champion for basic skills. That goes for the private as well as the public sector.

I have mentioned the groups. We recognise that they are not the only groups that may have basic skills needs, and there is much overlap between them, as I have said. We are aware of other groups of people--travellers and their families are an example that comes to mind. However, segmenting the target group in this way will help us to design appropriate promotional tools and has helped us to identify how all arms of government can assist in identifying and supporting those with greatest need.

The third key issue is the need to improve the quality of provision and raise levels of attainment so that adults who embark on a learning programme can be assured of making good progress. That is clearly not happening at present. Research published this week by the National

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Foundation for Educational Research, based on a large, representative sample, shows that students taking courses made only modest progress or, in some cases, stood still or even fell back. I commend the report to those who are interested. They will see that, despite progress by some students, the percentile gains were so modest as to be described as "dismal". Inspection evidence points to poor attendance rates on courses and under-achievement by learners. Teaching and management has been found to be weaker in basic skills than in most other forms of adult or college education.

A highly influential report "A Fresh Start"--otherwise known as the Moser report--was published in 1999. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the chairman of that inquiry, Sir Claus Moser, who, with the Basic Skills Agency, has done so much to raise awareness and levels of expertise. The report outlines starkly how serious the neglect of adult literacy and numeracy have been in the past and how much still needs to be done. Over the past year, we have made a great deal of progress in putting in place a robust and consistent infrastructure for learning adult basic skills. It includes the introduction of national standards, a national curriculum for literacy and numeracy, the development of national tests and an intensive teacher-training programme which will be implemented between now and the summer.

Over the past few months, however, it has become clear that we still have a great deal to learn about the most effective approaches to basic skills education--what will motivate adults and help them to make progress. I have therefore been holding, and chairing, several seminars with experts from the United Kingdom and around the world to take account of the accumulated knowledge. Last week, they met for two days and I was able to join them for one day. Experts from different parts of the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Canada and elsewhere were present to help us with the problem.

We are also setting up pathfinder projects in each region to test out the new infrastructure, to ensure that it is implemented effectively, to strengthen work between local partners and to pilot a number of other new approaches, including funding to cover the loss to employers of their staff for one day a week for 13 weeks; intensive training in employability and basic skills for jobseekers; financial and other incentives to participate in learning programmes and to reward achievement; and encouragement for jobseekers to participate in courses, including early screening, additions to benefits and rewarding achievement.

Our full proposals were set out in a statement issued by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on 5 December 2000. We have received numerous helpful comments on them and will probably issue our full strategy in a few weeks.

The Government are determined not only to meet but to overcome the basic skills challenge in this country. Our aim is sustained and profound reform that will last from generation to generation and will leave a new legacy for success. Today's debate is an excellent opportunity to open up important issues so that they can influence our thinking, hence we sought it. I very much look forward to hearing my colleagues' views on this important subject.

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2.50 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to debate this often neglected but crucial issue. It is good to have heard from the Minister a bipartisan and moderate expression of Government strategy in the light of the consultation document. The issue is deeply sensitive, and I will try in turn not to be too critical of the Government. The debate is tailor-made for Westminster Hall; this is the right place and the right debate to have.

I shall begin, perhaps unusually, on a personal rather than a political note. Sometimes we all, in one way or another, have to be what I might call professionally cynical in this place. However, I have a personal conviction in the importance of basic skills, which dates from long before my time either as an Education Minister or, indeed, as a politician at all.

The Minister will be aware that my wife has done tutoring in basic literacy skills, which has given me a closer insight and a better briefing than I could have acquired myself. That has instilled in me a passionate belief that something could and should be done, and a respect for the courage of those who are prepared to return to learning, often after a long absence, probably after being severely scarred by their school experiences, possibly having moved on to work in a low-level occupation--if they work at all--and often with some social dysfunction.

People require skills to avoid revealing that they suffer from functional illiteracy or innumeracy. Because they lack a skill as simple as telling the time, people have to pretend that glasses have been lost or that there is another reason why they cannot see the dial--the watch is broken and so on. Those evasive skills are often at as high a level as the basic skill would have been if it had been acquired. I cannot help feeling that those who suffer basic skills deficiencies experience a comparable degree of frustration to that experienced by me in other areas of my Front-Bench responsibilities on disability issues. There are similar patterns of exclusion from work or social life, and there is a need for intervention based on respect for the individual, to bring him back into the mainstream.

I can tell a story about my wife; anyone who has had any hands-on experience of this issue in further education colleges or elsewhere will have had the same experience. Someone whom she taught basic literacy had been to the college the previous year, got as far as the door, ran away and took 12 months to return. That matters, and I respect that person, who finally plucked up the courage to return.

The Minister has set out the basic facts in so far as we know them. This is not a well measured area, despite the Moser report, but the basic facts are not in contention. That report broadly confirms earlier work, suggesting that at least 7 million adults have problems--and that in a country that is supposed to have 100 per cent. school participation and, by inference, 100 per cent. functional literacy and numeracy after 11 years. Sadly, that is not so.

Let me make a few brief comments on the past. The Minister has been careful to avoid arguing that it is all the fault of his predecessors or that the present Government are the first to want to deal effectively with the problem. I am grateful to him for that. As so often in

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social policy, we have come to a gradual and cumulative realisation of a problem and are developing an increasingly constructive response. I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Government want to be part of that.

When I was in government, I was a firm supporter of the adult literacy and basic skills unit and of the broader standards agenda, including performance tables and regular inspection, which was designed to expose problems as they arose in schools. At the same time, we piloted the family literacy strategy. I remember a fascinating visit to north Tyneside to examine an early pilot. I was highly encouraged by what I saw, in difficult circumstances. I am glad that the Government have built on that important plank.

The problem, as the Minister acknowledged, is deep-seated. It is not confined to the United Kingdom, but fairly prevalent in the western world. The new American President spoke about the importance of changes to educational provision in his country. In my time, I did some looking around at the less glamorous parts of the continental education system. I was particularly touched by the Germans' categorisation of Analphabeten--those without their alphabet--but less impressed with their materials.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The hon. Gentleman made a comparison with the United States. I was surprised to learn from the Moser report that OECD figures reveal that the UK is behind the US in terms of literacy and numeracy; yet the US copes with massive immigration, often from countries without good educational systems. Is that not a shocking fact?

Mr. Boswell : I agree with the hon. Gentleman, subject to the correction that mensuration--and particularly comparative mensuration--is always difficult. The fact that we are behind the US is shocking. It shows indirectly that we have a home-grown problem that we cannot wish off on to the number of asylum seekers, travellers or displaced persons who find their way into our educational system. We are not doing as well as we should from the start.

It is interesting to note that all western economies face language problems with a fairly large proportion of the population. In my ministerial days, I had one meeting with the Japanese Education Minister and was brought up with a jolt when I said, "Surely, Minister, you have some of these problems as well," and he said, "Oh no we don't. I don't even know what you're talking about." If that is true--I suspect that the Minister, myself and others would have reservations about the Japanese education system--it is fascinating to reflect that a language system with 1,800 characters is fully understood by Japanese pupils, when ours cannot understand a 26-character language.

I have spoken about general matters to establish that there is a deep-seated problem, but also that it is not confined to this country. We must come to grips with it, because of the economic consequences. The mensuration of the problem is now clearer than it was a few years ago, partly because of Sir Claus Moser's study and also because we are beginning to see the need for

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everyone to be skilled or at least semi-skilled in their occupation. The problems might always have been there, but were masked by the pool of unskilled labour, in which the basic skills were not really required.

Nowadays, building workers installing pipes into houses for new water supplies need to be numerate. Supermarket workers who use hand-held computers for stock replenishment and recording must be numerate and literate. Many people have to write reports at work, as they have no intermediate staff to do it for them. That has contributed to a greater need for skills and also a greater identification of the problem.

The central action must be to get our schools right. Problems have arisen because of attitudes going back years or even generations. Some of those attitudes have, frankly, rubbed off on local education authorities and even individual teachers, who have tacitly written off individual pupils--or, in some cases, whole schools--as virtually ineducable. That is regrettable and must be put right.

There are also problems of school transition, when families move around the country and children change schools. As family breakdowns increase, even households change. Education is sometimes disrupted because of ill health or for other reasons.

Our basic skills strategy should be grounded in school standards work--the basic, painstaking building up of individual and whole-school data with any necessary remediation. That is where we should start. Early intervention is the most cost-effective intervention. We should expect all children to attain basic literacy and numeracy by the end of key stage 1, unless there is a clear functional problem or learning difficulties. We should expect full functionality in basic skills by the end of primary education.

The Minister's strategy document referred to the study by Bynner and Steedman, which showed that 40 per cent. of the basic skills differences among adults were attributable to the education standards reached by the age of 10. I suspect that that is an underestimate. It is difficult for children to manage the transition to secondary schools when they are still underequipped with basic skills. The danger is that they subsequently fall into wider disaffection, decline and, eventually, a cycle that leads to bunking off school, social exclusion and unemployability.

Rescue operations in those circumstances become progressively more demanding of resources. One ends up having to provide one-to-one Oxbridge-style tutorials to teach pupils basic skills--hardly an ideal use of resources when those skills should have been supplied at school.

By that stage--the statutory school-leaving age--basic skills weaknesses blend into a wider spectrum of disaffection and social failure. Recovery is more difficult, more diffused and, inevitably, more expensive. Reigniting or developing social skills--including self-confidence and the so-called soft key skills as well as the more obvious educational ones--is required. As it says in the helpful notes provided by the Engineering Employers Federation:

That is well put. The problems are complex, and so must be the solutions. There are no easy answers to complex problems. Above all, we must remember that the

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individuals are, by this stage, adults who need support, encouragement and a range of provisions from which they can make an informed choice.

I shall deal briefly with disincentives. I think that the Minister can confirm, and it is certainly my understanding, that in the whole area of provision, fees would not normally be chargeable and are thus unlikely to act as a deterrent. I notice that he is nodding. Will he say something about individual learning accounts? They are not the same issue, and would not need to be spent on basic skills acquisition, but they may well be required for related simple personal development issues and other educational skills.

The Minister will also know--we debated this extensively in Committee on the Learning and Skills Bill--that there are lots of practical barriers to learning, such as child care and transport. There are also educational barriers to learning for people with difficulties. It is right that people should approach that in doable bite-sized chunks, and I am pleased that the document refers to it. It is important, however, that the pattern of attainment and qualification is also tailored to that. We want people to succeed and build on their success, albeit slowly. It is important that all parties--not merely political parties but industry, voluntary organisations, educational establishments and providers--work together in the business of encouragement, because discouragement is such an easy option for people with those difficulties.

Further education is bound to be centre stage in the range of provision. I picked some holes in the Government's assertion in their document that a current inspection rate of 52 per cent. good or outstanding, with 8 per cent. unsatisfactory or poor in relation to basic skills provision, was disappointing. There is no question that it could and should be better, but the figures basically show a good record for many further education institutions in fields of study that are of considerable difficulty.

We need, among other things, to recognise the particular role of further education in remotivating disaffected school leavers, who perhaps have done very badly in their GCSEs. That could be achieved by providing them with a good vocational route that enables them to rediscover that they can do things and invest back into their more general educational skills as well. I have asked the Minister to consider ensuring, in that area in particular, that the tariff fits the bite-sized chunks, so that colleges are rewarded for the work that they do and the attainment that is achieved, and the glass is half full rather than half empty.

Taking up the Secretary of State's recent remarks at the Association of Colleges, it is very important, if the Minister moves towards specialist provision for further education, that he and his colleagues do not send the signal that doors will ever be shut in that area. I remind them of the analogy of the district general hospital that posts a notice saying "No accident and emergency department here. Please go round the corner". I personally think that self-referral for basic skills deficiency must be equivalent to self-referral to casualty. Only the context is slightly different. The door must not close on those who need to go to their nearest and most convenient college to acquire basic skills.

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The second major centre of interest is, of course, the world of work. That needs the active co-operation of both sides of industry. I cite as exemplary, as Ministers often do, the Ford employee development and assistance programme--EDAP. I am happy to do that as a constituency Member with a large Ford plant. The Minister will know--occasionally it surprises those on the other side of the debate--that I am always ready to acknowledge the role of the trade unions in education. I readily do that today. My only requirement, which is really a matter of their own validation and amour propre, is that they should have proper accountability and inspection, particularly if public moneys are going into, for example, the trade union learning fund. Their accounts should be properly scrutinised, as everyone else's are, and the Minister has accepted that in a different context.

It is important that people should grow with their neighbours and be encouraged to go forward, but we all need to remember the limitation of that: there are many people at work with pretty basic deficiencies, and not everyone wants to out themselves, if I may use the analogy, as illiterate or innumerate, or to have a kindly employer, or even a friendly trade union convener, suggesting that they should go and reskill themselves, there and then. It is a sensitive issue.

I would also add to this, the importance of trade associations and national training organisations, in setting national standards and frameworks. That is mainly about the skills agenda, but it must include a reference to basic skills and basic competences. Those who are involved in charitable trusts or in the historic role of business in education, should also meet their responsibilities, and go out into the community to seek people out and bring them in. I mention that because I have been involved with the Livery October Group Vocational Education Committee, or LOGVEC, the livery companies' new enterprise, and I am delighted that the City of London corporation is on board.

I am delighted that the Minister has referred to prison education--it is a rather specialist form of the labour market, and perhaps the only one in adult education where we genuinely have a captive audience. Having taken an interest in this area for some time, I do not think that it has always worked well in the past, but I like the current leadership of the prison education service. I hope that his Department and the Home Office will work increasingly closely together, along with the contracted further education providers to get the project going. We must start with basic skills. It is hardly surprising that people with only 4 per cent. of the legitimate labour market open to them--because of basic skills deficiency--should carry on with a life of crime, if they are good at that.

Community and home-based education should not be forgotten. By definition, almost, local education authorities, under the structure that the Minister will have inherited, do not normally themselves provide basic skills, but they may provide an opportunity to acquire them through community education programmes. As local authorities, they have an interest in economic development and work regeneration, and workplace skills are important for that. Perhaps the Minister could also comment on the financial package for schools to run family literacy programmes.

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The consultation document was rather silent on the question of distant and remote areas, and rural areas generally, where there is the barrier of having less choice of provider and higher transport costs. I know from experience in my constituency that the local library can be a point of reference and a resource centre to support all those who want to learn, including those who are studying in the privacy of their own home, because they find that more convenient.

The document's evidence on information technology is both important and welcome. IT can be a good non-judgmental way of improving basic skills, and IT skills are important in their own right. IT has the added benefit that it can modify some of the distance problems that I mentioned earlier.

I should like to mention the importance of transition planning for those with learning difficulties, when they are leaving school, or for others with identified problems. The local learning and skills councils and ConneXions will need to build on what has not always been a very happy join in the education system.

Sir Claus Moser was slightly surprised by something that I said about the importance of role models, including contemporary role models. The conversation that I had with him started with, "You should look at McDonald's, where 19-year-olds inspire 16-year-olds to do useful things". I do not dilate on that now, but I am sure that the Minister will know what I mean. We need, sometimes, to remember that Ministers and shadow Ministers in their 50s are not always the best people to lecture young adults on what they should be doing for their own good.

The Government, dare I say it, have some weaknesses on institutional factors. They have a penchant for the overarching concept--putting all existing provision under one great umbrella. The relationships within the umbrella are not always well defined. The Government also have a tendency to announce more and more initiatives. There is a danger that, although the overall strategy may be commendable--I am not arguing that it is not--they may trip themselves up over their own initiatives. They say they that the strategy will require sustained leadership and a clear national framework in which teaching and learning take place. That being the case, initiatives should be limited to a manageable number so that all the component parts know what their responsibilities are and how they fit together.

I want to probe the Minister on his proposed new structure. He inherits an outsourced Basic Skills Agency, led with great distinction over several years by Alan Wells. When I checked on the website at the weekend, I noted that he already had a finger--of advice or encouragement--in many educational pies. He has now created a new adult basic skills strategy unit, under Susan Pember, whom I also know.

What is the relationship between those organisations--and, for that matter, between those organisations and other agencies, notably the standards and effectiveness unit, the local learning and skills councils and the national Learning and Skills Council? Where will the extra funding for that strategy come from? One should bear in mind the fact that, even when new money is being created, there is always an

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opportunity cost. It could, for example, have gone into schools or local authorities. Progress in this area will be incremental, but it will not happen at all unless those relationships are sorted out.

I would not want to end on a note of gratuitous controversy. We are all committed to the reversal of a backlog that may have its origins in history--these are frustrations that lie in the depths of time. Those struggling to learn or to teach to tackle that backlog are, by definition, committed to a great and worthy cause. Frankly, they deserve more than mere words: they deserve our commitment, our support and our active encouragement.

3.17 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this important debate. I very much agree with some of the comments that hon. Members have made about the development of basic skills. However, I am sure that I will be excused the indulgence of talking solely about skill shortages in the engineering sector.

Yesterday in the House a debate took place on manufacturing, which is, and will remain, a key driver in our economy. However, there is significant concern about our nation's ability to produce the basic skills needed to underpin the medium to long-term development of that invaluable sector.

Hon. Members will know that I am a qualified engineer; I sit on the Board for Engineers Regulation as well as several institutional boards within the engineering discipline in the City. I want to talk first about the role of engineering in the process of economic growth, because that is no less crucial in our country than in any other leading nation. In the United Kingdom and key competitor countries such as Germany, the United States of America and France, increasing technical uncertainty is shown in the increasing variety of ways available to solve an engineering problem. Shorter manufacturing cycles and the need for constant innovation have contributed to a substantial shift in the mix of skills demanded of highly qualified personnel, especially in manufacturing. That shift appears less well-advanced in many industrial sectors in Britain.

I welcome the research undertaken by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, which utilises comparative analysis of economic performance and shows that the employment of well-qualified scientists and engineers pays off in terms of competitiveness. That seems especially true in the case of highly qualified and high-technology industries. The use of highly skilled engineers in the work force can increase a company's profitability and the nation's productivity. Higher productivity is likely to lead to higher economic growth; we are all united in that objective.

Other studies also show that, when the United Kingdom loses out on the skill levels of engineers and scientists and associated innovative activity, loss of competition occurs in terms of a loss of domestic market share, international trade share and lower productivity levels. Lower skill levels and innovative activity, especially in high-technology and high-growth industries, can adversely affect product quality and

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variety. Studies of international competitors and skill levels do not show that the British engineering industry suffers from what has been referred to as "latent skill shortage" over and above skill gaps perceived by employees. I shall refer to the specific skill shortage later.

In engineering, and in firms in which engineers work and existing skill levels appear adequate to meet business objectives, it must be questionable whether the product and training strategies associated with those objectives are sustainable in the medium to long term. Engineering skills have traditionally occupied a central position in policy discussions because of the long lead times required to produce those skills at intermediate and graduate levels and because those skills are used throughout our economy and in every facet of our life.

I hope that colleagues have heard of the marvellous Engineering and Marine Training Authority, which is led by an outstanding individual called Dr. Michael Sanderson. Last year, the authority undertook to support the Women's Engineering Society and Women into Science, Engineering and Technology--WISE. As a founder member of WISE, I was delighted that it was brought under the umbrella of EMTA and the Engineering Council, because it does a great deal to overcome the deficit of women in the engineering world. It has been a long-term programme but, as we all know, the reversal of trends, and the encouragement of people into a profession and activity that has previously been dominated by another part of the community, is extremely difficult. I am delighted, too, that Lord Sainsbury has taken a particular interest in those activities, because Government support is crucial if those activities, which involve hard work but may be unglamorous, are to be continued.

The Engineering and Marine Training Authority also undertakes to collate statistics. The discussion of statistics may be as interesting as watching paint dry, but for those of us concerned about the development of engineering, statistics are vital. Without statistics, how can we convince Ministers that we have solid arguments in favour of developing programmes of education and supporting the profession in the desire to improve professional competence in others? However, as someone who is occasionally charged with reviewing the statistics produced by a plethora of different organisations, I am often totally bamboozled and without the wherewithal to make objective arguments to support the redistribution of education funding into several good schemes.

The Engineering and Marine Training Authority labour market service shows that the highest proportion of the establishment reporting hard-to-fill vacancies was in craft-intensive sectors such as motor vehicles, aerospace, metal products and mechanical engineering--my own favoured discipline. Other notable areas of recruitment difficulty were for technicians in electronics and aerospace and professional engineers in the electronics industry.

There is no shortage of chartered engineers, but an acute shortage of can-do engineers, as I prefer to call them. Those are people, with whom I share a great love and who offer great support to each other, who started on the shop floor in the form of an apprenticeship, and I am pleased to say that I am an apprenticed fitter. They go on to demonstrate great skill with their hands and they create products. They do not necessarily design

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products, but they take the dreams and aspirations of designers and make them into tangible product. Those of us from the industry all know that there has been a growing shortage of those types of individuals. We are not in search of more academically qualified engineers; we are in search of the can-do agents that are capable of taking new technologies and translating them into end-of-line products--those products that can make the difference between a company being unsuccessful or being successful.

I congratulate the Government on the establishment of the national skills task force and take the opportunity to congratulate previous Governments on the establishment of the Foresight programme, which has been so instrumental in driving subject interest in this area. Many of my colleagues would not want that programme to be diminished because it has been crucial in joining together various institutions and academic establishments in the pursuit of improving productivity and economic viability.

Further research undertaken for the skills taskforce analysed information on the extent of recruitment difficulties outside the engineering and manufacturing sector as well as inside it. The report dealt solely with engineering skills and knowledge at graduate level, and employers of engineering science and information technology were surveyed in a mix of manufacturing and service sectors in the first quarters of 1998.

The report found that some 35 per cent. of enterprises in electronics manufacturing had found some difficulties in meeting their recruitment targets over the past three years, and I can confirm that that is still very much the case. In mechanical engineering and in the three leading service sector industries 19 to 26 per cent. of enterprises experienced similar difficulties. In the case of the service sector industries, the single most important discipline in shortage terms was computer sciences and information technology rather than engineering subjects. I very much welcome what has been said today about the development of IT training and the introduction of IT training for people who have spent many years outside the work market. I hope that that small introduction will lead them to a career in computer services, because not only is it highly paid, but it is the one engineering sector where there are more women operating than men, and crucially--although some hon. Members may regard this as sexist--it is the only area where women actually earn 1 per cent. more than their male equivalents. In all other aspects of engineering, unfortunately, we earn 14 per cent. less. As a mechanical engineer, I have always found that particularly hard to bear.

Referring to computer sciences, the study also found problems in electronics companies recruiting electronics graduates, and particularly leading-edge and bio-engineering technology recruitment.

The conclusions of the report look at a latent skills gap. There are obvious skills shortages at this time which are well understood. Hon. Members will know that the development of an engineer or a doctor--in fact, the development of any individual who is going to go on to articulate great skills--depends on crucial factors, including foundation education where numeracy and literacy are key. We are delighted to see improvements in those two areas. However, with reference to the latent skills gap, we are still about to enjoy in the engineering profession 10 years in which the

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manufacturing industries will be substantially concerned about low numeracy and literacy ability. I know that because that is still a great concern in the Engineering Council and the boards that I meet.

Many solutions have been put forward by the Government, and we welcome them. However, we also recognise that there is a significant onus on manufacturing to address some of the skills gaps and that, although people may believe that Government can deliver everything, this is about a partnership.

How do I talk to a small or medium enterprise business that says, "We recognise that we have a skills shortage, but we have insufficient money for training"? Those people know that there is a problem, that they may fall on hard times--in fact, some may even go out of business--if they do not implement a solid training policy looking at developing outstanding assets. They take in people who are highly qualified but do not subsequently invest in those individuals. It leads to the demise of the individual; it can lead to the demise of that industry; and we as an economy lose out.

I make a plea on behalf of my engineering colleagues. Engineering is a key driver to the economy. It is the most creative of all disciplines, offering great joy to many of its participants. It is essential to the quality of our life, yet it is suffering. I ask for an acceleration of the policies that we have to encourage more people to take science-related disciplines in an attempt to take them into engineering and for support for those engineering companies that cannot meet the expensive training costs associated with developing their most important asset--their human resources.

3.30 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): I am delighted to take part in this debate on the vital issue of basic skills. It is particularly important for an area such as mine--Staffordshire--where the economy is undergoing fundamental change. It is witnessing the decline of its industrial base. The coal industry has ceased production. Manufacturing overall has declined by about a quarter. Ceramics, textiles and, of course, the farming industry have been the hardest hit.

Such changes in the economy demand a flexible work force. My area has absorbed employment cuts, at a considerable cost to the population at large. The affected workers have, in many cases, had to accept lower incomes and temporary, casual or part-time work. Unemployment may appear still to be relatively low, but pay is incredibly low. These are the very people that need good, basic skills and the ability to learn. Historically, however, Staffordshire has had consistently low levels of achievement and low numbers of people staying on at school after the age of 16. It is an appalling legacy that the young people--and, indeed, older generations of people in Staffordshire--have been failed by the education system.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) mentioned the 40 per cent. gap in the basic skills of adults that is determined by the experience of a child up to age 10. That demonstrates the real cost-effectiveness of the Government's sure start programme. That ensures the earliest possible intervention for young children and their families before the age of three.

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I believe that previous Governments have concentrated too much on those students who sail through the education system into the highly subsidised--even today it is highly subsidised--higher education system. They have not concentrated well enough on basic skills. It is a fact of life, I am afraid, that those who succeed at education continue to succeed and those who fail continue to fail. That was the norm. Now it is left to the present Government to pick up the pieces. It is amazing that one in five adults are virtually illiterate, as the Minister mentioned--lacking the basic skills expected of an 11-year-old. We must break this cycle of disadvantage.

That will not be easy. No one wants to admit to literacy and numeracy problems--there is still a very strong stigma attached to that--but it is a huge national problem. Although all countries have problems of poor literacy, I was amazed to see that Britain and the United States do particularly badly. The 1997 international adult literacy survey that the Minister quoted looked at 12 countries, and only Poland and Ireland had a higher proportion of low levels of literacy than Britain.

What has happened since Labour came to power? I am pleased to report that staying-on rates for post-16s in Staffordshire have improved considerably since 1998. Unfortunately, the gap between the performance of north Staffordshire and the improving national and regional statistics has not closed. The Government have recognised that, by making Stoke-on-Trent a national pilot for educational maintenance allowances.

As everyone in the Chamber knows, pupils are paid a small allowance to encourage them to stay on at school, post-16. The scheme has already been stunningly successful across Stoke-on-Trent local education authority, with an average EMA payment of nearly £25.

Mr. Allan : I wonder whether the hon. Lady has come across the problem of qualification for the allowance, whereby, unlike in the case of tuition relief for higher education students, if parents are separated, both parental incomes seem to be taken into account. Therefore, children in need with separated parents cannot access the EMA --although they would be able to access higher education tuition fee relief on a similar formula.

Charlotte Atkins : That is very unfortunate. I have not actually come across that particular problem, but I appreciate that it is a key issue.

Before I describe the problems that I have encountered in my constituency over the EMAs, I should like to say that at Stoke-on-Trent college the retention rate for EMA students, if I may call them that, was a stunning 84 per cent. Ninety-three per cent. of students said that they would have to work part-time if they did not receive the EMA. Only 22 per cent. of students receiving EMAs had a part-time job, which meant that those students with EMAs were able to concentrate on their studies--which is particularly important for those who are not high achieving students.

Inevitably, there have been problems, especially as the scheme is a pilot, because it has concentrated on a particular area. My surgeries have been filled with complaints about anomalies. A student who attended

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Stoke-on-Trent college, from Stoke-on-Trent, would get an EMA, but a student from Leek--just 10 miles down the road--would not. Yet a Stoke-on-Trent student who attended Leek college would receive the EMA. Such anomalies upset constituents, even though, of course, without this Government there would be no EMAs.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Two students in the same class may not both receive an EMA, even though they could be equally in need. We need to accelerate the rate at which we roll out the EMAs, so that all students in all areas receive such an allowance.

Charlotte Atkins : I thank my hon. Friend, who must be a mind-reader, as I am about to put exactly that point to the Minister.

We need to roll out the EMA programme across the whole of north Staffordshire because of its low levels of attainment and staying-on rates. Also, in my view, we must roll it out nationally, because the social costs of not doing so are too great. We must encourage students receiving that relatively small amount of money --it is vital that we encourage them to continue in post-16 education. In north Staffordshire we desperately need particular skills --technology, language, business and management skills--and we have a long way to go to achieve that. That will be a huge challenge for the new learning and skills councils.

I am delighted to have in my constituency the important asset of Clough Hall, a specialist technology school in Kidsgrove. It not only provides its 1,100 students with a good education and sound technology skills but opens its tremendous facilities of computer suites and sports pitches to the local community and to other schools. Those facilities are therefore shared right across Kidsgrove. Gone are the days when schools opened from just 9 o'clock to 4 o'clock. Their role is now crucial because they are firmly based in the community. Travel, which the hon. Member for Daventry mentioned, is therefore not a problem; child care may be a problem, but it is much easier to deal with child care problems if venues are on people's doorstep.

However, schools cannot effect change by themselves. Learn Direct will be vital because, with 80 per cent. of its courses online, it is ideally suited to a technology school. In fact, just five days ago, Clough Hall school became a Learn Direct centre and has been inundated with expressions of interest. People do not mind admitting that they have problems with information and communication technology, whereas they might mind admitting that they have reading or literacy problems. Even the Prime Minister admitted that he has only just begun to learn to use a computer.

Clough Hall school has introduced such courses as an "afraid of the mouse" course. Such simple courses are popular and once students have signed up to them, Learn Direct helpers can establish their basic skills problems. Such learners can then move on to the A+ technician qualification course or the two-year Cisco network engineering course. Small, bite-sized courses lead on to greater and higher things. As the hon. Member for Daventry said, many such courses are just three hours long. People do not have to sign up for six months--a long time in the life of a single parent, for

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example. Such courses are effectively self-financing, through individual learning accounts, which is important in an area such as north Staffordshire, where pay is so low.

Another brilliant aspect of that range of activity after 4 pm is that it is managed by an adult education manager, leaving the head teacher, Mick Readman, to do what he is best at: running a forward-looking, successful school, leading community initiatives and reaching out to those who have not yet crossed its threshold. He tells me that he wants to do more outreach work and will head out to the pubs and community centres to pull people in--although motivation is a key issue and Mr. Readman will not provide free pints of beer.

When my daughter was four, I decided that I had to embark on a computer course. When asked what my motivation was, I said that I felt that my four-year-old would soon surpass me in computer skills--which would not have been difficult at the time. Ten years on, she has left me far behind but is a great help in trying to boost my computer skills. There is real scope for involving parents and children together. Apart from anything else, it would be a great boost to underachieving boys to see their dads learning alongside them.

Sadly, basic skills problems often run in families. Children of parents with poor basic skills are more likely to have problems with literacy and numeracy. We must break out of that cycle of disadvantage. I am delighted that the Government have announced a big expansion of vocational GCSEs and that pupils will be able to mix these with academic subjects. For too long, vocational qualifications have been the poor relation of more academic qualifications. I know that my own Leek high schools allow students to mix vocational and academic subjects. There is no reason why it should not be highly successful. We need to establish a parity of esteem for vocational qualifications. They need to be real qualifications, not like the NVQ for ambient display--which is shelf stacking to you and me--that the Select Committee on Education came across when it was engaged in its further education inquiry. That NVQ level 1 in ambient display did not really seem to justify the name of an NVQ.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) said that vocational qualifications in particular were bedevilled by gender stereotyping. Like my hon. Friend, I am keen to see more girls going into engineering and indeed into construction. I would, however, also like to see more boys selecting child care and early childhood education--they would be vital role models for young boys. We have a great deal of work to do in breaking down the gender imbalance in occupations that are the weaker for the fact that they are very male-dominated.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Would my hon. Friend like to confirm the sterling work that has been undertaken by Professor Tom Ruxton, head of engineering at Staffordshire university, in providing access to returners to work and providing introductory courses in engineering? Tom Ruxton is probably one of the most successful recruiters to engineering and technology because he has done precisely as my hon. Friend has

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suggested--diversified and made his product meet the market. He enabled people to come forward instead of driving them away.

Charlotte Atkins : I congratulate not only Professor Ruxton but all the staff and the vice-chancellor of Staffordshire university, because they do a tremendous job of outreach. I am particularly pleased with the way that they encourage pupils at a relatively young age. My present obsession is to encourage universities and schools to use year 8, when pupils are about 12 or 13, much more effectively for outreach. It is time then for pupils to think about university careers, long before they decide on their GCSE options.

Several hon. Members rose--

Charlotte Atkins : I give way to the hon. Member for Daventry.

Mr. Boswell : As we are discussing Staffordshire university, I should like to mention that, co-incidentally, I have had two meetings in consecutive weeks with representatives of the university--the second of which was yesterday. As a result I can fairly say that, although I do not spend my time puffing up individual institutions, I am impressed by its engagement on widening participation not only in respect of gender but disability and ethnicity issues. The staff of the university generate a very positive atmosphere and adopt a positive approach to attracting people, which must be entirely consistent with the objectives of the debate.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair) : I was not sure whether all those hon. Members rising from their places were seeking to intervene on the hon. Lady or hoping to catch my eye later.

Charlotte Atkins : I am sure that hon. Members were all trying to intervene to congratulate Staffordshire university, which is a fine institution. I shall take all my colleagues' comments back to Christine King, the vice-chancellor.

I shall soon draw my comments to a close, in case my colleagues are becoming impatient. The prospect of not resolving the basic skills problems that we face is far too awful to contemplate. The Government's target to reduce the number of adults with skills problems by 750,000 by the year 2004 is certainly ambitious but not impossible. In that respect, I am delighted that both the Government and the hon. Member for Daventry recognise the important role played by the trade unions over many years in boosting the skills of their members in the workplace and via distance learning. The union learning fund has a huge potential for expansion, because unions like my own, Unison, have always taken their educational role very seriously. A union member is much more likely to sign up for a course if encouraged to do so by a shop steward that he or she knows and trusts, than as a result of being preached at by their local Member of Parliament or someone in the education field.

One consequence of basic skills problems can be seen at my local Werrington young offender institution. It is full of lads of 15, 16 and 17 with real skills problems.

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Computer courses are extremely popular with them, but as the lads typically stay there for only a few months, it is almost impossible to follow up their learning packages, because most of those lads are from Liverpool and Manchester, not the local area. I wonder whether the Minister might suggest to Learn Direct that it keeps track of lads who leave such institutions and follows them up in their home town. Often they have never had their basic skills addressed professionally; they may have truanted from school or opted out of education. The problem is that even if they make a good start with learning at the institution, all that falls by the wayside because they live 50, 60 or 70 miles from the institution.

The Government are struggling to reverse the previous Government's failure to deliver good basic skills. As the hon. Member for Daventry said, the best thing to do is to ensure that the problems do not become established in the first place. The Government have made a very good start in that, with 72 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieving maths to level 4 and 75 per cent. in English. That is an amazing 18 per cent. increase in attainment of level 4 in both subjects over just four years. That is remarkable. I have seen it happen at Kelvin Grove school in Lewisham, where I am still a local school governor. It is the most improved primary school in London, and the 10th most improved primary school in England. That has been done by hard work, with focused literacy and numeracy hours.

Now we need to ensure that that improvement carries through into secondary schools, because there is a problem both in year 7, in the traditional start at 11 years old, and in the middle school system in year 8, which appears to be almost a gap year. Then young people tend to fall back in terms of their skills. We must get on top of that task, to ensure that not only basic literacy and numeracy skills but all skills are improved, so that we can compete on equal terms with countries elsewhere.

3.53 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I thank the Minister for raising this as a subject of debate, and in particular I thank his office for sending over various documents following a discussion that I had with him about the key issues that would be raised today. It has been pleasing that we have had a non-partisan debate on this very important issue.

I will start by picking up on the point that I raised with the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on the issue of educational maintenance allowances, as I hope that the Minister will do some further work on it. I do not expect him to have the information to hand, but the issue has been raised with me by staff at Sheffield college. My colleagues and I are strong supporters of the educational maintenance allowances and want them to be extended to all learners, as they are a key element, especially in the basic skills area. They help individuals who need some additional financial support to get to college or to stay on at school.

Staff at the college asked what happens to an individual whose parents are separated. A letter from the Secretary of State on the subject states that the original scheme was set up almost as a trial, and that it was formulated taking both incomes into account, to ensure that both the parent with and the parent without

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care would take responsibility. It also said that the formula was subject to review. I urge the Minister to put his basic skills hat on and ensure that there is an early review, because I have had reports of individuals who apply to study experiencing problems getting any information from the parent without care. In the higher education funding system, the parent with care is assessed, and any maintenance paid is taken into account in the financial assessment. Taking into account both parents in making a financial assessment will reduce the value of EMAs in cases where the parents have separated.

I was also asked about the administration of EMAs. Individuals have to sign on to qualify for EMA, but staff at Sheffield college told me that the signing-on procedure is inflexible and does not take students' timetables into account. College feedback to the Department suggested that the local administration should be more flexible and that students should not have to miss classes in order to sign on.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): I am strongly in favour of rolling out the EMA scheme nationally, including to Rotherham. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the 56 pilot areas are designed as a trial to tease out the problems that he raised?

Mr. Allan : I accept that. I am using the debate to give more input into the pilot scheme before the review. I am trying to give the Minister feedback on the basic skills initiatives, in what I hope is a non-partisan and constructive way. I hope that it will be a genuine pilot scheme. It is to be regretted that, after some pilots run by previous Governments--I am not making a partisan point--the proposals were rolled out so quickly that what happened in the pilot scheme was not changed even when there were problems. I hope that the Government will be genuine about making any changes that are needed.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) mentioned engineering skills shortages, a matter raised with me by the Engineering Employers Federation in Sheffield in one of our regular briefings. I am aware that the engineering sector suffers because it is not getting the trainees that it requires. Employers tell me that they have places available under various apprenticeship schemes but the applicants' basic skills are not sufficient for them even to commence an apprenticeship. We must get the whole picture right; it is a matter not only of creating good new apprenticeship schemes but of ensuring that the applicants are up to scratch.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) was right to talk about learners' personal experiences and their reticence in coming forward. I represent quite an affluent area of Sheffield, yet some people who come to my surgery--which is difficult for them--push a set of papers across the table and say, "You keep them," when I hand them back. It is only later that I realise that the papers are no use to them because they cannot read them: someone else has explained the situation to them before the visit. People leave the papers with me because of their literacy problems. That is an important experience in setting the context for and giving flesh to the bones of the statistics in the Moser report--which I found depressing, especially when we compare ourselves

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with Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, all of whose illiteracy and innumeracy rates are half, or less than half, those of the United Kingdom.

I want to talk about two key aspects of the basic skills challenge: opportunity and access. Opportunity has to do with entitlements to study. The Minister and others have covered that at some length in terms of the learning and skills councils. A key recommendation of the Secretary of State's statement was that the councils should have a prime responsibility for opportunity and access. They have a statutory duty to provide training for certain categories of people, which we debated at length in Committee on the Learning and Skills Bill. I hope that learning and skills councils will be able to deliver.

My present concern is the transition period. Transitions are always difficult, as moving from the current framework to that of the LSCs will be. The people involved are willing and able to get on with it. I have met Doug Liversidge, the chair of the South Yorkshire learning and skills council. He is keen to get going, but there will be a period when staff are getting into place. I noticed from the Secretary of State's statement that each local LSC will have dedicated basic skills staff. That is important, but we need to ensure that it happens as a priority rather than being slotted into place later.

Opportunity is linked to entitlement and the ability to deliver it. The LSCs will be the commissioning authorities and the further education sector will provide most of the delivery of basic skills provision.

The key area that I should like to focus on today is access, not the traditional notion of physical access--the fact that a place is located near to people--but access in terms of people's perceptions of learning and whether they have an aspiration to access skills and feel ready and able to do so. Perceptions are important. The Minister made important comments about students who had taken basic skills courses and made very little improvement. That reminded me of a conversation that I had recently with my nephew about his future. He is about to leave school to study at Sheffield college. He was talking about options, and said, "I'd like to go on to course A, B or C. If I can't get any of those, I'll have to do ConneXions." ConneXions is for people who need to improve the skills that they have picked up at school. Young people are not stupid: he had a clear notion that ConneXions was for failures. That was how he--and, presumably, his colleagues at school-- perceived it.

It is important, when we introduce courses for youngsters, whose skills, we accept, are not up to scratch, that we tailor them so that they want to access them and do not self-categorise themselves as failures. That may be one reason why they are not making advances. They are almost saying, "My education has pretty much come to an end. I'm just marking time now, because I didn't get on the good courses that everyone wants to be on. I'm doing the course for those who have failed."

Information and communication technology is an important tool in learning through new methods and challenging the barriers. I shall refer to it later in detail. I am a big fan of the Learn Direct initiative, and the fact that the university for industry is based in Sheffield makes that not entirely coincidental. I have visited and

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spoken to people involved in the initiative and to some of the people who have been taken on as experts. Such initiatives are important in improving access.

The naming of the university for industry and Learn Direct is an example of the importance of perception. I remember the Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, telling us that the university for industry name had been market-tested. "Industry" was a turn-off for many people, as was "university", so it has been appropriately branded as Learn Direct. That shows how, for people in our target group--those who have not engaged with the education system sufficiently--branding and the perception of what they are letting themselves in for are critical, and we must be careful not to scare them away.

I am still concerned that we have not reached far enough into the community. The learning centres based in schools are a good initiative and will reach many learners, but there may still be a body of people out there who are turned off by schools and find school buildings a barrier. I welcome proposals for a learning centre in a popular Sheffield shopping centre, which has millions of visitors a year. I hope that such initiatives will crack some of the access issues.

The other key issue is access for those in work, a topic to which both reports refer. By prioritising young people, particularly those in the 14 to 19 age group, which has always been a clear aim, there are concerns that the Government may inadvertently allow some older people to slip through the net. I noted the recommendation in the Moser report that all people--employed or unemployed--should have access to proper guidance facilities to allow them to access education to develop their careers. We have had long debates about guidance services, and I understand why the Government prioritise certain groups, but I hope that they will take that recommendation on board, particularly in the area of basic skills. I hope that they will see that in prioritising they should not exclude those in work or those who are too old.

On consultation, area-based interventions and single regeneration budget schemes were referred to. Basic skills training has been built into some SRB projects. Originally, the SRB projects, being area-based, were aimed at bricks and mortar. They quite properly evolved away from bricks and mortar on the understanding that that is not how to regenerate a city area--as we have seen in Sheffield. They moved on to incorporate anti-crime measures, education and training and other matters.

I am still not persuaded that the SRB initiatives make sense in a city such as Sheffield, where there are specific SRB areas. We referred earlier to the issue of EMA areas, and people in one district qualifying while those in another do not. With SRB, that is even worse in many cases. A person living on one estate qualifies, while a person living on another does not. I hope that the Government will move towards using bodies such as local authorities or local learning and skills councils to deliver education services and basic skills training, rather than folding it into an SRB scheme, which may be at too low a level, leading to uneven provision. The SRB boundaries are too tightly defined, when there is a comprehensive pattern of need across the whole county.

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The proposal for replacement funding to enable work-based learners to take time off--if they qualify under certain criteria--and to ensure that employers do not suffer, is sensible, and one that I hope that the Government will consider. It would clearly cost money, but it would be money well spent.

Another sensible idea is that of discounting basic skills study time for jobseeker's allowance claimants. I argue only that we could go further. I understand that the Government, as would all Governments, question the idea of discounting certain forms of study, because of the implications if all study time were discounted for JSA purposes. Full-time further and higher education students would then qualify, and it would be difficult to determine which forms of study would not.

In many ways, however, the Government have set a precedent with the new deal full-time education and training option which has allowed certain forms of study to take place while the young person continues to receive benefit. I hope that the Government will be able to extend that option so that more people can spend their time constructively should they find themselves unemployed. Such people should be able to claim benefit, if appropriate, and study at the same time. It is illogical for unemployed people who want to enrol on a course to improve their employability to lose benefit by doing so.

The Government referred to lone parents and what could be done to improve their skills. The sure start initiative is one on which I would also congratulate the Government. It has been very effective in dealing with parents in deprived areas. Lone parents have particular difficulties to overcome, and the paper makes it clear that it is common to find low skill levels among them. Historically, playgroups have played a useful role. Playgroups run on a voluntary basis have involved both parents and children. I am concerned that currently, as an inadvertent by-product of the Government's funding of nursery education, which we welcome, playgroups are moving from the voluntary parent-involved structure to a much more professional structure.

It would be unfortunate if, inadvertently--and I am sure that this is not the Government's intention--the playgroup, which has provided great learning opportunities for parents and allowed those who have become involved to develop a whole range of skills, were to move away from a parent-involved structure, because the nursery sector has come to be regarded as more professional, and become like a school, where the parents drop off the kids and leave the professionals to look after them until it is time to come back and pick them up. I have had that feedback at ground level, and it causes me some concern.

Charlotte Atkins : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has not had a chance to read the early-years report that the Select Committee produced. Does he agree that it is absolutely vital to have trained staff in those early-years settings? We expect to have trained staff at the sixth form or university, but given how vital the early years are, is it not also crucial, even though we want to involve parents, that we have appropriately qualified staff who can really boost the learning ability of those young children?

Mr. Allan : I do not disagree, and I am hoping that in this case we could have our cake and eat. There is no

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reason why we should not see an improvement in the quality of early-years education--we all want that--but at the same time retain parental involvement. I am simply trying to express a concern that I have had fed back to me. Parents perceive that this has become a sector in which they no longer need to be involved in the same way.

I am recommending to the Government, as a form of feedback, that they do more to develop parental involvement through bodies such as the Pre-School Learning Alliance and others who are very involved in this sector. One of the key ways in which one can crack parental illiteracy and innumeracy is by getting parents to learn at the same time as their children.

Information and communication technology is a key area of development, as both the Secretary of State and the report said. We are witnessing a fundamental change in the use of ICT, and the Government need to be ahead of it. It is moving from the traditional computer to things such as digital television and the gadget that I am holding: a PDA, personal digital assistant. It can be kept in one's pocket, and mine, as well as having a diary and the obvious everyday things, can download a copy of The Guardian and enormous amounts of information.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous in schools, to the horror of many teachers, but they can be an educational resource. Within a couple of years, domestic consumer products that are perfectly capable of delivering educational material very cheaply will revolutionise our opportunities. The younger end of the market has distinct advantages.

Mr. Boswell : In certain cases, although the cost of technology is falling, there will be some people who will not be able to afford the capital equipment. Would it not be a sensible use of the resources of the local learning and skills councils if they thought, as some are already doing, about making available laptops or other home terminals to give people the opportunity of downloading material on equipment that they would not themselves have the means to buy?

Mr. Allan : That is a very helpful comment, as it reminds me of another point raised with me by staff at Sheffield college. We are considering a similar scheme in Sheffield, using objective 1 money to supply equipment to learners in South Yorkshire, and the staff asked about the provision of laptops. As Sheffield college is a further education college, they understand that it would be beyond their competence to provide them, although schools could. I understand from the new principal, John Taylor, that he received advice that he would have difficulties with the provision of equipment outside the college in terms of his legal competence. It would be helpful if the Minister could address that issue.

Another initiative on which I would praise the Government is their support for the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, BECTA. John Taylor is a director of the organisation, and we are developing some good contacts there. I hope that more research will be commissioned into the basic skills area, because it is the research side that has been lacking in the past. We have had a number of initiatives about ICT and learning. We have not always looked into what works and what does not, and I hope that BECTA will be able to consider that in the basic skills area.

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With regard to the ability to roll out learning to wider groups, I did an Industry and Parliament Trust placement with British Gas, and was impressed by the fact that all its engineers now have laptops and go out and fix boilers on the basis of CD-ROMs that are supplied. That works perfectly well, and is a good example of change in a work force that traditionally had no ICT skills. They had been recruited because they could fix boilers, and many who were perhaps sceptical at first now find the tool invaluable. That is a demonstration of what is being done in business. I hope that the Government will consider examples in the private sector where business drives have forced organisations to start laptop learning.

I have a perennial concern about some of the target-setting that the Government are doing. Projects such as Sure Start will deliver results in 10 years, and that kind of horizon is much less politically exciting than targets that are met within the foreseeable future of the lifetime of a Government. Early pledges are much more fun to make in a political debate--they can be batted around on both sides--than initiatives that will yield results in 10 or 15 years' time. Often, those longer-term programmes are the most valuable, and I hope that the Government will continue to fund such initiatives, and not get too distracted by some of the political hoo-ha that is likely to build up in the context of a general election. They should not be tempted down the route of promising to deliver everything in two or three years. Some of the basic skills programmes will certainly not be delivered in that time frame. Quite frankly, I do not care who is in government at that point, as long as the programmes continue for those 10 years and are finally delivered.

4.17 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): What a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Winterton. You will recall that the last time you chaired a sitting here, I clashed with the Minister. Perhaps this time we shall have a harmonious afternoon.

We have had a thoughtful debate. The Minister said that he is in listening mode, I notice that the Opposition Front Benchers have been in a non-partisan mood, and it is a pleasure to follow the debate in a similar spirit. I agree with much of what hon. Members have been saying, in particular the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who, like me, is an engineer. I agree with more or less everything that she said about engineering, perhaps with some infinitesimal differences.

The issue of imparting basic skills is a minefield. I do not want to sound like the Jeremiah of the debate, but I want to bring to the Minister's attention some of the concerns that people in Teesside have expressed about our communities and how they could be improved. We have all the schemes--sure start, excellence in cities, education action zones--and I pay a great tribute to the Government for tackling deficiencies in basic skills. I recognise that it is a monumental problem. I know that, in his own way, the Minister is a learned scholar, so I am sure that he will take what I am about to say--relaying the views expressed by people in my area--in the spirit in which it is offered.

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The old basic skills, which were regarded as appropriate for the old economy, are now almost redundant. The selection and teaching of those skills were related to a world based on the legacy of a Victorian economy. Children were expected to know the three Rs, and to obey authority. If a boy were bright enough, he might progress through night school to become a tradesman; a girl could, perhaps, become a good shop assistant. They had basic skills, overlaid with an inbuilt deference to authority. As late as the 1960s, people were used to an employment environment that few expected to change radically over their working lifetime. Their skills and surroundings were essentially little different from those that were familiar to their mothers and fathers.

The world of today is very different: the economy is accelerating feverishly and new technology has killed off--for good--the old workshop, or office environment, and it is changing shape, form, and capability with incredible speed. New technology cannot be managed on the basis of established hierarchy or deference, but it does need old skills--mathematics, good knowledge of systems and processes, command of language and communication skills. However, it also requires the development of good interpersonal skills and for everyone, whatever their position in the company, constantly to upskill their competences.

Social and economic disparities in the United Kingdom have an impact on people's ability to adapt to new technology. As a Member of Parliament representing a traditional, industrial constituency I know how hard it can be for many people. The economy of Teesside was, and still largely is, based on steel and chemicals--industries that traditionally required muscle and specialist skills; but even those older industries have uprated their operations. That has had a human cost: many thousands lost their jobs, and many of those who expected that that they would have a job for life on leaving school also found themselves on a scrap heap. Today on Teesside, we have a two-speed society. Too many Teesside estates, communities, and villages that were dormitories for the old economy continue to be plagued by unemployment and poverty, which trap people in a cycle of low self-esteem and self-worth. That cycle can be self-perpetuating--carried on from mother and father to son and daughter.

We cannot hide the fact that we on Teesside have poor levels of educational attainment: 41 per cent. of our school students achieve five GCSEs at A to C grade, compared with 49 per cent. nationally. Of 50 secondary schools on Teesside, 34 performed below the national average, with 12 of those achieving less than half of that average. Thirteen per cent. of our school leavers do not go on to any form of further employment, training, or work--compared with 7 per cent. nationally.

However, human potential still exists: our primary schools are achieving excellent results--needless to say, that is in large part thanks to the Government's efforts. Those students who do leave secondary school to go on to further education end up with results that are very close to the national average. The local training and enterprise council tells me that between 1993 and 2000, the number of trainees from Teesside obtaining qualifications at NVQ level 3 and above increased by

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25.5 per cent., which is far better than the UK national average of 21 per cent. Our youngsters are not thick; they have talents, abilities and initiative that can be liberated. The drive to improve attainment must be seen as part of a wider battle to raise expectations on a cultural and community level.

High levels of unemployment, familiarity with the drugs culture and the acceptance of a crime culture leads most to a life of low horizons, low motivation and alienation. Local agencies must begin early to stop that life cycle gaining momentum. We must begin in the primary schools and work intensively with mothers and fathers. We cannot start to offer palliatives only when a youngster is about to leave the school system. We have to develop a programme for improving attainment and life skills based on short, medium and long-term objectives, with each component meshing seamlessly with the other. We do not have this at the moment: we have a hydra-headed structure for community regeneration, lifelong learning and family support. Different agencies with different short-term objectives are focusing on specific aspects of skilling, learning and education at a time when we desperately need clarity and long-term thinking.

From the Department for Education and Employment alone, we have sure start, education action zones, the excellence in cities programme and the new deal. From the Department of Trade and Industry, we have other programmes, including the Small Business Service. From the Cabinet Office, we get social inclusion programmes and drugs action teams. From the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions we get neighbourhood renewal, the single regeneration budget and the oversight of programmes run by the regional development agencies. In addition to all that, the new Learning and Skills Council will soon be up and running, exercising responsibilities spanning all those spheres of action. Add the myriad special schemes managed by local authorities and the voluntary sector and the result is what the Audit Commission once famously described as a "patchwork quilt" of social renewal and regeneration initiatives.

I raise that as a point of concern for the Minister's attention. There is a desperate need to introduce clarity into the process. Everyone on the ground tells me that we are suffering from what is coming to be described as partnership fatigue. At best, the result is duplication of effort. Rivalries are emerging.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I very much appreciate what my hon. Friend says and I am sure that there is a great deal of sympathy for his views. The plethora of initiatives, agencies and projects that have been launched to tackle a variety of problems concerns us all. Is my hon. Friend able to propose a different framework or a solution to the problem? Is there a simple structure that we could establish that would address the complex needs of the variety of communities that we are trying to help?

Dr. Kumar : I cannot offer a panacea--I do not have a solution. The Government are tackling the problems that they face. We have had the challenge of trying to solve within three of four years some of the big problems left after 18 years of a different Government. It is the job of any Government to solve the problems that they find and what we are achieving is tremendous--I am gaining

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from it, as are the communities that I represent. However, I want to bring to the Minister's attention the fact that there is something happening underneath of which he ought to be aware.

What about joined-up Government? That does not appear to be what is happening at the moment. When I talk about partnership fatigue, I am not stating what I believe, but what those who are carrying out the Governments' initiatives are telling me. As a serious Member of Parliament who does his duty, I am trying to bring these matters to the Minster's attention. The people on the ground from our local training and enterprise council, colleges, schools and local authorities tell me that there is far too little synergy or co-ordination between many of the skills projects in Teesside.

We must make a fresh start: we need to define our priorities and agree who will be responsible for their delivery. Our priorities should be, first, to end the culture of dependency and, secondly, to encourage the high achievers of Teesside to stay on Teesside. The problem of the brightest and the best heading down to London, taking their skills and abilities with them, affects most of the older industrial areas., and it is certainly a problem on Teesside. Thirdly, education providers must cross the age gaps. There is no reason why we should not encourage children of 12 or 13 to start thinking about and visiting colleges of further education and universities. We need to devise basic skills programmes that are flexible enough to respond to changes in the economy as they occur; and we must structure our agencies so that they can deliver on core tasks.

The key is to give a firm remit to the new learning and skills councils; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will do that. The LSCs are big enough to be effective at sub-regional level. They should be allowed to set the parameters for an all-embracing holistic approach to basic skills learning, and they must be the key partners for schools and local education authorities. There must be parity of esteem among LSCs, the LEAs and schools.

Conversely, LSCs are too big to be effective delivery agents at local level. The management of community programmes, which may involve local skilling, is best done locally--we do not want a repeat of the SRB experiences, whereby workers constantly found that small aspects of their work were subject to scrutiny, monitoring and approval by Government regional officers. The utter silliness of a highly paid grade 7 civil servant from a regional Government office overseeing and invigilating a small healthy eating and cooking programme on a Teesside council estate must end. If we are serious about neighbourhood renewal and the revival of neighbourhood self-confidence, we must expect neighbourhoods to manage their own affairs. To do otherwise would merely be to reinforce the feelings of worthlessness to which I have referred.

As the basic skills unit of the Department for Education and Employment has said, improving basic skills should be nothing short of a national crusade. We must recognise that it cannot be a bolt-on exercise. Our economy is going through the most radical changes since the 1840s, and we need a strategic, co-ordinated and structured response if we are to raise basic skill levels nationwide and to ensure that areas such as mine

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are given the opportunity to compete effectively in the new economy. We face an historic challenge which I know the Government will take up. They have already achieved a great deal. I have spoken today to help the Government I support to achieve even more.

4.34 pm

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar). He has made a powerful point about the challenge that we face to take the money and effort that the Government have invested to try to solve some of the most intractable problems, particularly in our urban areas, and to build in the flexibility for which I think he argued.

The Government have been responsible for the neighbourhood warden scheme and have provided extra funding to combat truancy in schools. A local authority, a community safety partnership or a local community organisation might say to the Government, "Could you let us bid for a bit of money from the neighbourhood warden scheme and a bit from the truancy cash so that we can employ wardens in the community, whose principal responsibility would be to ensure that kids were not bunking off school?" That would be a good way of building on what the Government have done.

It is thoroughly positive that attention is being focused on these intractable problems in inner-city areas--I am speaking as a Member who represents such an area--but we need to trust local communities more and give people the chance to apply their local knowledge and expertise.

I had only one disagreement with the contribution of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr Boswell). He said that this debate was tailor-made for Westminster Hall, and while that is a testament to the virtues of Westminster Hall, it is a sad reflection on the other Chamber that such comments should be felt necessary. It is almost as if we enter a parallel universe when we enter Westminster Hall. In my experience, the quality of the debates in this Chamber has been universally high, and we should be able to say the same of the Floor of the House.

Thus far, we are agreed that we are dealing with a legacy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East argued with great force, the problem of basic skills is a legacy from an era when it was not necessary in all forms of employment to have a high level of basic skill. Nowadays, the basic skills that employers demand are far higher.

There is also the legacy of previous educational experience. I strongly believe that we are still dealing with the consequences of an era when many people felt stigmatised by educational failure at an early age. I am an ardent advocate of the comprehensive reforms of the past 30 years. One would not have to be a genius to recognise that if 11-year-olds were told at an early stage in their development, "Sorry, you are not up to much, you have failed, go away," they might grow up with a profound distrust of education and see it as not for them.

The stigma of those early years is one of the reasons why people are afraid to own up to failure. Our great success in educating a very small percentage of our

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people to a very high standard has been the great strength of the British system, but on the other side of the coin is the basic skills problem that we are discussing. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister made reference to that, not least in relation to prisoners. I was interested by the written answer published earlier this week in Hansard that gave the results of a very large-scale study into the writing and numeracy skills of prisoners. Of the 97,000 prisoners tested for their writing skills, 80 per cent. were at level 1 or below, which is the level expected of the average 11-year-old. Of the 89,000 tested for their numeracy, 67 per cent. were at level 1 or below. That tells us all we need to know about the link between educational disadvantage and the extremely low levels of educational attainment among the people in the criminal justice system--I was going to say "criminality", but that is not quite what I mean.

Mr. Allan : I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am concerned about the politics of the debate about education in prison. The hon. Member for Daventry is quite forceful in his comments about it, but it is one of those areas that could be used mischievously in the political context. It could be used to argue that prisoners have advantages or get an easy ride. I sincerely hope that we have leadership across the political spectrum, so that when prison education programmes are developed, such rhetoric is not supported by politicians, who should know better.

Mr. Benn : I entirely agree. I hope that all of us in the Chamber believe in redemption. I certainly do. If we cannot help people in prison to redeem themselves, they are more likely to reoffend when their sentence is served and they re-enter society.

We are dealing with an intergenerational legacy, and it was striking that the Moser report referred to the obvious problem that if parents have poor basic skills, it is much more likely that their children will too. It cited the research by the City university, which found that

That illustrates the problem.

This is a challenge for all of us. It is certainly a challenge for the part of Leeds that I represent, which has been incredibly successful in recent years in creating employment. Many jobs are being established by new businesses. The problem is that many of those jobs are being taken by people who commute into Leeds from increasingly far away, and many of those whom I represent in the inner cities, where there are pockets of unemployment and deprivation, lack the requisite skills and qualifications. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East said, they are no less intelligent than anyone else, but they do not have the skills. Basic skills are obviously the first step on the ladder.

As I said when we debated the Learning and Skills Bill, we have a problem of both supply and demand. I believe that demand is the biggest problem, as there is plentiful supply out there. We have to generate the

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demand--it is what makes a person say, "Yes, I need to do something about that." First, we can give people the statistics--as we should do all the time--about the financial benefits of gaining skills. On average, someone with A-levels earns 25 per cent. more than someone with no qualifications. That is one way of illustrating that basic truth.

Secondly, we must recognise that we need to catch people when they are ready to say, "Yes, this is what I need to do." To be honest, they do not necessarily make that statement when we want them to. A teacher returning home after a hard day at school, as some children just do not want to learn, can imagine them coming back in five, 10 or 15 years' time saying, "I realise that I did not gain the full benefit from the education that was available, but now I want to."

Mr. Boswell : The hon. Gentleman is making a most constructive and helpful speech. We are not falling out about much. From my experience, one of the main areas of self-reference is young mothers with children who are now attaining school age and, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) described, cannot handle the communications they receive from the school, whether reports or letters from teachers. They need to get basic reading skills to be able to respond and not to fall behind and embarrass their own children.

Mr. Benn : The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. That is just one example of how a lack of basic skills makes life very difficult for some people. We must provide a plethora of ways in which they can be enabled to take that step and receive the support and help that they require.

We are lucky in Leeds as we have many excellent FE colleges, which are heavily involved in outreach. Part of the solution lies in developing other avenues. A number of hon. Members have described how some of those schemes are being exploited. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands talked about ICT. She is perfectly right. People are prepared to say that they are short of IT skills, but they are reluctant to admit that they cannot read.

I had an interesting experience when I visited an educational institution recently. I had gone to the Brook Street Bureau office in the centre of Leeds to talk about the regulation of the employment industry, and was told about the women returners who come into that office. These women--it is mainly women--explain that their children have grown up, that they want to return to work and that they want to start with temporary work. Some of them say, "But I'm not really up on IT".

The office has two or three little workstations, where those women can sit down, put on a set of earphones and be taken through a basic training course in IT. No one looks over their shoulders to find out whether they are competent. So a little bit of basic education--in this case, basic IT education--takes place in the Brook Street Bureau office in Leeds. That is why I describe it as a learning institution. I would not previously have thought of it as part of the panoply of provision, but it is an interesting example. As that case shows, for people

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considering working in an office, some knowledge of Word is now a basic skill requirement. That is an illustration of how the level of skills required has risen.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I concur with my hon. Friend's remarks about access. Does he agree that the new deal provision for lone parents and young people needs to be reviewed, given the number of people presenting with significant learning difficulties? The gateway programme is adequate for people with the expected, normal levels of understanding and intelligence. However, a significant proportion of people are just below that, and at the moment the gateway is failing them, because instead of being flexible, it is fixed. Many people come out of the programme unsupported. I spoke recently to lone parents, who said that they would like some discretion to be given to providers and trainers in the new deal. I should like to illustrate my point with an example--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair) : Order. The hon. Lady's intervention seems to be developing into a second speech. I hope that she has made her point.

Mr. Benn : Thank you, Mr. Winterton. I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point, which I discussed with the Employment Service in Leeds. That is another good way in which we could take the work that the Government have done in establishing the new deal and consider how to build in greater flexibility in the light of experience to give greater help to those who need it most. That is the challenge for us, and we should ensure that we respond to it.

On qualifications and funding, I agree with the point that the hon. Member for Daventry made about the challenge to the funding system in recognising how people want to learn. With the establishment of the Learning and Skills Council, we have an opportunity to change an absurdity in the system as it has operated until now. If someone attending a college tells his tutor in the middle of the course that he will not be coming the following week as he has a job, that is terrific for the individual, but a disaster for the college. Under the funding formula, the college will be penalised for having failed to achieve completion. How we support providers must take full account of how learners want to learn.

Mr. Boswell : Recent experience involving one of the FE providers in my constituency shows that accounting for on-line learning is much more difficult than simply measuring the number of minutes of contact time in a classroom. Some evidence already suggests that further education colleges subject to the existing formula are having difficulty in accounting for that. That is clearly a matter to which the Minister needs to turn his attention.

Mr. Benn : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the challenge that new technology creates for us in measuring participation.

Towards the end of last year, I was invited to participate in a presentation of certificates at the Beeston site of the Park Lane college. It involved a group of people who had achieved a variety of basic skills. On entering the room, I was struck by the strong sense of community among those who had participated. They literally constituted a community, as they all came

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from the immediate geographical area. They had gained skill and confidence as a group, and had supported each other in doing so. Their pride in their own achievement was apparent, because every award of a certificate was met by someone jumping up with a camera to photograph their friend.

I particularly remember one woman who was physically shaking as she walked from the back of the room to receive her certificate from me. When she sat down, I leaned over to the course tutor and asked whether she had noticed it. She said that she had and explained that it was the first time in the woman's life that she had received a certificate for anything. It was both a humbling and an uplifting moment for me, which brought home so forcefully exactly what today's debate is about.

4.50 pm

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): I welcome this afternoon's debate and my hon. Friend the Minister's initiative in staging it. I also pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). Over the past three or four years, I have grown accustomed to his non-partisan, constructive and well-informed approach.

The Minister has one of the most difficult tasks in government, with responsibility for a fundamental but unfashionable sector--basic skills and training--but he has the advantage of coming to his present post after a good grounding in the Education and Employment Committee. Since his arrival in the Department, the pace of interest in, policy making for, and resources invested in, the basic skills sector have accelerated.

The seminal Moser report of February 1999 underpins so much of our present debate and our plans for the future. The national skills taskforce report made another important contribution, and in December the Secretary of State made a statement about skills for life, setting out the strategy for improving basic adult literacy and numeracy, and adding a £400 million boost behind that drive over the next few years. The Government have set targets to reduce adult illiteracy and innumeracy by 750,000 by 2004--a formidable objective. The plans and resources are impressively in place, but the sheer scale of the challenge is, to use the words of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), sometimes frankly depressing.

Most of this afternoon's speakers have mentioned the basic and shameful legacy of 7 million adults lacking basic skills in England alone. One worrying consequence--it caught my eye in the Moser report and other material--is that one in 10 people find it impossible to read the basic instructions on a paracetamol bottle. Another is that one in five cannot read a train timetable in order to catch the right train, perhaps to get to a job interview.

Moser pointed out that in deprived areas those problems were likely to increase by up to 25 per cent. That certainly applies to the areas that I represent--Rotherham and South Yorkshire. Across the country, 33 per cent. have either low or very low numeracy skills; in the Yorkshire and Humber region, 36 per cent.; and in Rotherham, 39 per cent. The picture is similar for low or very low literacy skills--15 per cent. nationally, 16 per cent. across the region and 18 per cent. in Rotherham.

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Several hon. Members have spoken about the profound impact on people's lives of not possessing adequate basic skills in the world today. It affects people's employability, productivity and prosperity--and that of their family, too. I was very struck by the figures provided by the TUC and cited by my hon. Friend the Minister in his opening remarks, showing that 49 out of 50 jobs are closed to anyone who does not have entry-level skills. People with poor basic skills are six times more likely to be out of work, and twice as likely to have been made redundant or sacked from the first job that they ever had.

Some of the research that was conducted for the national skills taskforce study recently shows that if we raised people's basic numeracy across the country, only to the level that we now expect of 11-year-olds, we would have a £40 billion increase in gross domestic product. The average unemployed person could earn an extra £1,000 a year if they improved their numeracy skills.

There is a wealth of material available for discussion, debate and future planning, and I have been very struck over the past couple of days by the precise and detailed analysis of the problem that has been undertaken. The reasons why we have such a problem are less clear, but what is least clear is what we should do about it. The solutions are thin and the action plans, where they are in place, are especially vague.

I had a look at a study that was undertaken as part of the preparations for our South Yorkshire local learning and skills council and, in an otherwise admirable report on basic skills, I was very struck by a section at the end, among the conclusions and action points. It says:

The final action point is:

I have an idea of what the authors mean, but I am not certain that they or I know what we actually need to do about the problem.

I take heart, however, from several signs that I see of activity, both national and local, and I believe that the boost that we now have with Government policy and Government resources gives us some good prospects for the future. A recognition of the need to remedy the basic skills shortage, not only among academics, policy makers, politicians or task forces, but among those who lack them and those who employ them is fundamental.

Again, I have been doing a bit of research from the South Yorkshire perspective, and our South Yorkshire training and enterprise councils conducted two surveys last year. The first was a household survey, and it showed that 45 per cent. of those people who felt vulnerable but were employed thought that their qualifications were out of date. In particular, one in eight thought that they needed to improve their reading; one in six thought that they needed to improve their

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writing; one in five thought that they needed to improve their maths; and one in three thought they needed to learn how to use a PC and the internet.

There was a similar picture among unemployed people in South Yorkshire, 26 per cent. of whom recognised that improving their basic skills was vital, and more than 30 per cent. of whom recognised that improving their computer skills was fundamental to improving their position in the labour market.

Alongside that household survey, the TECs did an employer survey. That was similarly encouraging, but also challenging in highlighting the extent of the problem. The South Yorkshire employers surveyed cited numeracy and literacy as the crucial skills gap for them more frequently than employers in similar studies in the wider region. The figures are striking. More than twice as many South Yorkshire employers thought basic skills were a problem for them than employers in the rest of the region, and a little under twice as many felt the same about literacy.

Hon. Members will know of examples from their own areas that suggest that the challenge can be tackled effectively in practice, and that gives us another reason for optimism. I was struck by the experience of the basic skills at work project that was initiated by our Rotherham chamber of commerce and training and enterprise council and funded by the single regeneration budget--but none the less important a project for that. It was organised and developed in recognition that changes in technology and working standards were forcing companies to adopt new ways of working and to introduce training. Employers were clear that many of their employees lacked the basic skills to be able to take up the training required for the company to change, improve and modernise.

The basic skills at work project provided employees with improved communication skills, basic skills and the ability to undertake the further training that their employers required. A tutor went into the workplace, working with individuals and small groups, delivered in short sessions of perhaps an hour every week for up to 12 weeks and, crucially, to shift workers at different times of the day, evening and night.

A further reason for optimism is that, alongside the efforts of agencies such as the chamber of commerce, the former TECs, colleges, schools and the training providers in the area, there is an important recognition that there is a role for unions and for employers to play too. I was interested to learn from the TUC earlier that there are 5,000 learners currently involved in trade union provision through the union learning fund on basic skills training. The TUC tells me that, since Autumn 1999, it has worked with the Basic Skills Agency to develop 20 union-led basic skills training projects.

Locally, the Transport and General Workers Union played a big part in the basic skills training that went on in KP Nuts in Rotherham, and that company attributed its recently won Investors in People status to the basic skills project that I mentioned earlier and the basis that it gave them for a proper work force development plan. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) mentioned the contribution of her own union, which has been one of those supporting another interesting and innovative project in

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Rotherham. A cleaning supervisor has been trained as a basic skills tutor, in addition to her general duties, by a local further education college. She is now running a drop-in training centre at a local council cleaning services depot. Her first course started last week. The target was 12, and 18 people have turned up and started their basic skills course. Unions and employers clearly have an important contribution to make.

I mentioned the basic skills at work project in Rotherham, from which 500 employees in more than 50 companies have benefited. It would not have worked without those employers' support, and their readiness to accommodate work patterns to allow training to take place in the workplace and in work time.

While that is fine on a local level, and gives some indication of where we might go, we should be looking for a stronger national lead from some of our employer organisations. The CBI and chambers of commerce have a part to play, but the real impetus will come from the national training organisations and the trade associations. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's plans for reform of national training organisations, in particular the resources of £45 million that he has been prepared to put behind it.

National training organisations should be the front-line intelligence corps for our new learning and skills councils in terms of defining employers' skills, now and in the future. NTOs should also become one of the main champions in advising and encouraging employers to take on that basic skills training challenge. The best, but not all, do that at present. Reform of the NTO network to make it smaller, stronger and better resourced and focused is an important part of the general picture.

We are still long on the analysis of the problem and short on some of the detailed strategies and practical plans. In that respect, the challenge could not be greater for our new learning and skills councils, at both national and local levels. First and foremost, we require leadership of our learning and skills councils. Secondly, we need to be able to develop an authority without always having the means directly to control the contribution that some other agencies in the field make in overcoming the basic skills deficit. Thirdly--this was the point that was so well made, as always, by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn)--we need the flexibility, by fitting in with local requirements, to meet the challenge with the resources that the Government are giving our local areas.

Dr. Kumar : Does my hon. Friend agree that clear objectives need to be laid out for the learning and skills councils so that they know where they are going?

Mr. Healey : I agree up to a point. The priorities of our LSCs need to be set out nationally. Ministers have stipulated in their letter of remit to the LSCs that basic skills should be one of those priorities, and I endorse that strongly. The objectives of our LSC in South Yorkshire in pursuit of that priority need to be fashioned locally, not imposed from the centre. It is part of the essential flexibility to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central referred.

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The first step that our LSC in South Yorkshire could take, when it comes formally into being in April, is to set up a conference--a basic skills summit--that would in some ways be a clearing house for South Yorkshire, in which we draw together all those with a contribution to make. We need to exchange the ideas and experience that we already have on our patch. We need to outline our strategy and objectives for South Yorkshire. We need to be clear how each and every relevant organisation in South Yorkshire can play its part.

If we stage a basic skills summit, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to attend, to give it a lead and national perspective. Our challenge in South Yorkshire is to close the gap that I mentioned at the start of my speech, between the level of basic skills problems in our region and the national level. At the same time, as a nation, we are trying to close that very gap between ourselves and our competitor countries. If we fail to do that, the prosperity and prospects of at least a quarter of a million adults in South Yorkshire will continue to be blighted by the lack of basic skills.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair) : Before I call the next speaker, I should inform him that the Minister has indicated discreetly that he would like a minimum of 10 minutes to reply to this excellent debate, so I hope that he will bear that in mind.

5.11 pm

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Winterton. I will certainly allow the Minister more than 10 minutes to speak. I apologise to the Minister and to the spokesperson for the official Opposition for missing, at the start of the debate, most of the speech by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and the whole of the Minister's contribution.

It has been an important debate. I was prompted to attend the debate when I looked again at the Moser report--as several hon. Members have done--saw the extent of the problem and realised that this was an incredibly important debate, which deserved a wider audience and greater participation. I hope that it will be a springboard for further discussion along the lines expressed.

Many hon. Members have spoken about the problems that confront us. To me, the important aspect is the interrelationship between many of the problems discussed and social deprivation. I am sure that most of us have visited prisons. I am staggered by the extent of numeracy and literacy problems among prisoners, young offenders or people who have particular difficulties. That correlation cannot be an accident. The Minister knows, from his own background in further education and other experience, the extent of that problem. I believe that the policies that we are now trying to pursue, building on some of the things that have happened in the past, will give us some cause for optimism in the future.

In my short speech, I want to highlight a few key, important points. The introduction of the numeracy and literacy strategies at primary level will have a dramatic effect in years to come. In line with my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), I believe that it is crucial--I hope that the

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Minister will take this on board--that those strategies are extended into our secondary schools because at key stage 3 there is, without a shadow of doubt, a drop in numeracy and literacy. I say that as a former deputy head teacher in a comprehensive school. Key stage 3 is the element of our educational system that we really need to prioritise. It does not matter who wins the next general election; it is a huge priority for us all because of the tremendous problem that exists.

We all have a responsibility to address the divide between academic and vocational education. We must achieve parity of esteem. The divide is a problem that has bedevilled our education system for years, through successive Governments. I was pleased to read the Government's remarks on the matter because if we fail to overcome that divide, it will be particularly difficult to achieve some of our objectives.

To return to the issue of educational maintenance allowances, I appreciate the fact that they are being piloted in different areas. However, piloting does cause problems between students of exactly the same age who can be in exactly the same class in the same college, one receiving the educational maintenance allowance and one not. In my own city of Nottingham, of two people who live a few yards from each other--on the same street--one can receive the educational maintenance allowance and the other cannot, because they live on either side of the city boundary into Gedling. If we could accelerate the rolling out of the educational maintenance allowance, that would be extremely helpful to all of us.

I live in a former pit village, which still has basic skills problems. It is crucial to try to tackle that problem. Its continuing existence shows that policies pursued over the past 25 to 30 years have obviously failed. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) argued that we should be more proactive. If there is a desire to hold basic skills classes in a supermarket, doctor's surgery or playgroup, that should not be a problem. Let us not be constrained by bricks and mortar--classes need not take place in formal establishments. The more outreach work we can do, the better.

I have two points to make arising from the consultation document circulated by the Secretary of State regarding a national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills. The first point concerns priority groups. I ask the Minister to read an article in the current issue of The Times Educational Supplement that refers to lost boys. We have a problem of young white males who do not achieve, and we need to give them a voice.

Secondly, what sort of communities do we need to help? I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) that the disadvantages are not just in cities. All Government policy objectives and programmes must recognise that there are small pockets of deprivation outside cities, and that the problems of poor levels of adult literacy and numeracy in those areas are as severe as those in cities.

We face the future with some degree of optimism, and it is important not to be constrained. We should be imaginative and listen, learn from and involve people experienced in these problems. We should ask them

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what sort of programmes and policies would make a difference. We could probably develop better and clearer policies to deliver our objectives.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his discipline. Before I call the Minister, I should explain that he has had to move back one row because of technical problems with the microphones.

5.18 pm

Mr. Wicks : Thank you, Mr. Winterton. It is a relief that my moving to the Back Bench is for technological and not for political reasons--or at least not for the moment.

The House of Commons can sometimes be at its worst when it is in self-congratulatory mode, but we have had a first-class debate. Colleagues suggested yesterday that, without a Whip on, we would be lucky to run an hour on this debate, and we have proved them wrong. We have had a range of issues raised, and I will not even be able to deal with them all in outline.

Some have quoted experts' views. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) drew on his wife's work and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) talked about her ICT skills compared with those of her daughter. Perhaps one day we will have family parliamentary debates, as well as family learning, so that people can testify themselves.

The hon. Member for Daventry was helpful and thoughtful, as usual. Like me, he did not want to bring politics into the discussion. Why should we do so, when the general election may be 15 months away? It is hardly the time for politicians to talk about anything as vulgar as politics. His implicit theme throughout his speech was that these are complex issues, needing complex answers. Hon. Members recognise that we need a range of policies and provisions in a variety of settings to deal with such long-standing and complex issues.

The hon. Member for Daventry asked me to clarify the point about fees and I am happy to do so: no fees are payable to help our fellow citizens grapple with basic skills. I take the point about individual learning accounts; we hope that those people who can master literacy and numeracy will continue their learning journey and the ILA will enable them to make progress. As he said, we need to find different ways of giving young people who have not mastered the basic skills at school a second, or even third, chance, perhaps via a vocational route and not a strictly academic one.

A theme of our discussion--it was introduced by the hon. Member for Daventry--has been the need to involve employers and trade unions. He was good enough to talk about the important role of the trade unions, as he has done on many occasions, and I sometimes think that he would make an excellent shop steward. He mentioned the trade union learning fund. My strong conviction, based on the pace of change and on good practice from trade unions, which now appoint learning representatives as well as health and safety representatives, is that the trade unions in the 21st century have a major role to play in lifelong learning.

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The hon. Gentleman was one of the first to mention the crucial issue of prison education, which was a sub-theme in the debate. Many people who end up in young offenders institutions come from insecure backgrounds, many have been homeless and have slept rough, and it is a tragedy that they end up in prison. Our past neglect of prison education is a national disgrace. I am pleased that my Department is entering into a partnership with the Home Office to tackle the problem.

Family literacy was an important theme in the debate. When people become parents, they have an incentive to learn alongside their children because it benefits the whole family.

The hon. Member for Daventry also asked about the Basic Skills Agency. A five-yearly review of the agency was completed last year and its findings were positive. I concluded that the agency should continue to be funded as the lead development agency for basic adult skills and remain at the cutting edge of new ideas, helping to develop new approaches to literacy. We are in discussions with the agency about its future role; we value the agency and need its support in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) showed that she has more than the basic skills in making the links between the main theme of the debate and the engineering industry, and I welcome that. We need to look at skills in the round, which she did. I was reminded of a meeting that I had earlier today with representatives of the construction industry in which we discussed the industry's image and status and the challenges that it faces, not least in terms of gender. Like my hon. Friend, I applaud the valuable work of WISE in tackling gender stereotypes. To be blunt, some of our industries face skills problems because they have been too slow to recognise that 51 per cent. of the population happen to be women.

There are challenges for the Government. The learning and skills councils have a vital role to play, given that they are about recognising needs and demands in local economies. Modern apprenticeships are successful, and the number of people involved is rising. The advent of foundation degrees is also an important factor.

The Engineering and Marine Training Authority and other national training organisations have a major role to play. We have issued a consultation document and want them to play a bigger role in the future. EMTA already does important work. I asked it to set up an advisory group, which has issued its first report to advise me on the definition of present and future skills needs. I hope that that shows that we take the issues seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands made the important link with early years and sure start. Like other hon. Members, she discussed the role of educational maintenance allowances and the importance of Learn Direct and of ICT. I cannot give her a full answer now, but we recognise the issues with educational maintenance allowances.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) made the same point. I emphasise that we are talking about pilots, and that these are new days. The purpose of a pilot is to learn, and we are learning about what is going well. According to all the reports that we are receiving, the pilots are already a success and are increasing participation. They are changing the spirit of young people when they are in colleges.

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However, there are more than teething problems. I often had to confront a very difficult issue when I was a shadow spokesperson on social security with responsibility for speaking on the Child Support Agency: how can we be fair to those families in which a separation has taken place and one parent is a so-called absent parent? It is a question of the need not only to treat seriously that family--or that child, in the case of EMAs--but to get the balance right between the treatment of that family and that of the often low-income family in which two parents remain in the same household and there is stability. It is easy to move in one direction, yet penalise the stable family. We are reviewing the matter carefully and are very much in touch with the issues. I hope that we can consider the matter again soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) talked about the importance of new technology and the improving educational attainment in his constituency. He is rightly proud of what is being achieved, but did not mince words when he talked about the serious problems faced by his constituents. He made interesting and thought-provoking points about the range of Government initiatives within one Department and across Departments, and how we co-ordinate them.

I am not relaxed about that. I understand my hon. Friend's point: 20 years ago, I worked in the Home Office on urban programmes and all the rest, and the problems were not dissimilar. The learning and skills councils bring together parts of Government, and the new ConneXions service for young people will do the same.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) talked about important issues, not least prison education and how we can stimulate demand. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) talked about targets and the role of learning and skills councils and national training organisations. He implied that I had one of the most difficult jobs in Government. I truly believe that I have one of the best jobs in Government, because if we can crack the problem with basic skills, that will be an enormous battering ram against injustice, which is what many of us want.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) also talked about the importance of prison education and the vocational route, which is a great setting for tackling many issues, not least basic skills.

In his famous report of 1942, William Beveridge talked about the giant evil of ignorance. That evil still stalks our land, staining the lives of too many people, not least in terms of basic skills. We are determined to advocate the importance of a modern three Rs: the right to read, the right to write and the right to do arithmetic. It is about citizenship, being a good parent, having a place in the work force and making a full contribution to the community. We are determined to enable people to gain basic skills--to be literate and numerate. I am sure that all hon. Members will cheer us on in that endeavour.

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