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Mr. Chaytor: I am pleased to hear those remarks. My hon. Friend has not yet mentioned retired people. Given the rapid increase in life expectancy, does he accept that it is important for those who are retired to develop skills to improve their quality of life?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Under-Secretary replies, I remind hon. Members that we have only a limited time for the debate, which has to end at 7 pm. Since several hon. Members want to contribute, perhaps everyone would bear that in mind.

Mr. Lewis: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that the ability to continue learning and developing skills is an important element of quality of life, especially for older people. The skills White Paper, which is published next month, will reflect that.

We need a much clearer message about the value and importance of learning to individuals. It must be about quality of life and earning potential. So many agencies are trying to promote learning that the message is often diluted by the time it reaches people, especially those who are not currently engaged in learning. We need to be much better at sending clear messages to them.

The skills strategy will try to create a position whereby policy decisions and funding mechanisms fulfil appropriate national targets but are sufficiently flexible to allow us to respond to the needs of regions and individual sectors. One of the great challenges is ensuring clear national objectives—we are elected to provide them—and sufficient flexibility in policy and resources to enable a focus on the needs of individual sectors, regions and sub-regions. The White Paper must tackle that.

The White Paper that we publish next month will deal with many of the fundamental issues that I have outlined. It will respond to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century knowledge economy. We will continue our mission to enshrine a culture of lifelong learning in citizens' and employers' everyday lives. For the first time, we shall create a cohesive, cross-

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Government policy and financial framework to support the learning revolution that we are beginning to unleash in every community in every part of the country. I look forward to considering hon. Members' ideas and views during the debate.

5.58 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Events this afternoon resembled an acted parable on the national attitude to skills development. A major and important statement on the same day as an Opposition Day debate inevitably meant that more politically salient matters have squeezed our important debate. However, I acknowledge that the Under-Secretary has spoken in a tone, reflected in the consultation document, that encourages the development of at least an understanding and consensus on a national skills strategy, and I have no objection to that. We shall consider it fairly on its merits.

My only reservation about the concept is that my experience of Government has shown that, from time to time, Ministers put together a rag-bag of different initiatives, badge them as a strategy and try to place everything under the same heading. That does not always work without a coherent driver. However, we shall wait and see. I say in the gentlest possible terms that I hope that the Under-Secretary will acknowledge that our party's statement on higher education this week was not intended to drive a wedge between that and further education. I assure him that as he introduces proposals for his strategy, we shall have much more to say about skills and further education.

It should be a matter of consensus that since anxiety first surfaced in the 1880s about the decline in British manufacturing pre-eminence vis-à-vis Germany and the USA, our culture has somehow turned its back on skills and—arguably more widely—on manufacturing and commerce in general. I note that the TUC, in its briefing for this debate, emphasises the need for

That is perfectly acceptable.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

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National Skills Strategy

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

Mr. Boswell: As I was saying, I think that that is a perfectly acceptable aim and aspiration.

I should like to draw on my knowledge of the German dual system for a moment. I have always felt that that system was rightly admired in this country, although not so much for its pedagogical qualities, because it can in practice be rather wooden and limited. It really succeeds because it involves the active commitment of employers, their work force and its representatives, and the education system, and because a great deal of commitment is invested in it. If a similar commitment were to be mutually beneficial in British terms, as I expect and hope that it would be, and if it were to reflect genuine consent between the parties rather than coercion, I would welcome such principles being applied in this country.

The proper role of the Government should be to set the appropriate policy framework, bearing in mind that for all the public spend on education and training post-16, the private sector contributes two or three times as much—depending on some definitions that are rather difficult to determine. There is a huge commitment from private employers, as well as a huge investment of employee time. Unfortunately, in their initiatives in this area to date, the present Government have made some significant blunders. Indeed, the Minister admitted to one today, in the form of the individual learning accounts, which were described by the ombudsman as amounting to gross maladministration and reported by the Public Accounts Committee to have involved a loss of nearly £100 million.

I welcome the fact that Ministers have confirmed their intention of introducing "son of ILA" in their skills strategy next month. I also welcome the fact that they have said that small training providers will not be excluded. There is a real danger that we might move from failure to an excess of bureaucracy and control in this area, and therefore stifle any new scheme. I hope that there will be a more rounded approach this time, and a more successful one.

Individual learning accounts are not the only thing that Ministers have got wrong. As the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), has already acknowledged, there has been a hiatus in the establishment of sector skills councils. I could never quite understand why the national training organisations were abolished before the new bodies were up and ready; that has created a good deal of uncertainty. There have also been concerns about the development of modern apprenticeships, although I appreciate that the figures are expressed in a number of ways and that that might partly reflect statistically the fact that people can no longer do a foundation course as part of an advanced modern apprenticeship, then come off such a programme and get credit for it. The record on A-levels has not been very good, either, in terms of delivery, and there are continuing problems with the sagging of vocational A-levels in terms of their attractiveness to students.

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Ministers' record in this area has been at the very best—I speak in measured terms—patchy. But we shall stand back from that on the basis of trying to consult on the matter. Perhaps more basically, we need to ask why we need a skills strategy. I attended a recent conference on this issue, under the broad sponsorship of the Learning and Skills Council, and I was particularly struck by the message delivered by Vic Seddon, the executive director of the London South learning and skills council. He has a wealth of experience in further education. In what he admitted was a personal comment, which I found very striking, he said:

He went on to say:

I think that those are both perfectly reasonable comments. He went on to document some interesting statistics, which confirmed my impression that, while the United Kingdom compares favourably with its European competitors in terms of participation at graduate level, it is in the crucial level 3 and level 2 skills that the disparities are least favourable to us. That is where there is a real national skills gap.

As an officer of the all-party group, I am lucky enough to receive briefing from the Aluminium Federation. Only this morning I was sent some papers expressing the view from the sharp end. They refer to the falling number of students willing and able to read for degrees in material sciences and engineering, and report that whereas typically at the department of material science at Cambridge there have been 30 graduates per annum, this year there are nine, and of those not one is going into the United Kingdom manufacturing industry.

The federation's second major concern relates to the lack of craft technicians able to operate such equipment as rolling mills and extrusion presses, and shortages of people with skills in, for instance, welding, plumbing and maintenance. It concludes that the aluminium industry

It adds

In fairness to the federation, I had better not report its views on top-up fees, lest the House imagine that I drafted them myself. There was, in fact, a close coincidence between those views and the Conservative view.

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