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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con):
In her statement, the Secretary of State mentioned the national employer training programme. Bearing it in
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mind that 92 per cent. of all businesses employ fewer than 10 people, what will be the role for small firms and their representatives? She also mentioned sector skills agreements. Is the construction industry involved, and in particular, will the Construction Industry Training Board be part of this initiative?
Ruth Kelly: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, as the result of the national employer training programme pilots showed, in fact, the programme was most successful at reaching small businesses. It is businesses with fewer than 10 employees that find it difficult to assess training needs and to identify what they could do if their employees upgraded their skills. Where a broker can talk face to face with the person running such a business, there is a real opportunity to bring about a change in the skill level involved. The construction sector will launch its sector skill agreement this afternoon; indeed, it is one of the first four sectors to launch such an agreement. It has pledged to qualify more than 250,000 workers to VQ level by 2010, and the hon. Gentleman will doubtless agree with me that that is a significant step forward.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): May I welcome this progress report? As my right hon. Friend knows, I was one of those who witnessed during the 1980s the decimation of apprenticeships and the shutting down of departments that did not teach physics or chemistry, particularly engineering departments, which were deemed too expensive. I ask my right hon. Friend not to get too carried away with centres of excellence and the regional concept. Although such centres are needed, they will not deliver the programme. What will do so is the localised concept of schools banding together and working with local authorities to give every 14-year-old the chance to gain vocational experience. Would she like to support schemes such as the one in Tamworth?
Ruth Kelly: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that individual local authority areas need to determine the provision appropriate to their authority for 14 to 19-year-olds, and that schools, colleges and employers need to work together to identify what they can offer. Over the next 10 years, I hope to see an entitlement to 14 different specialised lines of learning that our 14 to 19-year-olds can follow. However, the question of adult skills also presents us with a challenge. We must work with employers and sectors at a regional level to identify how we can increase the number of employees with a full level 2 qualification, and see them progress to a level 3 qualification.
The Secretary of State's comments about level 3 qualifications will undoubtedly be greeted with a degree of surprise by the college sector. Is she aware that colleges are having to divert funding away from level 3 to basic skills, and that her own Government have introduced top-up fees for level 3 students? Is she aware that the Learning and Skills Council has said that such money will be clawed back? Will she match the Conservative party's commitment to adult learners doing level 3 qualifications, which is that their first full-time level 3 qualification will be fully funded?
Ruth Kelly: I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that more adult learners studied at level 3 last year than did so in the previous year. As I said to one of his colleagues, we will safeguard local authority-funded provision for adult learners going forward, and I should also point out that I have not ruled out co-financing where that is appropriate. Some of the fee increases currently being discussed by the Learning and Skills Council could cost an adult learner up to an extra 19p per hour. However, I do think it right that, in certain circumstances, adults contribute to the cost of such learning, particularly at level 3, which is a qualification that enables them to benefit economically. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the provision in the White Paper. The national employer training programme and the safeguarding of adult learning provision will lead to a significant increase in the number of adults gaining basic skills, level 2 qualifications and, indeed, level 3 qualifications.
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Workers Educational Association is the largest voluntary provider of education in the country. She referred earlier to assisting adults in navigating their way around learning, but is it not the case that organisations such as the WEA assist excluded and deprived groups in navigating their way into learning by opening doors and opening their minds? A formal qualification is not always the best way to get a foot on the first rung of the learning ladder; rather, it is more informal learning that enables the increase in skills levels that we want to see. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to organisations such as the WEA, and about the informal learning that is a vital and vibrant part of our communities?
I pay tribute to the work of the WEA, and I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is a vital part of our local communities and plays a valuable role in increasing demand for learning. It is right that we preserve entry-level courses for adults that do not necessarily lead to a qualification, but might do so in time. That is why I have said that it is so important that we safeguard the funds for adult learning going forward, while also ensuring that they are appropriate to the needs of individual local authority areas. I agree with my hon. Friend that the WEA performs a very valuable role.
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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement in order to update the House on the aftermath of the tsunami in the Indian ocean on 26 December.
Let me deal first with the number of British casualties. As of today, 95 British citizens and residents have been confirmed dead: 78 in Thailand, 14 in Sri Lanka and three in the Maldives. A further 74 are considered by the Metropolitan police as highly likely to have been involved as victims63 in Thailand and 11 in Sri Lankaso the number either killed or highly likely to have been involved totals 169.
The police have now conducted a review of "category 2" casesthat is, people possibly involved and unaccounted for. Each of these cases has now been determined as, tragically, either highly likely to have been involved and has therefore been moved into "category 1"; or it has been removed from "category 2"this applies to the majority of casesbecause there is no evidence to suggest that the individual in question was involved in the tsunami. In the light of that, the Foreign Office website will shift from daily to weekly publication of updates of the figures for British casualties.
British consular officials and police deployed rapidly to the areas affected from 26 December. They continue to do superb work in difficult and traumatic circumstances, and I pay tribute to them. The UK has the largest of all the international consular and police teams in Phuket in Thailand, and it has a significant presence in Sri Lanka. These staff are now focusing their efforts on identifying the bodies recovered, and on arranging the repatriation of remains to the United Kingdom where that is the families' wish. So far, 62 have been repatriated to the UK and a further 33 have been given local funerals or repatriated elsewhere, or remain in our care while we await instructions from their next of kin.
The task of identification is unprecedented in terms of the number of victims, the geographical extent of the tragedy and the many nations involved. Today, some 1,000 of the estimated 2,000 non-Thai victims in Thailand remain to be identified. The scale of this task required international agreement that, where necessary, we use the so-called disaster victims identification process. This process is painstaking and time-consuming and, as I said in Thailand on 7 January, I understand and deeply sympathise with the frustration felt by grieving families as they wait for their loved ones to be identified. But the DVI process is vital in minimising the risk of misidentification and the even greater distress that that could cause.
The west London coroner is handling inquests for almost all the British victims of the tsunami. She has made it clear that using the DVI process to reduce the risk of misidentification enables victims' remains to be released to their families quickly once they have been repatriated to the UK.
On 11 February, the UK took on the chairmanship of the international information management centre, which co-ordinates work on identification. Since then,
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the process has speeded up considerably: confirmed identifications have risen from 200 to more than 1,000. By way of comparison, at the same stage following the terrorist outrages of 11 September 2001, only 600 positive identifications had been achieved.
Let me turn now to our support for the victims of this tragedy and their families here in the UK. In the aftermath of the tsunami, an unprecedented number of police family liaison officers were deployed to support the families of those killed or missing, with some 300 officers involved at the peak. The Department of Health has co-ordinated information and guidance on health and psychological support services, including those of the NHS, local authorities and voluntary organisations.
The Minister for Trade and Investment, who is responsible for Asia, announced on 24 January that, in order to ease the terrible burden on families, we would allow deaths to be registered where no body has been found. I also established, in partnership with the British Red Cross and with financial support from the Foreign Office budget, a tsunami support network for victims, survivors and their families. The telephone number is 0845 054 7474. As the House is aware, the Red Cross and I have separately written to hon. Members to encourage those with constituents affected by this tragedy to put them in touch, if they are not already, with the network.
As the focus of our support to survivors and bereaved families increases here at home, we want to reinforce and to raise awareness of that support among those affected. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has had considerable experience in dealing with the aftercare of the British families affected by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. I am therefore pleased to tell the House that she will now be taking on a new role with overall responsibility for co-ordinating support for those affected by the tsunami across Departments and across our public services.
We have established a single telephone number for each of the main Government Departments involved in this work to ensure that families know where to turn for help. For the Department of Health, this will be the same number as for NHS Direct: 0845 4647. For the Department for Work and Pensions, the number is 020 7712 2171 and for the Foreign Office the number is 020 7008 8877. The existing Red Cross helpline will continue to act as the first point of contact for families in difficulties, and will be able to put them in touch with the appropriate Department. Those details, along with a range of other support and information, are available on the Foreign Office website.
Members of the House have been assiduous in representing constituents caught up in the tsunami, and Ministers and their Departments have sought to respond promptly to all such representations. They will, of course, continue to be given the highest priority.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 10 January that a national memorial service for the victims of the Indian ocean tsunami would be held, and it will take place in St. Paul's cathedral on 11 May. Invitations to the families will be issued soon. As well as remembering the British victims, the memorial service will recognise the enormous suffering endured by the
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countries most directly affected by the tsunami. Their representatives, as well as those from faith communities and from international relief agencies, are being invited to the service.
Although the impact of the tragedy on British families has been enormous, most victims were not from the UK or Europe, but from the 13 countries most directly affected. All told, nearly 300,000 people are estimated to have died and millions of lives and livelihoods have been shattered.
The generosity of the British public in response to the tsunami has been staggering, with some £300 million donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee, and a further £40 million directly to its member charities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been working closely with the Disasters Emergency Committee to co-ordinate our relief effort. To date, he has allocated more than £75 million in response to the catastrophe, and the aid will increase substantially as we move from immediate humanitarian relief to longer-term reconstruction. He has also funded flights to transport relief supplies, so as to ensure that money donated by the public is spent only on equipment that directly benefits those affected.
Holding the presidency of the G8 this year, the UK will work with our international and regional partners on sustainable ways to reduce people's vulnerability to the threat of future such disasters. The Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, is chairing a group of scientists and experts to study the risks presented by natural hazards and working on early warning systems. Through debt relief and trade measures, we have already taken action to help people in the region to rebuild their lives.
Let me conclude by considering what lessons we can learn from our response to the tsunami. Following the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the Bali bombing in October 2002, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office implemented new procedures, including a 24-hour response centre and the establishment of rapid deployment teams to operate in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Those procedures enabled staff to be deployed to the regions affected by the tsunami far more quickly and effectively than would otherwise have been possible, and British teams were among the very first to arrive.
We have been conducting a full internal review of the Foreign Office's response to the tsunami, in order to learn lessons for the future. Following up that review, we will ensure that all our staff going overseas have training in handling emergencies and we will set up and train regional rapid deployment teams at some of our posts most distant from London and improve how such teams work. We will also improve our handling of telephone calls from the public and establish better guidelines for our work with the police, as well as improving the emergency plans for every one of our posts abroad.
At its request, I wrote to the Foreign Affairs Committee two weeks ago with a detailed memorandum setting out a summary of the lessons learned, along with a chronology of our actions in response to the crisis. I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for
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the decision to place the memorandum in the Library; copies will be made available to hon. Members in the Vote Office. I understand that the Committee will publish the memorandum, together with its own observations, this Thursday. The National Audit Office is also considering the Foreign Office's response to the tsunami as part of its review of FCO's consular services worldwide. We have also discussed with our partners in the European Union and elsewhere and with the private sector how we can better co-ordinate our response to future such events.
It will be some time before the painstaking process of identification of all of the victims of the tsunami is complete, and longer still before those in the region can rebuild their shattered lives. The grief of families who have lost loved ones will always be with them. I know that the whole House will join me in renewing to them our sympathies and condolences. The Government remain determined to offer all the support that we can to them and to all the victims of this terrible tragedy.
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