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We will change the benefits, skills and employment system. When people sign on for benefits, they should sign up for skills. We will make it easier for those on benefits to gain new skills. We will provide the tailored support that people need in order to get into work, and we will provide new opportunities for people to train. We intend to introduce legislation to give legal rights to train, but with those rights come responsibilities—responsibilities to upskill and to work.

Obtaining work, however, is just the start. We will also help people to get on in work by helping them to progress. We will create an advancement and careers service to help people overcome the barriers to moving from welfare to work and beyond. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has announced, all new jobseeker’s allowance claimants will be given a more rigorous skills check to identify those who need basic numeracy, literacy and English language training or support. All new claimants will be able to use the new advancement and careers service to undertake a comprehensive skills health check. For those who are out of work for six months, we will make skills health checks mandatory, at the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers.

Where the need for raised skills is firmly identified, we will pilot giving Jobcentre Plus personal advisers enhanced powers to mandate training, and to offer training allowances of up to eight weeks’ full-time study when it is clearly designed to meet employers’
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needs. For lone parents on income support we will extend the employment retention and advancement pilot nationally, providing in-work advisory support and discretionary emergency hardship grants of up to £300. We are also rolling out a weekly work credit of £40, or £60 in London. All lone parents will receive a skills screening at the start of their claims, and we aim to ensure that all of them can undertake a skills health check. We will offer such a check to lone parents two years before they are due to return to work, and will consider making it mandatory.

For those on incapacity benefit, the housing benefit rules will be changed to abolish the 16-hour rule which limits the hours of study for those on the short-term rate. Long-term benefit claimants moving into work will see an increase in income of at least £25 per week, allowing for reasonable transport costs.

As we change the welfare system, we will also improve opportunities to train. In setting the Learning and Skills Council budget for the next three years, I recently announced improved opportunities for training at every level. We will invest £1.5 billion a year in basic skills for life and pre-level 2 training. We will increase the number of training places at level 2 to 800,000 by the end of the next three years, and will increase the number of level 3 places by 148 per cent. by three years from now. We have set aside enough funds—subject to the availability of high-quality employer places—to increase the number of apprenticeships in England from 250,000 to 400,000.

However, we need to do more to ensure that the training opportunities are available to those who need them most. My right hon. Friend and I will ensure that Jobcentre Plus, colleges and training providers work more closely together. Tomorrow my right hon. Friend will give more details of how Jobcentre Plus services are to be commissioned in future, but I can say today that there is a joint commitment to greater convergence with LSC funding, and that we will jointly explore the scope for progressively joining up processes to underpin the integration of employment and skills services.

For many people, the transition from a low-paid to a better-paid job can be as hard as moving from benefit to work. We will ensure that the advancement and careers service works closely with Jobcentre Plus, training providers and other voluntary and statutory agencies to provide skills screening, skills health checks and access to advice on overcoming all the obstacles to progression, including child care, housing, transport and in-work benefits. I can announce today that I have allocated £2 million to test 10 prototypes in 10 areas next year.

The advancement and careers service will provide full skills health checks for half a million work seekers and half a million people in work per year by 2010-11. I can also confirm that we will pilot skills accounts from next year. We want learners with skills accounts to have access to £500 million of funding by 2010-11, and to nearly £1.5 billion by 2015.

Through local employer partnerships, more than 200 companies have committed to offer jobs to people who are out of work, helping towards meeting our target of 250,000. The Learning and Skills Council, colleges and training providers will work closely with Jobcentre Plus and employers to ensure that individuals receive both
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pre-employment and in-work training. High-quality in-house training is provided by many companies involved in the LEPs, and I have asked for the accreditation of in-house employer schemes to be fast-tracked, and expect the first schemes to be accredited by Christmas.

This country can deliver the opportunities to work and to gain better skills only through the closest possible partnership with employers. That is why we are making the training system more responsive and flexible to meet the needs of employers. Fifty-two thousand employers have taken advantage of “train to gain” with more than 100,000 learners gaining new qualifications. Today I can confirm that the budget for “train to gain” will rise to more than £1 billion by 2010-11—about one third of the adult training budget. Colleges that are successful in meeting employers’ needs will be able to expand the volume of training they provide, and the bureaucracy of taking part in “train to gain” will be reduced.

We will allocate £90 million to enable 60,000 small and medium-sized businesses to identify how skills training would grow their business and profitability. We will extend “train to gain” to cover volunteers, the self-employed and offenders who have secured employment prior to their release. We will ensure that there is a further education system that provides specialist vocational excellence in key areas of teaching and learning, both at national level—through national skills academies—and at regional and local levels. “Train to gain” brokerage will be extended to larger companies.

Our reforms to put skills at the heart of welfare will help to drive Britain’s economy forward to compete in an increasingly competitive world. By giving people new rights and responsibilities, we will unlock the talent and aspirations of all our people to ensure that no one gets left behind. These reforms are fundamental to creating a stronger, fairer and more prosperous society. I commend the paper to the House.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Nobody on the Opposition side of the House would quarrel with the Government’s objective of having a more skilled work force, or the importance of tackling the barriers that stop unemployed people getting into work, but in order to make real progress in tackling those problems the Secretary of State would have had to confront uncomfortable evidence that would have explained that after 10 years of initiatives many of the Government’s policies are still not working. In particular, why is it that after 10 years the number of young people aged 16 to 24 who are not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—has increased from 1,082,000 to 1,260,000? The Secretary of State should have confronted that uncomfortable evidence, so as to do better in the future.

The Opposition agree on the importance of linking jobcentres and skills. That link desperately needs to be made, and we want it to work. Again however, for it to work the Government need to learn lessons from what has not worked so far. In particular, if the only skills training that is going to be available at jobcentres is accredited training leading to LSC-approved qualifications —which is how so much of the funding is currently
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disbursed—is there not a real danger that some of the most worthwhile programmes will suffer from not being accessible to unemployed people? This morning, I visited City Lit—probably the country’s largest adult education college, and an excellent institution which I know that the Secretary of State has visited—where I was told that many of its most worthwhile courses that help people out of unemployment and into work were suffering from cuts in LSC funding, because they did not provide accredited qualifications of which the LSC approved. If the Secretary of State is going to use this joint working simply to push people into accredited qualifications, is there not a danger that he will miss out many of the courses that people really need?

I also have some questions about the programmes that the Secretary of State has announced. He has announced that £1.5 billion a year will be invested in basic “skills for life” and pre-level 2 training. He has announced that we will increase the number of training places at level 2 to 800,000. However, are these not courses that plug the gaps that should have been filled at school? They are teaching people the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic—giving people the basic equivalents of GCSEs. The Secretary of State began by saying that this was part of his new vision of a highly skilled work force competing in a competitive global economy. Now, what he is really announcing is extra places to plug the gaps in a school system that should be doing better.

I accept that not all those people left school under Mr. Blair. Some will have left school under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and quite a few probably left under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. However, the Secretary of State cannot pretend that such a programme is in any way rising to the challenge of providing skills for the 21st-century economy.

The Secretary of State also talked about apprenticeships, but let us be clear about what he is pledging. He is now talking of a target of 400,000 apprenticeships, up from 250,000 today. Will he confirm that back in 2002, the then Chancellor—now the Prime Minister—promised 300,000 apprenticeships by 2004? Will he confirm that then, in April 2003, the then Chancellor promised 320,000 apprenticeships by 2006? Will he confirm that as recently as this year’s Budget, in March, the then Chancellor promised to double apprenticeship numbers to 500,000? So what we have here is a record of successive retreats from ambitious commitments and pledges because of a failure to deliver them. Will the Secretary of State also confirm that the number of apprenticeships that we recognise as apprenticeships—genuine technical qualifications sponsored by employers, which are now called advanced apprenticeships—have been in steady decline under this Government, and have now fallen below 200,000?

Finally, I congratulate the Secretary of State on something that is enormously to his credit—on not using at any point in his statement today that British National party slogan, “British jobs for British workers”. The Opposition congratulate him on his self-restraint. Long may it continue.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful for the warm welcome that the hon. Gentleman has given the statement—but unfortunately I have to point out to him that he is in error on almost everything that he said. Let us take for a start the claim that the figure for young people not in
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education, employment or training shows a fundamental failure in the system. The first thing that we must understand is that there has been a massive fall in the long-term youth unemployment that characterised the experience of so many young people under the Conservative Government. Secondly, there has not been a significant change in the proportion of that cohort who are not in education, employment or training compared with the period when the Tories were in power; however, there have been very significant shifts in what it represents. It represents not only far less long-term youth unemployment but the massive increase in the number of students taking gap years from university, who are not distinguished in the figures.

There is a real issue here. There has been some increase in the number of under-25s claiming incapacity benefit, which is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as part of his statement earlier today, indicated that pathways to work—the very successful programme that has begun to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefit—will not only be extended nationally to new claimants but will for the first time be targeted at existing claimants, starting with the under-25s. So where there is a problem, we are determined to address it.

On training, the hon. Gentleman and I are simply going to have to disagree. There are a range of measures, budgeted for, for the Learning and Skills Council and Jobcentre Plus that are intended to ensure that individuals gain the early skills that they require to get into work, and that they can continue to get recognised qualifications when in work. Those courses—whether they are delivered by the employability skills programme that started in August, which focuses on getting people into work, or by the pre-level 2 programmes—are designed to achieve the two things that individuals want: sufficient capacity to get a job in the first place, and the qualifications and skills that mean that they remain in work and do not go back on to benefit. Our programmes are chosen with those aims consistently in mind. We have stripped out the programmes that have proved not to be effective for the individuals concerned.

As for the £1.5 billion to plug the gap, the hon. Gentleman had enough intellectual honesty to abandon his argument halfway through. We could spend all afternoon agreeing that Mrs. Thatcher’s Government were a terrible Government. A moment’s thought will tell us that the vast majority of those in the work force did not leave school under this Government—and certainly did not complete the greater part of their schooling under this Government. That does not really matter, though, because some of them did, and the point about these policies is that we cannot write people off. There must be a second or even a third chance for people who missed out first time round—and I would extend that to the diminishing number of young people for whom that would be true under this Government. This is the right thing to do.

On apprenticeships, the hon. Gentleman’s research is simply wrong. He has—inadvertently, I am sure—confused figures that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister used when talking about the UK as a whole with the figures that I have been using for England. The significance of my announcement is that the target for 2020 was for 500,000 apprenticeships for the UK as a whole and 400,000 for England. With the funding that
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we have set aside, and if we can secure the proper, quality employer places, we can achieve the 2020 target about eight years early. That would be good for the economy and enormously good for young people who are seeking work in this country.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his visionary statement. Although I agree that many people need help because they did not have the advantage that young people have today of having literacy and numeracy skills set before them, some who did have such chances now need to gain new skills because they have ill health and have to change to a different job. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House more fully how people whose old skills are no use to them any more, and who need a new chance, can, with the help of their employer and perhaps their trade union, train for something else?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and I shall just mention two things. First, I pay tribute to the work of the 18,000 union learning representatives. We estimate that they have encouraged about 250,000 fellow employees back into work over the past couple of years since the scheme has been running. Someone’s best friend at work will often be the most likely person to convince them that they should have another go at training, and the union learning representatives have been a success.

Secondly, and importantly, I come to something that was part of our review of “train to gain”. In the first year of the programme, it was not possible to use “train to gain” to provide a subsidised place for someone who already had a level 2 qualification. We are now saying that where an employer is using “train to gain” we will not discriminate in that way between those of their employees who have a first level 2 qualification and those who do not. That will free up the system enormously for precisely the sort of person that my hon. Friend has in mind.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for providing an advance copy of the statement, and there is much to be welcomed in it. The joined-up approach is common sense, and I welcome the change in respect of the 16-hour rule for benefit and study. We have requested that for a long time. We might question why the long-term unemployed and those who are workless were not receiving a skills audit as a matter of course, because most people would have expected that to have been happening anyway. It is worth reminding everyone that the number of people who are long-term sick is more or less the same as it was when this Government came to power in 1997.

I have some questions about the Secretary of State’s statement. Does he envisage the advancement and careers service to be the same as the universal adult careers service that he announced in the summer? If it is not the same, how were they linked together? If it is the same, has he learned the lessons from the Connexions service? Although Connexions improved the service for many young people from socially excluded groups, we found that a decline in access occurred for people who wanted simpler and more straightforward advice.

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There are three obvious elements that a careers service needs to work. The first is personalisation, the second quality and the third independence. Personalisation is obviously key, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State has learnt the lessons from the new deal, in which many young people were pushed on to generic programmes, rather than on to specific courses that addressed their personal issues. Does he envisage some sort of triage system, which could provide signposted advice to people who may require advice on medical issues or child care? How would that link with the careers service?

Often, the issues with access to training and work are about confidence, and many people do not have the self-confidence to go on a full accredited course. It would be a shame if the Government ruled out the option of unaccredited courses, in areas such as leisure, which they often pooh-pooh. For many people, those are the only route back into learning.

On quality, how will the proposals be linked with the closure of Jobcentre Plus offices, especially in rural areas? Does the Secretary of State really think that Jobcentre Plus is the ideal vehicle for providing an expert careers service, and will he invest sufficient money to bring it up to standard? The Connexions service provides services to 2 million young people and costs £500 million. If we extend that to all the workless, it would cost some £2 billion. Does he envisage that level of investment to provide a high-quality service?

On independence, what involvement does the Secretary of State envisage for the voluntary sector, and what role will local authorities play? The Lyons review, for example, foresaw a role in place shaping, and that would appear to be a good example of how local authorities could play a role in training.

For many people, it is a big jump to a full accredited course. The people who are finding it difficult to stay in the job market are the very ones who will find it difficult to stay on a full course. When will the Government make proposals for a credit-based or unitised approach to level 2 and level 3 accredited learning? That is vital to ensure that people who begin training can reap the benefits of what they have already undertaken.

The Secretary of State has announced £1 billion for the “train to gain” programme—but what proportion of that money will go to the broker system, rather than to training?

Mr. Denham: I congratulate the hon. Lady on a considered and intelligent response to the issues I raised this afternoon. The figures that I have for incapacity benefit suggest that the numbers claiming it have fallen since 2003 by 120,000, which is due in no small measure to the success of the pathways to work programme, which is why it is now being extended across the country and targeted at young people under 25. It is worth remembering that had the trends continued as they had become well established in 1997 under the previous Government, some 4 million people would be on incapacity benefit by now. This Government had to turn round the supertanker and get it going in the right direction.

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