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21 Oct 2008 : Column 56WH—continued

This debate is not about making Crewe the only winner as a centre for a skills academy. It would be a national scheme. The advantage of such a scheme is that it would bring the rail industry together under one umbrella, so that everyone knew the required standards and qualifications, and what skills were needed to meet the challenge. Crewe is and always will be a railway town. It has the potential to raise the railways again, and to provide another generation with the opportunity to work in a tremendous and extremely enjoyable career.

1.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir John. Just as this is the first Westminster Hall debate for the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), so it is for me. Indeed, it is my first debate as Minister. We are as green as each other. I congratulate him not only on making a well-argued and sincere speech on behalf of his constituents, but on securing the debate. He raised many important issues.

The national skills academy network is one of my Department’s flagship programmes. The academies are employer-led centres of excellence that sit at the heart of the skills system, enabling young people and adults to train for jobs that are crucial to Britain’s long-term economic success. They bring together employers—from small and medium-sized enterprises to multinationals—and specialist training providers to address skills issues in a range of industries and to provide training solutions to the practical needs of businesses.

It is important to note that the skills academies highlight the extent to which we are trying to design a truly demand-led system in which the Government are the enabler. Provision is led by demand from employers and learners; it is not dictated by the Government.

The hon. Gentleman said much about apprenticeships. I am delighted to see his commitment to them and his advocacy on their behalf. I applaud him, and encourage him to retain sight of them as the situation becomes longer and broader, as it inevitably does in this place. I hope that he will retain his focus on apprenticeships. The Government have certainly prioritised them, and are investing large sums of money in them. Apprenticeships were effectively a broken system that had fallen into
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disuse and disrepute under the previous Administration. In a typical year, there were only 75,000 apprenticeships at any one time—that is not even starts or finishes. We now have well over 100,000 quality apprenticeship completions a year and rising, and investment is still rising.

Skills academies, which are part of the national blend in delivering upskilling projects, offer a range of provision from basic literacy and numeracy to higher education, and from national vocational qualifications to pre-employment training. Some programmes are for full-time study; others are available in a flexible format, depending on what companies and employees want. Government investment in the NSA programme is expected to reach an estimated £120 million by the end of 2011, which sum we expect to be matched by employers. We anticipate that that investment will help about 880,000 learners to receive skills and learning support during the first five years of the programme.

Mr. Timpson: The Minister will have noted that I mentioned a gap in the national skills market for engineering. Does he accept that? Does he engage with my view that that is the area that the national skills academy should concentrate on if it is to fill that gap?

Mr. Simon: There is not a gap in engineering, but there are pressing needs, as in many other sectors. Nor is it entirely true that we do not have a skills academy that deals with engineering. We do not have a skills academy called “The National Skills Academy for Engineering”, but skills academies deal with manufacturing, process change, materials and the production and supply industries. All those contain a significant engineering component.

I make it clear that the Government are cognisant of the fact that there are pressing needs in engineering. Driving up the outputs that we get from SMEs is clearly part of the Government’s strategy, but the fact that we can always use more does not betoken a system that does not work. The hon. Gentleman referred to apprenticeships being oversubscribed, but that does not mean that the system does not work. It is a demand-led system, and it is a roaring success, particularly as investment has grown exponentially over the Government’s time in office.

Currently, 10 national skills academies are up and running. They cover a range of sectors, including construction and financial services, nuclear energy, and sports and leisure. They involve household names such as Tesco, Toyota, Reuters and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Six more academies are in planning, four of which were announced a fortnight ago by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Those four are enterprise, power, IT and social care. A national skills academy for power will obviously involve a significant engineering component.

Mr. Timpson: I may be jumping the gun, but the rail industry needs to see the establishment of a rail national skills academy. There would need to be further consideration of a fifth round for that to become reality. I ask the Minister directly: is that now going to happen? Are the Government considering it? Can we have a clear answer as to exactly where we are going with the national skills academies?

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Mr. Simon: I was coming to that—the hon. Gentleman asked about it in his speech. That is the direction in which we want to go. I am not in a position to promise the fifth round, just as I am unable to promise an NSA for railways, but I can tell him that the programme so far is successful and popular, and that all the rounds have been considerably over-subscribed. The fact that he is here today to debate the matter is testament to that. Although I cannot promise in the Chamber today the new money in advance of future spending rounds, I can tell him that that is the direction in which the Government wish to go.

It is worth pointing out that all successful bids in the process went through a rigorous competitive selection programme, which was organised by the LSC independently of Ministers. The selection programme is supported and validated by employers, whose job it is to ensure that it is robust at every stage. Each bid is assessed against three key criteria at the first review stage and against two additional criteria at the interview stage. One would expect those sets of criteria to be challenging. Although the projects are match funded, we are doling out large amounts of taxpayers’ money, so the systems must be rigorous to ensure that the best bids are successful and that the best value is derived.

Mr. Timpson: I know that the Minister would like to make some progress, but I want to go back to what I said at the beginning of my speech about putting right the dearth of skilled labour for the railways. Does the Minister accept that there is a shortage? From what his Department has said previously, that seems to be its position, as I mentioned. If so, is he sympathetic to an NSA as a means by which to recreate that skilled-labour work force for the rail industry?

Mr. Simon: We need more engineers in the railways and in other sectors of the economy. It is to train more people to higher standards that we are driving up the skill level of the work force across the board. There is no limit on the number of NSAs that can proceed to business planning, but they must all be consistent with the overall skills priorities for their sector, be able to offer training through specialist providers and present a sustainable business plan that includes substantial funding from employers.

I applaud the submission of a bid for an NSA for railways and I hope that the people who put the bid together, who will inevitably be downhearted and miserable at not being selected, step back and see that the process was competitive, and that although some bids were selected, others were not. We hope that there will be another round. If there is, I hope that those people come back with an even better bid.

The hon. Gentleman tells the story and makes the case well, so he could help them to put their case again going forward. I say to the railway community in Crewe: please do not be downhearted or take this as a “no” from the LSC—it is not exactly that at the moment. He makes a good case for an NSA for the railways, and the Government are more than open, as is the LSC in managing the process, to hearing it again.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot go into the details of the bid. The LSC has already given detailed feedback to the bidders and has told me that it is more than happy to keep working with the Cheshire and
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Warrington Economic Alliance on any future bid. I share his view on the importance of the railways to the nation, the future economy, the 2012 Olympics and, obviously, Crossrail. There will be an even faster-growing demand for skilled railway workers in future and, as a nation, we need to get things right.

I was impressed by Pete Waterman’s piece in The Mail on Sunday about skills shortages in the rail industry and the need to develop the next generation of engineers, as I have been by the hon. Gentleman. Others in Government and the education and skills community will also have read the article. He wrote from personal experience about the value of apprenticeships and capturing the enthusiasm of young people who are left cold by formal qualifications, and putting them on course for well paid jobs. That is what the Government want. In fact, we give every 18-year-old a right to public funding so that they can continue their training and education at university, college, in work or through an apprenticeship until they are 25 or achieve a level 3 qualification.

I should restate that the Government want every major sector of the economy to have an NSA, as resources allow. The programme has been successful so far, and if and when we move to a new phase, unsuccessful applicants such as the railway NSA will be encouraged to reapply. I say again to the bid team: please do not be downhearted and have another go, because NSA status is a prize worth seeking. Railways are vital to the country as well as the local regional economy in Crewe. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are skills challenges within that sector that we need to address.

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Mr. Timpson: I am grateful for that and I am sure it will hearten those behind that robust and important bid. However, is there a time limit for any future NSAs, bearing it in mind that the LSC’s existence might come to an end? What time scale would we be working to if there was a fifth round?

Mr. Simon: There is no time limit and there are no fixed time scales. At the moment, NSAs are administered by the LSC, but they are not a function of its existence. When the LSC is reorganised and becomes a different kind of organisation, we expect the successor organisation to take ownership of NSAs. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly do not expect the NSA programme to die with the passing of the LSC. In the meantime, the LSC and regional LSCs remain on hand to help railway employers to design and deliver the best training, increase employer demand for and investment in skills, and boost the training of individuals so that they can flourish in the labour market.

Mr. Timpson: I would like to ask one last question. The Department for Transport and Transport for London have shown some interest in the bid. Can the Minister hold discussions with representatives from those organisations to gain more knowledge of what the NSA for railways would offer?

Mr. Simon: The bidding process is not really a matter for me as it is run by the LSC, but I am more than happy to meet TfL and anybody the hon. Gentleman would like to—

Sir John Butterfill (in the Chair): Order.

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Ex-servicemen (Prison)

1.30 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Over the past year or so, it has come to my notice that an increasing number of ex-servicemen are appearing regularly in the courts in north Wales and Cheshire. Very often they are charged with serious offences, including wounding, sexual assaults and drug offences, together with robbery. Some of those offences appear to have no explanation or rationale behind them other than a manifestation of hopelessness by the individuals concerned.

I tabled some parliamentary questions in March, to which the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), duly responded. On 5 March, I asked what estimate he had made

He replied:

That response was unsatisfactory on several counts. First, why was the survey made in the first place? What happened as a result of finding that the figure varied from 4 to 6 per cent? Did the Ministry think that that was an acceptable figure and decide to do nothing?

Secondly, by saying that no estimates exist, it appears that the Ministry could not care less. Anybody who knows anything about the criminal courts will know that whenever a person pleads guilty or is convicted of a serious offence, a court report is routinely ordered. The probation service is bound to inquire about an individual’s recent history, and that would show whether a person had recently served in the armed forces and been in a conflict zone. The information could be collected very easily. Therefore, why has that not been done, bearing in mind the fact that probation officers spend a large amount of their time filling in forms? I found the response to be at variance with what I discovered and what I was told by members of the legal profession in north Wales and Cheshire.

I mentioned the matter to Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, who also thought that the figures were a little questionable. He then e-mailed his members and in August he found that 8,500 people, or about 10 per cent. of the prison population, had served in specific conflicts. That figure did not take into account the large number on community penalties, which could be about 3,000 to 4,000 people.

Therefore, we have a serious problem that has not been acted on by Government. I understand that a scoping survey is being conducted by the prison in-reach service—the PIR project—which is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. It is likely to conclude that there is major problem, according to issue No. 9 of Veterans World. The PIR project is a partnership organisation
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between the MOD, the Ministry of Justice and ex-service charities. It has conducted a pilot study at Dartmoor prison and concluded that 16.7 per cent. of those surveyed had undertaken military service.

In 2002, the organisation Veterans In Prison carried out a survey. It looked at 10 prisons in particular and found that 118 former armed services personnel were inmates out of a prison population of 1,191. That amounts to about 9 per cent. or more. Therefore, the problem has been around for quite a time. However, it is becoming worse and more acute because servicemen and women spend far longer in conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan than previously. The times between each deployment are much shorter and consequently the pressures on service personnel are considerably increased.

The case histories examined by NAPO show that the majority of ex-soldiers suffered at some stage or another from post-traumatic stress disorder and that very few had received any counselling or support at any time after their discharge from the Army. There also appears to have been a failure to identify their status at the time of arrest or at committal to custody.

Committed staff at Everthorpe prison have compiled an advice pack for former soldiers in which they offer to liaise with counselling services. However, that does not appear to be available nationally. The PIR project has published a list of the help and support that are available. It is also improving the awareness of welfare visits that can be arranged for ex-service prisoners.

Probation staff in North Yorkshire are developing the integrated domestic abuse programme in local garrisons in partnership with Army welfare. Staff report that PTSD is frequently cited as the principal reason for violent behaviour and is linked to drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism.

Before highlighting a few case histories, I should say that some years ago I went to see the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he was Defence Secretary to ask him whether he could make funding available for a clinic in north Wales run by consultant psychiatrist Dr. Dafydd Alun Jones, who is an expert in PTSD and so-called Gulf war syndrome. I was told that it was a matter for the Department of Health.

When the right hon. Gentleman became Secretary of State for Health, I asked him again about the matter and he said to leave it with him. That was five years ago and the clinic is now shut. No priority has been accorded to the problem and I fear that it has been swept under the carpet. If any other rational explanation appears during the debate, I shall be pleased to hear it.

In Devon and Cornwall, a soldier was discharged from the Army for misconduct after being sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for threatening a drug dealer with a firearm. The report prepared for the court indicated that he was suffering from PTSD as a result of serving in Northern Ireland and also in Iraq. The diagnosis was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence psychiatrist. The soldier made no excuses for his behaviour and felt that his sentence was justified for what he did. However, he feels bitter that he is “stuck with psychological problems” from his service in the Army.

In South Yorkshire, a member of NAPO prepared a court report on a soldier who was convicted of arson with intent and of possession of a sawn-off shotgun.
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There were a number of co-defendants and he was not the leader of the group. He was recruited by others who had been friends in the same regiment. The report concluded that the origin of events lay in military training and the ethos of supporting comrades. The person who was assaulted was the subject of personal grudges from the leader of the group. The defendant said that his training had led him to obey orders without question and that while he accepted that he was not ordered to commit the offence, he agreed to take part in it because of comradeship.

In Cumbria, a soldier, now 23, served with the Parachute Regiment and undertook two tours in war zones. He left military service in late 2005 with no previous convictions. Since then, he has had seven convictions, five of which resulted in periods of custody. He reports that he failed to readjust to life in the UK, finding it hard to

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