Previous Section Index Home Page

There was a suggestion in the hon. Gentleman’s comments that there is a dichotomy between basic research, and translational research and wealth creation. We must not make that mistake. I said earlier in an intervention on the Secretary of State that last Monday I was at Honda Formula 1 at Brackley, not knowing
8 Dec 2008 : Column 369
that a week later it would be up for sale. Speaking to the great engineers operating at Honda Formula 1, it was interesting to learn that they are developing cutting-edge technologies, which must be changed from race to race in order to compete and to shave a fraction of a second off a race time. One of the most impressive elements that right hon. and hon. Members who visited the site were shown was a new composite gearbox. Nobody believed that a gearbox could ever be made from composite materials. The conventional technology is to make it out of some alloy or steel material, but that is extremely heavy. The composite gearbox was developed as a piece of technology purely in order to drive down the weight of a car so that it could go faster.

The point of bringing this development to the attention of the House is that the technology could have the most profound effect by reducing costs in the motor industry and the transport industry, because as soon as the weight of the gearbox of a bus or a truck is reduced using composite materials, there are massive savings in energy use by those vehicles. Yet when we were speaking to Ross Brawn, the chief engineer at Honda Formula 1, it emerged that no member of the Government had ever been to see how those technologies could be transferred—although, to be fair, the technology strategy board had had a meeting at Brackley just a few months earlier. It is rather sad that the technology strategy board goes, Members of the House of Commons go, and then Honda Formula 1 closes.

Technology transfer does not simply come out of universities into companies. It also comes from companies into other companies and into universities. It is a cyclical process, rather than a straightforward linear one. I am delighted that the debate this evening has concentrated on skills and that through the Bill in the Queen’s Speech, the Government continue to argue that skills are at the heart of productivity and at the heart of the agenda, and that we must not take our eye off the ball.

Every single inquiry that I have been involved in since becoming the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, and now the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, comes back to a fundamental issue: we are not producing enough young people with science, technology, engineering and maths backgrounds to become the wealth creators of tomorrow. That point was made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who is no longer in his place. Every business we speak to says exactly the same thing, and every university makes the same claim.

According to the Royal Society’s research, during the whole of the period between 1996 and 2007, less than 12 per cent. of all the children who left our schools took an A-level in biology or maths, less than 7 per cent. took one in chemistry and less than 6 per cent. took one in physics. As we have seen as the bubble has burst, we cannot rely on a service-led economy, a large proportion of which is dependent on financial services, and simply believe that in that way we can pay our way as a nation in the 21st century. We have got to start making and manufacturing things again, and to do that we have to have a stem base. There is nothing in this new Bill, other than structures, to deal with the underlying problems with our economy.

8 Dec 2008 : Column 370

The Leitch agenda underpins much of the Government’s thinking, and Lord Leitch’s report was an excellent analysis of where we were going, but it was a 2004 to 2006 analysis. To be fair, the Government’s response was to accept Lord Leitch’s recommendations, but his report is all about upskilling and qualifications. The idea that qualifications equal skills, equals productivity is in my view a flawed equation. We need to look again at Leitch. Yes, we should deal with his analysis, but the Government should have the courage to recognise that if, by this time next year, there are 3 million unemployed—God forbid that we ever get to that state—it is not the NEET group, those not in education, employment or training, who are of the greatest significance to our economy and nation; it is the 3 million who were in work but are no longer, and who need not simply upskilling but reskilling. That is at the heart of what the Government should be concentrating on in the Bill, when it is amended.

I compliment the Government on the issue of apprenticeships, however, which is dealt with in the Bill. I do not want to argue about whether apprenticeships were better in the past or there is a greater vision now. The reality is that this is the first Government during my lifetime who have said on education and skills training, “Let us have a target of 400,000 apprentices by 2020.” I do not believe that they can possibly get to 400,000 quality apprenticeships by 2020, but it is an objective worth pursuing. We must not pursue it, however, simply as a quantity target. If we do not ensure that those apprenticeships are of a high standard—if we dumb down the brand—we will do far more to disadvantage people following apprenticeships than before.

I ask the Minister please not to get hung up on the issue of making an offer. Simply saying to tens of thousands of young people, “We will guarantee you under the law an offer of two apprenticeships, provided that you have the relevant qualifications”, is not achievable, in my view. It is a laudable objective, but translating it into law means that targets will have to be manipulated in order to be met, which would be wrong. We have to have more employers involved in apprenticeships. In the boom times, one in 10 employers has engaged with apprenticeships. Why on earth will they do so in the down times when, traditionally, training is one of the things to be cut? My plea to the Minister is to be realistic when he starts putting this proposal into operation. He will get the support of the House if he does not get hung up on false targets, and if he is realistic about his objectives. Members on both sides of the House want the Government to succeed in the skills agenda, where frankly, we have all failed in the past.

10.24 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): The Government paint a rosy picture of apprenticeships and of the skills of the nation as a whole. However, there is a great difference between the picture given for external consumption abroad and what the statistics say at home. According to the UK Trade and Investment website, we should wonder why we need this debate at all. Having said that employment is at a record level, it goes on:

Perhaps the website has not been updated for some time, but the reality is somewhat different. Many businesses
8 Dec 2008 : Column 371
find it difficult to find staff with the right skills. Five million adults are functionally illiterate and 17 million have basic numeracy problems.

Local companies do not need to be told by the Government about the benefit of apprenticeships. Having visited a number of companies in my constituency, including manufacturing and engineering companies, I can say that they know the benefits of apprenticeships all too well. Indeed, at one company the managing director had come up by just that route; he praised his apprenticeship not only for the engineering skills but for the general business skills that it had given him. He became able to see the perspective of the business as a whole, which made him confident enough to carry on as managing director.

Many of the businesses that I have mentioned have recently run apprenticeships; such businesses are in the best position to know what type of apprenticeships they need and when in their own business cycles apprenticeships should be taken on. They do not need to be strong-armed into apprenticeships, but for now they are preoccupied with the banks’ withdrawal of facilities, the increase in national insurance, the management of cash flows and the staving off of making redundancies among long-serving, already skilled staff. They are battling to try to keep the jobs that they have.

The Government talk of demand-led apprenticeships, but clearly they see demand from only one side—that of the individual. Demand also needs to be understood from the company side. Good apprenticeship schemes cannot be conducted in isolation from businesses, but should work with businesses. Hopefully, local learning and skills partnerships provide a route for that. My county council, of which I am still a member, has ensured that its learning and skills partnership is led by a senior local business man, and it is all the better for that. However, businesses—even small and medium-sized enterprises—are not resistant to training. I recent visited a training provider, Henley college, in my constituency, and its representatives were full of praise for how local SMEs were committed to training and employment way beyond the apprenticeship. However, there is a need for business flexibility so that SMEs can choose the best route for themselves. That route will change over time.

The public sector is not as behind as the Government like to make out. What they say might be true of Whitehall, but the Minister may like to consider the case of some local councils. My county council now has about 50 apprenticeships, ranging from social care to outdoor education to civil education and some administrative areas.

Rob Marris: With respect, it is the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) who is not being clear. On at least two occasions when opening the debate he referred to the fact that there were about 3,200 apprenticeships—I cannot remember the exact figure—in central Government. That is a low figure, but it relates only to central Government. He completely overlooked what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I said about apprenticeships in local government, which have also been mentioned by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), and about apprenticeships in the NHS.

8 Dec 2008 : Column 372

John Howell: I am sure that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench appreciate the role played by local government in apprenticeships.

I am encouraged that local groups of SMEs are coming together to consider the provision of support and training as a group, often on a self-help, mutual basis. That is certainly happening in my constituency. However, business is suspicious of Government involvement in apprenticeships and training for good reason. The Train to Gain exercise is widely seen as a one-size-fits-all approach that takes no account of the specific needs of areas, even within an area such as a constituency, and it is widely seen as complex and confusing. Furthermore, there are doubts about whether it adds anything new and whether there is any real test of additionality in what it delivers.

No one will miss the Learning and Skills Council, but there is no confidence that what replaces it will be any better. After all, its constant reform has been described by the general director of the British Chambers of Commerce as a constant reshuffling of deck chairs that has held back progress in vocational qualifications. There is no confidence that the Government will be able to simplify matters or avoid interference. Even where there has been a transfer of funds to local government, one need only see the constant stream of circulars and departmental memos that hit the desks of almost all senior council officers to realise that the Government regard local government as nothing more than their own local Executive arm. We need to ensure that bureaucracy is genuinely removed.

Let me turn finally to the provision of employment training. The Government have consistently missed the point as regards the difficulty of providing skills and employment services in a rural environment. A rural environment involves greater expense. Fewer providers operate in it, there is less choice for the individual, and there is almost no travel to get about in order to do the training. That has an impact on the job prospects of some of the most vulnerable people. Let me give two examples from my own constituency that arose as recently as last week.

A training and support consultancy for horticulturalists, which is doing extremely good work with people with various disabilities, is likely to have great difficulties in continuing because of the burdens placed on it as a result of the shake-up of procurement within the Government. If it does continue, there is likely to be a reduction in the amount of time that people with disabilities spend on individual modules in the training schemes. That is a great shame, because this is an example of tackling the barriers that people face while providing them with real experience.

The second example concerns ex-offenders in my constituency—even Henley has some ex-offenders—who have been ordered to get on to courses but have to go as far as Oxford. That may not seem a huge distance to Members, but it is a very tortuous route. The buses do not run on time, and it may be necessary to take several different ones. The scheme is designed for failure. That is not how we should proceed. The Government need to acknowledge that the rural dimension is special and that we need to take that into account.

8 Dec 2008 : Column 373
10.32 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I do not have long, but it would be remiss of me not to commend the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), which was assured and witty. Let me also put on record my strong support for what my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) said from the Front Bench about housing. I want to address my remarks to the quantity and quality of housing.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said that the Government’s intentions as regards the quantity of housing have been seriously undermined over the past six months. The small amount of social housing as well as a catastrophic fall in the private housing sector interact with the quality of housing. In England, we have the most expensive housing, the smallest number of houses in relation to households, and the worst quality of housing environmentally and otherwise. Housing produces 27 per cent. of this country’s carbon dioxide emissions. The central point that I want to make to the Government is that as this recession develops, they will be strongly tempted to chase the quantity of housing and to sacrifice its quality. I urge the Minister not to do that. We have some 20 million homes at the moment, and at the current rate of building, 80 per cent. of them will still be there in 2050. If we got back to the level that the Prime Minister talked about in July, 70 per cent. of housing in 2050 would already have been built. We need new policies to ensure that new housing, including new social housing, is built to the very highest standards, but we also need to ensure that we tackle the problems with the existing stock. We need policies not just for the new housing, but for the 80 per cent. of it that will still be there in 25 years’ time. We need policies that cut carbon dioxide emissions, cut people’s bills and reduce fuel poverty. The Chancellor has said that he will do whatever it takes to tackle the recession, and I say to the Under-Secretary and the Government that tackling the problems associated with the existing housing stock would be a good four-way hit—cutting carbon dioxide, cutting people’s bills, cutting fuel poverty and providing jobs. The retrofitting of energy-saving measures to existing housing ought to be high on the agenda. That process would be assisted by a cut in VAT for alterations and renovations, which in turn would end the paradox of it costing more to alter buildings than to build new ones.

We need legislative changes as well, and the process is not that difficult given that the law is already in place. I say without any shame that I promoted the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act, which received Royal Assent in September 2004. That Act provides the Government with the levers they need to bring new buildings up to standard to tackle climate change, to allow for the alteration and repair of existing homes and to improve building standards in existing housing stock. One of the current paradoxes is that someone replacing a roof put on in the 1960s is required to do so only to the environmental standards of the 1960s. Many people would say that that was absurd. The process does not require zillions of pounds of public cash, but the Under-Secretary must implement the provisions of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act, which the Government and all parties supported in 2004.

My plea is that the Government should not chase housing numbers at the expense of sound environmental quality, and that they should make a resolute start—albeit
8 Dec 2008 : Column 374
an unnecessary four years late—on getting existing homes properly insulated and updated. They should tackle climate change, secure more jobs, tackle fuel poverty and give people well-being in their homes.

10.37 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): This has certainly been a wide-ranging debate, and hon. Members on both sides have brought to bear a considerable wealth of experience from their constituencies and their backgrounds, which was an advantage. For that reason, and because of the time constraints, I hope that Members will forgive me if I do not go into detail about all of their points. I would like, however, to join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) on an excellent and well-received maiden speech. It was not that long ago that I, as a by-election entrant to this House, was in the same position. We all wish him well, and hope to hear from him again in the future.

It was apparent that a common theme ran through both elements of the debate—a litany of failure on the part of Government policy on skills and housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) dealt with skills at some length in his opening speech, and I will therefore not go into as much detail on that topic as I will on housing. It is important to reinforce, however, that evidence introduced by hon. Members strongly supported my hon. Friend’s point. In the skills agenda, we suffer from a huge over-engineering and complexity in the systems for delivering desirable objectives. There are more funding streams and agencies than one would find in the wiring diagram for a modest-sized cruise missile. No wonder it is difficult for those seeking to enter the skills system—never mind businesses—to navigate. Greater simplicity and clarity would be a huge advantage, hence my party’s proposals to concentrate heavily on apprenticeships, which have been referred to repeatedly in this debate, and to ensure an emphasis on practical learning, vocational skills and the needs of business, particularly small and medium-sized businesses. I am afraid that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills does not seem to have learned that lesson.

On housing, DIUS and the Department for Communities and Local Government at least share one thing in common: they seem almost to be in a competition to see how many initiatives and pledges can be abandoned. It is a bit like a competition between Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor to see who has the most discarded wedding rings on their dressing table. [ Interruption. ] I know that it was a long time ago for the Under-Secretary, but I am sure that he will have read about it in a history book. If he goes back to Madonna, perhaps he will get the same flavour, but it would be good for him to go back a little further.

Let me remind the Minister of some issues closer to home. We have seen the collapse of delivery in the Government’s housing policy. The root of all our problems is that not enough homes are being built and it is this Government who are failing to build them. On average, 31,000 fewer homes are being built a year than under the previous Conservative Government. Fewer affordable homes are being built. Not once in all these years have the Government built as many affordable homes, which are at the sharp end of need, as were built in any equivalent year under the Major and Thatcher Governments. That is a lamentable failure of the most vulnerable and the most in need.

Next Section Index Home Page