Previous Section Index Home Page

3 Feb 2009 : Column 743
5.54 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Before I came to the House I spent 34 years in teaching, and most of that time was spent in depressed areas of Leeds, the north-east and Middlesbrough. For the last 20 years of that time, I was the head teacher of two very large comprehensives, and the great tragedy of my life in teaching is that when I finished, the same sort of students were failing in our school system as when I started. Successive Governments have failed to achieve the effective training of young people, not only for the economy of tomorrow but for the life of tomorrow.

Despite the depressing start to the debate made by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), I would like to put on record the fact that the Government have, during the past 10 years, placed a real emphasis on the skills agenda. They set up a national skills taskforce, and asked Lord Leitch to complete his seminal report, which analysed the skills of the nation. They brought all the major parties together to agree that skills are highly important. We might disagree about how we implement the policy, but that agreement has been achieved. It is rather sad to see that that consensus appears to be on the wane today.

The Leitch analysis is central to how we regard the problem. Leitch analysed the skills that we need not simply for today, but for the emerging economy of 2020. If all our concentration is on the huge problems of today’s recession, we will miss the opportunity to provide our work force with the skills that they need for tomorrow. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) put his finger on one of the key issues: it is not just a matter of providing skills—I shall return to the question of skills and qualifications—but of providing the right skills for the jobs of tomorrow. The STEM agenda—science, technology, engineering and mathematics —is absolutely fundamental to that. We have learned a significant lesson over the past six to nine months about depending heavily on the service sector, particularly the financial services sector, for our economy. It used to be the proud boast that we were the financial centre of the world, but once that imploded, we were left short in the area of actually making things. We need to build the skills of tomorrow such as our science base, which is second only to that of the United States, and our engineering prowess, which ranks alongside that of any nation in the world.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Does my hon. Friend not admit that a few years ago, financial skills were seen as the skills of tomorrow? We were wrong then, and we could quite easily be wrong now, too.

Mr. Willis: I readily accept that we do not live in a certain world, and we have never experienced anything like the current recession before. We have never seen the collapse of global capitalism in such a way, because nations such as China and India were never part of a global capitalist system before. My point is that being so heavily reliant on the service sector has caused major problems during this economic downturn. I am imploring the Minister, when looking at the skills agenda, to have 2020 constantly in sight, as Lord Leitch recommended, and not simply to concentrate on the here and now. That is a major issue.

3 Feb 2009 : Column 744

One of the central planks of Lord Leitch’s report, which the Government readily accepted, was upskilling the nation to OECD standards. It is an attractive proposition to say that by growing the number of qualifications, we grow more skills and greater productivity and wealth creation—but in reality that is a flawed model, especially in the current situation. We need upskilling, as Lord Leitch and the Government have accepted, but we also need an emphasis on reskilling. That does not simply mean people who were in one area of employment reskilling for another. All of us, particularly in the House, are constantly looking to reskill. One sad characteristic of our nation is that the higher up the academic scale someone goes, or the higher up in a company, the more access they have to retraining at the expense of people lower down the food chain. In our report, the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills unashamedly stated that upskilling was central.

Hon. Members have referred to the complexity of the Government’s delivery system. I say to the Minister, in a spirit of comradeship, that the current system for delivering the skills agenda is not only complex but incoherent. Chris Humphries, who is the chief executive of the new UK Commission for Employment and Skills, said to our Committee that there was not an employer in the land who understood the current system. He said that when the chairman of the UKCES was appointed, 60 organisations contacted the chairman to say that they were essential in delivering the skills agenda. It is important that the Government keep an eye on that.

The Government have said that employers should lead the skills agenda both of today and of tomorrow. They were right to do that, as skills are central. I have commented before in the House that apprenticeships without the involvement of employers should not be called apprenticeships. I hope that in his closing remarks, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills will assure the House that in the drive to include further education colleges and other public sector organisations in ratcheting up the number of apprenticeships, we will not go down the road of programme-led apprenticeships with no employer involved. I earnestly hope that the Government will support that point of view.

Employer-led schemes using Train to Gain were a great idea when Lord Leitch delivered his report, but we must remember that he carried out his analysis when the economic cycle was on the up, employment was virtually full and we were looking forward to yet more quarters of unprecedented quarter-on-quarter growth. Employers are now shedding labour. They are not looking to take on apprentices, and in many cases, despite what the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said about his constituency, they are not looking to provide skills for workers. They are trying to cut their costs. There is not a Member in the House who would not accept that it would be tragic if that were all that was going to happen. I am looking to the Government not simply to keep to their mantra because they have set policy objectives, but to be fleet of foot and recognise that we have to make employers an attractive offer to maintain their training, and in particular to retrain and upskill their workers.

I should like the Minister to respond to a point that I hoped the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) would make, if he had been in his place. A real problem
3 Feb 2009 : Column 745
is that this recession will hit 16 and 17-year-olds harder than any previous recession. Many skilled workers are coming on to the employment market. They are used to working, and employers are used to having them in their businesses, so they will become very attractive to employers when jobs are available. My concern is for 16-year-olds leaving school for whatever reason. I do not believe that the Government would be wise to raise the school leaving age this September. That would be a foolish mistake, as we would just have mass absenteeism. However, we must ensure that we make employers an attractive offer to employ 16-year-olds. If they are unemployed for three, six or nine months, in many cases that becomes a pattern for the rest of their lives.

Why can a 19-year-old carry a £1,000 recruitment and retention premium for their employer—a golden hello—whereas a 16-year-old cannot? Why does a 19-year-old attract a £1,000 training premium, but a 16-year-old does not? The answer may well be, “Well, we want those people to do apprenticeships.” However, at the top of the employment boom, only one in 10 employers took on an apprentice. If we want to engage employers to take on 16-year-olds and help with their training and employment, we must be flexible with our policies. To hell with saying that there is a divide because of the machinery of Government. We need a comprehensive policy on careers guidance, employment and training to ensure that from the age of 16 onwards, everyone is entitled to a training package that is world class and second to none. That is a policy that my party and I will earnestly support.

6.6 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Swindon is in the national economic spotlight, but it is one of the most productive towns in the country, with arguably the best business location and most highly skilled and hard-working work force. Yet even we are not isolated from the global downturn that is affecting every community in the developed world. There have been job losses in Swindon across all sectors—manufacturing, distribution, finance and service. However, the Government are providing real help to give people skills to get back to work. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we are not going to turn our back on those who lose their jobs. I thank him for that commitment and add mine.

As the House will know, Swindon has a strong connection with transport manufacturing, from railways to cars. Hon. Members will be aware that Honda, one of the biggest employers in south-west England, has closed its factory for four months, but its commitment to Swindon is not in any doubt. About 1,200 people will continue to work full time at the plant during the shutdown, and the remaining 2,500 employees will receive their full basic pay, without shift bonuses, for the first two months. That will be reduced to 60 per cent. for the rest of the period. Honda has made that commitment to Swindon because it does not want to lose its skilled work force. Although it has not asked the Government for any financial help, it has asked for help with skills training. I am very pleased by how the Government have responded, through the regional development agency and the Government office for the south-west.

Businesses large and small across Swindon have been hit by the international financial storm. We hear about the Hondas, Tycos and Woolworths, but we do not hear
3 Feb 2009 : Column 746
about the one or two people made redundant by small businesses. My town has seen hard times before, such as the collapse of rail manufacturing 30 years ago, but due to the resilience of people in Swindon, it has recovered, attracted new businesses and emerged stronger. I have absolutely no doubt that, with the Government’s support, it will do the same in future. It has the location and the motivated work force, but we need to keep our work force at a skills level that will compete with anywhere in Europe and the world. That is why Government commitment and, better still, Government action on training have been so important to us in the past few months.

To that end, as a constituency MP I am working with the regional development agency to ensure that Honda, for example, gets the investment in skills that it needs to be sustainable in future. As deputy to the regional Minister, I have a responsibility for and interest in all businesses in the south-west. I was delighted by the RDA’s response and by the fact that it is leading the region’s response by helping businesses and their work force through the recession and by sustaining the economy in preparation for a return to growth. In Swindon, we have had a great deal of help from Steve Richards, the head of business development at the RDA, and Tony Bray, its area director. I pay tribute to them and their colleagues for their good work.

The RDA is working from the grass roots to the strategic level. I am sorry to say that Opposition Members have pledged to get rid of it, because they do not particularly want such regional support. Without it, there would be no co-ordination, no training packages and no one to work with Swindon’s businesses. The RDA ensures that information is shared between agencies on, for example, skills shortages. That means that action on the ground is informed by current developments. It avoids duplication and maximises the effective use of scarce resources. Direct support has been given by investing an additional £450,000 in “Learning Works for All”, which the south-west TUC runs. It promotes training in businesses.

Last year, I visited the trade union centre at New college in Swindon to talk to regional manager Helen Cole about unionlearn’s work. I was told about U-Net, the recently launched network of learning centres across the south-west, and I met people who have benefited from learning at work. It is a great example of what happens when unions, employers and further education work together. Representatives have worked hard to place learning on employers’ agendas and I applaud their work, which is even more important during a recession.

The RDA also provides direct support by extending the “graduates in business” scheme, which places graduates with local businesses beyond the original 2008 deadline, at a cost of £1.5 million.

We are getting support for the region’s strategic companies through a dedicated case officer, who can act as a broker for a company in dealing with the relevant public sector agencies, gathering information and championing issues that the business raises. That is important and our local businesses have asked for it. They do not have time to make all those contacts and it is vital that we have an organisation such as the RDA to do it for them.

3 Feb 2009 : Column 747

Through management of the regional Business Link franchise, the RDA has supported a stronger focus on helping employers access a range of skills services and advice, including Train to Gain and the leadership and management training programme. In contrast, the Conservative party would abolish the Train to Gain workplace training programme. In tough economic times, people need more, not fewer opportunities to train. Why would Conservatives phase out the contribution to the apprenticeship programme?

In my office, I employ an apprentice, Jennylee, who is studying for an NVQ in administration. She does four days a week in my office and one day a week in college. It is a good thing for other hon. Members to get involved in. Jennylee is a great asset to our office, and would be to any apprenticeship scheme. Some members of my family who did not go on to higher education trained as apprentices. My cousin Barrie, who is still with the same company that he joined as an apprentice some 25 years ago, is a shining example of how someone can become an apprentice at an early age and work through the ranks to a responsible and highly paid job. I commend the Government for bringing back apprentices. During Barrie’s time as an apprentice in the 1980s, apprenticeships were cut by the Thatcher Government.

The Government are providing real help for people to get and keep jobs. No one who is worried about losing a job will be left without support. Such support will be available for everyone who is at risk or who has recently lost a job, not only the long-term unemployed. Colleges and other training providers are being asked to bid for funds and that means that people can get the help they need without having to go to the jobcentre.

My constituents have benefited enormously from the funding that the Labour Government have given to rebuild colleges locally. Recently, New college completed a £4.08 million project for classroom extensions and refurbishment, of which £1.02 million came from the Learning and Skills Council. Before that, the college had another project for classrooms and a sports hall. Projects are under way and being completed—I am sure that recent delays will soon be sorted out.

Swindon college is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) and I understand that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is due to visit it next week. It has had a £15.5 million project to rebuild the college on the North Star site. I hope that my hon. Friend will see how successful it has been and the good work that the college does in the vocational sector.

Further education in Swindon has done well under Labour. By 1997, the Conservatives had let further education go to rack and ruin. I was in education for many years and I saw it happen. There was simply no capital spend on FE. Any complaints from the Tories—we heard some today—are therefore simply opportunistic.

The priority remains securing the survival of viable businesses and retaining jobs, but it is also important to plan for the upturn and help businesses such as Honda and its supply chain ensure that they are fit for the future. There are several challenges: ensuring that there is a viable supply chain; supporting the development of the next generation of products; and—most essentially—supporting the retention of a skilled and motivated
3 Feb 2009 : Column 748
work force who are well placed to respond to increased demand. The Government are up for that. They are providing the support, and I hope that hon. Members of all parties will back the Government’s work on such important matters.

6.15 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I have been disappointed in the debate. It is important, but I have heard too much party political point scoring and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) said, too much about fabric and structure and too little about the quality of provision. The latter is what genuinely counts. I have heard little from a business perspective, or from the perspective of those who need retraining and reskilling—and a basic form of education to allow them to go on to be retrained and reskilled.

I want to present a point of view from the business sector. I tell Government Front Benchers that many people are deeply concerned about the quality of basic education in our schools. It is no good talking about reskilling and upskilling unless we also discuss basic primary and secondary education. We are not getting the quality of people that we need to compete in the modern world. Unless the Government recognise that, we could fail to meet the objectives that we all support. I want some answers, and I want the Government to express some concern about the matter.

Let me say a little about Leitch. He said that 5 million people in Britain have been classified as functionally illiterate and that 17 million are known to have problems with basic numeracy. More than one third of British adults do not have basic school-leaving qualifications—double the proportion in Germany and Canada. Twenty-eight per cent. of British workers are qualified to apprentice, skill, craft and technician level, compared with 51 per cent. in France and 65 per cent. in Germany. We have a genuine skills problem. To deny it would be foolish, but I am not sure that the genuine concern that I would expect to emanate from the Government, especially in a difficult time, exists.

The Confederation of British Industry said that more than half British firms are concerned that they cannot find enough skilled staff to meet their future recruitment needs. If that is the case, we will fail to meet the global challenge. We will get out of recession in three or four years, and we need to be ready so that we can benefit from the green shoots that will emerge. I am fearful—so is British industry—that we will not have the skills to do that.

Dr. Pugh: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that British industry has not been an unparalleled success in training workers?

Mr. Binley: I was about to deal with that point, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has prompted me. In a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce, more than 80 per cent. of British companies spend £100 or more per employee and 50 per cent. spend £250 or more per employee on training. More than 75 per cent. spend time identifying staff training needs, and more than 60 per cent. evaluate the effectiveness of the training for which they pay. Only 3.8 per cent. said that training was not a priority. British business and commerce are interested
3 Feb 2009 : Column 749
in training and they could not run their companies unless they were. It is foolish to claim otherwise, and it is about time that we knocked the myth on the head.

Dr. Pugh: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Binley: I would rather not, because time is limited and other hon. Members want to speak.

British business is ready, willing and able to receive help with training and it wants to be involved. The problem is that all too often we do not talk to British business about training. We do not do outreach work; nor do we take training packages into the workplace in anywhere near the numbers needed. We do not get British business men on our skills councils in the way that we need to. It is a difficult task, but we do not make the effort to get out there and talk to business—I can tell that to hon. Members as a business man myself. Indeed, I am told by businesses the length and breadth of the country that that is the fact of the matter.

The trouble is that skills training is seen as an extension of education. Education likes to keep its skills and expertise to itself, but it needs to get out there and invite business into areas of educational activity, so that its point of view and good ideas can be put forward and so that they can help in this particularly important project. We need to reach out to business and involve it. We need to take training packages into the workplace and make them bespoke.

Let me tell the Government Members here that of the 17 members of the skills council in my area, only four had a business background and—are Government Members listening?—that most of those were politicos. There was barely one business man on the skills council in his own right. That may be a fault of business. However, from the information that I have, I believe that the fault lies very much with those who run the skills councils, for not reaching out effectively—and by golly, if there was ever a need to do so, it is in this area.

My second point is about those areas where we have failed to achieve the levels of quality that we need in this country if business, commerce and technology are to thrive and meet the global challenge that we are all so concerned about. I talk, of course, of our failure in applied sciences and technology, and similar areas of training. I do not need to tell the Government that the proportion of first degrees taken in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—is 25 per cent. of the total. In China, the figure is 50 per cent. of the total. Indeed, many other advanced economies reach that sort of level. We have failed abysmally to ensure that we train the scientists, technicians and technologists whom we will need to face the global challenge that we keep talking about, and which I am particularly concerned about.

Next Section Index Home Page