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5 May 2009 : Column 24WH—continued

That means that we must think dynamically about Train to Gain mechanisms and new initiatives such as the skills accounts, as the Select Committee said. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member
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for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), the shadow spokesman on education, were at the useful meeting of the all-party National Skills Forum when we discussed some of the suggestions from City and Guilds.

Higher education portability is key to delivery. We must build on the recommendations in the Burgess report, and we must do so faster and more smartly. The Higher Education Funding Council made a useful contribution via the lifelong learning networks, but it must boost its regional presence in the north-west. I have recently returned from a visit with the Select Committee to the Washington region to study the role of community colleges, skills outreach, and development in higher education, and clearly we can do much in that respect.

The north-west is well placed. We have an active North West Universities Association under a vigorous executive director, Keith Burnley. We do not have the same divide or educational apartheid between Russell group and non-Russell group universities. In my neck of the woods we have two leading vice-chancellor contributors to the debate in Paul Wellings at Lancaster university and Malcolm McVicar, both of whom have made their mark in intellectual capital and public sector training. My college, Blackpool and The Fylde, is an associate college of Lancaster university and has made a major contribution.

If we are to ensure a critical mass of higher education delivery where little existed previously, it is important that the investment already going into Lancashire, including Blackpool and The Fylde’s higher education centre and the higher education hubs in Blackburn and Burnley, is sustained. It is also important that we use the experience of those with proven success in the area, such as the Open university. We should also recognise the role of union learning reps—union learning has been very successful in the north-west in getting older workers to reskill and to upskill—especially if we give them new roles in the environmental agenda, build on new rights to request training, and pass on some of that expertise to SME groups.

FE colleges are strongly engaged with initiatives to get workless and unemployed people back to work, and I make no apology for citing my local FE college, Blackpool and The Fylde college, as an excellent example of carrying forward those initiatives to support the workless and unemployed back into work. I am sure that the Minister would not forgive me if I did not take this opportunity to say that work underlines the importance of the college’s bid for a site in central Blackpool under the new capital funding programme.

The initiatives to get the workless and unemployed back into work include the creation of the Fylde coast partnership; £450,000 of funding from the Lancashire economic partnership to address employability and getting people back into work; £1.2 million of Train to Gain money, which was spent on helping people to gain level 2 or Skills for Life qualifications; and national vocational qualifications in the work force, on which £468,000 was spent in 2008-09. In the past 12 months, Blackpool and The Fylde college put 900 people through Skills for Life and employability skills programmes, and under the Government’s local enterprise and growth initiative programme, the successful build-up initiative matches the skills of redundant or unemployed construction workers with public sector projects in the area.

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The colleges responded to the need for bespoke provision for programmes that do not attract Government funding, and have put a lot of effort into creating multi-agency partnerships. A good example is their work with Global Renewables at ICI’s former Hillhouse works where, in partnership with Wyre council, Jobcentre Plus and other agencies, they are helping to recruit and train 180 new, locally sourced staff to operate a new, state-of-the-art treatment plant.

In all those areas there is a strong fit and connection between the activities of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and the Department for Work and Pensions. I draw the Minister’s attention to an issue that Blackpool and The Fylde college has flagged up. There is not yet full integration between programmes provided by Jobcentre Plus and those available to the unwaged through the Learning and Skills Council’s adult responsiveness funding. The rules on jobseeker’s allowance favour people on programmes that last 13 weeks, which do not usually lead to a qualification. In contrast, FE provision usually leads to a qualification, is not time-limited, and is free to the unemployed. However, during a recession, when fast re-entry to the labour market may be difficult, an attractive choice for any individual would be to embark on a programme of training to levels 2, 3 and 4, but that would take longer than 13 weeks and would be impossible because they would be called in by Jobcentre Plus and compelled to attend a 13-week programme.

The head of my college, Pauline Waterhouse, said:

Therein lies an important lesson, not just for Lancashire but for areas throughout the country. There needs to be—I know that this is developing—strong co-ordination between the DWP and DIUS in the way in which they tackle the economic downturn, as we stressed in our Select Committee report. The DWP may need to operate far more on a sub-regional basis, particularly if it is to address the agenda of worklessness hotspots effectively.

The same message of co-operation has to be carried through for the resilience of regional and sub-regional economies, such as Lancashire. It is about practical politics, as I said on Second Reading of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, whose remaining stages we shall consider later today. However, it is also about applying smart research, human capital and aspirations. Those pragmatic qualities have stood us in good stead in previous downturns in the north-west and in Lancashire, despite the rather negative reaction of the Government whose access to power 30 years ago we celebrate, if that is the word, today. We have those pragmatic qualities in abundance in the north-west, across Lancashire and, of course, in Blackpool.

This debate is about the focused support of Government and the energetic activity of local regeneration agencies such as our own, ReBlackpool, under its executive, Doug Garrett, co-operating with the council and the Northwest Development Agency. I pay tribute to the agency. Whatever people’s views about the role of regional development agencies, it is widely recognised as having been one of the most focused and effective agencies in respect of regeneration and skills creation under Steve Broomhead, its chief executive. Given what I have described,
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I believe that the blue-sky and, if I can use the expression, green-sky thinking that can come out of this period can deliver positive prospects in Lancashire, even in times as challenging as these.

11.31 am

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing the debate, which is vital to the people and businesses of Lancashire and my constituency of West Lancashire. I would like to add just a few comments. I believe that the Government were right in their decision and strategy to offer real help to businesses and families at this time. A “do nothing” approach is not an option, as we have seen in the past. There are communities that still feel the effects of those past failures, including in my constituency. However, it is a difficult balancing act that the Government have to pull off. There needs to be real help now, but measures also need to be put in place that will ensure that the British economy and local economies such as that of Lancashire are well placed as we move out of the economic downturn.

I recently held a round-table discussion with business leaders in my constituency and was delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. It was an opportunity to debate the issues and challenges facing local businesses in the current economic climate. The clear message from those businesses was that they wanted targeted help and support specific to their industry to get them through this period. If we can provide that, they can be optimistic about the future.

However, economic challenges in different parts of the country vary and require a different set of solutions. For that reason, this debate focusing on Lancashire is very important. I shall give a couple of examples that highlight the types of help and support that local businesses say they need. One company at the recent round-table discussion expressed a desire to expand its operation from its current 20 staff to 40. It wanted to offer job opportunities for local people. It wanted to invest in training and skills through apprenticeships. It sought the help of the local authority and wanted to discuss plans for expansion and job creation, as well as using empty business units, but it reported a lack of engagement on the part of the local authority.

Companies that are part of the automotive industry supply chain have found themselves making people redundant. We hope that that will be only for a period of four or five months, until the larger manufacturers start to increase production again and are ordering parts from those supply companies. However, the companies are concerned that the men whom they have let go will find employment in different spheres. The companies would then lose the skills and experience of those men, which they would prefer not to happen. They need support that will help them to retain those workers. That is not only desirable but necessary. They argue for a scheme that provides training initiatives on site for a short defined period. That benefits the workers and companies by offering stability and ensuring that the pool of skills and experience is retained.

Another prime example, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South referred, is the construction industry. We are well aware of the state of that industry.
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However, there will be a time—very soon, we hope—when construction skills are in huge demand again. We cannot allow a skills drain to happen. That would only further damage the industry.

West Lancashire construction academy, which opened in 2007, is a learning centre that supports skills development for the construction industry. It offers industry-standard facilities for new learners and provides upskilling opportunities for those already working in the construction industry. Vocational centres such as that will play a vital role in preparing youngsters and in providing the retraining that the industry will require when circumstances improve and there is once more a requirement to build homes, schools and hospitals.

There will also be a £41 million investment in a new build Skelmersdale college, although that is caught up in the current review. I hope that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has said, the review will be needs-based and that therefore the scheme will go ahead quickly. That needs to happen for two reasons. The first is to encourage students to increase their skills and learning in state-of-the-art facilities, rather than in, I am sad to say, the near-derelict current premises that Skem college has. We need to say to the talented young people of West Lancashire, “You are valued and we want you to stay here and learn, and thereafter reinvest your skills in your community.” Secondly, the investment is needed as a cornerstone of the redevelopment of Skelmersdale town centre.

As I said at the beginning, I believe that there are two strategic priorities: first, to provide short-term help and support to enable businesses to continue operating through the current circumstances, and secondly to allow businesses to expand and grow, maximising the opportunities that will exist post-downturn. The investment that I have outlined is essential. Investing in skills and the work force is also essential. However, it does not fill me with confidence when the West Lancashire area appears to be, once again, not included in a discussion about Lancashire generally. That, I fear, is not a simple omission. I am rather tired of the agendas of the main towns of Liverpool, Manchester and Preston being the only discussion in town. It is very sad that when Lancashire is divided into three skills areas, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South, West Lancashire is omitted.

I seek an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the various areas of my West Lancashire constituency—right across Ormskirk, Burscough, Skelmersdale, Up Holland and Parbold—are high on his agenda. I would be grateful if he could both respond to me today and write to me thereafter, as I am sure that my constituents will be very concerned about these matters. It is vital that West Lancashire is high on the Government’s agenda. We need skills and resources, and we need to say to the people there, “You’re valued and we need you as well as the people in the large towns of Liverpool, Manchester and Preston.” It is simply not acceptable not to include semi-rural areas such as my constituency. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments.

11.39 am

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing the debate and speaking with great knowledge
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about both his constituency and the wider region. This is the fourth anniversary of the 2005 general election. He mentioned the 30th anniversary—not such a happy anniversary—of the 1979 general election. For me, today is a happy anniversary—the fourth anniversary of my gaining Bristol, West for the Liberal Democrats. In 2005, my first party conference as a Member of Parliament—as an MP, one’s experience as a conference goer changes completely from what it was before—was in Blackpool, and I greatly enjoyed my four or five days in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the structural change that has taken place in the regional economy. He is a historian, so he will know of the great contribution that Lancashire and the north-west made to this country’s becoming the world’s first industrial nation. However, there has been a structural change in the industries and services from which people derive their employment.

The hon. Gentleman hinted at the fact that the role of economic powerhouse has perhaps also undergone a geographical shift, moving from the county of Lancashire and to the Greater Manchester city region. We have seen the development of the knowledge economy in the city of Manchester, with the merger of the Victoria university of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. The forthcoming BBC media village at Salford will also contribute to the growth of that new economy.

Half the region’s value added comes from Greater Manchester, but the hon. Gentleman rightly focused on the economic needs of what he called the second-tier towns in other parts of Lancashire. I hope that that would include the area represented by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), although I do not want to intrude on the regional rivalry between Lancastrian Members of Parliament.

Like all other regions around the country, Lancashire is being challenged by the recession, and the hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the skills that will be needed to ensure that his region emerges stronger from that recession. In particular, he mentioned the skills needs of the aerospace industry, and I empathise with what he said because the south-west, which I represent, is also a world centre for that industry, and its skills needs are very similar. In particular, there is a worrying shortage of people going into engineering at the technical and graduate levels.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned several of the things that play an important role in ensuring that more people go into engineering, such as information, advice and guidance. The issue may well come up again this afternoon, when we debate the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill on Report, and the Minister will know that it was a hot topic in the Committee that considered the Bill. It is important that young people are encouraged to go into STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—at school and to pursue them at college and university. If they do not, the country will not have the technical and graduate engineers that it needs.

Good information, advice and guidance should also encourage more young people to go into apprenticeships. Far too often, the advice given to young people is skewed towards the vested interests of the setting in which they receive their education, such as their school, and it does not necessarily encourage them to look at
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other opportunities, such as taking up an apprenticeship and forming a relationship, probably, with a further education college.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned gender gaps in skills, and that is particularly relevant to engineering, because fewer than 5 per cent. of those who take up engineering apprenticeships are women. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the report on the gender skills gap by the all-party group on skills, and I was pleased to make a contribution to that report.

Engineering skills are not only needed by the aerospace industry, but are essential if we are to meet our 2020 targets for green energy. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the nuclear academy in his area, but my party does not feel that nuclear is part of making Britain carbon-neutral later in this century. We need to develop green technologies, and the hon. Gentleman mentioned green-collar jobs, to use a phrase that we have taken from the other side of the Atlantic in the past few months. However, we will not be able to build wind farms and harness the wind, wave and tidal power of the west coast, which the hon. Gentleman represents, unless we have the skilled engineers to build and service the dynamos and, indeed, the more highly skilled engineers to design them in the first place.

There are, of course, many national pressures on the north-west, and we are having this debate in the context of a terrible downturn in the economy. The hon. Gentleman referred several times to young people’s skills needs, and I for one would be fearful of entering the current labour market on graduation or on leaving school. So far, however, the Government’s response has been inadequate. The youth guarantee in the Budget offers currently unspecified training opportunities for young people, but only if they have already been unemployed for 12 months—it is obviously a relief that can come into force only after the next election.

The Government’s main fiscal response to the recession is £12 billion of borrowed money to fund a cut in VAT, but the Liberal Democrats believe that that money would be much better used for localised capital projects. The region’s capital needs were mentioned by both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady, who also talked about the construction industry and the construction academy in her constituency. Local rail schemes in my region and, I dare say, in the north-west would benefit if we used that borrowed money for capital expenditure now rather than frittering it away on small price increases.

Mr. Marsden: The hon. Gentleman and I will probably not agree on the nuclear issue, and I believe that we need both green energy and nuclear energy to meet the Government’s requirements. Although I think that we agree on the importance of young people, does he agree that we also need to look at the needs of older people—those in their 40s and 50s—as I said in my speech? The skills base in tourism and related activities is key to keeping Blackpool’s tourism going, but there is enormous scope for people coming from other jobs in their 40s and 50s to reskill and retrain in service industries such as leisure and hospitality. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to do more on that?

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