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5 May 2009 : Column 30WH—continued

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I want shortly to pick up on his points about people returning to employment or finding alternative employment later in their careers. However, on his point
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about our energy needs for the future, we will have to disagree about nuclear, although I am glad that we agree on the need for green energy. However, the choice in terms of how we make up the gap between a carbon-reduced economy and a green economy is really between nuclear and carbon capture and storage, both of which should be temporary fixes to enable us to reach our demanding 2020 targets, on which there is now broad consensus.

Part of the £12 billion for the cut in VAT could also have been spent on construction and particularly on supporting the further education college capital programme. One of the last Westminster Hall debates in which I spoke was about that programme, and it was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who highlighted the case of King George V college in Southport, which is in the historic county of Lancashire.

I turn now to the subject of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He said that many of the people whom we need to reskill and to acquire high-level skills are already in the work force. That is one of the points made in the oft-quoted Leitch report from 2007, which said that roughly 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force have already left compulsory education. If we are to meet the report’s targets—we can have a debate about whether they are set at the right level or whether targets are the right way forward—and upskill our working population, we need a much more flexible approach to our learning models and to the financial help given to learners on their journey. One policy difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Government—the hon. Gentleman may have some sympathy with us on this—is over the support given to part-time learners. Many adults who will get access later in life to higher education, in particular, will do so part-time. At the moment, the financial regime does not make that easy.

The Government’s response to the recession that is the context of the debate needs to be more flexible, and to adapt to the way in which people now choose to work and learn. We need seriously to consider a new economic model. Now is not the time to engage in a philosophical debate about everything that may have gone wrong in the past couple of decades with the working of capitalism, but there is an important role for social enterprise in particular in our future economic model. I have been pleased recently to support many social enterprises in my constituency. Many of the historical origins of social enterprise are in the north-west of England, and particularly with the co-operative movement, with its origins in Rochdale.

Whatever our approach may be to the future, I think that everyone agrees that we are in an economic emergency and we need an urgent response from the Government. We certainly need an apology from them for their role in getting us into this mess.

11.51 am

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate today. I am conscious that the Minister has many questions from hon. Members to answer, so I shall keep my remarks reasonably brief.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on initiating this debate on opportunities, the need for skills, and the strategy for economic recovery in Lancashire. I listened with interest to his points, which were very constructive, as always in his debates. I agreed with some, and, as he will understand, disagreed with others. Speaking of anniversaries, I believe that the 30th anniversary of the election of Margaret Thatcher is to be remembered and celebrated, as she replaced a failed, bankrupt and incompetent Labour Government. Some things do not change, do they? We are 30 years on with a similar Government.

Education, training and upskilling have never been more important than they are today in our difficult economic times. As we have seen recently, unemployment is rising quickly and it is therefore incumbent on the Government to provide those who are losing their jobs with opportunities to learn new skills or retrain during the recession. Britain’s ability to come out of recession will depend on the strength of its skills base. With skilled workers, businesses are better able to adapt to changing market conditions and to innovate to identify new opportunities. Similarly, skilled individuals are better able to cope with economic turbulence.

Regrettably, we start, in this country, from a weak skills base. We hear bandied around quite a lot the figures about 5 million people who are classed as functionally illiterate, and millions more who struggle with basic numeracy. One third of British adults do not have a basic school-leaving qualification. That is disgraceful and is double the proportion in Germany and Canada, with just 28 per cent. of British workers qualified to apprentice, skilled craft and technician level against 51 per cent. in France and 65 per cent. in Germany. We are also concerned about the number of young people leaving school unable to read and write to the expected standard. We want to help those who have lost their jobs, those who need new skills, and those who are in work to upskill to keep up with the changing world.

I have listened with interest to the accounts of the situation in Lancashire by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and the hon. Member for Blackpool, South and I see that some good points are emerging, but there are still concerns, and unemployment must of course be among those. I understand that unemployment in Lancashire has risen dramatically in the past 12 months. Clearly, more needs to be done to help Lancashire residents back into work. We have just experienced another Labour Budget and we are all aware that we live in an age of considerable anxiety. Money will be tight, and it is essential that it should be spent effectively and wisely. Regrettably, I do not share the hon. Members’ enthusiasm for the Budget. Given the things that they highlighted about it, it was obviously different from the one that the Opposition listened to. Money has been wasted and badly spent by the Government in the past few years.

We need the Budget to build confidence, within our economy, work force and businesses. That is what any Government should provide in a recession; they should make people feel more confident about future prospects and about the country’s ability to get through the huge problems we face. With 11,000 people becoming unemployed in the north-west in the past month, that confidence boost is urgently needed. Regrettably, the Chancellor of the Exchequer failed to deliver. He did
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not use the Budget to take action on Labour’s debt crisis, built up over the years. That is so dramatic and regrettable: we have the worst public finances ever recorded in the UK, and the national debt will, under Labour, soon be doubled. Perhaps the most shocking statistic of all will be the racking up of more borrowing in the next two years than was done by all previous Governments in British history, combined.

That will have a bad effect on Lancashire, as it will on the rest of the country. As a result, every child born in Lancashire will have £22,500 of Government debt hanging over them. Simply paying the interest on the unprecedented national debt will cost more than the entire schools budget. The Budget is clobbering hard-working families and businesses in Lancashire and across Britain with new tax rises: a £1,000 new tax rise for every family, including tax hikes for responsible drinkers and motorists.

Labour’s tax rises for jobs and average earners are wrong. The Budget should have been set out with a different approach for a different purpose: to restrain spending, of course, but starting with waste. We would of course have looked at areas where waste could be abolished and cuts could be made in wastage and bureaucracy. We believe in helping families and savers. Helping savers—this has not come out in the speeches so far—is hopefully one way of developing an economic recovery.

We would also have introduced grants for 25,000 masters students in science and engineering, and created new training and apprenticeship opportunities in Britain. We would have unleashed more than £30 billion of private sector investment in green technology companies, to create jobs. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South raised the issue of green technology, and it is important that we should be innovative, and should look forward; however, we really need an economic recovery, and we all need to work hard together to get it.

Skills training, and the Government’s financing of it, has been a matter of mixed blessings. There have been areas of considerable failure. The Learning and Skills Council budget has increased to £10.9 billion, but there are fewer people around the country enrolling on further education courses. I am not sure what the figures are for enrolments in Lancashire, but overall they are lower than when Labour came to power. They are down almost 7 per cent. from 2006 and 17 per cent. from 2005. There is a worry about people getting into colleges to train for skills and qualifications. Adult and community courses have also been hit. They are an important route into training for many people who have been out of the labour market for some time. Yet there are 1.4 million fewer publicly funded places than there were in 2005.

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

We know that the LSC has been part of the problem, and the Government are attempting to deal with that in legislation. We are not so keen on their proposed solutions to the problems that the LSC has. It has already been through two major reorganisations, and the cost of reorganisation is always a worry. The money is not then spent on what should be its purpose: training and upskilling. The Higher Education Funding Council for England employs far fewer staff and distributes £7.5 billion annually; it is an efficient organisation doing a good job.

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Training, opportunities, funding and further education should be more available, because that is the way forward. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), have outlined measures that a Conservative Government would take to help people to retrain and upskill during this difficult time. That would be for the whole country, but obviously Lancashire would be a vital part of that.

Mr. Marsden: There are obviously ideological points of difference between the Front Benches on such matters, and the hon. Gentleman has been drawing some of them to our attention. Does he not agree that the thrust of what has been said thus far is that regions or sub-regions need an overall strategy to take these things forward? As I understand it, the Conservative party’s policy of abolishing regional development agencies will hinder rather than assist that process.

Mr. Evennett: The answer must be based on how successful RDAs have been. In certain regions they are causing great problems because they have not achieved what is needed. Indeed, the Government’s failures in training, retraining and upskilling are reflected in the position that we find ourselves in today. Some matters need to be debated further, but bureaucracy alone will not achieve the economic recovery that we want.

It is vital that we give further education colleges more freedom from bureaucratic intervention, that we streamline the funding body, and that we allow colleges to offer qualifications and courses that they feel are best for their communities. We also need to remove top-down bureaucracy from FE colleges by moving towards greater self-regulation, as has happened in higher education. That will enable us to reduce the vast number of bodies that now play a part in the monitoring and regulating of FE. We will ensure quality control in our expanded FE sector by allowing the sector skills councils to accredit courses, providing £35 million additional annual funding to enable them to do so.

The Government should refocus the Train to Gain budget away from providing certificates for dead-weight courses. Instead, the money should be given to further education colleges, which are more responsive to the needs of local people and local businesses. The hon. Members for West Lancashire and for Blackpool, South said how important it was for the local business community to have the trained work force that it needs, and that both their speeches suggested it does not currently have.

We need to make a major investment in the adult community learning fund; as I said, £100 million for much-needed courses will help people to update their skills or to gain new ones. When the Conservative party comes into government, we will also make available a £100 million NEETs fund, targeting special help for the many young people who leave school only to find themselves with no education, employment or training. That is a disaster for the individuals concerned, a disaster for the economy, and a disaster for our nation. The number of NEETs is unacceptably high, and action is needed to deal with that growing problem.

We will ensure that adult community learning support and the NEETs fund will be made available for local further education colleges, so that they can take their
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place once again at the heart of community life. I understand the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South about FE and HE working closely together in a progression. We passionately believe in that, but we also believe that FE colleges are central to community redevelopment, through economic initiatives and retraining.

With such measures in place, I believe that Britain’s skills base will be strengthened. That will improve the country’s ability to tackle future economic difficulties, rebalance our economy and transform people’s lives. That, of course, would help Lancashire and the rest of the country. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South and everyone else could look positively towards improving opportunities for all.

I believe that we need a new Government to put forward such an agenda with dynamism and commitment. The present Government is fading and failing. I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, but he is pushing at the wrong door.

12.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): It is a great pleasure, Mr. Wilshire, to serve under your chairmanship today, as it was to serve under Mr. Gale’s for the first part of the debate.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Mr. Gale did most of the work.

Mr. Simon: It occurs to me that Mr. Gale may have been our Job; but you shall be our Solomon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on securing this debate and on his speech, which was typically considered, thoughtful and erudite. He has great knowledge and experience in the matter, and speaks with real authority. The general tone of the debate has been thoughtful, considered and constructive. It avoided the yah-booism to which we sometime sink. The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), when speaking from the Front Bench, may be obliged to indulge in a little more of that, but he too made some interesting points; if I have time, I shall deal with them later.

It seems obligatory at this point to make a remark about the Thatcher anniversary. I say merely that it could hardly be a more timely reminder.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South shares the Government’s view that skills initiatives can and must play a central role in helping to bring Britain safely through the global economic downturn, creating new jobs for the future. He has said as much in the House on many occasions, and also as a member of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills. The Government have pledged to do everything in their power to bring Britain out of the recession as soon and as strongly as possible. In responding to the debate, I want to mention some of the ways in which we are delivering on that pledge, both nationally and in Lancashire.

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The key principles of the Government’s approach are clear and, I believe, uncontroversial. First, we must encourage firms to carry on investing in the skills of their work force even though they may be under considerable and even increasing pressure. We should also continue to persuade the one third of businesses that do not train their staff to begin doing so. In its open letter of last winter, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills pointed out that companies that do not train their staff are two and a half times more likely to fail than those that do. That fact has, if anything, become still more pertinent in the months since the letter was published.

I know that this territory is just as familiar to my hon. Friend as it is to me, if not more so, and that he recognises, as I do, the combined impact of initiatives such as the skills pledge, the streamlining and flexing of the Train to Gain service to employers, and the rising numbers of public and private sector employers taking on apprentices. There is an obvious link, with skills helping people to find and keep jobs and helping businesses to succeed.

The figures tell their own story. In less than two years, 14,460 employers have signed the skills pledge, covering more than 6 million workers. Since the launch in April 2006, more than 127,000 employers have engaged with Train to Gain, with the aim of improving the skills of their work force. The latest evaluations tell us that employers are satisfied, and that Train to Gain is having a beneficial impact on their business and their staff productivity. The number of apprentices has grown, from 65,000 12 years ago to about 250,000.

These are all things that have been discussed many times before in the House and in Select Committee, but we should make no apology for that. Even in really tough economic circumstances, the initiatives are making a tangible change in the country’s attitude to skills and the employers’ role.

The second key principle is that we should respond vigorously to the fact that, when redundancies loom, the better a person’s skills, the more likely they are to keep their job or get another. Train to Gain has supported more than 971,000 people in beginning to learn. More than 461,000 learners have achieved a qualification; more than 359,500 learners have achieved a full level 2 qualification; and more than 32,000 learners have full level 3 achievements. As many as 89 per cent. of new learners said that their training gave them skills that would help them with current and future jobs; 34 per cent. of learners completing a Train to Gain course reported getting a promotion; and 45 per cent. of new learners reported receiving a pay rise. That is good news for people who are in work, but we are also providing special support for those thousands of workers who have been made redundant or who are at risk of redundancy—those mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and for Blackpool, South.

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