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The new adult advancement and careers service, announced last year, will bring together advice on employment and on the skills needed to get into work or to get on in work. In addition, a new package of support, worth £108 million, is now available to those who are under notice of redundancy or who have become unemployed. It will help 40,000 people over two years to improve their employability skills, with
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personalised support lasting between two and eight weeks; it will help people to increase their skills and to re-enter the job market. We are making £83 million available for 75,000 new work-focused training opportunities for those reaching six months of unemployment, to help them significantly increase their skills so that they can enter work. The training will be relevant to the local jobs market and will allow people to progress. Individuals will be able to continue training through Train to Gain with their new employer once they get back into work.

The third feature of our approach is to recognise that the recession will not last for ever and that what we do now will help to determine how well we emerge from it. We must ensure that we have the skills required to seize the opportunities of a new global economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South has said on many occasions, the Government have a vital role to play in enabling us to do that. Through public policies on taxation, regulation and expenditure, infrastructure, procurement and innovation, we can set the agenda. In short, we must help to ensure that we meet current and future skills needs.

We are ensuring that we have the analytical and practical means to collect, process and deploy intelligence quickly and effectively, so that we can develop the skills that we need in order to succeed. We know broadly where the UK’s future strengths need to lie: in, as hon. Members have said, high value-added, knowledge-intensive areas where the combination of a skilled work force, innovative companies and a research base that is excellent by international standards have maximum effect. I am talking about low-carbon, green technologies and high value-added manufacturing and engineering.

My hon. Friend also reminded us that there must also be a strong local and regional dimension to the Government’s efforts, and he is right to note that that dimension will not be helped by the official Opposition’s policy of scrapping regional development agencies. The precise needs of one region differ from another. In my own region—the west midlands—we depend heavily on manufacturing industries, which have been especially badly hit by the global downturn. Manufacturing also provides many of the jobs in the north-west, where firms are under the same sorts of pressures. At the last count, more than 250,000 people were unemployed in that region—almost 8 per cent. of the working-age population. The same is true at county level. Since 1 August last year, the Lancashire office of the Learning and Skills Council has been made aware of 82 companies making staff redundant. The majority of the companies involved employed at least 20 people. I know that my hon. Friend understands the part that the learning and skills system plays in responding to such circumstances.

Redundancy response groups have been set up in some parts of Lancashire, such as Blackburn, Chorley and South Ribble, with a further group planned for Preston. I sympathise with the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire that her constituency not be left out, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South had no intention of slighting her constituency or sub-region. I often feel that my own constituency, as an outer-city constituency, is squeezed between, on the one hand, the particular needs and glamorous clamour of the city centre and, on the other, the rich, suburban neighbourhoods. I know how sensitive those issues can be, but I assure her that
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the Government have no sense that West Lancashire, just because it might sometimes be squeezed by Liverpool, Manchester and Preston, is anything other than of equal importance. However, I would be happy to write to her about that in more detail.

As well as those redundancy response groups, ad hoc groups have been formed to address the needs of particular companies and their employees. Their members include the LSC, Jobcentre Plus, the Northwest Regional Development Agency, local authorities, training providers, enterprise agencies and further education colleges. For example, at the request of the employer, a group has been put in place to address the ongoing redundancies at Leyland Trucks. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire mentioned the car industry, to which I, as a Member with a constituency interest in that industry, am very sympathetic. Flexible and responsive work is being undertaken in Lancashire, and across the country, to respond to the particular needs of industries such as automotive manufacturing, and the group put in place to help with Leyland Trucks has been able to identify and address some of the needs of the more than 400 people who have lost their jobs already and the 70 currently under statutory notice.

Further education providers have been keen to support staff at the plant. Notable among these is Preston college, which is delivering courses in performing manufacturing operations, handling materials and elements of business improvement techniques on site. Increasingly, first-class providers will deliver flexible courses at the time needed in the place needed. The old model where a person turns up to college at 10 minutes to 9 on a Monday morning is increasingly the old model.

Mr. Marsden: I agree entirely with what the Minister is saying about the work-based delivery of learning—the statistics that I quoted underline this point. However, does he agree that it is important that further education colleges find places in the local community—I pay tribute to my own FE college, which has done this—particularly for women with work-life balance issues, so that people can access courses and training as close as possible to their homes? That way, they will not necessarily have to travel to an FE college, which might, even if only two or three miles away, pose difficulties, given the work-life juggling that some people have to do.

Mr. Simon: My hon. Friend is right. Increasingly, the best FE colleges recognise that provision needs to be delivered where it is needed and can be accessed, and they are finding ways of doing that. However, developments in the structure and funding of FE colleges will help them to find ways of doing that on a smaller scale. In the past, FE colleges would provide courses in workplaces, or other such small locations, only if the number of learners was relatively large. It was often impractical, therefore, to offer such courses. However, that, too, is changing. Good colleges are providing courses on a much smaller scale; sometimes they are almost, but not quite, on a personal level. By the same token, as well as providing learning in workplaces and the community, which might be less intimidating for some people, increasingly FE colleges will open their buildings to community groups, outside the regular education framework, for the extension of informal adult learning. That is what we envisaged in the recent White Paper, “The Learning Revolution”.

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Other learning needs are being identified through skills training analysis interviews carried out under the rapid response fund. Lancashire LSC has identified a designated person to handle inquiries about course availability from Jobcentre Plus. Those and similar small-scale, networked and integrated ways of working are being constantly developed and trialled using practical experience. They characterise the approach throughout Lancashire and the rest of the country.

The Budget that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor published a fortnight ago will reinforce local and national initiatives of the sort that I have been describing. The measures that he announced to promote industries and jobs for the future were good news for Lancashire in particular, because the county is one of the most important centres of high-tech industry outside the south of England. The latest data available—for 2006—show that in Lancashire 3.1 per cent of all jobs were in high-tech sectors, which compares with only 0.9 per cent nationally.

Let us consider employment in high-tech manufacturing alone. In 2006, this accounted for 19.1 per cent.—nearly one in five—of Lancashire’s manufacturing work force. That is more than double the national average of 8.1 per cent and the figure of 9.8 per cent. for the north-west region. Lancashire should be well placed, therefore, to benefit from the creation of a strategic investment fund worth £750 million of new money over two years. That will support priorities critical for industrial growth and jobs, as set out in our industrial activism strategy, “Building Britain’s Future”. For example, the Government will set aside £50 million of the fund to enable the technology strategy board, which my Department sponsors, to increase its capacity to support innovation in areas with high potential for driving growth, such as those mentioned by hon. Members today—low-carbon technologies, manufacturing, and live sciences and STEM subjects.

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Looking to the future, the Budget recognises how essential it is to have a strong science and research base to develop the ideas and skills that new, high-value, high-tech businesses will need. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor restated the Government’s ongoing commitment to continued and increased funding for science and research through the protection of the ring fence around the science budget. That will be worth some £4 billion next year, which is more than three times the 1997 figure.

The Budget offered more help to people without a job and longer-term measures to help us prepare to take advantage of future opportunities. My hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South and for West Lancashire mentioned the need for long-term training as well as short-term preparedness. There will be additional investment of more than £260 million for training and subsidies to help young adults aged 18 to 24, who are approaching 12 months of unemployment, to acquire the skills at all levels or get the experience that they need to work in sectors with strong future demand. That includes £122 million for my own Department to deliver more than 70,000 work-focused pre-employment training places in England.

The range of measures to which I have referred today illustrate the Government’s activist approach. That approach is predicated on our belief that it is not good enough to stand idly by letting people and businesses suffer until things pick up again. It is our duty and our promise to take whatever action is needed to help Lancashire and the whole country cope with current problems and emerge from the recession with realistic hopes for a brighter future.

12.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Devonport Naval Base

12.30 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): It is a pleasure to sit under your wise counsel, Mr. Wilshire, and I am delighted that my colleagues, the hon. Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) are able to attend the debate.

In July 2007, the Government announced the outcome of their naval base review. It stated that the three bases, Devonport, Faslane and Portsmouth, are to remain open but that each would be optimised to achieve savings for the Ministry of Defence, which is a perfectly laudable objective. More than 22 months have elapsed, but we are still waiting to find out what the announcement means for Devonport.

Why does it matter? That the ships that defeated the Spanish armada in 1588 sailed from the mouth of the Plym and that Devonport has been providing support services to the Royal Navy since 1691 are important, but it is not only about history or heritage, although Plymouth is the size it is because of the dockyard and the naval base. It matters because Her Majesty’s naval base at Devonport is a huge local employer—it employs about 2,500 people directly—and because one in 10 of all jobs in the city travel-to-work area have been created directly or indirectly through the dockyard and naval base. It also matters because the dockyard and naval base support 24,000 jobs and contribute £850 million to the local economy, according to the university of Plymouth’s business school, and especially because millions of pounds a year flow through the local economy because of the salaries and spending of the 5,000 men and women who serve on the frigates and submarines that are base-ported at Devonport, a significant proportion of whom—perhaps 40 per cent.—live locally with their families, spend locally and contribute to the local economy in many ways. For all those reasons, a severe pruning of our naval base or the shifting of the frigates to Portsmouth or the submarines to Faslane would devastate the local economy. It really matters to our city.

Since July 2007, there have been many meetings between the Minister and his colleagues, local Members of Parliament, business and community leaders, trade unions and others. At all times, the Minister has treated us courteously and listened to our concerns with respect. On many occasions, he and other Ministers have said that the future of Devonport is secure, but I am afraid that that is an entirely meaningless statement. First, perhaps deliberately, it fails to distinguish between the dockyards and the naval base. I recognise that there is a promising work load for the dockyard in the next five to seven years, especially once the displaced aircraft carrier work begins, but that is not what we are talking about: we are talking about the naval base. Secondly, the expression, “Devonport has a secure future” says nothing about the scale of that future. What future does it have if the frigates and nuclear submarines go? How many people will it employ? We have been told that it will be the home of our amphibious fleet, but that is very small compared with the activity generated by frigates and submarines.

We can no longer accept generalities from the Minister; we need specifics. I recognise that since the naval base review announcement, the whole of the defence
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procurement industry has been transformed. That is often given as the reason for the delay, which I understand. However, there have been 22 months of delay. Why do this Government find it so hard to take tough decisions?

Why have I chosen to introduce this debate today rather than at another time in the past two years? In the past few weeks, we have been beset by leaks, speculation and rumours and it is impossible for the city to continue under the current level of uncertainty. Even this morning in the Plymouth Herald, Tim Jones, the chairman of Devon and Cornwall Business Council, made it clear that investors are delaying their investment decisions until the future of the naval base is sorted out. He said:

On 15 April 2009, the BBC ran a story claiming that senior MOD sources had told it that the frigates were going to Portsmouth. A Portsmouth MP appeared on television celebrating a great success, but the MOD said simply that no decisions had been taken. On 27 April 2009, Channel 4 ran a story based on reports prepared for Faslane that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and stated that Devonport will cease to be a submarine base after 2015. That fits in with the Minister’s well-received words that even if vessels are to leave us, they will not do so for five years. The MOD said that the Channel 4 story was only speculation, but that was hardly a robust denial.

That brings me to an important question: when the Minister says that no decisions have been taken, does he mean that they have not been taken by Ministers, but that the Navy Board has taken them and that they have not yet been signed off, doubtless because of political sensitivities, or does he mean that the Navy retains an open mind on all such issues? If the latter is true, why is it taking so long? Having been a Minister—a thousand years ago, at least—and having some knowledge of how these things work, I put it to the Minister that the decisions that the frigates will go to Portsmouth and the submarines will go to Faslane have already been taken, and that, understandably, he is trying to find a way to break this devastating news to the local population without causing political mayhem.

Rear-Admiral Mike Wood, who retired in 2003, stated recently that he suspected that MOD Ministers were holding back on revealing the real future of Devonport because the Government did not want bad news to emerge close to a general election. Can the Minister see the damage that this level of uncertainty is causing us? If the decisions have been taken—I hope they have not—it is far better for us to know the truth so that the city can plan its recovery.

I should like to mention two other things at this stage. It is not the slightest bit good for the MOD to think that taking the frigates and submarines away would be compensated, as some media reports would have it, by the contract to decommission the nuclear reactors of the submarine fleet in Devonport. That would be a highly controversial decision. It would once again confuse the naval base and the dockyard and it would require a major dialogue with city leaders and a massive public consultation exercise before it could be agreed. Will the Minister say something about the fact that it would also require substantial compensation?

It also seems to be in Ministers’ minds that if our naval base shrinks significantly, the city would gain in the medium term by the release of MOD property for
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commercial purposes. I must tell the Minister that without substantial Government investment, any such real estate is of limited value, not least because of contamination and location. It should not be seen as any form of compensation unless it comes with significant capital.

What do we want? We in Plymouth are very reasonable people. We want the frigates to remain at Devonport and we believe that we made a compelling case for that in the naval base review. We also want the submarines to stay. Is it really wise, when there is a Scottish National party Executive who want to break away from the United Kingdom, to base our entire nuclear fleet, including our nuclear deterrent, in Scotland? If Scotland became an independent country, which I very much hope it never does, where would our submarines go?

We accept that the MOD must make savings, but not that that must happen by ripping the heart out of Devonport. We want the frigates and submarines to stay but, above all, we want to call a halt to the endless foot-dragging and uncertainty. We know that the Minister is arranging a trip to Plymouth tomorrow, but let me warn him, in the right spirit, that simply saying that no decisions have yet been made will go down like a lead balloon. It would be better for him to reduce his carbon footprint and stay in London than to travel to the south-west to tell us that there is no news.

I e-mailed the Minister’s office nine questions on Friday lunchtime, and I am keen to give him plenty of time to answer them today. First, will he confirm that no hidden MOD document exists suggesting that Devonport naval base will close in 2015 or at any other time? I hope that that will be an easy one to deal with. Secondly, when will the Government be able to tell us the practical, on-the-ground implications of the naval base review? What will be the job losses, savings and changes? It has been 22 months. Thirdly, which decisions in the process fall to the Navy Board and which to Ministers? When the Minister says that no decisions have been made, does that include Navy Board decisions on base-porting?

Fourthly, has a decision been taken at any level in the MOD or the Royal Navy to transfer the frigates to Portsmouth? Fifthly, has a decision been taken at any level in the MOD or the Royal Navy to transfer the submarines to Faslane? Sixthly, if we are to lose either the frigates or the submarines base-ported in Plymouth, will the Minister spell out precisely what we are to get in return? What will be the long-term operational activity in the naval base?

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this timely debate. He is making a strong case that has cross-party support in calling for an end to the uncertainty. Is he as worried as I am that the Trident update and the carriers will be put into the melting pot for review by an incoming Tory Government, as was widely reported last week? Is he taking his Front-Bench colleagues to task for dashing our hopes of obtaining the certainty that we need?

Mr. Streeter: I am doing my best today to get some answers from this Government, who as far as I know have at least another year to run. I hope that we will not
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hear for the next 12 months that the decision is very close and will be announced soon, while day follows day and it is still not made.

Eighthly, how much real estate can be released from the naval base to the city as a result of the review, and how much capital will the Government provide to make any such assets viable for commercial or residential use?

During the intervention, I forgot my seventh question, which I know the Minister is keen to answer. Seventhly, if we are to lose the frigates and submarines, what implications will that have, not just for the naval base but for the work force at the dockyard? Although I do not want to confuse his answers, co-location is an important point. Ninthly, when will the MOD engage in a dialogue with the city about the proposed decommissioning of nuclear submarines? It is a hugely significant and sensitive issue. I was told by the chief executive of Plymouth city council as recently as last Friday that no real dialogue has yet started on the matter between the MOD and the city.

If the Minister cannot give us the answers today, although I know he will do his best, will he at least give us a specific date when he will be able to do so? The endless leaks from within the MOD are deeply damaging. The Government have had 22 months to make the decisions. The city of Plymouth has served the Royal Navy since 1588, and we are seeking a long-term future. We deserve to be treated better than this.

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