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Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Perhaps I may assure her of my complete support for the schemes that she has announced which will give employment opportunities to many youngsters, some of whom have never had a job in their lives. However, is she aware that many firms in Great Britain, large and small, are already starting to suffer from serious skill shortages? In that respect, is she aware of the statement that was made recently by the senior vice-president of Pfizer's, the American pharmaceutical company, which is proposing a £109 million expansion of its laboratories in Kent? The statement was that it may be impossible for the company to recruit the 1,000 scientists that it needs to staff the new establishment. It went on to castigate the previous government for their neglect of scientific training in this country. Does my noble friend agree that the reason for the serious shortage of skills which exists in the United Kingdom today is the complete neglect of all forms of training over the 18 years of the previous Tory administration?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I was not aware of the announcement by the chief executive or managing director of Pfizer in this country. However, we are aware that more employers are reporting skills shortages, particularly in IT and in the construction industry. I agree that we must be far more ambitious than we have been in relation to the need to improve our training and education opportunities for all young people, and, indeed, adults.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced last month at the CBI conference that we shall be developing a national skills agenda in order to deal with such shortages which are very damaging to our economy and to economic growth. We are setting up a skills task force and a skills unit in my department. The aim will be to try to reach a consensus around our key skill needs and to set out broad areas where skills need to be developed. Of course, we must also ensure that the education and training systems are responsive to the longer-term skills needs of the economy.

Lord Pilkington: My Lords, how does the Minister respond to the extensive criticism of NVQs, which doubted the capacity of our main instrument for skill training? How is the department responding to those criticisms?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, NVQs were set up under the previous government and we are aware that there is concern about standards with respect to some

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NVQs. We are trying to address that. We have set up new NTOs (national training organisations) which consist of groups of employers whose role will be to try to develop the highest possible standards in the provision of NVQs which are largely competency-based and work-based skills training. Employers therefore have a key part to play. We will be monitoring the performance of NVQs. We are also trying to cut out some NVQs which clearly have not been performing because of the small number of people who have taken them up.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that "work-related skills" is an expression that should not be restricted to manual skills? It should include mathematics, literacy and foreign language learning.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, NVQs cover a vast range of possible areas, including many non-manual occupations. It is important that we develop good vocational qualifications right across our occupational system. It is important also that we ensure that all young people have the appropriate key skills of literacy to which the noble Lord particularly referred--numeracy and IT skills.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for informing the House of the proposals of the Labour Government to increase the skills of young people in this country. We are all aware that skill shortages have not arisen overnight. However, does my noble friend agree with me that what is required is to assess the enthusiasm, and indeed the co-operation, of employers in regard to the Government's proposals.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is vital that employers participate in the raising of skills. Modern Apprenticeships is a successful scheme in which the Government recently invested an additional £10 million for a further 10,000 places. It is a scheme which is largely the responsibility of the employers. They are working effectively to develop skills and expand them through Modern Apprenticeships.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what the level of youth unemployment is at this time and by how much it has fallen in the past two years? Secondly, will she explain the inconsistency between the employer who under the new proposals takes on a young person on the welfare-to-work programme and receives a compensatory benefit and the employer who takes on a 16 or 17 year-old under Clause 23 of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, who will incur a cost over and above the salary for employing that young person?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is important that employers who take on 16 and 17 year-olds should also take on the moral responsibility and provide training for them. I entirely accept that there will be some cost to employers from doing that. It is reasonable to expect employers who take on very young people and people who left school at the early age of 16, many of whom

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do not have adequate skills to remain employed over long periods of time, to invest in the future of those young people. That is part of the responsibility of taking on a 16 or 17 year-old. If employers are not willing to do that, more 18 to 25 year-olds will be unable to obtain and keep jobs and there will be larger numbers of people in the new deal.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that a great many young people are taken on and learn skills while they are in the Armed Forces, especially the Army? Would it not be wise therefore to make the fullest possible use of that opportunity?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am aware that the Army has a long tradition of undertaking successful training programmes for young people, as do the other Armed Forces. They are particularly successful in training young people in technical skills. Many of those young people will not necessarily remain for the rest of their careers in the Armed Forces. Therefore, in carrying out that training, the Army is supporting the skills base of the nation and in that sense it is extremely helpful.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Blatch asked the noble Baroness a question on statistics. Is the noble Baroness prepared to answer that question now?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Baroness asked three questions.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, two.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Baroness actually asked three questions. In those circumstances it is difficult to answer all of them when other people are waiting to speak.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, perhaps I might say to the noble Baroness that I asked one question on statistics and one on inconsistency, which is just two questions.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I thought that three questions had been asked. If there were only two I am happy to accept that. In those circumstances, I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that it is difficult during Starred Questions to answer several different questions at once. The level of unemployment is 5.9 per cent. I cannot give the precise figure relating to young people. But that is a long way from the Question on the Order Paper, which actually concerns skills and training for skills.


3.9 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. my noble friend the Leader of the House will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on the European Council on Agenda 2000. I should like to take this opportunity

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to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement following the end of the Minister's initial reply to the Opposition spokesmen should be confined to,

    "brief comments and questions for clarification".

There is a mandatory limit of 20 minutes from the end of the Minister's initial reply to the Opposition spokesmen.

Petroleum Bill [H.L.]

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to consolidate certain enactments about petroleum, offshore installations and submarine pipelines. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.-- (The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

Business of the House: Consolidated Fund Bill

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the provisions of Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with tomorrow to enable the Consolidated Fund Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day.--(Lord Richard.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Scottish Agricultural College Order Confirmation Bill

Considered on Report.

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