Orders of the Day — Employment (Young Persons)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1963.

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Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 24th July 1963

To say nothing of the anxieties of their parents and families.

We are considering this subject in a situation which is fundamentally less secure than it was. In previous generations, a great many young people knew what they would do almost from the time of early childhood. In the country side, for many generations, a boy would walk past fields on his way to school and know that he would find a place to work in those fields when he left. He might know that in the local industrial area, the local mill, pit or factory he would be likely to find work, although, of course, there have been anxieties about unemployment in the past, too.

Now, however, we are looking at a situation of rapid change in which that element of security has gone. I do not regret it, because we are living in an age when the opportunities are greater, too, if only they are taken. Nevertheless, it is in this insecure situation that the fact of having no job at all is so catastrophic to the young people affected in this way. Therefore, our planning for full employment should pay particular regard to the needs of young people.

As my second point, I said that young people were entitled to expect a choice of job. As we all know, many a young person starts a job but it does not work out. There should be a state of affairs in which they have the right to choose, the right to learn from their mistakes, the right to change their minds. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in the idea that young people may want to try three or four different jobs before they decide what fits.

But a by-product of this situation today, a by-product of the figures but which is not apparent in the figures, is that many thousands of young people are hanging on desperately to jobs for which they are not fitted, in which they are unhappy, in which they are not giving good service to their employers, and are hanging on because they have to hang on to jobs for fear that they would have nothing at all if they lost those jobs.

Some years ago someone coined the phrase "over-full employment". I did not think much of the phrase at the time, but what we are suggesting, what, in particular, I am suggesting at this stage, is that we want, in a sense, a situation of over-full employment for young people so that they can have the chance of a period of experiment, in which they can get the help of the Youth Employment Service and others, and learn from their mistakes.

One of the things that we need in such a situation as this is a much strengthened Youth Employment Service. The unsung heroes of the last few years who have done a tremendously good job up and down the country are the youth employment officers, who have done their work generally in a situation in which they have been understaffed and generally underpaid, and in which opportunities for training in their own profession have been far too few. There are certain things in the Report of the National Youth Employment Council which demand action, but what we need is continued vocational guidance, and it should not stop for a youth aged 18, for if we are to raise the school-leaving age we ought also to raise the age at which young people are entitled to vocational guidance and advice on the opportunities for changing their work.

My third point is that young people are entitled to reasonable training opportunities. Here we are in a familiar position. On this as on so many urgent questions which face us at present we are told either that the Government have appointed somebody to examine and make a report to the Government, or we are waiting for the Government to act on a report which they have already got. In this situation we are waiting for the Government to introduce some form of legislation arising from their training White Paper of last December. The White Paper was debated in the House and I do not want to go over that at this stage. Indeed, it would take far too long, but there are certain observations that I could make now that the subject has been under discussion for some months since the publication of the White Paper.

First, I would press the Minister to give the House and the country, if he can, more information about the date of the publication of his training Bill. It is quite clear that up and down the country there is uncertainty in industry about this, and to some extent employers, unfortunately, and quite wrongly, are tending to postpone development of their own training plans because they are waiting to see what the Government are going to put into their Bill. About a week ago I asked a Question about this and the Minister gave me anon-committal Answer in which he said that it would depend on Parliamentary time and all that. I hope that he will take the opportunity to say more about it today. If he cannot, I urge him to say something publicly at the earliest possible moment in order to try to remove some of this uncertainty.

It is typical of the Government that they should be producing these plans at the end of the period of the bulge of those who are leaving school and coming on to the labour market. They have known about the bulge in the population ever since the children were born. They were warned about it with particular clarity in 1958 by the Carr Report—about the training situation, the shortage of skills, and the opportunity provided by this extra large number of school leavers.

The Carr Committee was absolutely right in saying that the bulge of the school leavers could not be regarded as an embarrassing problem, but as an opportunity, and, indeed, it has been an opportunity, a once for all opportunity, which is now passing away, to train quickly in a few years the extra large number of people in those skills in which the economy is deficient at present. Where the Carr Committee was wrong was in suggesting that this was essentially a problem which could be left to industry with the Government just standing on the sidelines. We have said this over and over again in the House.

I remember listening to Lord Robens, early in 1959, saying from this Box that the steps proposed by the Carr Committee were inadequate and that more positive ones were needed by the Government. We now have a situation where the Government are just beginning to lock the stable door some time after the horse has bolted.

This problem of training is a twofold problem, the problem of quantity and the problem of quality of training, the urgent need to modernise and improve its quality.

So far as the numbers in training are concerned, the position for a little while was that the Government are getting away with it. They relied, in our view, before the bulge left school, far too much on exhortation, but the response of employers in 1961 was better than some of us expected. We were delighted, and we were delighted in 1961 at the greater number of trainees, but in 1962 although there was a further increase, it did not catch up proportionately with the rise in the number of school leavers, and this year, looking at the problem of the school leavers, there has been a most critical slump.

I would remind the House of the figures which the Minister has already give us at Question Time. In the first four months, that is, from January to April inclusive, there were 29,000 boys entering apprenticeships, 10,200 fewer than the comparable figure in 1962. There were 5,600 girls who entered apprenticeships, 2.100 fewer than the comparable figure in 1962.

If the industrial training boards that the Minister has proposed in his White Paper were in existence now, and they were in operation now, they might be able to take emergency measures, but in fact, as we know, this year's school leavers, in training as well as in employment in general, are likely to find far fewer opportunites than there were in the last few years. This is a real tragedy for the boys and girls concerned and, indeed, a loss to the national economy.

About ten days ago, I spoke at a conference in the West Riding of Yorkshire, organised by the Youth Employment Service, and attended by employers and educationists from all over the West Riding, and I did my best to repeat what the Minister had said, that employers this summer ought to have regard to the fact that there will be no school leavers at Christmas because of the new Education Bill, and that they ought to stock up with recruits and take as many trainees as they can. There was not a very great response to this, and this was in the West Riding, which, for many years, has been that place in the country where there have been more apprenticeships available and training opportunities than in the rest of the country.

Employers said to me that they had been frightened to do what they had been asked, partly for the reason which I have already given, because they were waiting to see what the Government would put in their training Bill, but to a greater extent because of the economic situation and their lack of confidence in the Government's plans to deal with it. Some said to me that in 1961 they recruited because they had confidence that the economy would expand but that since then there had been an economic crisis, which developed in 1962, with the unemployment figures of that year and early this year, and they felt that they could not now respond to the Government's appeal to take on more trainees.

It is in this situation that we on this side of the House feel we are entitled to say that the Government's training measures are like so many of their measures—that when they do manage to do the right thing they do too little and do it too late. That will be one of the epitaphs on the gravestone of the Government.

One matter which has hardly been tackled at all is the question of the modernising of our training schemes. I do not wish to anticipate what obviously will be the detailed debates we shall have on this when the Government's training Bill comes before us, if, indeed, the Government are still the Government, in the early part of next Session, but I want to raise straight away the point that it does seem to us that it is very likely that the White Paper was drawn far too narrowly and that the Government are trying to catch up with the position they should have reached about ten years ago. Instead of approaching the needs of the later 'sixties and the 'seventies and having a completely new look at the training situation, almost the whole of the Government's references to this subject have been concentrated on apprenticeships. I have probably made as many speeches on apprenticeships as anybody else in the House. I do not know whether that has anything to do with my surname. However, I have always taken an interest in the matter and it is one I have returned to more than once.

What has become obvious to me is that as the needs of the economy change we get further and further into the position in which we need change in the industrial labour form. We once divided the labour force; there were the skilled men who had served their time, and all the rest were categorised as unskilled or semi-skilled. Now we need to raise the levels of skills or all kinds in all kinds of jobs—to have, so to say, the spectrum approach towards training, considering raising the skills, and the relevance of skills, in all kinds of industries, and at all kinds of levels.

Part of this job is extension of apprenticeship training where it is needed and improvement of apprenticeship training. I believe that the best apprenticeship training in this country is as good as anywhere in the world. Indeed, I think that we can congratulate both the boys concerned and their employers—the boys who won so many prizes at the recent international competition in Dublin where they got four gold, six silver and six bronze medals in the international apprenticeship competition. The best is very good, but the average is not good enough, and there is far too much going on in the name of training which is not training at all. We have to tackle this problem with greater urgency. Besides talking about apprenticeship itself, surely we need now to have a tremendous increase in the number of training courses available to those who have traditionally been regarded as being in semi-skilled jobs.

We need an increase in training courses for operatives in our new types of industry; an increase in the training courses in our retail trade, and in agriculture. In agriculture, the Apprentice- ship Council has been going for some years, but still only 3 per cent. of the recruits to agriculture go through organised training in that scheme. We need a great increase in courses for the older school leavers who are to become technicians of one sort or another. Here again, the best of what we have done is very good and copied all over the world through the medium of the I.L.O. information service. The type of course in which a boy spends part-time in industry, part-time in technical colleges, and the various sandwich courses, are very good, but the small firms in this country are doing hardly anything about this because it is beyond their resources.

This is one of the first things that the training boards will have to tackle. They will have to think in many cases in terms of apprenticeship of young people to an industry rather than apprenticeship to firms. Just over a week ago, the House debated science and its application to industry. We have to realise that if we are to take advantage of the scientific revolution in our time, it will have to be tackled not merely in terms of training more scientists, developing research, and more development projects in industry, but in raising the level of skills of everyone in industry so that we can carry forward the ideas which the scientists are presenting to us.

The Government approach to all this seems to be far too timid. The timidity of their approach is characterised by two recent developments to which I should like to draw attention and which are within the province of the Minister. I see from a Press release that the Minister has just appointed a technical adviser on industrial training. When this post was advertised recently, I noticed that the Ministry were, for the first time, advertising one post as a technical adviser on industrial training—one post for the first time. They have made the appointment, and I am sure that we would wish Colonel Work, which is a very appropriate name, the very best in his new appointment.

I comment on the fact that the new adviser's experience is in the Regular Army, followed by experience as the assistant secretary of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and does not appear to include any experience in industry. I say that not to criticise this gentleman or his appointment because I believe that experience of training in the military field, plus experience in the Institute, may make him a very valuable servant of the Ministry. I am putting to the Minister that what he needs and the country needs at the apex of a training scheme is a large number of technical advisers with diverse experience. He ought to have a group of these people. I want him to comment on whether this will be the only appointment or whether there will be others. We want a group of people providing the drive at the centre which will be followed up by the industrial boards that he intends to appoint.

On the 22nd May, he gave me a reply on manpower research. I see that the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. K. Lewis) received a reply on the same subject yesterday from the Minister of Labour. The Minister has just appointed a two-man team to estimate the needs of this country in terms of skilled labour five years hence. They are proceeding by sending questionaires to firms, asking them to be good enough to give their estimates, to which the firms may or may not reply, and then they will build up the results which will be available some time next year. I would have thought that if one thing is clear about the training situation with which we are faced it is that we need rapid steps taken in the Ministry of Labour or in some new central training authority which ought to be created to form a budget of the manpower needs in this country for some years to come. The Minister is already in trouble in Scotland, the North-East and elsewhere over the plans for extending training centres because local trade unionists are not convinced that the training is the right training, or that there will be jobs available for the people trained in them. If he is to answer that sort of criticism with any confidence, he should have available an estimate of the future manpower needs of the country.

We need it right down the line; we need it for the universities, the technical colleges, the apprenticeship schemes and training schemes of all kinds. We dare not waste our scarce resources training people for skills which may quickly become redundant. At the moment we do it by a series of unco-ordinated hunches.

That will not do. We need a plan at the centre. It may well go wrong and there may be mistakes, but there are more likely to be mistakes now when all the decisions are made without co-ordination through lack of central planning. It is vital that the young people of this country should get the training relevant to their task of earning their living ten, twenty or thirty years hence, and that means that all the training schemes must be flexible. We must get away from the idea of training people in a single craft and give people a more generalised training which will enable them to keep pace with the rapid technological changes in industry in the years that lie ahead.

I put it to the House that in considering youth employment generally and training in particular we need to have regard to the gathering speed of technological change. It is becoming routine for politicians and others in the perorations of their speeches to say that we live in a period of change. That has always been true, but what has not been sufficiently recognised is that we live in a time when the pace of change is faster than it has ever been before in the history of mankind. The pace of change is getting faster every year" and this has tremendous implications for the planning of our labour force.

The impact of automation in offices, the new mechanical coal cutting machines introduced into the Midland coalfields, the impact of automation in factories are all leading to changes much faster and more drastic than we have ever known before. We welcome that, but we can only welcome it wholeheartedly if there is real planning to take care of the effects of all this on human beings. In the past we have been able to muddle through periods of change largely through the process of wastage. When a particular kind of work has become redundant the employers no longer take on recruits. Gradually people are retired or die and the labour force is changed gradually by that process. The pace has now reached the stage when that will no longer do. We are faced with a situation in which redundancies will be much faster than before, when retraining schemes are needed and when a completely new approach to the manpower planning of this country is needed.

If that planning does not take place, the greatest victims of all will be the young people and the school leavers. We can see it happening now in the United States of America. In the United States, where technological change has proceeded faster than it has here and changes have come in earlier than they have here, we can read many lessons. Some of their successes we can try to copy; some of their failures we can try to avoid. But, above all, they have failed—let us recognise it and learn the lessons from it—to adapt their youth employment and training schemes to this period of technological change.

The latest figure that I have is that 18 per cent. of teenagers in the United States are unemployed. This is an appalling figure. It is a figure that we may well approach unless we take the measures which are needed to deal with the situation. The steady increase in youth unemployment today, to which I referred earlier, may be the first symptom of the threat, unless we can deal with the situation in time and in the way required.

The reason is fairly elementary: if there is a situation in which redundancy is being threatened, employers in general will stop taking on recruits before they make their existing labour force redundant. Therefore, school leavers are, clearly, the first victims and the hardest hit. This creates demands for a general full employment strategy, such as the Opposition have urged all the time, combined with a training scheme relevant to the needs of the future and planned in relation to the future needs of industry.

I do not wish to appear—I hope that I have not in any way appeared—to be regretting the prospects of technological change. The Opposition welcome it and want to expedite it. We want to devote more national resources to science and technology to speed up the process of technological change. But in relation to employment, particularly of young people, it simply will not do to create a situationin which they become the victims on the scale on which they have in the United States of America.

When people argue about who should drill the holes in a piece of metal or chalk the line on the side of a ship, what they are really arguing about is who should become unemployed. We must create a society in which people are not afraid of change, in which there are jobs available and in which training is available both for the older man who may lose the chance to use his traditional skill and also for the large numbers of school leavers coming on to the labour market. They are large numbers. The concept of the bulge in school leavers has to some extent been falsified by recent events. The number of school leavers is not going back to the old figures. It may go down a little from the figures of the last three years, but since the war there has been a birthrate higher than that between the wars. The result is that we are facing the prospect of having a working population in which the younger element will grow in the years ahead. All our policies have to match up to that.

I do not want to suggest that we must be on the defensive against change. I think that we must take the offensive with change, and raise the national product and use it to tackle our social problems. But if we fail, as we are beginning to fail now, and as we seem to be failing in relation to those who are leaving school at this moment, we shall suffer losses in the wealth that this country could accumulate with the aid of the new technology and we shall condemn hundreds of thousands of young people to the frustration of all the hopes and ambitions that they have developed in their school life.