The Government continually review their training programmes to ensure that they are relevant to the needs of the economy. We have increased spending by the taxpayer on training and retraining from £460 million in 1979 to some £1·5 billion and reduced the proportion of employers' expected output to be constrained by skill shortages from over 25 per cent. to 9 per cent. in January this year. A major new job training scheme has just been introduced which will provide further help for unemployed people to gain the skills required by industry.
Has the Minister yet had an opportunity to examine the Audit Commission report which was published at the end of last month? That report is highly critical. It says that the MSC is not keeping adequate records about the kind of skills that are required. This is at a time when 20 per cent. of employers say that they could create more jobs if the right kind of skills, such as new technologies, professional engineers and computer engineers were available. Are not the Government failing to find the right skills for the people that are needed by industry?
It is important to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Audit Commission report about which he spoke covers the period from 1981 to April 1986. Since that time we have introduced three measures which have helped to relieve the problem that he has identified. First, we have introduced a computer-assisted local labour market information system; secondly we have introduced a skills unit which has been set up by the MSC to provide a clear focus for work on skills, including specific changes in skill needs; and, thirdly, local employer networks which specifically deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
How can the Minister be so complacent about this? In their eight years in office the Government have closed most of the training boards and skill centres and sat idly by and seen the virtual disappearance of apprenticeships. When will he get on his feet and help employers in the west midlands and elsewhere who regularly report to his Department that their output is being affected by the lack of suitably skilled people?
I do not think that it is in any way complacent to have increased substantially the amount of money that the Government are spending on training, now reaching the record figure of £1·5 billion, compared with the paltry sum that the Labour Government spent on training. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He and his colleagues are quick to criticise the introduction of a new job training scheme to deal with the problems that his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) has identified. As soon as we bring out such a scheme, the Opposition try to rubbish it, even though it is devised to meet the skill shortages that we all too clearly see.
Can my hon. Friend explain what efforts are made to identify skill shortages in each jobcentre area and to feed the information to the local training initiatives? In Wells there seems to be a mismatch between some skill shortages and the training places available, even in quite basic skills such as those in some construction trades.
My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that we obviously have those skill shortages. As I said at the last Question Time, there are undoubtedly skill shortages, but I suggest that the percentage of skill shortages is now much lower than it was during the last few years of the Labour Government.
On the precise question that my hon. Friend has raised, we are developing training access points, set up by the MSC, to provide better access to information on the education and training opportunities available locally, together with the local employer networks which are growing and have already been set up in a number of pilot areas. Those will be replicated elsewhere—I hope in my hon. Friend's constituency.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the existence of skill shortages is a symptom of the rapid economic growth in the British economy? Does he also agree that, contrary to the experience of the Labour Government, this Government have invested large amounts of taxpayers' money to help to meet those skill shortages? Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the range of Government funded schemes available to help meet the skill shortages now and compare that to 1978–79?
In fact, as my hon. Friend has suggested, they bear favourable comparison. One of the problems that we have identified is that the apprenticeships, which all hon. Members have come to know over a number of years, are perhaps outmoded and not as appropriate in the 1980s as they were in the 1960s—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) may pour scorn on that, but he should listen to what Mr. Eric Hammond the general secretary of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbing Union, said when he was talking about the success that the union had achieved because its contribution has been to scale down wage rates to bring them into line with YTS allowances. He said:
Of course, we had considerable criticisms from other trade unions … But at the end of four years, with thousands under training, thousands becoming skilled, we can feel justly proud to have provided hope for so many.
Does the Minister agree that the truth of the matter is that the present skill shortages demonstrate what has happened during eight wasted years? In those eight wasted years, we have seen the Government concentrate on schemes for 1 million people, which give them a thin layer of training, whereas in fact real training for people in work, on which our productivity is based, has been allowed to go to the wall. Less than 7 per cent. of people in work receive any training. How do we compete on that basis in skills?
That is an amazing allegation. The hon. Gentleman could not have heard what I said in reply to the substantive question from his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham). There is a contrast now of a shortage of skilled places of about 9 per cent., which contrasts with a shortage of 25 per cent. during the last three years of the Labour Administration. His hon. Friend the Member for Blackley summed it up remarkably well in a speech in this House on 12 February, when he made the lunatic suggestion :
We have got training schemes coming out of our ears."—[Official Report, 12 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 526.]
So we have and we are proud of it.