Training

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 7:13 pm on 14th June 1990.

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Photo of Mr Kenneth Eastham Mr Kenneth Eastham , Manchester, Blackley 7:13 pm, 14th June 1990

I agree with the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) that the skills of some of our personnel are as good as any in the world. The problem is that we do not have enough of them. The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) said that the Opposition carp about the Government's recommendations. The Opposition's role is to point out to the general public what the issues are and how things ought to be improved. It is important to face the facts. The Government use the word "training" as a buzz word, but when we compare the United Kingdom with other countries we find that the very opposite is the case.

The Select Committee on Employment reported that this year £200 million less will be spent on training than in the previous year. Whenever the Government make a cut, they try to justify it by saying that the numbers have gone down. They play the numbers game. When, however, the Government find that they have an additional £200 million, they ought to try to improve the quality and standard of training, which so often are nowhere near good enough. As we live in a highly competitive world we must improve the quality and the standards of training.

We are faced with a disastrous balance of payments deficit—the highest in our history. The only way to get rid of it is to export. To be successful, we must export excellent products which are better than those of our competitors and they must be competitively priced.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton referred to the need to improve management training. We do not concentrate sufficiently on that. Seven out of 10 British managers receive no training. If they are to lead their companies effectively, that is a serious indictment. We made a grave mistake about eight or nine years ago when we abolished most of the industrial training boards. I pay tribute to the man who set them up—Lord Carr. He established the industrial training board in the early 1960s because we were in such a mess; industry was making no provision for training. Soon after the 1979 election, the Tory party decided to abolish most of the industrial training boards. That was a disaster.

Education is the key to improving ability and potential. The Department of Education and Science, however, has been starved of funds. According to a press release that I received only today from the Department of Education and Science: It must be a priority for all those responsible for post-16 education and training that the provision they offer equips young people with the skills and qualities that employers need in their workforce. But they are fancy words with no substance, as is demonstrated when one examines the provision of education. Earlier in the debate reference was made to the lack of numeracy and literacy. It is obvious that, if people cannot grasp the basics, they will never be technological experts. We seem to be going wrong with the basics, but we cannot have one without the other. It is therefore important that the Department of Employment and the Department of Education and Science should work in tandem.

I represent a Manchester constituency and I have experience in education there. I have always supported the colleges of further education. The further education system used to be far stronger than it is today. One of its great strengths was public accountability. Further education was not organised just by the local politicians and educationists. Industry was represented in the colleges of further education and managers took an interest in training. It is often implied that industry never had any input into further education, but that is a complete fallacy that should be refuted today.

Despite the success of colleges of further education—and they had considerable success—further education in Manchester has suffered savage cuts. The further education budget for this year is £18 million; last year it was £24 million. It is no investment in future technology to starve colleges of further education of funds. Last year, there were three colleges of further education; this year, because of the financial crisis, there will be only two. Last year, they were allocated only £500,000 for equipment. Anyone who knows anything about technical equipment will understand that £500,000 does not go very far.

The Government have a strong preference for private agencies. There is a great myth that something is better because it is private. But many of those so-called private agents were not qualified as the experts in the further education colleges were. They constantly put profit motives before quality training. Already Manchester has experienced many disastrous schemes which were set up by the Department of Employment. Only a few months ago one organisation collapsed, ditching 1,000 trainees. That is what happens in a privatised education system.

Now the training and education councils have come to Manchester and have been allocated well in excess of £10 million which will be administered by private companies. I keep asking questions, but I never get satisfactory answers about how the costs will be monitored. We get all sorts of promises from civil servants, but as soon as anything goes wrong it is hushed up and covered up. It is all supposed to be a great success, but the private organisations suddenly disappear. Cost monitoring will not be the same as it was when training was publicly organised by the further education colleges. There will be less accountability for decisions about what training should involve and concentrate on.

The engineering industry is one of our most important industries. It is the biggest exporter of British industry and the biggest money spinner, along with the chemical industry. The engineering industry is now talking about the new engineering training agency. According to the Government's diktat, that agency will be funded by subscriptions and fees. That immediately means a reduced budget, which means cuts in training, especially in small firms. Usually, small firms do not have adequate training. They will not be funded and they certainly will not volunteer any money. That was a great problem in the early 1960s, when Lord Carr had to decide to make some proper provision for training. Because the new private training agency has been set up, there will no longer be access to European funding because they are not public bodies. Hundreds of thousands of pounds that would have been available for training in Britain will no longer be available.

We already have serious skill shortages, but we only face them when it is too late. I agree that Britain's skill force has the highest technical skills, but it is the smallest in Europe. I can illustrate that. A publication that I picked up the other day referred to a recent survey published by the European Commission which contained a pecking order of the proportion of skills in European industrial work forces. According to the survey, France had 80 per cent. skilled workers, Italy 79 per cent., Holland 76 per cent., Germany 67 per cent., Belgium 62 per cent., Denmark 62 per cent., Ireland 59 per cent., Spain 56 per cent. and Portugal 50 per cent. The United Kingdom was bottom of the pile with 38 per cent. skilled workers. That is where we stand in the provision of skills. Everything has to be privatised. We have private agents with fancy titles, but they are meaningless and they do not come up with the goods.

Today I received a letter from the British Institute of Management saying: The recent European Commission survey indicating that Britain lagged woefully behind other Community countries in the proportion of skilled workers in out workforce shows that much more needs to be done. That is not a picture of the success that the Minister may attempt to present to the House tonight.

I have just a few questions. Why do our European competitors take such a different view from that of the Conservative Government in Britain? Why do Japanese companies give greater importance to industry and training, and achieve such great success? Why are trade unions not encouraged to become involved? The trade unions represent the producers. Nowadays there is always a confrontation between the Government and the trade unions. I assure the Minister that the trade unions are not Luddites; their jobs and futures are involved.

Some Conservative Members may be involved in the stock exchange, floating money about in companies. The difference for trade unionists is that they devote their whole lives to their industries. That is why they see the matter differently. I get the feeling that the Minister is not serious about this. He is smirking and nodding his head, but I am making a sensible plea for industry to move away from confrontation. There must be a partnership. I come from industry, so I mean what I say and I do not want empty gestures.

There are many subcontractors in the offshore oil industry and there are men working on two-week contracts. I am sure that there is no adequate training and it is possible that some of the disasters on the oil rigs have been the result of inadequate training. There must be changes. We should do away with two-week contracts because the men on the rigs are not properly catered for or protected. We must improve; if we do not, we shall lose for the rest of the 1990s.