Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 6th February 1991.

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Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish , Central Fife 6:32 pm, 6th February 1991

It appeared that the Secretary of State wanted to talk more about the speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) did not make, in respect of training investment, than the speech that he did make.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to remarks attributed to me on a visit to Sheffield. That contrived assault on a perceived policy difference highlights the fact that the Government are losing the argument. I put it on record that I very much support TECs. I warmed to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who said that TECs could have a role in a statutory framework, in respect of companies that do not train. That was a constructive proposal and one with which we identify. I hope that the Secretary of State will take it on board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton), who always makes informed contributions as Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment, emphasised that the key training issue is economic performance in the decade ahead.

I endorse also the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that Britain's skills crisis existed long before the last war, and he made a specific reference to the mid-1880s. I quote from an article by someone who I am sure is a friend of the Conservatives, Dr. Correlli Barnett: Where Britain does have successful industries, such as aerospace—£2·5 billion in the black in 1989—these are hampered by shortages of scientists and technicians. Britain still displays patterns of weakness that can be traced back to about 1840. No one disputes that the training skills crisis has long endured. No one would argue either against the proposition that it is a complex problem, for which there is no quick fix or instant panacea. Nor would anyone disagree that the problems are deep seated, cultural and involve attitudes. Politicians can attempt to effect changes, but it often takes decades for them to have any bearing on the problems that such changes are meant to overcome.

Over the past 12 years, the Government have failed to display the urgency, sensitivity and immediacy required to resolve a deep-seated skills problem that is also structural. Given 1992, European monetary union beyond that, the threat from the Pacific rim countries, and intensification of supply-side policies in France, Germany, Italy and Japan, we must act quickly. There is no room for complacency, yet the Government often exude complacency in respect of skills training.

Skills should be used to unlock the potential that individuals have to make a contribution to our economic well-being. We talk a great deal about productivity, profitability and performance, but the key difference between Britain and its major competitor countries is that they have invested in skills training for much longer, so their cultures have adjusted and they can now enjoy the fruits of that investment in the form of measured economic success.

The Government had an opportunity in the 1980s to take the supply-side initiative. There was a massive shake-out of labour in the early 1980s and productivity improved, but there was no skills initiative. In the mid-1980s, to coincide with the electoral cycle, there was an economy boom, but still no initiative was taken on skills investment. There is now a possibility that Britain's entry into the exchange rate mechanism could create difficulties, unless we invest in the tools that will bring success.

There is a crisis of confidence in the industrial community in respect of the Government's ability to resolve the skills crisis. The Government will not speak of the devastating cuts that there have been, but in 1991–92 there will be cuts of about £367 million in employment training alone. Why do the Government show such contempt for training providers? The newspapers are littered with stories about providers going under and being treated in a cavalier fashion—receiving just a phone call or a letter from the Training Agency saying that their figures and budgets have been cut. There is no negotiation or discussion—just contempt.

One of the problems with TECs is that, although the Secretary of State is unwilling to fight in Cabinet for resources, the TECs are squeezing him for more. The net effect of all that is that TECs are now writing to the press, and confiding in us, saying, "Yes, we have a job to do, but we need the tools to do it." I believe that they are under funded and the Government must tackle that.

There is another aspect to special needs provision. Understandably, there is an emphasis on skills and the economy, but what about the excellent schemes that have been set up throughout the country to tackle the problems facing adults and young people with handicaps and disabilities? Surely it is the measure of a civilised society that, no matter how the Government view the recession, they do not walk away from people who find it enormously difficult to climb the first rung on the ladder of employment or further education. The Government should ring-fence the budget for that training.

The cash crisis is another aspect of this issue. Today we have heard much about the money that the Government have spent during the past 12 years. The Government are right. They have thrown money at the problem. The Department of Employment will have spent £46 billion between 1979 and outturn in 1992–93. But what do we see for that expenditure? Where is the training infrastructure? Where are the employment trainees' qualifications? Where are the youth trainees with qualifications? The key point about that investment is that the Government have squandered billions of pounds of taxpayers' money and have not achieved the desired effect, which is improving the economy, extending opportunities for individuals and providing the social and regional cohesion that the nation desperately needs.

When we talk about money, let us use the Government adage that it is all about "value for money". What value for money? The Government say that their policy is all about output-led investment. What are the outputs? I should like someone to tell me why we spend so much money. Indeed, considering the Gulf, the phrase comes to mind, "Why is so much money being spent on so many people, with so few results?"

The third problem that worries us is the policy chaos that the Government exude. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made a thoughtful contribution to the debate, emphasising qualifications. He had an excellent idea and set radical and ambitious targets in November 1989. The new Minister of State, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), said in a press release that the Fowler targets were to be abandoned. More recently there has been another slight about-turn—[Interruption.] If Conservative Members wish to see the press cuttings, which I cannot quote because of lack of time, I am willing to oblige them.

The Secretary of State for Employment has returned to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. He has said that by 1992,80 per cent. of the work force should be exposed to vocational qualifications. He did not say that 80 per cent. should be achieving vocational qualifications. He could have said that 150 per cent. of the work force should be exposed to them; his statement is utterly meaningless.

The Government would be better served by returning to the radical propositions suggested by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield when he was in that high office. The right hon. Member also said that the way for the unemployed to get work was through gaining skills. However, the present Secretary of State for Employment said that training might not be the best way to get the unemployed back to work. He suggested that they should have job interviews or more counselling—anything that did not cost the Government more money.

At a time of recession, and when we are investing in TECs and on those aged between 16 and 19, we cannot allow the unemployed to be treated as second-class citizens and, as a consequence, be asked by the Government to eat cake as regards proper provision for them.

Investment is linked to training policy. When will the Government come clean with TEC chairmen, G10 and the thousands of business men throughout the country who are making a contribution, and who came into this exercise in good faith? Employers wanted to make a commitment. It was employer investment, employer-led—those are sound concepts. There is only one problem—TECs did not get the levels of cash that they expected. Now the Secretary of State and the rest of the Government are running around trading flexibilities. They are saying, "Let's give them work-related further education. Let's get them involved in TVEI." They are doing every conceivable thing except to give TECs extra cash so that they can make a contribution to our economic success.

Another problem that the Government have not tackled is the key substantive issues that the Labour party is now tackling. Why is it that after 12 years we have the most incoherent programme for 16 to 19-year-olds in Europe? We have had scheme after scheme, but there has been no coherence, no stability of policy and no stability of investment. Fewer young people now stay on at school, and fewer young people enter a proper traineeship. That trend has to be reversed. It is a substantive issue which the Government have been guilty of ignoring in the past 12 years.

The Government believe in voluntarism. However, in the past 140 years voluntarism has not worked in the provision of training for employees in employment. If it had worked, we, as the first industrialised nation, should be the best trading nation on earth, but we are not. We are not facing up to key issues which other countries are tackling.