Employment and Training

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 12:03 am on 9th June 1992.

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Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish , Central Fife 12:03 am, 9th June 1992

The engineering industry has the most impressive record of all industries in training young people. The labour force survey, which I mentioned, includes people of all ages who are training in all industries, including engineering. My speech is germane not only to the engineering industry but to the wider skills crisis that the Government are ignoring. I shall deal with our specific worries about that industry's future.

The proportion of people in training has gone down from 15.4 per cent. of the population in 1990 to 14.9 per cent. The Government cannot take any comfort from that, because it suggests that, setting aside the quality and qualification issues, there is a volume problem in that the number of people in training is falling. The situation has been dramatically worsened by cuts over the past few years. There is press speculation that the Department of Employment may be forced to make further cuts at a time when the need for skills is great and the need for training for the unemployed is significant. That sets the general context in which any debate on skills should be set.

The Government response will be, "What about TECs and their local delivery of training?" The innovation of TECs has been warmly welcomed by all hon. Members. The Government have invested in them as a flagship policy, but TECs can function properly only if they have a clearly focused policy and the right resources to undertake their tasks. One of those tasks is much better and more effective co-ordination with sector organisations such as the Construction Industry Training Board and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board.

The Government have invested a great deal of time and resources in TECs, but have given no time whatever to the development of sector policy which is important in other European countries. They have simply tinkered with the problems surrounding the skills crisis. Voluntarism is a euphemism for the market model, and it is failing Britain, young people, our skilled engineering sectors and the unemployed. At a time of economic crisis the Government will make matters worse by further cuts in training expenditure. Why will the Department of Employment and the Government not look at the deep-seated, long-term structural problems that Britain faces? It is not a partisan issue. Compared with every competitor country in Europe and the Pacific rim and with America and Japan, we lag behind on the key indicator of skills.

Many hoped that after 13 years of Conservative Government—like many other parties, the Conservative party has extolled the virtues of training—we would see a closing of the gap that has opened between Britain and its European and worldwide competitors. It is sad that that has not happened. The Opposition contend that the wrong agenda is being pursued. If there is any doubt about Britain's position in the 1990s, and there is, we must compete, produce and improve our economic performance by ensuring that along with our TECs, which are good for local delivery and which tackle a wide range of issues, we have strong, responsive and well-funded sector initiatives. There are real fears among members of the CITB, the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board and the newly established Employment Training Authority that the Government are not interested in and committed to seeing through the fundamental changes that will improve our competitive position. I shall quote from the CITB news release of 2 June. The chairman of the board, Sir Clifford Chetwood was talking to the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicans when he said: Without a statutory levy the board would not be able to afford to pay grants to employers using approved courses. That is not a socialist speaking. Sir Clifford has a wide knowledge of the construction industry. He has constantly lectured the Government on the wisdom of having a statutory framework, and up to now the Government have accepted that argument.

The argument that the Government have used to support the CITB has been deployed to support the existence of the ECITB, and that is the need for a statutory framework that provides a levy. Two reviews are taking place of the future of the boards and it is against that background that I say categorically that if the membership of the boards and the employers within the industry want to continue with the statutory framework, they should be allowed to do so. I hope that the Minister will respond to that when he replies to the debate, for the issue is crucial to confidence for the future. I hope that the Minister is taking notes as he laughs his way through. We are facing a crisis and the level of debate from the Government Front Bench is pathetic, as is the support that is being given to important boards that are trying to do important work.

I shall mention some of the achievements of the ECITB. Despite the recession, it is undertaking 26 per cent. more training this year than in the previous year. It has concerns about the future, however, because of the Government's menacing approach to anything that smacks of statutory provision. When will the Minister start to put the skills needs of the nation above the political dogmas of his party? Unlike Germany, France, Japan and Korea, we have a Government who are not committed to the policies that Britain and its economy need. That is sad.

Reviews are being undertaken and I hope that the Government will listen and not lecture. I hope also that they will acknowledge experts who are at the frontiers of new provision, who are doing an excellent job and who are in a better position to tell the Government what is happening than the Government are to tell the experts what they should be doing. It is fundamental that we should have a commitment to allow the boards to continue, if they so wish, with a statutory framework.

It is clear that training is a market failure. Anyone who has examined the history of Britain's economy over the century, or over a longer period, will readily admit that training is a market failure. Against that background, it seems ludicrous that the responses have not overcome the failure but have reinforced it by rejecting a statutory framework and introducing voluntarism regardless of the consequences.

Twenty-three training boards became seven and now there are two, both of which are faced with an uncertain future. There is a crisis of confidence within the boards, which the Government could easily alleviate by making it clear that they intend to listen, as I have suggested.

It is tragic that we can debate such issues only on a order continuing the levy. I challenge the Government to hold a debate on the wider issues that affect skills training which we cannot consider this evening.

I want to suggest a number of key issues that should start to shape Government policy. The first is the rejection of voluntarism, which is not working. Every statistic suggests that we have a gender gap, a regional gap and a widening gap between ourselves and our international competitors. When will the Government realise that the market failure in training must be treated with a combination of the marvellous response that we see from private and public employers and from a Government who are willing to invest their time and energy in providing a statutory framework, which our more successful competitor countries have?

The second issue is public investment. It is a measure of Britain in the 1990s that we are still having a debate on public investment. All the signs are that the public expenditure round, which is under way, will be tough on training. Given the crisis in skills, the Government cannot run away from their responsibilities by pretending that the Treasury is holding a pistol to their head and is saying that they will have to shave off further expenditure on YT, ET or TECs. It simply does not add up. I challenge the Government to say that in the public investment round the Secretary of State for Employment will not only fight her corner but will seek extra resources in a key area for Britain's success in the 1990s.

My third point is that, despite the market rhetoric of the Government, the key to success is the individual. The Government have failed to empower the individual to take advantage of training. They have talked and talked—a bit like their attitude to child care: they talk a lot but action is limited. Why do not they accept that unless we can motivate and empower individuals we shall make little impact on skills problems?