Education, Training and Employment

– in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 24th May 1994.

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Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West 4:19 pm, 24th May 1994

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the policies and plans in the White Paper, "Competitiveness: Helping Business to Win", for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and I are responsible.

The only sound basis for sustainable jobs is a competitive economy, and a labour market that is efficient in bringing employers and employees together and allowing them to negotiate freely, and avoids the rigidities that did so much damage in the 1960s and 1970s. That is the background to our strategy for employment set out in the White Paper, but it is far from the whole story. The further development of education and training is another important focus of the White Paper, which also announces the conclusions of a comprehensive review of health and safety regulation.

At our request, the Health and Safety Commission has carried out the most extensive review of health and safety regulation for 20 years. We are publishing the results jointly with the commission this afternoon. The commission, after extensive consultation, has made wide-ranging recommendations to simplify and modernise our legislation. They include the removal of more than 40 per cent. of the regulations that currently affect the generality of business and which, in the view of the experts, can be removed without adversely affecting health and safety conditions.

The commission's proposals also include new and better guidance on the regulations criticised for complexity, improved advice to industry—especially small businesses—on how to comply with the law, and new strategies to make the enforcement of health and safety law more consistent and effective. The Government welcome and accept the commission's recommendations and will consider with the commission and others how best to carry them into effect. In particular, we shall consider them in the context of the scrutiny of local authority enforcement, on which a report is due shortly.

We are committed to a system of health and safety that maintains high standards without imposing unnecessary burdens on business. Our system is world class, and we intend to keep it that way. Implementation of the commission's recommendations will help our efforts both to create a safer and healthier working environment and to improve business competitiveness.

I shall now deal with education and training. Making the most of all our people is fundamental to competitiveness. Good basic education is essential. So is lifetime learning. Both depend on a coherent education and training system that really motivates individuals, and delivers results to rigorous standards. That is why the national targets for education and training, endorsed by Government and promoted locally by training and enterprise councils, and in Scotland by local enterprise companies, are so important.

Our progress in recent years is striking. More of our young people are doing well at GCSE, and GCE A-level, than ever before. We have the highest graduate percentage output in Europe. More people are being trained at work. Our work force is better qualified.

But we must raise our sights still further. The White Paper announces a package of measures that builds on our existing policies and successes. We shall commit more than £300 million to the new measures over the three years to 1997–98.

The new initiatives are, first, accelerated modern apprenticeships to give vocational training to 18 and 19-year-olds entering the labour market to help them to achieve the technical and supervisory skills which are critical to their—and our—economic success. Training will be to NVQ level 3 or above and should last an average of 18 months. The Government will invest £107 million over three years. By the end of the decade, the initiative will produce 30,000 extra skilled and qualified people each year, nearly doubling the achievement at that level which is already planned through modern apprenticeships.

Secondly, there will be better careers education and guidance for young people. An extra £87 million will be made available over three years. We are adding to the depth and quality of the independent advice that young people get at key decision-making stages, particularly at ages 13, 15 and 17. Each pupil will receive a statement of their entitlement to careers education and guidance, and careers officers and teachers will get extra training.

Thirdly, there will be a training boost for small firms, which are the economic lifeblood for so many people in a modern developed economy but which can be inhibited from full-scale training programmes by their size. We therefore intend to help firms with fewer than 50 employees to train suitable individuals as trainers, ensuring that they have up-to-date skills which they in turn can pass on to others. Over three years, £63 million will be contributed by Government.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

I shall explain it.

We want to strengthen standards, choice and diversity. We plan to provide more and better opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds to take vocational courses at school, and a new general diploma for 16 to 18-year-olds to reward those who gain good GCSEs in English, maths and science, plus two others or their vocational equivalents. In addition, we will work further to strengthen standards in GCE A level and AS qualifications and their Scottish equivalents, in the new general national and Scottish vocational qualifications and in our system of national vocational and Scottish vocational qualifications.

We also plan closer partnership between education, training and employers. Over three years, £23 million will be made available to help to provide at least one week's work experience for all young people before they leave education. There will be new targets for education-business links, and new arrangements for ensuring that further education in England makes the best possible contribution to developing our skills base.

Training and enterprise councils will work more closely with the further education sector and offer particular support through a new competitiveness fund to meet key local skills needs. That will, for example, enable colleges to purchase more state-of-the-art equipment for training.

We will also have wide consultation on the practical implications of learning credits to give all young people the power to buy their own education and training from schools, colleges, employers and other recognised providers.

Credits have long been advocated by leading economic institutions, including the Confederation of Business Industry, and many individuals. We see attractions in that approach. It would be consistent with our policy of promoting choice and diversity. However, we do recognise that such a wide-ranging change in funding arrangements would require careful preparation.

We are encouraging lifetime individual learning and helping employers to make sure that their investment in training meets business needs. We shall be looking closely at individual accounts for training and at whether career development loans can be made more accessible. "Investors in People" marketing will be boosted.

Altogether, the Government are investing more than £300 million in this package of measures over the three years to 1997–98. That reflects the priority that we are giving to education and training in our drive to compete. People are the key to a successful economy, and we have to be ambitious, both as individuals and as a nation, to succeed. There is no great future for our great nation unless we remain a highly skilled, high-value-added and high-wage economy. Our whole way of life depends on that.

This is an ambitious set of proposals, and I commend them to the House.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State for Employment

Today, the House has heard two statements from the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Employment on the White Paper, which reveal that they have totally failed to understand the scale of the economic problems facing Britain's industry and are at variance not only with the facts, but with the Government's published facts.

We are promised more statements, White Papers and studies. After 15 years of economic incompetence, they offer us more and more statements. We must consider the Government's record when considering further promises from any Secretary of State belonging to this Government.

The House will welcome any statement that improves health and safety at the place of work. Does the Secretary of State agree, in accepting the recommendations of the health and safety review, that health and safety is not now a burden on business as the Government first suggested? Will he now ensure that sufficient funds are found to make health and safety regulations effective and reverse all the cuts that he has imposed on the health and safety budget over the years?

The House would welcome any statement about improvements in training and education. Indeed, we welcome them as far as they go, but they do not go far. Why do the Government accept so little in training and education for our people? The Secretary of State said in the statement: Making the most of … our people is fundamental to competitiveness", and that good basic education and training are "essential". He went on to say that the progress "is striking". The statement is a statement of illusion; it is not true; it is not borne out by the facts.

It seems that Opposition Members must bring home to the respective Secretaries of State the fact that the Conservatives were in office in 1979, and the record is there for all to see. I shall say something about it.

There have been 22 statements on training in this Chamber since 1979—some announced new schemes, some shut down old schemes. Sixteen training schemes have come and gone, and only two lasted more than five years. All the schemes were launched with the razzmatazz of media publicity, but were irrelevant to the skills crisis facing Britain. They are more about catching headlines than producing skills.

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that deregulation, privatisation and voluntarism have failed, and that it was a mistake to abolish 21 of the 23 training boards and their statutory training levy, which cost us one third of trade apprentices—more than 150,000?

The Secretary of State said that our progress in recent years has been "striking" and that our work force is better qualified. Is he aware that Britain has the lowest skills level of any major industrial nation and has fallen from 13th to 19th place in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development skills league, and that the United Kingdom has the worst trained and educated work force in the European Union, with skills at half the level of France and Germany and lower than those in Spain and Portugal, according to the Community's figures?

Even if the Secretary of State achieves the 150,000 modern apprenticeship places, does he accept that he is only taking us back to the level in 1979? His aim to secure 30,000 NVQ-level apprentices is a pitiful drop in the ocean compared with Germany's 600,000 apprenticeships a year. At this rate, it will be another 25 years before we catch up with the levels of Germany today.

Is it not true that employers have abdicated their responsibilities to train, and that they have ducked their obligations to the work force and to society to invest in skills? Have not they been led by a Government who have cut £1.5 billion from the employment budget since 1985, and a further 5 per cent. of the training budget this year?

In his statement this afternoon, the Secretary of State made it clear that £300 million will be available during the next three years. That is totally inadequate, and it must be seen against the £3.6 billion that has been cut from the training budget since 1989. How does he intend to finance the £1.5 billion cost of the modern apprenticeships with a reduced budget? What will he sacrifice for the new scheme? If the Government will not even maintain their own training budgets, how does he expect that, left to their own devices, private companies will keep up their investment in training?

In his reference to learning credits, does the Secretary of State really mean training vouchers? Is that a proper response to our skills crisis? Is it not a Green Shield stamp approach to the vital provision of skills, which is irrelevant to the real issue? Will the vouchers cover the full cost, or will they continue to short-change the unemployed who have been plunged into debt, like thousands of our students today?

Does the Secretary of State not see that, in every area of training, the Government have heaped failure upon failure? He refused to accept training funds from Europe and the privatised Skills Training Agency collapsed into bankruptcy, leaving training centres idle, trainers on the dole and thousands of trainees with nothing to learn and no one to teach them.

Training in this country is in its deepest and most acute crisis ever, and the White Paper will not answer the long-term training problems of this country. But there are things which the Secretary of State could do in an emergency programme. Why does he not take back the bankrupt privatised training centres that lie empty, as in my constituency, and open them for trainers and trainees? Why does not he call upon major companies with spare training capacity to make those facilities available to others?

Finally, will the Secretary of State now recognise the desperate underfunding of training in this country? Will he return to the principle that has been successfully adopted by every country in Europe and has been advocated by the Trade and Industry Select Committee, of a statutory training levy? Britain's skills crisis requires no less.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

In many ways, there has been a competition on the Opposition Benches this afternoon—a competition to produce the most negative response to the White Paper. I think that the shadow Secretary of State for Employment has just won that competition. His was a very negative response.

On health and safety, I wish that the hon. Gentleman would continue his dialogue with the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who attacked the health and safety proposals a few moments ago. He said that they were taking greater risks with the work force, but the shadow Secretary of State for Employment knows that the proposals come from the Health and Safety Commission, on which sit representatives of the TUC. I regard what has been said as a gross slur on the TUC. I understand that the trade union representatives agreed—[Interruption.] No, I am going to continue with the point, because it is very important.

I understand that the TUC representatives agreed to the report which I, on behalf of the Government, have now accepted. To say that the 'TUC would flirt with the idea of taking greater risks with the work force is, I believe, a gross slur on the TUC, the employers and the tripartite Health and Safety Commission. I hope that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) will consider withdrawing his allegation, and join the shadow Secretary of State for Employment in welcoming any measures that ensure that a simpler form of health and safety will mean a safer system of health and safety.

I very much welcome the welcome by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) for the measures that I have announced this afternoon—I did find a welcome in what he said—but I want him to rethink the background to his welcome. He made no detailed recommendations on how the new modern apprenticeship scheme should proceed.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that I have invited the shadow Secretary of State for Employment and his team to see me and put forward proposals on how we can make the greatest possible success of the new modern apprenticeship scheme, which has been welcomed by employers, the TUC and organisations throughout the United Kingdom. My door is still open, and I await their constructive proposals.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East should rethink the background against which he has given his welcome. He has continued talking down Britain. I can give precise figures for the average annual percentage growth in the European Community between 1980 and 1990—the OECD cycle. The hon. Gentleman has talked down the achievements in the British economy—[Interruption.] I will come to the further point that he made in a moment. [Interruption.] I am giving the correct figures, which were thrown into doubt by the shadow Secretaries of State earlier. Between 1980 and 1990, growth in the United Kingdom exceeded growth in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium.

The hon. Gentleman also claimed that the UK has a low-skill, sweatshop economy with a low skills base. Not only is that incorrect, but we have managed to attract a record level of inward investment. How have we managed to attract 3,500 companies from the United States? How have we managed to attract more than one third of all the investment that has come into Europe from the rest of the world? It is because we have a world-class skilled work force.

As the hon. Gentleman made no other substantive points, may I just answer his point about the budget? He must see that £300 million against the fact that my budget will now rise from some £2.2 billion to about £2.5 billion, which I shall be investing over three years just for young people, to get modern training leading to high-quality qualifications. Those are significant steps forward, and the day will come when the hon. Gentleman will recognise that.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. May I now have brisk questions from Back-Bench Members and brisk answers from the Secretary of State?

Photo of Mr Malcolm Thornton Mr Malcolm Thornton , Crosby

I welcome the proposals to bring education and training much closer together, particularly careers guidance, which will be on offer to secondary pupils from the age of 11. That is a significant development. How does my right hon. Friend propose to monitor the results of what is happening? The input is important, but monitoring the output is equally important. Will he also remind the House that one reason why we lost so many apprenticeships was the high cost of paying apprentices artificially high wages compared to their fully qualified counterparts?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

My hon. Friend is right to look back at the history of the old, traditional apprenticeship scheme, which was built on time serving, whereas the new, modern apprenticeship system focuses on high-quality qualifications to NVQ level 3, which is equivalent to two A-levels. The old apprenticeship scheme had set, rigid minimum wages, restrictive practices and demarcation lines, which renstricted the young apprentice to one machine or one machine shop. We are now dealing with training a multi-skilled, high-opportunity work force.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I now calculate that, every year, 1.5 million independent interviews will be conducted throughout the country to help young people to make the right choices at the ages of 13, 15 and 17.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel , Newbury

Will the Secretary of State back up his welcome support for lifetime learning by reducing the restrictions on training the unemployed, particularly getting rid of the 21-hour rule?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

It is important to target resources. Given that two thirds of all those who become unemployed find a job—come off the register—within six months, we must recognise that the real target must be those who have been unemployed for a considerable time. That is why we must have checks and balances in the system, to target the most effective help on the longer-term unemployed.

Photo of Mr Nigel Forman Mr Nigel Forman , Carshalton and Wallington

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be welcomed because it has one clear and positive focus—that we should invest more heavily in human capital in all the appropriate ways? Is he also aware that it is vital to do so continuously over a long period? The lead times are long and, unless the policy is sustained, it will not have the success that it deserves.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

I agree with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

First, on the health and safety regulations, does the Secretary of State agree that it takes no great genius to bury regulations that have long been dead? We are worried about how many live ones will be interred with the bones. Will he give the House an absolute guarantee that no provisions that really protect people at work will be abolished?

Secondly, how much has it cost the public for the Secretary of State and the President to produce a document that seems to be unadulterated Tory propaganda, complete with a photograph of the Prime Minister?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

On health and safety rules, this is the first in-depth inquiry into the full range of health and safety legislation which the Health and Safety Commission has conducted for 20 years. It has spent a considerable amount of time on it, and it assures me that none of its recommendations will place health and safety in the workplace in jeopardy. We have one of the finest records in the world on health and safety, and I give the hon. and learned Gentleman my undoubted, categorical assurance that I intend to keep it that way.

On cost, I shall let the hon. and learned Gentleman have that figure. This is not a party political occasion. The White Paper was destined to be published some time ago, but, due to the tragic events that occurred, it was delayed. I hope that the document will form a foundation for further discussions on an all-party basis right across the spectrum for many months and years to come, and that it will provide a secure foundation for education and training in particular.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

As the chairman of a sixth form college, I can see for myself the attraction and relevance of vocational training for the young, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the best basis for lifetime learning is a good, focused and rigorous training in reading, writing, arithmetic, history and geography?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has introduced the much welcomed proposal for the new general diploma. My hon. Friend will be aware of the targets for lifetime learning. The White Paper reveals that the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets, which includes some distinguished people, such as one of the leading personalities from the trade union movement, will review the targets to ensure that they are brought up to date. Those lifetime learning targets are among the most important facing the British nation at the present time.

Photo of Mr John Evans Mr John Evans , St Helens North

Is the Secretary of State aware that the statements in the document and his article about incentives to work which appeared in The Sunday Times will be regarded as an insult and an outrage by the 500 workers who are being sacked from the Beecham factory in St. Helens and whose work is being transferred to a lower-paying, non-union plant in Devon? Is it not about time that the Secretary of State insisted that, where companies sack workers simply to increase their profits, they should be responsible for paying the wages of those workers until they find jobs?

Will the Secretary of State and the President of the Board of Trade accept my invitation to meet some of those Beecham factory workers in Committee Room 14 tomorrow afternoon to talk about the White Paper?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

The hon. Gentleman has a particular constituency interest, which I share. The closure—I very much regret it and the redundancies which have occurred—took place in Merseyside where my constituency is. Just before I came into the Chamber, I received a letter from the hon. Gentleman inviting me to the meeting to which he referred. Sadly, I shall be in the midlands tomorrow. However, I ask him to make a careful note of all the points that his constituents wish to put to Secretaries of State. I will be very willing to see him and his colleagues after tomorrow's meeting has taken place.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page , South West Hertfordshire

As one of the few Members of the House who has completed an industrial apprenticeship, I accept and understand what my right hon. Friend is trying to achieve today. On that he is to be congratulated.

How will he disseminate the information in his statement to employers, and particularly to the youngsters who will take up the apprenticeships? Will he, for example, use trade associations—particularly the lead trade associations per industrial sector—to get the message across?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

Yes, I will. We are spearheading the new modern apprenticeship scheme in partnership with the training and enterprise councils and the industry training organisations. They are currently working up models that will form the basis of the new NVQ level 3 qualification, which is the objective of the new modern apprenticeship system.

We are getting a great deal of help from all sectors, and all parts of every sector, in the United Kingdom. Some new sectors that do not have a tradition of apprenticeship are getting very excited about the opportunities that the new modern apprenticeship scheme will offer.

We anticipate that more than 200,000 young people will participate in the new modern apprenticeship scheme at any one time. When the scheme is up and running, we anticipate that the number of those qualifying and achieving NVQ level 3 will increase from 40,000 under the scheme we have announced already to 70,000 per year. My hon. Friend is right: we have to get the message across in every possible way.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell , Blyth Valley

What about the kids who leave school with no qualifications and drift into crime, drugs and joyriding, as we have learnt from the television and the wireless? Does the Secretary of State not remember the old days when the National Coal Board provided apprenticeships for electricians, fitters, blacksmiths and joiners? In those days, we turned out qualified workers by the thousands—and at less expense.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

I hope that the new modern apprenticeship scheme will give many youngsters a real opportunity, challenge and sense of pride and achievement in gaining a new modern apprenticeship. That is why I hope that we will receive co-operation from both sides of the House in ensuring that the scheme is a great success.

Turning to the problem of unemployment among young people, I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that, according to the figures that I announced a short time ago, unemployment fell most markedly among young males aged between 20 and 24 years. We now have one of the lowest rates of youth unemployment in Europe. Admittedly, at 15.4 per cent., it is too high; but the European average is 20.7 per cent.

The rate of unemployment among males and females aged under 25 years is 23.7 per cent. in France, 31.7 per cent. in Italy and 38.9 per cent. in Spain. The hon. Gentleman can see that we are doing extremely well in comparison with our competitors. However, we are determined to do more, and the new modern apprenticeship scheme will offer many new opportunities to young people.

Photo of Dr John Blackburn Dr John Blackburn , Dudley West

Does my right hon. Friend accept the very warm welcome that his statement has received today—particularly from the hundreds of thousands of people in this country who have a thirst for training?

Does he also accept that this country has the best job creation record in Europe and, in addition, that we have the highest percentage of our work force in employment? Does he agree that this success story can be attributed in very large measure to national vocational qualifications—the real training powerhouse in this country—which are supported by the Government?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

My hon. Friend is correct in all his facts. It must be a matter of considerable pride that a higher percentage of the working age population are in work in the UK than almost any other country in Europe. Some 70 per cent. of those aged 15 to 64 are in work. That compares favourably with other European countries—Germany with 65 per cent.; France with 60 per cent.; Italy, 56 per cent.; Ireland, 52 per cent.; and Spain, 49 per cent. People must recognise that ours is a great success story. The whole point of the White Paper is that we do not intend to rest on our achievements; there is much more to accomplish, and we intend to do that.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson , Nottingham South

Will the Secretary of State explain what his proposals will do for a city such as Nottingham, where last year more than 1,000 school leavers were unable to take advantage of the training guarantee because employers found the scheme and its resources either worthless or unworkable? How does the Secretary of State square that with the news I received today about the closure of Prospects Training, a Nottingham company with a very good record of providing training for young people? It is being forced to close not because it cannot deliver quality training, but because others can deliver it more cheaply without the quality guarantee.

What in his proposals guarantees special needs training requirements—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Brisk answers and questions, now; otherwise, I will have to bring questions to a close.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

There is a great deal in the White Paper for the hon. Gentleman's area, if only he would see the positive side. The UK work force exceeds 25 million. The prospects for that work force and the competitiveness of the economy depend on our bringing forward the proposals in the White Paper. I regret any redundancies or loss of training providers anywhere, but the hon. Gentleman must recognise that we are continually investing in the future—and that is inherent in the White Paper.

Photo of Mr Richard Tracey Mr Richard Tracey , Surbiton

Both my right hon. Friends will be aware how squarely their White Papers have hit the target, judging from the carping comments of Opposition Members. Has my right hon. Friend seen the impartial commentary in The Times of today written by Professor Tim Congdon? He paints an extremely rosy picture of this country's productivity and job prospects, but also warns against excessive Government intervention in maintaining that and in making sure that the unions are kept reined in—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. How many more times do I have to remind the House that we are not concerned with what appears in newspapers? We are concerned with what appears in the White Paper and, indeed, with what the Secretary of State has had to say. Perhaps the Secretary of State will reply very briefly to that question and to those of any other hon. Members I might call.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

Madam Speaker, I hope that you will forgive my hon. Friend. There are so many good things to say about the economy and this White Paper that it is very difficult—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. We are not discussing the economy; we are discussing the Secretary of State's statement.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

There are many good things in the White Paper too, Madam Speaker.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Will the Secretary of State tell us what he means by young people "buying skills from schools"?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

Buying skills will occur through a credit system for every school leaver aged 16 to 19 years. As the hon. Gentleman will see from the White Paper, we propose this as an idea—which we find very attractive—involving a credit with real cash value. It is a pretty significant change in funding, and that is why we will consult about it. In the meantime—

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

Yes—a voucher. School leavers will have the opportunity of receiving a credit which will then enable them to purchase further education or training from schools, colleges, employers and other providers. I hope that that has explained the situation to the hon. Gentleman. He will find that it is set out very clearly in the White Paper.

Photo of Mr Anthony Coombs Mr Anthony Coombs , Wyre Forest

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the huge improvement in competitiveness of British industry in the past few years, especially since the days when we were derided as the sick man of Europe under the last Labour Government, has gone hand in hand with the improvement in industrial relations, which has given us the lowest level of strikes ever? Will he especially confirm that the £31 million that will be spent on the modern apprenticeship scheme will go towards improving the rigour of the national vocational qualifications on which employers in this country depend?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

Yes, I can confirm that the £31 million will go towards improving the quality of NVQs. I also confirm that my hon. Friend is right. We now have one of the lowest levels of strikes and industrial unrest anywhere in Europe. In 1992, the United Kingdom strike rate was lower than that in Germany, France or the United States. That is a record of which we have every right to be proud.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

Is the Secretary of State aware that only 30 per cent. of our 18-year-olds have qualifications equivalent to two A-levels, compared with 68 per cent. in France and more than 80 per cent. in Japan? When the Conservatives have been in power for 15 years, why are we falling so far behind our international competitors?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral West

The hon. Gentleman has made out an important case for performance tables and for the testing regime that we have introduced, as well as the core curriculum. If he looks at the foundation learning targets, he will realise that we have the type of targets that really will enable us to maintain our competitiveness in world terms. It is important that we meet those targets. The White Paper sets out the blueprint for achieving the targets that we have set ourselves.

Several hon. Members:

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